The War on Welfare: From ‘Social Security’ to ‘Social Insecurity’

by Bruce Bennett, Imogen Tyler

Journalists and newspapers remain in the vanguard of the Coalition's ‘war against welfare’, which, if successful, will effectively mark the end of the postwar social contract between the people and the state.

First published: 26 November, 2013 | Category: Civil Liberties, Employment & Welfare, History, Media, Politics

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

- Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

 

TODAY The Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants to slash the £5BILLION wasted in Britain’s shambolic handouts culture

- The Sun’s ‘War on Welfare’ campaign, 2010.

 

In this article, we explore the shift from liberal understandings of state government as providers of a 'safety-net' between individual citizens and the market (through the crafting of systems of social security), to forms of government characterized by the production of terrorizing forms of social insecurity. Three years after The Sun’s 2010 declaration of war against an indolent army of benefit claimants, British journalists and newspapers remain in the vanguard of the government's ‘war against welfare’. The effects of dismantling public services and privatising social security programmes are already visible in the impoverishment and disenfranchisement of ever greater numbers of citizens. If successful, this 'war against social security' will effectively mark the end of the social contract between the British people and the state that was formulated after two world wars.

What are the mechanisms through which consent for this destructive programme is elicited or ‘manufactured’? In some ways they seem obvious; consent for welfare reforms, for example, depends on a propaganda effort in which key stigmatizing or ‘scapegoating’ messages - presenting welfare claimants as dishonest ‘scroungers’ - are amplified and repeated across a range of media, newspapers, social media, and everyday conversations. Yet the actual mechanisms involved in the manufacture of public consent are more sophisticated, complex, hazardous, expensive and experimental than we might imagine. In neoliberal Britain, one of the key tools used to garner public consent for the erosion of social security provisions, is through the production of a deeply affective field of ‘social insecurity’.

In the last decade, ‘in/security’ has emerged as a central preoccupation of European and North American governments. Indeed, centres for ‘security research’ have been springing up across universities in the global North to meet the insatiable demand for knowledge and ideas that might help ‘keep us safe’. Increasingly, the idea of security is framed less in relation to external threats to the nation, than in terms of insecurity within the nation state - that is, the hidden threats posed by ‘dangerous classes’ of people within the ‘nation home’.

In the US, this shift was encapsulated by the establishment in 2001 of the office of ‘Homeland Security’ - a title that echoes that of the now defunct British Ministry of Home Security, which was established during the Second World War to manage national civil defence in anticipation of foreign invasion. In this context, the nation is implicitly or explicitly imagined as the ‘home front’, a battle-line behind which the civilian populace is mobilized as a supporting arm of the military. This reframing of the nation as internally vulnerable legitimizes the militarization of everyday life and presumes a popular consensus in favour of foregoing democratic freedoms in the face of internal threats to ‘security’. This ‘home-front’ mentality has also been reactivated within the rhetoric of reluctant but necessary ‘austerity’, which weds the idea of future ‘economic security’ with an imagined ‘national future’ for which we all need to make sacrifices.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have described the shift from ‘defence’ to ‘security’ as a movement from ‘a reactive and conservative’ to an ‘active and constructive’ mode of government [1]. They describe a ‘perpetual state of war’, in which war is an active and indeed integral condition of both internal and external state governance. What this account suggests is that Britain should be properly be understood as ‘a nation at war’, and thus able to implement endless ‘security measures’. This includes mass state surveillance and the passage of ‘terror laws’ to suspend indefinitely the liberties and rights promised by citizenship, but also includes the kinds of ‘war against welfare claimants’ currently being waged within policy documents and the popular press.

At the same time, people’s capacity to protest effectively against the erosion of welfare support programmes has been eroded, as acceptable and efficacious means for formal and democratic protest are now practically non-existent. Changes to the ‘Terrorism Act’ in 2006 criminalised putative ‘anti-governmental’ activities in ways unprecedented since the Second World War.

At the same time, we are witnessing unprecedented levels of self-censorship within the news media. For example, on September 30th, 2013, when 50,000 people marched in Manchester in a protest to ‘save the NHS’ - a demonstration timed to coincide with the annual Conservative Party Conference - there appeared to be a ‘news blackout’ on this sizeable demonstration. Those journalists, who were 'embedded' with conference delegates (Conservative party members and corporate sponsors of the Conservative party) inside the ‘ring of steel’, reported that they were prevented from filming the protests by private security guards (employed by the notorious global securities firm G4S). Even within the traditionally sheltered confines of academic life, government guidelines on ‘rooting out extremism’ on campus and the widely reported co-operation between universities and Government secret services have created an environment that at times recalls the ‘loose lips’ paranoia of World War II propaganda.

William Walters terms this reconfiguration of the relations between citizen, state and territory ‘domopolitics’, which he defines as ‘a fateful conjunction of home, land and security’ that ‘rationalizes a series of security measures in the name of a particular conception of home’. ‘Domopolitics’ employs the rhetoric of ‘home’ to sanction exceptional measures. As he writes:

[Homeland] has powerful affinities with family, intimacy, place: the home as hearth, a refuge or a sanctuary in a heartless world; the home as our place, where we belong naturally, and where, by definition, others do not; international order as a space of homes—every people should have (at least) one; home as a refugees should be returned to ‘their homes’. ... Domopolitics embodies a tactic which juxtaposes the ‘warm words’ of community, trust, and citizenship, with the danger words of a chaotic outside—illegals, traffickers, terrorists; a game which configures things as ‘Us vs. Them’. [2]

Just as every citizen of George Orwell’s ‘Airstrip One’ was responsible for spying on and betraying their disloyal and wrong-headed neighbours, so in contemporary Britain all citizens are expected to report on those cheating the system - whether ‘illegals’ without passports or those exploiting the welfare system.

The effects of this shift from understandings of government as offering protection for citizens against the uncertainties of market forces, to government tasked with producing citizens more vulnerable to the market, are still unfolding. What seems certain is that the democratic ideals of 'social security' which underpinned 20th-century understandings of civil society will never be recuperated.

 

Bruce Bennett is Director of Film Studies at Lancaster University, his forthcoming book on the British Director Michael Winterbottom explores the political potential of contemporary cinema. He blogs at http://btbennett.wordpress.com/about/ @BruceTBennett

Imogen Tyler is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Lancaster University. Her recent work on inequality and struggle includes Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain (Zed Books, 2013). She blogs at http://socialabjection.wordpress.com/ @DrImogenTyler

 

[1] Hardt, M., & Negri, A., Multitiude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2005), p.20

[2] Walters, W. , "Secure Borders, Safe Havens, Domopolitics" (2004), available at http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p73589_index.html

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