Welfare reform and the cultural production of ignorance

I’ve recently encountered an important and fascinating paper by Tom Slater of the Edinburgh University Institute of Geography which considers welfare reform and mythmaking.  It’s important because it goes right to the heart of the way in which policy is made on this – for the Right at least – totemic issue, and reveals much about the wider divergence between reality and ideology which sits at the centre of both coalition policy and the neo-liberal project at large.

It’s a paper that demands to be read in full but in summary Slater seeks to contrast the way in which Ian Duncan-Smith’s rhetoric and analysis changed between his investigation of poverty in Britain for the Centre for Social Justice  – especially his visit to the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow – and his actions as Secretary of State for Welfare and Pensions in the Coalition government.  He places this in the context of a programme of what he calls wilful institutional ignorance – or, to use a term derived from Robert Proctor, “agnotology”.  Slater cites Proctor on the need to understand

“how ignorance is produced or maintained in diverse settings, through (for example) media neglect, corporate or governmental secrecy and suppression, document destruction, and myriad forms of inherent or avoidable culturopolitical selectivity, inattention, and forgetfulness. The point is to develop a taxonomy of understandings and uses of ignorance, but also tools for understanding how and why diverse forms of knowledge do not or did not ‘come to be’ or are delayed or neglected at different points in history.”

He then seeks to apply this approach to the development of Coalition welfare policy – citing in particular the importance of right-wing think-tanks in capturing political discourse for market ideology,  and in particular the ways in which big government and the decline of traditional families have been presented as the cause of social breakdown; the use of results from loaded surveys to allow the authors to claim an evidence base while neglecting theoretical work; the way in which New Labour prepared the ground for the Coalition by undermining the belief that benefits were a matter of right, rather than something that had to be earned.

He indicates, crucially, that what characterises coalition policy is not the withdrawal of the state from welfare but the expansion of its coercive powers; and that New Labour is wholly acquiescent in this approach.  And he points to what he describes as irrefutable evidence that workfarist welfare reform does nothing to take families out of poverty, but simply removes swathes of the poor from the welfare system, with the use of aggressive sanctions often making it more difficult for those on benefits to move out of welfare into sustainable work.

Agnotology, according to Slater and the sources he cites, is about how a mythology has been developed around welfare that flies in the face of rigorously-established fact; it is about using media and political discourse to hammer out a mythology that serves particular ideologically-driven narratives, using resonant and morally-loaded language.  To those on the left who view society from outside the mainstream political and media consensus, there’s a strong sense of the bleeding obvious in much of this.  But it’s extremely important to have this documented with such rigour and force – it’s the starting point for a hard-headed analysis of our political situation.  I’d draw a number of conclusions:

  • It points out the way in which political discourse is increasingly unrelated to empirical reality.  In political terms, the mainstream parties – competing as they are on increasingly narrow ideological grounds – simply cannot offer any challenge to neoliberalism; they can’t even handle the language which describes the everyday realities of life.
  • This means that to challenge market capitalism means rejecting its language and rhetoric and finding something more grounded in experience – which is difficult because it means getting past an ideological use of language which is, in almost a literal sense, Orwellian.
  • Crucially, New Labour and the coalition are part of the same project. For all the noise of political debate this is work that points to the consensus they share.  For people who want to change society it points to the utter futility of assuming that, in the current circumstances, the Labour Party is a force for change. As I’ve written before, the Left in Britain has got to get over the Labour Party.
  • And, linked to this, it is in political activism outside the mainstream that hope lies (which, as I’ve suggested before, seems to account for the extreme hostility towards the Occupy movement and the extreme force used to suppress it).  Redefining politics in the language of everyday experience is an incredibly subversive and liberating thing to do.

Neoliberalism, seen from outside the whale, is an ideological system that has comprehensively failed.  Taking back political language for experience is a first step in exposing that failure.

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