22nd February 2023
7th November 2016
Last week I went to see Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake in the company of some friends. Having followed some of the media reporting and social media discussion of the film – and being a fan of many of Ken Loach’s earlier films – I thought I knew what to expect. I also thought I knew a fair bit about the benefits system and about sanctions – both through my academic work and through my involvement over the last few years with the Poverty Truth Commission (PTC); an organisation that brings together people with different kinds of experience and expertise to explore the effects of poverty and to develop collective responses to it.
On one level, I was right. As part of my involvement in the PTC, I had been part of a working group on ‘Dignity’. In that group, I had heard first-hand accounts of what it feels like to be a ‘claimant’; and what it feels like to be sanctioned. I remember William describing it vividly as feeling like falling into a black hole with no way to climb out (You can hear some of his story here). In that group, we talked a lot about the denial of dignity that ‘clients’, ‘claimants’ or ‘service users’ face; and I was challenged to think and write about how I might myself have been (and be) complicit in those processes in my work.
Somehow, however, I, Daniel Blake still managed to shock me. It is at its best when it is vividly portraying the mundane, formulaic, bureaucratic scripts and processes through which the denial of human dignity is perpetrated and (within the system’s perverse logic) legitimated. Though the film’s two central characters – Daniel and Katie – are compelling, for me, some of the most interesting characters in the film are staff within the benefits office; one of whom (Ann) is struggling to maintain some humanity in her engagements with people whilst others (like Sheila) seem to have abandoned themselves to their scripts. Their work is itself surveilled and regulated by managers who insist on punctilious adherence to rules and routines which become channels of calm and (mostly) polite brutalities heaped on the human lives they regulate.
The superficial calmness and politeness of the workers’ scripts emerges as a cool and chilling form of what the sociologist Nancy Fraser calls ‘misrecognition’. For Fraser, social injustice comprises three sorts of failures: of distribution (of material resources), of representation (in political processes) and of recognition. Misrecognition is a denial of social standing, as well as of human dignity. It has the effects of silencing people or of rendering their voices, needs, interests and their suffering as insignificant.
In his discussions of the film and its political reception, Ken Loach has spoken of the benefits system’s ‘conscious cruelty’. I think he has his sights on the ‘neoliberal’ architects of welfare retrenchment in general rather than on the people whose job it is to implement their policies. I suspect that, for many of the latter, their own economic and social insecurities, combined with their need for psychological survival in a brutalising system, might compel them to stick to the script and to invest in its legitimacy. Indeed, one of the film’s more subtle sub-plots hints at the personal costs of recognising humanity for one of the staff members.
I have only two criticisms of the film. One is that the two main characters – Daniel and Katie – are just too unambiguously ‘good’. Perhaps Loach felt that the ‘conscious cruelty’ of the system could only be fully exposed by establishing these characters as ‘blameless victims’ deserving of our sympathy. But obviously that runs the risk of inviting the viewer to think (and the critic to respond) in terms of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, and for me that really risks missing the point. To be fair to Loach, the film does also suggest how the system itself drives people towards illicit forms of work; it also depicts the anguish that can come from being compelled to compromise our own beliefs, values and integrity in order to survive. Secondly, on just one or two occasions, Paul Lavery (the film’s writer) fails to resist the temptation to put speeches into the mouths of the actors. I confess I was slightly irritated by a scene involving a (drunken?) Glaswegian cheerleading for Daniel by offering a rant against neoliberalism. This felt like a clumsy and unnecessary attempt to explain the politics of what we were seeing.
Others have questioned the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of the benefits system. On that, I don’t agree. I, Daniel Blake chimed with what I had already heard directly from William and others – and some of the friends I watched the film alongside attested to consistency of the film’s depiction with their own recent experience as ‘claimants’. By bringing those experiences vividly to wider public attention, the film confronts us with the consequences of our collective political choices and of our broken political systems. I hope that, in the longer term, it helps us change both.
See it – and make up your own mind!
Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work, University of Glasgow