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TOPIC: WELFARE AS PURGATORY: THE IRRATIONAL RATIONALITY OF ACTIVATION AND SANCTIONS

WELFARE AS PURGATORY: THE IRRATIONAL RATIONALITY OF ACTIVATION AND SANCTIONS 16 Nov 2017 08:12 #4912

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October 04, 2017; Tom Boland and Ray Griffin

Do policymakers design welfare systems to punish claimants? By making welfare payments depend upon jobseekers complying with directions given by welfare officers, with financial sanctions which can lead to hunger, destitution or worse, the unemployed are increasingly subject to humiliating treatment. It is a serious question; are our policymakers deliberately cruel? Or perhaps they are the pawns of neo-liberalism, determined to maintain a steady stream of applicants for precarious work?

Across the OECD, recent decades have seen the spread of Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs), which have built an assemblage of surveillance, sanctions and ‘workfare’ over the older post-WWII social safety net. Advocates of these policies argue that they are economically efficient, re-skilling workers and pushing idlers to find jobs. Some evidence suggests that ‘human-capital’ approaches help the economy by improving workers’ skills, but pressurising and threatening claimants seems to have no positive effect. Critics argue that ALMPs are cruel and that the impact of sanctions, not just financially, but as a constant psychological threat, clearly has negative consequences for jobseekers’ health and well-being. In the long run, the state may even be acting against its own long term interest, saving money now but creating future problems.

While there are many elements involved – neo-liberal economics, technological management, psychological control and so forth – our argument is that policy makers are motivated by deeper elements within our culture. This is the idea of purgatory, the idea that punishment purifies.

Policy makers, street-level officers, and even jobseekers do not see their situation neutrally or objectively, but through deep-seated cultural categories. Especially when faced by things such as complex wider economic processes, or the bewildering experience of being unemployed, people interpret the world using deeper cultural ideas – and this influences how they act. Rather than being ‘evidence-based’, then, welfare reform is animated by the idea of purgatory. Despite its obscurity, this idea has long inspired those involved in policing the poor, from workhouses to Jobcentres.

Such a historical argument was made by Max Weber, who suggested that the Protestant conception of the world as a trial of the soul made good fortune into a sign of divine providence. Within this conception of the world, an individual is inspired to work hard in their profession or enterprise in pursuit of their own salvation, and not just to achieve high social status or fulfil their greedy impulses. Within this, the poor may be somewhat redeemed by hard labour, but idlers are considered morally repugnant.

Alms for those in purgatory were famously criticised by Martin Luther, yet, curiously, it is in Protestant and Calvinist countries that the medieval form of welfare – charity given directly to the poor – was transformed by state work programmes and workhouses into a form of purgatory.

Read Full Article Here;
discoversociety.org/2017/10/04/welfare-as-purgatory-the-irrational-rationality-of-activation-and-sanctions/
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