State, Power, Trauma


Pic: I, Daniel Blake (Dir. Ken Loach, 2016): Anger, Misery and Incomprehensibility relating to ‘the rules’ in the Welfare System

Roy Coleman

As Franz Kafka knew modern state bureaucracy excels at one thing above all else – inducing disorientation, confusion and exhaustion for those in its ‘care’.  Sociologists tend to stress order and rational rule following as the basis of society. However, inducing disorientation and ambiguity of the rules is a key component of state regulation. The dissemination of confusion is part of its ‘logic’. The exhaustion felt among the recipients of state ‘services’ acts as a forerunner to their compliance or their pulverization into an order of incomprehensibility.  This is state trauma and is a feature of state bureaucracy in the 21st century UK targeted at those the state has described as ‘not in employment education or training’ (NEETS). Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake (2016) demonstrates that capitalism’s bureaucratic machinations are not merely ‘disenchanting’ (as Weber concluded). No – this is a state of bureaucratic incomprehension served up with the intention of crushing the spirit and any alternative perception of the world held by those who cannot or will not ‘integrate’ into capitalist normality. As one of the characters says of the ‘welfare assistants’ of this state machine: “they fuck you around [and] make it as miserable as possible – that’s the plan”. As the film shows this is state enforced misery through inadequacy building exercises into the psyches of state recipients

This is interesting as it points to an overlooked aspect of state power. Such power does not ‘work’ merely through the imposition of rules, dutifully followed by compliant subjects’ eager to ‘assimilate’. As the experience of those seeking welfare shows, the rules for claiming state support are permanently in motion. And this is the point. The lower the state intervenes into the social fabric the more the ‘system’ becomes opaque without clear norms, values and rules. It is unquestionably without morality. At the lowest levels of state activity (the prison, the welfare office, and the street stop and search) we are more likely to glimpse bewilderment, dislocation and disruption in our lives rather than clearly discernible norms and rules in operation. This produces anger, humour and weariness which leads to further absorption into a bureaucratic world of uncertainty, sanctions, serial time delays and a constant sense of institutional inertia. Confusion and disorientation are at the core of the rational machine and more and more of us are getting to know this well enough. We know this when the rules keep changing, morphing and couched in over complex language. We know it when we see the discretion of state agents ‘interpreting’ the rules and, in many cases, it is apparent when the rules simply do not accommodate the experience of the human being – like when a claimant is asked to fill in a form online (in the name of ‘efficiency’) when the claimant has no access to the digital world. As Daniel Blake says to a computer literate welfare officer: “I’m pencil by default”.

This kind of state power and its experience is not quite Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in which the overseer (the cop, the social worker, the Department of Work and Pensions Supervisor) has an interest in judging then recalibrating the ‘deviant’ back into work or society. This still applies. But there has always been an aspect of state power that has a post- or pre-disciplinary aspect – an order that is based on incalculability and the introduction of trauma. This is not something we can refer to in terms of discipline or only rule based. Wolfgang Sofsky called it ‘the order of terror’ and it is apparent to degrees in all modern states. Here, for the poor and economically vulnerable, humiliation, terror and indifference are the state as defined by the absence of the rule or its incomprehensibilitySuch displays of state power lack clear goals or meaning. Rules are deliberately unclear and changeable in order to pulverize and grind. In an extreme setting, the effect of this is seen in what extermination and concentration camp survivors referred to as ‘muselmänner’ (people who, through physical and emotional exhaustion in a world without established rules, become unaware of their surroundings and drift through them in a permanent state of bewilderment).

The welfare benefits office is not Auschwitz but it is interesting how the same techniques of power based on the incomprehensibility of the rules and the forceful disorientation of the ruled come into play as tactics of power: the constant re-writing and redefining of who is ‘eligible’, ‘worthy’ and ‘deserving’ of state support; the slippery changes in language – ‘claimant’, ‘Jobseeker’, ‘unemployed’; the bewildering variety of ‘restart’ training exercises and the ever-present surveillance and repetitive intelligence-gathering exercises into the lives of those out of work. This is the rational plan underpinned  by emotive politics driving the mistrust, contempt, and fear of those in Loach’s film that ‘fail’ the capitalist aspiration and motivation test. This emotive politics forms the backdrop to the bureaucratic machine and is supported by hysterical denunciations of ‘scroungers’, ‘illegals’ and ‘criminals’ found in populist media.

The welfare benefits office is not Auschwitz but it is interesting how the same techniques of power based on the incomprehensibility of the rules and the disorientation of the ruled come into play as tactics of power

And the human costs are apparent as statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (UK) show that between December 2011 and February 2014 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance ended because a work capability assessment found they were found ‘fit for work’. Distress, suffering and death are becoming the norm. The mental health system in the UK continues to brutalize its ‘clients’ and front line staff, not least through the fact that “the system keeps changing, so you lose track of it. Every time we have a reorganisation, people fall through the cracks,” (a mental health crisis team leader) with further “reorganization fatigue” setting in. Demoralization is the plan and each rule change is a weapon.

To be sure, the fundamentals of this intentionally mystifying system stem from the 19th century Poor Law and the idea of ‘less eligibility’. This proclaimed that the state duty is to make the prison, welfare provision and the workhouse as unpleasant and unwelcoming as possible in order to compel people into low paid, low skilled work and precariousness.  Only now the precariousness of the welfare experience must be closer to physical and psychic destruction than that found in ‘ordinary’ capitalist labour markets. This is the condition of capitalism and has at its core a deliberate heartlessness and a coercive bent that is experienced by all who enter the politely titled ‘support network’.

I, Daniel Blake depicts the wilful, planned ‘inefficiency’ of the state as it deals with those in vulnerable and difficult circumstances – immigrants, inmates and welfare claimants. The film also depicts the compassionate humanity and emotional support between people outside of the state machine and in spite of it. As the film attests to the misery and trauma built into state ‘support’ it also attests to the anger, integrity and compassion of Daniel and ‘family’ as they fight and live with state barbarism.

Like the films main characters, this post is not calling for more rational, or more clear and stable rules. If anything, it’s a call for a more, not less, emotional state – one based on compassion, empathy and trust.  It calls into question all forms of rational rule because rationalisation is a poor substitute for spontaneous emotional encounters where the potential exists to exercise compassion. This would defy bureaucracy and its barbaric distancing. Should we be looking to a state at all when placing compassion as the driver for social change?

Thanks to Sophie Dodd for her comments on this post



Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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