Right wing politicians throughout Europe and beyond are working desperately hard to establish a new, shared and ‘objective’ fact – that the collective benefits of social care, community welfare, freely-accessible education and equitable healthcare are no longer affordable in the context of the modern state. George Osborne’s recent explanation and defence of the coalition ‘reforms’ are a classic (possibly the classic) example of this shameful scramble to create a new “truth”.
The UK welfare system, before the 1st of April 2013, was not ‘unaffordable’. It is still not ‘unaffordable’ after the 1st April. To describe it as such is a political/ideological decision rather than any ‘real’ reflection of the need for austerity. The current government have succeeded in shifting the discussion away from the unaffordability of unregulated casino capitalism, towards a popular acceptance of the unaffordability of social welfare as a collective social good. By drawing on baseline economic arguments about profligate spending by the previous government they mask the ideological project that underpins their systematic dismantling of the UK welfare state. In short these reforms for UK social policy mark the ‘end of history’ where “the neoliberal model of the small state combined with individual responsibility for welfare provision is coming to be seen as the only ‘realistic’ option.” Exposing the lie of this worldview is the project lying before us as academics, activists and indeed citizens.
A central part of ‘age of austerity’ is the insistence that traditional concepts of social goods, across education, healthcare, social care and welfare are no longer affordable in the context of the modern state. We see this in terms of the changes to higher education, the rise of free academy schools, the role of ‘any qualified providers’ in the NHS, far reaching changes to eligibility criteria in terms of disability benefit (and the attendant role of private sector organisations like ATOS) and now through caps on benefits (at rate of £53 per week) and increases in levels of benefits (so called uprating) that are below the level of inflation. Within all of these changes there is a core appeal to nascent individualism as the best way to organise the delivery and receipt of all of these services. Its valorisation of the individual is a central trope in legitimising these reforms and undermining any wider appeals to education, healthcare or welfare as collective social goods, which benefit the commons as much as the individual.
Speaking as the reforms came into place, the chancellor justified them with a rhetoric that 9 in 10 working households will be ‘better off’ under the new legislation. These figures have of course been called into question and there is little evidence to support their accuracy. To put this 9 in 10 figure in context, this refers to those sections of society that experience the highest levels of social inequality, where social exclusion and poverty are the most enduring. In this context, surely the fact that 1 in 10 working households will be worse off under these reforms should raise some questions – it should be remembered that 10% of 23.4 million (the number of households in the UK, each likely to contain several people) represents a far from trivial number of people. But nobody seems to be asking who are this 10% and how will they be affected?
A reason there has been little or no focus on this 10% is due to the effectiveness of the wider rhetoric about deserving and un-deserving poor. Osborne presented his defence of the reforms from behind a banner stating, in a clear demonstration of Orwellian ‘Doublespeak’ that these welfare reforms are “for hardworking people”. The implication being that these reforms are against all those people who are not ‘hardworking’. Here again we see a characterisation of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’. The 10% are clearly painted (and accepted in the public imaginary with the support of the media) as the ‘undeserving’ poor. They are readily understood as the usual Daily Mail targets, people with a disability, single mothers, council estate dwellers etc etc etc. By creating this ‘underserving’ 10%, legitimacy and credence is lent to the ‘deserving’ 90%, who, (and this is a neat twist in the rhetoric), can feel good about themselves as they are deemed worthy of support.
Farnsworth and Irving argue that the UK is utilising economic conditions as a justification for cutting state expenditure when economic conditions may not actually demand it. Indeed there are those who argue convincingly that austerity may actually be making economic conditions a lot worse. Further, to roll out the same tired response to criticisms, about how Osborne’s policies are keeping interest rates low, is like ‘the high priest sacrificing a virgin once a month to ensure that the sun keeps rising, then claiming that the fact that the sun has risen proves that the sacrifice was indeed necessary’. This approach is at best political opportunism, but given the high degree of policy convergence of these approaches across Canada, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, not to mention Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, suggests a more co-ordinated response to the crises of unregulated finance from 2008 onwards. Given the extent of the ideological project, across education, health care, social care, and welfare it appears to be far more than political opportunism. Indeed when considered in the context of widespread similarities across ‘western economies’ it becomes apparent we are in the midst of something much bigger and much more invidious – a brutal and clumsy attempt to turn back the clock to the worst excesses imposed by nineteenth century profiteers.