Here’s a question I’ve been pondering. Can you review a film you’ve never seen? Also: can you review a review of a film you’ve never seen? This is what I’m wondering as I read reviews of I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s film about people on benefits. Liberals tend to like the movie. Or I think they like it. Lynn Enright, for the Pool, writes that, ‘My whole face was wet with crying. I tried to be discreet, but my body was shuddering as sobs clattered through it. I allowed the film to simply do its work on me, reducing me to tears, stoking a great sadness and sense of naïve uselessness.’ Jack Monroe, in the Guardian, had a similar reaction: ‘The woman beside me, a stranger, squeezed my forearm as I choked on guttural, involuntary sobs. I’m sorry, I whispered, sloping out to punch a wall in the corridor and cry into the blinding, unaware streets of west London. I looked mad. I am mad.’
Would I see this film based on this testimony? No. Undergoing such paroxysm of emotion does not appeal to me. I would rather open another bottle of red and watch The Good Wife until around 2020. I also admit to my preconceptions about Ken Loach as a celebrity activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter and suspect that he’d rather lecture his audience than tell a story. I mean if you want to do a polemical welfare film then great, love it, but why not simply make a documentary, travel the UK talking to claimants, and cut out the fictional middleman? It would probably still win the Palme D’Or, probably still trigger outbursts of expressive emotion in liberal audiences – it would probably be a good piece of work.
As is, Loach’s film is not universally loved. Camilla Long tweeted (her review’s behind Times paywall) ‘Underwhelmed by I, Daniel Blake. Preachy and poorly made. A povvo safari for middle class people.’ Toby Young has a critical piece at the Mail – he’s not as witty as the fabulous Camilla Long so the article drags. Young complains that Ken Loach ‘has an absurdly romantic view of benefit claimants. Daniel is a model citizen. At no point do we see him drinking smoking, gambling, or even watching television.’ The point apparently being made is that Loach portrays claimants as being overly ‘deserving’ – when statistics prove, to Young’s satisfaction, that plenty of them are actually ‘undeserving’: he claims that a million people came off ESA prior to the introduction of work capacity tests and a further million were declared fit for work. Therefore: ‘the vast majority should never have been receiving disability benefit.’ QED!
I could argue this out for the rest of the day. I won’t do because I don’t want to get into the aggressive bitterness that characterises so much of the welfare debate (take a look at Long’s mentions if you don’t believe me) and nor do I want to spend hours going through the intricacies of UK benefits systems (you don’t want to know about applicable amounts and non-dependant charges and mandatory reconsiderations and discretionary housing payments, you really don’t). I also don’t want to repeat the horror stories about possible benefit related deaths (there are examples on the Ekklesia blog, which also challenges some of Young’s statistical claims).
I speak from experience here because for some years I worked in advocacy/public sector style jobs trying to help people out with their housing, benefits and many other issues. I loved this work, I was good at it, I would have done it for life, but unfortunately over the last six months my own mental health problems caught up with me. Eventually I just got tired of the panic attacks, the depressions, the sleeplessness and I walked. The day David Cameron resigned as prime minister, I was on the couch, my head buzzing with an increase of medication, and I felt nothing. It wasn’t a significant moment.
What pushed me over the edge? It certainly wasn’t the fault of my employers, good people who tried their best. I think the bureaucracy got me, that plus all the suffering I’ve seen, most of it completely avoidable. Result – unemployed and back in therapy. I have a birthday coming up. I’ll be 35. I’m not complaining, I’m a natural survivor, I am also lucky to have support from my partner and others, I am sure I will be back out there and earning again soon. However in my darker moments I think about all the people with long term mental health conditions I know, talented and disciplined men and women who ended up totally marginalised for life. Is that going to happen to me? I hope and believe not but who knows?
Welfare in the UK doesn’t work. Claimants aren’t winning – they get messed around with sanctions, crap placements and form filling, all of which takes time and energy away from the jobsearch. Frontline DWP staff aren’t winning – they have no discretion, they have to deal with claimants presenting complex life issues, and they take a lot of shit from claimants. The public is not winning, because more and more public money is wasted on job centres, Work Coaches, civil servants, the crap Universal Jobmatch system, tribunals, appeals, and the wider social costs of a dysfunctional welfare system. Even private contractors aren’t winning, because they incur reputational damage as focus for public dissatisfaction with the DWP. Even the politicians aren’t winning, because the economic crisis Brexit will bring makes political dreams of a pure free market Singapore state or noble workers united in physical labour look laughably naïve.
The Loach critique I enjoyed most was by Mark Littlewood, director of libertarian IEA thinktank. For Littlewood, Loach’s welfare state ‘does not get the money to where it is needed and is policed by people who are obsessed about their own status and what the rules are but not actually concerned about poverty.’ Littlewood praised the film as ‘an interesting analysis of the colossal failures of state bureaucracy and how that dehumanises both the providers of that service and the people on the receiving end.’ Maybe he was being contrarian, but I think Littlewood strikes a chord: UK welfare combines cruel Dickensian capitalism with all the sclerotic incompetence of the socialist command economy.
Benefits have been politicised to such an extent that we forget how simple it all is. In the best of all possible worlds, some people will be out of work. Either we help them out or we don’t. If we do want to help, let’s do it properly. If we can’t give people the training and health treatment they need, if we can’t make workplaces accessible to those with health problems and disabilities, if we can’t give frontline workers the power to make smart decisions, if we can’t give people autonomy and the control over their own lives, if we can’t help people to help themselves – then we might as well dismantle the welfare reform apparatus altogether and replace it with some kind of base income.
This is Vasily Grossman, writing about Chekhov:
Chekhov said, let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere.
He’s thinking about the Soviet Union. But I think we should remember Grossman’s words in free countries as well.