Mark Cantrell, Author

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COMMENT: Stasi In Their Eyes

Posted by Mark Cantrell on April 4, 2014 at 5:10 PM

Smile, Iain Duncan Smith is watching you

You might not be signing on today; you might be getting ready to go to work, but the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions has got his eye on you all the same, writes Mark Cantrell

 In the tail end years of the last Labour Government, the information commissioner warned that Britain was "sleepwalking into a surveillance society". But while we have slept, and since the Coalition crept into office on the stalking horse of a backroom deal, there has been no let up on this forced march into a panopticon future.


For one group of Britons, this surveillance state is already here. The emphasis has shifted, that's all, from the overt mechanisms of technological oversight, to a brutal shift in the human agencies of what had once been a (relatively) humane system of social welfare.


While CCTV and the other trappings of the surveillance society haven't fallen by the wayside, the Coalition has picked up another strand of stern authoritarianism bequeathed to it by its Labour predecessors – welfare reform – and pushed it to the fore as a means of keeping an eye on us. The purpose, of course, is ultimately one of social enforcement.


The Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, didn’t invent this shift from social security to social surveillance, but he has undoubtedly added his own cruel twists to this Orwellian swing in the relationship between citizen and the State. Indeed, cock-ups in its implementation aside, he was very much made it his own.


The more I read about IDS's pet project, the more I think of the Stasi in Communist East Germany before the Berlin Wall was torn down, or the KGB in the former Soviet Union before its dissolution. There's something about the Secretary of State's almost-missionary zeal to end the "culture of welfare dependency" that somehow resonates with the dour fervour of those extinct regimes, even if it does hum to a different ideological tune.


Both the KGB and the Stasi were brutal political police, built to put the total into totalitarian, to curtail opposition and keep the populace servile to the needs of the economic elite (in this case the hierarchy of the Communist Party machinery – forget that guff about a 'workers state', that was just PR and marketing).


To put it less metaphorically, the DWP and what was once known as the Welfare State is being recast as a bureaucratic gendarmerie that works to browbeat working people into a state of passivity and obedience. In effect, whether IDS has thought this through or not, he is effectively implementing a de facto nationalisation of a significant chunk of the British working age population.


The whole welfare reform project may be born out of a half-baked concoction of ideology and dogma, petty prejudice, and reasoned goals such as reducing the expenditure on benefits, but among the outcomes there is an undeniable transition towards a system designed to micro-manage the lives and behaviour of its inmates. Welfare in the UK today is very much totalitarian in intent and purpose.


Surveillance is an essential part of the package. To manage its inmates effectively, the system must harvest information that can potentially be used against individuals and groups alike.


As with any state apparatus of command and control, this information is gathered ultimately for the purposes of identifying prospective candidates for punishment. Forget notions of due process and the rule of law, we're talking bureaucratic compulsion, where guilt is assigned by targets, category and algorithmic data processing, with little or no regard to real world circumstances.


In a sense, it has little choice. The punitive reflex is hardwired into the system by the prejudices of its creators, but more pertinently by the needs of the system to enforce discipline among the ranks of those pulled into its sphere of operations. Ultimately, the purpose of sanctions is not to punish those deemed guilty of some transgression, per se, but to instil a mindset of obedience in the wider group.


So, the KGB or the Stasi looked for anti-communist dissent, pro-capitalist recalcitrance, whatever jargon they favoured, and that’s what they found, whether it was there or not. The effect, in those old Communist regimes, was that people tended to keep their heads down lest they find themselves collared as subversives. It wasn’t perfect, nothing ever is, and it had the effect of provoking genuine dissent too, but it undoubtedly extended the life spans of the regimes.


By the same, admittedly metaphorical measure, the prejudices programmed into the JobCentre and the DWP effectively manufacture perceptions of guilt: the workshy, the fraudulent, the moral failings of a culture of worklessness, all of which can only be resolved by stern discipline. Today, in the unforgiving system IDS has annexed as his fief, the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, the working poor, all harbour the enemy within and must therefore be treated with appropriate suspicion.


