The Tragedy of Daniel Blake
KEN LOACH’S I, DANIEL BLAKE HAS BEEN THOROUGHLY dissected and (mostly) celebrated by both left and liberal opinion. More cynical observers have chosen to trace the acclaim to a rearguard desire to praise a film which, in contrast to a culpable and ineffectual political class, has achieved traction in the public discourse against austerity. But the film’s intrinsic merits – its powerful naturalism and agitprop narrative – comfortably outflank such criticism. The story’s central protagonist also carries the weight of wider historical and political trends beyond the routine cruelties and indignities of austerity. These are experienced within an uprooted private orbit, but not in a vacuum. Daniel’s story – and millions like it – has been some time in the making.
The social sadism of the contemporary Conservative Party has deep roots. We have come a long way from the Butskellite consensus of welfare capitalism to the ugly demonising of the poor as a distinct ‘underclass’ deserving of little but our fear and loathing. Of course such class contempt is nothing new, but the gains of the post-war period seemed to have permanently shifted the ‘middle ground’ towards an acceptance of economic intervention, social security and public services, and away from laissez faire prescriptions and noblesse oblige. What happened to facilitate such an abrupt breach with the common sense of that period? The sobering tale of the neoliberal outriders, Hayek, Friedman et al, their relentless demanding of the impossible as the social democratic state retreated before them, is now a familiar one to socialists. Their vision of a global marketplace unconstrained by regulation, labour movement autonomy and collectivist identities became manifest.
As industrial communities went into steep decline, so too did the communities and political cultures they sustained. A new formulation of the role of the state emerged. As corporate lobbyists and a more ideologically inclined caste of senior civil servants seized its levers, and as politicians increasingly circulated in the overlapping worlds of public and private provision, so the meaning of the state in everyday experience mutated. The right vilified its ineptitude, waste and sloth. At the same time its authoritarian capacities were ramped up to force back civil society resistance.
A new common sense was forged, that of the infantilising nanny state from which we were to be rudely liberated. The individual was now expected to demonstrate sufficient merit if they were to enjoy its means-tested largesse. The state no longer regarded citizenship as conferring inalienable rights, quite the reverse. The ‘undeserving poor’ were perceived as a burden on those prepared to carve out their own good fortune. Trust, solidarity and class identities, all critical to the social compact, began to melt into air.
Rather than re-imagine the purpose of the social democratic state, New Labour chose to seal its demise. Cheered on by the liberal commentariat (Polly Toynbee, a dependable shill for the new social order, exclaimed that “The Tories are right, workfare really works”), they looked to consolidate the myth of ‘welfare dependency.’ Blair spoke of the ‘breakdown of the family,’ correlating the murder of Jamie Bulger to a decline in values and behaviour. ASBOs were pioneered, prison populations rocketed and the surveillance state, steeled in the fires of 1980s industrial struggle, cast a paternalistic and disapproving eye over its less co-operative charges.
The gains demanded from below and legislated for in the post-war period now look brittle indeed. Austerity seeks not only cuts to civilised provision, but a year zero reformation of the UK state. New generations regard it as either commodified, punitive or absent from their lives. Despite its ideological designs on the last vestiges of collectivist provision, austerity commands, in its essentials, the apparent support of the majority, particularly in the field of welfare. If Corbyn’s Labour Party is to displace these assumptions, if it is to consign the millions of human tragedies associated with the sanctions regime to the dustbin of history, it must imagine a new, leftist populism that reconfigures an active, democratic state predicated on redistribution, devolved power and social justice.
The right have perfected a compelling and simplistic narrative which must, eventually, collide with the impasse of people’s actual lived experiences. But its defeat is not assured. If we are to prevail, the Labour Party must learn the lessons of its historical defeats before many more Daniel Blakes are thrown to the austerity wolves. Rather than limiting ourselves to the tribal dismantling of the Tory Party, we should identify the real folk devils in our midstthe bankers, industrialists, their accountants, lobbyists and media stooges. Such approaches have proven effective in the past. The left must now remodel them for dangerous times.