Over the last few weeks it seems that everyone has been talking about the Channel 4 documentary series Benefits Street. The series, for those of you who may be unaware, documents the “reality of life on benefits” for residents living on “one of Britain’s most benefits dependent streets”. The series has, given its subject matter, unsurprisingly provoked heated responses from both sides of the welfare reform debate. Max Pemberton, for example, a socialist [sic] GP writing for the Daily Mail claims that he is “sick and tired of seeing fit and healthy people who choose not to work, who refuse to take menial jobs because of a false sense of entitlement, while there are poor, needy and desperate individuals working hard but having to rely on meagre handouts and struggling to pay basic bills … Our anger should be directed at the people featured on Benefits Street, not on the makers of a programme that shows us they exist.” While, Paul Baker, a researcher who has conducted detailed analysis on the street in question, argues that “ the programme misrepresents the true conditions of James Turner Street and ignores objective evidence … The end result is a biased and misleading picture which is damaging for a fragile community.”
The most forceful responses to the programme, however, have come from the social media twittersphere. Here’s just a small taste of the ire splurged at the residents of Birmingham’s James Turner Street: Gary Turner twits on the economics of social cleansing, “Just watched benefits street what a bunch of lowlife scum a bullet costs about 30p so we could sort the street out and have change from £20,” while Connor Scootter looks at a novel way to reinvigorate Britain’s flagging agricultural sector, “People like these on benefits street deserve to be ate alive by pigs #scum,” and even neo-philosopher/failed footballer and twit-king Joey Barton got in on the act, “Strong evidence to support the breeding licence theory.”
Although Channel 4 has been accused of stoking the fires of class hatred by painting a skewed image of life on benefits, the makers of the programme maintain that they have produced an accurate, balanced and, indeed, sensitive account of life on James Turner Street. In a lot of ways I don’t feel qualified to pass judgement upon Channel 4’s claims because I haven’t watched Benefits Street. Now I didn’t refuse to watch Benefits Street because I didn’t have the time or that I feel that trash TV is beneath me (I assure you it isn’t, I watched a whole episode of Deal or No Deal in the past week, the joys of life in academic limbo). The reason I didn’t watch it is because the makeup of the programme, its packaging, its direction and its marketing, is designed precisely to reinforce a discursive context in which having a particular debate about welfare reform is a pressing political concern. In other words, the programme is telling us that welfare culture is a key political issue, that we need to pay attention to this issue and, most importantly, that we need to address the issue in a particular way.
Public responses have jumped right through the hoops that the programme laid out: a myriad of newspaper columns (broadsheet and tabloid) have gone over every aspect of the series and its fallout, Ian Duncan Smith has praised the programme for stripping back the veil on the harrowing reality of the current welfare system, and the residents themselves have been subjected to media intrusion, death threats and arrests. The series will now culminate with a full-on political debate between the show’s producers, supporters, detractors and the residents of James Turner Street themselves. This debate will inevitably contain mudslinging, name calling, and claims of fabrication and gross misrepresentation. But, ultimately, it will solidify this particular narrative on welfare reform within the public domain.
The public furore surrounding Benefits Street has also become a battleground to proclaim the statistical truth about welfare dependency, and it is this statistical debate that I have found most interesting. Critics of the programme have been very vocal in pointing toward two main things: namely that only a very small percentage of people claim benefits fraudulently, and that high end tax evasion is a far bigger problem that benefit cheating; less than one percent of welfare claimants do so fraudulently, and the £1 billion fraudulently appropriated by benefits scammers every year pales in comparison to the £70 billion lost to illegal tax evasion per annum. The link between the bottom rung of benefit fraudsters and top end tax evaders is discursively important. Since the current recession began, blame, and hatred, has congealed around two archetypes: the greedy banker, symbolised by the Occupy Movement’s 1%, and the lazy dole scrounger so vividly depicted on Benefits Street. In turn, these archetypes have become politically useful as a rallying point against the worst excesses of neoliberal capitalism indicative of post-Thatcher Britain (bankers) and the Keynesian hangover from post-World War II Britain (scroungers). As you can see, this discursive framework easily fits within in the current incarnation of the institutional left/right political divide. In other words, the one percents have been easily appropriated within existing party-political agendas. In fact, the link between the one percents and current Labour/Tory debates on taxation and welfare reform is becoming increasingly apparent: vote Labour to curb banker bonuses, vote Tory to end the welfare holiday.
The one percents are interesting because they both highlight the problems inherent to contemporary capitalist ideology and, simultaneously, strengthen its appeal. Capitalist ideology is built around the founding principles of rational utility maximisation and self-interest. In short, a good capitalist seeks to achieve maximum personal return for minimum investment: be it investment in money, time or resources. In this respect, the capitalist subject undertakes a cost benefit analysis in an attempt to discern what is the best return they can get from their present circumstances: the greedy banker endeavours to accumulate as much capital as possible regardless of the societal costs, whereas the benefits scrounger calculates that the time and effort required to overcome their structural disadvantages is worth more than their potential increase in wages. Both archetypes, in this respect, represent forms of unfettered and unregulated capitalism.
Yet, despite highlighting the unpalatable face of capitalist ideology, the archetypes are quickly moulded into a discursive narrative that reinforces the very system it threatens to undermine. By transforming the archetypes into hate figures, both the political left and right, create a framework in which the ‘bad’ capitalists represent a small identifiable minority and, therefore, the vast middle-ground is populated by ‘good’ or potentially good capitalists who, to varying and less degrees, accumulate and consume in appropriate ways. All this, of course, tells us that the system and its ideology are not inherently flawed. It is simply abused by a cadre of delinquents who must be identified and appropriately punished: it creates identifiable and manageable solutions to what are large systemic problems. Above all, our obsession with one percent hate figures allows us to disavow all personal responsibility for the persistent problems created by modern capitalism. It allows us to feel validated in our belief that we are doing the ‘right’ thing because we know who is doing the ‘wrong’ thing, how they are doing it, and what we need to do to stop them and save society. These positions, in turn, are amenable to the existing political structures and, unsurprisingly, become the focal points for electoral canvassing.
The irony of this obsession and vilification of the one percents is that it allows an ideological and political system that is predicated upon the traits the one percents so flagrantly flaunt to go fundamentally unchallenged. The failings of modern capitalism are not explained by the actions of the one percents, the bankers or the scroungers. These are simply discursive frameworks that allow us turn our internal hatreds toward a convenient external receptacle. They create two distinct poles of society that combine to reinforce the desire for a safe middle ground. This middle ground, the 98% can see the social problems that both permeate and underpin the functionality of modern capitalist society. We are also aware that, to a certain extent, our daily actions contribute to the continued functioning of this system. But instead of turning this hatred and disgust inward, the one percents offer a vent for all our frustrations and guilt.
However, the one percents are a not the heart and soul of capitalist society: they are the veneer of controllability that lies at the core of contemporary British politics. Instead, it is us, the vacuous middle ground that sustains the ideological myth that keeps the system in motion. The political apathy and smug condemnation colonised by the 98% allow us to focus on minority transgressions and forget about the complex web of minor daily actions that coalesce into a functioning capitalist way of living. If people are serious about transforming society and combating its ills, then sending death threats to bankers or the residents of James Turner Street are not effective solutions. They only appear to be solutions because they bolster the myth that neoliberal governance can control and resolve the problems of capitalist society. If things are to change then we need to lay siege to the suburbs and burn ourselves out of our own safe and self-satisfied homes.