Sunday, February 25, 2007

Culture of dependency: the big nasty lie

The latest phrase to rear its ugly head again in the lexicography of New Labour is “culture of dependency”. This particular popular but pernicious phrase has been used by the likes of American right-winger Charles Murray, Labour MP Frank Field and now recently, head honcho at right-wing think- tank Civitas, David Green

It boils down to the fact that the so-called feckless unemployed are bleeding the welfare state dry and this is breeding some kind of dependency. It has got that Victorian whiff about it with images of “wastrels” being carted off to the Work House are conjured up. At the end of the day it is all about “thrift”, “hard work” “responsibility” and “self-reliance”.

The theory does have a kind of dishonest genius about it though. Everyone in society will be dependent on something or another. A rentier capitalist will be dependent on dividends from the stock market, a buy-to-let landlord will be dependent on there being a chronic and severe housing shortage, an NHS worker will be dependent on there being a political consensus that there should be health care available to all. Thus a charge of dependency culture can be made against anyone you like or perhaps rather anyone you don’t like. Right wing morality of course is aimed at the less powerful in society so it is hard to imagine the various kinds of rentiers being singled out for this kind of scorn.

Reading Green’s report it is glaringly apparent he hasn’t looked at the fine print when he asserts that one in three households in Britain are dependent on state benefits for at least half its income. What he does not explain is that majority of these households on benefits are pensioners and people on very low pay or are lone parents. But Green doesn't give a damn who they are.

Instead he resists showing any understanding for people who are living on the poverty line and that welfare
“provision treats people as perpetual children incapable of providing for themselves”.

Many of the people “dependent” on the state for benefits are pensioners who have spent their working lives paying National Insurance…if they are dependent on anything it is their own hard work! Most of the others will be lone parents or will be people that bosses will not employ due to discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities. Nearly all of these people have lives that are a daily struggle: they could tell the average right-wing think-tanker a lot about facing huge obstacles just to get through the day.

Green’s conclusion states:
“The idea of belonging is central to any viable society. Unfortunately, it has been manipulated by collectivists to deceive many into accepting ‘command and control’ in public services”.

This language of people being either infantilised or
enslaved entities precisely because of the welfare state finds resonance in Frank Field’s attack on welfare reform (he happens to think New Labour isn’t being strict enough on these reforms and incidentally, is backing David Miliband for leader of the LP….!!)

“The benefit rules wickedly make serfs of claimants. It is time the Government set the serfs free”.

The common thread throughout these arguments is that obviously people are reliant on the welfare state and need to be liberated from this experience. For your average right-winger this means more poverty.

Murray and Field come from two different ideological frameworks but connect on the issue of “culture of dependency”.

Murray’s latest argument is to scrap the welfare state in America and replace it with "the Plan" for want of a catchier label--makes a $21,000 annual grant to all American citizens who are not incarcerated, beginning at age 21, of which $3,000 a year must be used for health care.” (
In our hands: a plan to replace the Welfare State)

John Hills, LSE professor in his recent well publicised
report looked at the social impact of housing and the government’s £13b invested in it.

This report voiced similar concerns although expressed in different language. Social housing is seen as a “trap” (it stops you achieving the state of grace of being an owner-occupier). The tenor of the report is what effect does social housing have on ordinary peoples’ behaviour. This is the underlying concern of the cultural dependency theorists.

The assumptions are that ordinary people are only of value if they are making themselves available for the labour market. They get a pat on the head for being owner-occupiers of their homes, as this makes them kinda like mini-capitalists.This is not taken too far of course as most of the them are, or plan to become in the future, dependent on some kind of pension arrangement.

NB: Proposals for sanctions regarding Housing Benefit claimants who have been evicted for "anti-social behaviour" and fail to co-operate with the "efforts of local authorities to rehabilitate them" were originally put forward by...... Frank Field in a private members' bill in 2002. He failed. Unfortunately these proposals are back on the agenda......


Salman Shaheen said...

Murray's article 'The emergence of the British underclass' is quite a fun read. For something offered up as sociological research, it is remarkably poorly researched. Much of his argument rests on sketchy evidence, personal experience and loose anecdotes. Where he tried to ‘prove’ his theory that attempts to change attitudes to work by providing employment will have no effect on economic inactivity, he suggests that the Government or a private foundation should conduct an experiment by offering a homeless person a skilled job with training and predicts that if you “measure the results after 2 years against the experience of similar youths who received no such help… you, too, will find ‘no effect’”. This is a ridiculous and unfounded argument, one that is easily demolished by empirical data. Really, Murray represented a fashionable trend in social thought that went hand in hand with Fukuyama's 'End of History'. These theories gained prominence precisely because they were supported by the governments of the time and not because they were either particularly powerful in the intellectual sense, or, for that matter, even credible. Field's concept of the underclass is more interesting. Whilst I'd reject his adoption of the term underclass (though I suppose even Marx is guilty of dodgy classifications) his structural take on the concept is less about victim blaming than calls for changes to the education system, as well as a criticism of Thatcherite policies. Crucially, his hits out on the policy of linking pensions to inflation rather than earnings, which he sees as effectively cutting pensioners off from the rest of society.

Louisefeminista said...

Yes, Murray's "research" isn't up to scratch to say the least (I read that piece you refer to as part of a course I did on Criminology and social policy). But this right-wing colour-by-numbers ideology is fashionable and popular precisely cos it is lazy (Murray and Hernstein's piss-poor offensive long-winded tome "The Bell Curve" was such a hit in various social science fields.... One of the
best critiques I read was by Stephen Jay Gould before he died).
Re: Field I maintain that he and Murray use "culture of dependency" but both come from two very different ideologies (maybe I should have gone into more details with this). Murray, frankly, is a kinda biological determinist and his love for the term "underclass" comes into play while Field takes a more social explanation of poverty. But Field is still pernicious in his attacks (I find his website horrid esp. his latest offensive guff on asylum and immigration. And some of his policies which were probably seen as too strong even by New Labour's standard are finding themselves being included.

Oh and Fukuyama..... He's changed his tune, hasn't he..?

Louisefeminista said...

I read about 18mths/2 years ago that Charles Murray was acting as some kind of unofficial advisor to Blair....
Very worrying indeed!

Louisefeminista said...

The other thing about Frank Field is that he is a practicising opportunistic politician unlike Murray.

Regards to the pensions most people wouldn't think they are on a benefit. Field is aware of this. Therefore he supports it being connected to earnings as opposed to inflation.

It would be an interesting discussion to see how people perceive their state pension as opposed to other types of benefits.

The politician in Field realises that the issue of pensions is most likely to be a vote winner. Yet on other benefits he is appalling as hell.

Salman Shaheen said...

You may have a point. For someone who has worked their whole life, they may very well conceive of pensions, not as state hand outs, but as the rightful reward for a lifetime's hard slog. It would definitely be an interesting area in which to pusue research.