Naturally, if it's to identify and deal with the 'guilty' then the system needs to gather as much data as it can about the target population in order to find them. Information is the key to manipulating people's behaviour, to reshape their relationship with society, and to play us off against each other.


Indeed, at this point it should be mentioned that the welfare-surveillance nexus isn’t just concerned about benefit claimants; through them, the system is reaching out for all of us. If we're not directly impacted – more and more of us are finding ourselves pulled into the benefit regimes because of inadequate wages and rising costs of living – then it at the least serves to suppress any sympathies we might hold towards the inmates; suppress those and nurture suspicion and resentment.


Time for another metaphor, and this time we're talking gulags. Epitomised by the Soviet experience, and currently put through their monstrous paces in that crazy little throwback known as North Korea, gulags often as not have an economic function in addition to dealing with political undesirables. If you're going to persecute people, you might as well put 'em to work too and get a little something back for your investment in the mechanisms of state repression.


Over the last few years, welfare reform has been busily creating Britain's very own little Gulag Archipelago courtesy of its Work Programme. Workfare, as it's better known to its (many) critics is another amped-up Labour legacy. Essentially, it proposes practical measures to transform benefit claimants into an active workforce.


Alas, no, not in the sense of the ministerial rhetoric about people gaining paid employment, don't be silly, although that still happens. Rather, we're talking about the creation of an unpaid pool of conscripted labour. Under workfare, people are being forced to work for their benefits; compliance is enforced by punitive sanctions that mean – in very real terms – destitution for those deemed to have broken the strictures of the JobCentre (the State).


The justification for this draconian measure is the provision of 'work experience' said to help people to become ready for the world of work. However, it's proved a nifty wage-saving measure for employers, who effectively gain a captive workforce; one it doesn’t need to pay, which lacks employment rights, trade union representation, the works. In an echo of the old Soviet Union, the interests of economic elites in the UK are being under-written by the State.


This is where the surveillance comes in: the gathering of social intelligence, for want of a better way to put it. As the welfare system is tightened up and transformed into a policing operation, it follows that it needs to catalogue and collate more and more information about its inmates. Knowledge, or in this case, perhaps we should say data is power.


The mechanisms of modern welfare are increasingly intrusive; demanding to know as much as it can about a claimant's circumstances and background, regardless of any direct relevance such information might have to a particular claim. And with in work conditionality – the rules you must abide by to continue receiving benefit – now being applied to those in work, the State is about to muscle in on the private lives of others who had hitherto lived outside the shadow of such unforgiving scrutiny . In an echo of the old Soviet Union, the economy of the UK is being under-written by the State; in this case, by topping up inadequate wages.


All of this must sound rather conspiratorial, as if IDS and his Cabinet cronies have got together and planned this surveillance society in meticulous detail. Hardly. Somehow it's doubtful that the man stands in front of a full-length mirror to admire himself in a gold-braided uniform and shiny jackboots; although, you never know – each to their own.


Of course it's not a conspiracy, in the classic sense, but it's a mistake to run with the idea that politicians don't have objectives; certainly they have their notions on how societies should be orchestrated, their own ideological preferences for how we should conduct our affairs, or have them managed by our superiors. In that, IDS is no different from any other politician, whether they sit around the Cabinet table or face him from the Opposition benches.


Whether IDS fancies himself as the Commander-in-Chief of a kind of welfare Stasi or not is neither here nor there; it matters not if he wants to cage Britain in the panopticon of a surveillance society. The man's motives are irrelevant – what matters is that he has set about transforming the Welfare State into a vehicle for micro-managing the lives of the poor, whether they work or not – and through them, via the machinery he is creating, he is reaching out for all of us.


The metaphor isn’t perfect, of course. Gobby journalists like me don't have to look over their shoulders in fear of being disappeared into some Orwellian gulag. Well, at least not yet. But he has got his eye on me, so to speak – and on you.


Despite the man's personal incompetence or stiff-necked prejudices, whether by design or stumbling luck, he has created the foundations of a very British Stasi. And these things have a way of taking on a life of their own.


Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith is watching us – and he thoroughly disapproves.


Mark Cantrell,


30 March 2014


Copyright © March 2014. All Rights Reserved.


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