Aoife Moore’s article in the Irish Examiner on Monday “Single Mothers on Welfare Feel ‘Bullied’ by Inspectors” reads like an extract from “The Lives of Others”, the 2006 film about the East German Stasi.
While the article cited privacy intrusions of a grotesque nature, the stories also had the effect of strengthening the case for the introduction of a universal basic income.
One single mother described two female welfare inspectors ordering her out of her own bedroom where they then went through her underwear, apparently intent on discovering if there were any signs of male presence to be found in her underclothes or, presumably, in or around her bed.
Lots of odd questions spring to mind from just this one incident, not the least of them being the apparent policing of sexual activity by state officials, along with the perplexing question of the right of DEASP officials to enter and search people’s homes without notice or warrant as described in the article.
These intrusions are justified by a suspicion or possibility of welfare fraud. But this raises another question. Does claiming a welfare payment equate to a surrendering of certain fundamental rights and freedoms?
This question alone gains even further significance today since an estimated 150,000 people are likely to lose their jobs as a result of the new lockdown. No doubt they will all be interested in hearing of any hidden “costs” associated with claiming a welfare payment.
The question of a potential threat to democratic freedoms due to Covid, is further complicated by the government’s apparent attempt to railroad through, without consultation or debate, an extension of special powers for the minister for health, as reported in today’s Irish Times. This also suggests that observance of democratic niceties are not deemed a very pressing priority.
In Aoife Moore’s Examiner article one woman describes a social welfare inspector regularly parked outside her house all day and into the evening, keeping her under surveillance, even following her to and from the kids’ school. Was this official some kind of Walter Mitty cop, brightening up his public service day with a bit of make believe?
A similar kind of faux “investigative” persona was turning up in JobPath and in the department after Leo Varadkar’s welfare cheats campaign. Welfare officials playing TV cop with the welfare recipients, the “suspects” helpfully framed by Leo Varadkar, the then minister for social protection.
At the time, Bernadette Gorman, a former social welfare officer, said that in her experience welfare fraud was “miniscule” and that she believed minister Varadkar was deliberately demonising the vulnerable in his bid for the Fine Gael leadership.
But all this needless investigative activity, in combination with the current Covid crisis, has the effect of reinforcing the argument for a basic income. Because the intrusions described by Aoife Moore’s article seem a lot like “work” being created by people with nothing better to be doing.
A basic income, a living payment to the amount of the current Jobseeker’s Allowance, would have the effect of saving millions of euro on these pointless faux “secret police” operations.
But there is a far more disturbing potential to this type of surveillance by a state bureaucracy than just a waste of tax-payers’ money.
Back in the early 1960’s when the political philosopher Hannah Arendt was studying the former Nazi functionary Adolph Eichmann, on trial by Israel for war crimes, she could see nothing remarkable about the man at all.
In her controversial book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, she came to believe that evil is not some monstrous, dramatic entity, but is far more often found in the ordinary, complacent, faceless, number-crunching servant of a vast bureaucracy. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to explain what she perceived as Eichmann’s utter lack of remarkability.
The ideas she developed about the effect of bureaucracies on individuals, both as functionaries and as objects of the bureaucracy, stand as a warning about the nature of bureaucracies, which tend to develop lives of their own, independent of the individuals that supposedly run them.
This comes about as a result of what Arendt called “the rule of nobody”.
No one person is committing the acts of the bureaucracy, no one person is responsible or accountable, everyone is just “doing their job”, “following orders”, ticking boxes, gradually becoming dehumanised themselves by the cold logic of the needs of the bureaucracy.
“In a fully developed bureaucracy,” Arendt writes, “there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”
When Aoife Moore contacted the DEASP for a reaction to the stories cited in her Examiner article, a “spokesperson” for “the department” said “If there are specific examples, we would ask that these be brought to the department’s attention.”
But the problem about bringing a complaint to “the department” about the activities of social welfare inspectors “just doing their jobs” is that the social welfare inspectors are the department. What if the person you complain about also takes the complaint? Or is a colleague of that person?
“The department” itself is an abstract entity. As such it doesn’t actually exist. It is an entity made up of people who appear to be subject to Hannah Arendt’s “rule of nobody”: faceless individuals quietly ticking the boxes, serving the abstract entity’s wants and needs, which gradually take precedence over the needs of the “nobodies” the bureaucracy was initially designed to serve.
Almost without anyone noticing, the bureaucracy itself is soon referred to as if it is a person. In this case “the department”. When questions are raised about the behaviour of servants of “the department”, the “will” of the abstract entity is always invoked, and no one person is ever accountable for its actions.
A basic income would release people from the violations reported in Aoife Moore’s article, which were undertaken on a pretext of cost-cutting.
A basic income would also release those well-intentioned public servants who may have become mindless cogs in the bureaucratic machine, finding their own lives reduced in significance in service to the needs of the bureaucratic machine.
There are many books and studies on the toxicity of bureaucracies and their softly softly threat to democracy, from Kafka to Orwell and Arendt and beyond. But perhaps the most entertaining and convenient primer on the subject is the film “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet