From working class to incapacitated class

How radical activists shifted from viewing the working classes as powerful to pitying them as pathetic.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics UK

Criticisms of the government’s ‘fit for work’ welfare tests betray a view among radical campaigners that, far from having the capacity to forge a living for themselves or even change the world, many working people are only fit for a sickbed.

Official UK government statistics released yesterday showed that, of the 1.3million Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – formerly Incapacity Benefit – claims made between October 2008 and November 2010, only seven per cent of people attempting to claim incapacity benefits were actually deemed too ill to work. A further 17 per cent were categorised as fit for ‘work-related activities’ and a total of 39 per cent were deemed to be fully capable of working.

Many on the left have reacted strongly to these findings. The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Brendan Barber argued that this ‘much tougher’ test is cynically ‘designed to save the government money by excluding more people… These figures certainly don’t suggest that thousands of disabled people are suddenly “trying it on”’.

The vast majority of claimants probably weren’t ‘trying it on’. Following advice from government officials, many were undoubtedly led to believe they were genuinely incapable of working. And, without question, a proportion of them suffer from conditions that prevent them from doing so. But Barber’s comments assume that the individuals being ‘excluded’ from state support are all genuinely disabled and unable to work. This fails to explain why, over a period of decades, the number of people claiming incapacity benefits has rocketed in a way that can’t possibly be explained by increasing numbers of people becoming ill.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the numbers of men claiming incapacity benefits rose sharply, increasing almost every single year, from 463,000 in 1981 to 1,276,000 in 1999. Tellingly, a significant proportion of these claims came from areas of the country which had seen a hollowing out of productive industries, and the jobs that they provided. As observed previously on spiked, it’s not feasible that so many people have actually fallen ill. Rather ‘the welfare state was cynically soaking up these people, desperately attempting to offset their potential political anger at being unemployed by inviting them to view their predicament as a health-based problem instead’.

Instead of being seen to be deprived of work by social and economic factors – such as factories closing down and the government lacking a strategy for economic growth – the jobless were instead recast as physically or mentally incapable of working. It’s understandable that some, not least those who have been led to believe they are incapacitated, now find it jarring to hear the government backtrack on this and redefine what it is to be incapacitated. But the extent to which some on the left have reacted to welfare reforms, viewing the unemployed as suffering from health-related problems, incapable of surviving without state help, jars even more.

As Guardian columnist John Harris wrote recently, our ‘flexible labour market and increasingly brutal welfare system are now so constructed that even if you are doing well, it is perfectly possible that you could fall ill’. We are all potentially vulnerable individuals who would face a nasty, brutish and short existence under the new system of welfare support. Riffing on the National Lottery slogan, Harris claims we are all fragile and potentially facing a life of ‘terror’ under the benefits system: ‘it could be you’.

This sense of utter dependency on the state for support is exemplified in the recent protests held against Atos Healthcare, the French-owned private company contracted by the government to carry out tests to see if someone should receive ESA. They carry banners declaring that, by deciding some people on benefits are actually capable of working, Atos is effectively committing murder, undertaking ‘unlawful killings’, ‘making money out of misery’ and depriving people of their ‘freedom’. Atos’ very name, according to one MP, generates a sense of ‘fear and loathing’ among those applying for benefits.

Although there are aspects of Atos’ bureaucratic ‘computer says no’ approach to assessing whether people are deserving of benefits that have been rightly criticised, the hysterical casting of Atos as ‘killers’ reveals an underlying attitude toward the people who are being assessed. Since when did people gain ‘freedom’ by demanding that the state support them? When did it become the role of progressives to emphasise the incapacity of working people?

Historically, working-class people were seen as active, decent, strong and capable of running their lives and of changing society. Now they are instead seen as incapable and in need of defence from harm and harassment. If the state doesn’t offer sufficient support and protection, so the protesters argue, then it’s leaving helpless working people for dead.

In other words, working-class people are weak and are in need of big, strong defenders like the trade unions. Once upon a time, the workers were seen as a force that could seize control of society; now, the working classes are increasingly seen as in need of nursing.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today