Past UK welfare cuts and austerity led to rising crime. Will we count the same costs this time?

Cross-posted at the LSE Politics & Policy Blog

The Thatcher governments are widely accepted to have influenced many areas of modern life in Britain. Stephen Farrall and Will Jennings explore the link between Thatcherite macroeconomic policies and crime, arguing that if the ever-growing evidence base of the economy-crime link is true, political decisions about austerity cannot be separated from their consequences in the domain of law and order.

Was one of the unanticipated side-effects of social and economic changes associated with the adoption of neoliberal and monetarist economics during the 1970s/1980s rising crime rates?

In a recent study, we explored the relationship between the economy and property crime in England and Wales, focusing on those aspects of macroeconomics and the distribution of wealth which were associated with adoption of neoliberal and monetarist policies first under the Callaghan government, as a condition of the IMF loan, and prominently under the Thatcher governments. Our findings suggest that changes in the unemployment rate are an important factor in explaining change in property crime rates. They also demonstrate that the link between the economy and crime changed in the period from the 1960s to the mid-2000s, with the effect of the unemployment rate on crime becoming stronger over time.

Using time series analysis we develop a model of the effect of changes in socio-economic variables (unemployment, inequality, welfare spending and incarceration) on the national rate of property crime. We find that while increases in unemployment led to increases in the property crime rate (dampened by effects of welfare spending and incarceration), there is no evidence that rising income inequality was linked to the rising crime rate.

The radical agendas of the Thatcher governments between 1979 and 1990 are widely accepted to have had a great influence on many areas of modern life in Britain – both at the time and in the period since Thatcher left office. Such influence has been identified in housing, education policies, social security and, of course, the economy. In particular, macroeconomic policies were associated – at least in the short-term – with rising unemployment and economic inequalities.

Studies of the economy-crime link suggest higher rates of offending are associated with higher levels of unemployment and economic inequality. Both these conditions are consistent with the broad trends observed in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, leading us to explore whether one of the unanticipated side-effects of neoliberal and monetarist economics during the period was growth in crime. Our study is based on time series analysis of the per capita rate of recorded property crime in England and Wales and the effects of changes in unemployment, income inequality and the rate of incarceration. (For further technical details of the data and modelling, see the paper here).

As has been observed in studies conducted in other countries, we find a significant relationship between the national rate of unemployment and official recorded crime; a one-point increase in the rate of unemployment is associated with an increase of two crimes per thousand head of population (for a population of around 50 million people this would constitute an increase of around 100,000 property crimes). More interestingly, we discover that this effect has strengthened over time – indicating there has been a hardening of the economic underpinnings of offending. Whether or not this trend will be sustained or reversed in the future remains to be seen .The unavoidable conclusion, then, is that the growing effect of unemployment during the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the monetarist revolution and sharp increases in the unemployment rate in Britain (as well as in other countries such as the US). While monetarist policies succeeded in bringing inflation under control, subsequent upturns in unemployment were associated with rising crime and a strengthening link between economic conditions and offending. Meanwhile, the rising level of crime gave rise to rightward shifts in criminal and policing policies.

The steady growth of crime throughout the 1980s reached alarming rates between 1991 and 1995, forcing the Conservative governments of the time to address the issue of crime ‘head-on’ during the early-1990s. In light of this, we argue the criminal justice policies of the Major and Blair governments were a lagged response to rising crime, and the economic policies that had underpinned this trend (in particular, the political view of unemployment as an acceptable price for getting inflation under control). During this later period, the Labour opposition provided little resistance to the punitive criminal justice policies under Major’s Conservative government, narrowing the range of policies that were ‘imaginable’ for all political parties.

As a consequence, the unanticipated legacies of the social and economic policies of Thatcherism might be seen as:

  1. The foregrounding of crime as a political issue.
  2. The creation of a series of social and economic circumstances (in particular mass unemployment, the geographical concentration of the socially and economically disadvantaged through implementation of housing policies and growth of inequalities coupled with real term reductions in social benefits) which were conducive to the production of crime at the aggregate level.
  3. The strengthening of the effect of unemployment on the national rate of property crime.
  4. Widespread dominance of an issue definition of the problem of crime which flowed from the new social and economic circumstances. This emphasised punitive policies and social control in place of the social welfare model adopted by successive governments since 1945.

In this sense, the outcomes of macroeconomic policies can spill-over into seemingly unrelated domains, such as crime. Political choices of targets for economic growth, public spending and inflation as well as decisions about the tolerable (or politically “acceptable”) level of unemployment and income inequality contribute to patterns of offending, and subsequent calls for crack downs. If the ever-growing evidence base of the economy-crime link is true (and holds amidst the social and economic distress of the post-crisis era), political decisions about austerity cannot be separated from their behaviour consequences in the domain of law and order.

Stephen Farrall, Will Jennings, Colin Hay, and Emily Gray are currently working on an ESRC-funded project on ‘Long-term Trajectories of Crime in the UK’. 

The ‘Squabble’ Over Sterling and the Scottish Independence Referendum

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

Yesterday, I appeared on the BBC Radio Solent Drivetime show (at around 5.35pm for those who’d like to listen to the replay) to comment on the debate which occurred over the weekend concerning whether Scotland would retain the pound in a sterling zone in the event of becoming independent. This is just the most recent example of how the imminence of the independence referendum is now fuelling highly specific discussions about the nuts-and-bolts of how things would actually work in practice should Scotland become independent. The SNP are being increasingly tested on their ideas and proposals, and are now forced to go far beyond appeals to some sense of Scottish nationhood, and to deal instead with the greasy mechanics of governance and what a post-independence political and institutional landscape would look like.

However, it was only later when I reflected on the interview that I considered the way in which the debate had been introduced by the interviewer, who described it in terms of ‘squabbling’. In the interview, I attempted to recast the issue as less about ‘squabbling’ and more about the inherent difficulties associated with drilling down to the complexities of detail and addressing opposing viewpoints. What strikes me is how this genuine disagreement amongst competing actors in the referendum debate was casually described as ‘squabbling’, as if to suggest a playground spat, when what is actually at stake are fundamental questions about the future of the UK state. It is only natural that such questions will prompt passionate, as well as pragmatic, disagreement. When the media belittle such debates by referring to them as mere ‘squabbling’, even if it is simply for provocative effect, they contribute to our collective disappointment in democracy and its functioning. We may be cynical about our politicians, and often for good reason, but when they stand up and debate the issues surrounding something as important and complex as the future of sterling in an independent Scotland, we disempower both them and us when we chalk it up to silly  ‘squabbling’.

Polling Observatory #33: Public opinion steady through the storms

This is the thirty-third in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 02-02-14 cropped

January has been a stormy month in and out of politics. While freak storms have dominated the news agenda, politicos have been more excited by freak polls. Conservative activists took the airwaves and the internet to trumpet a YouGov poll showing Labour’s lead over their party down to 2%, only to be beaten back by Labour activists touting another poll by the same company, just days later, showing the Labour lead back into double digits. The reactions such polls garner are a powerful demonstration of the effect of selective, partisan attention – an outlier poll showing the gap between the parties disappearing or yawning wider than it has for many months, is widely quoted, touted and debated. The many other more mundane readings of public opinion receive little attention. The casual reader is left with the impression that public opinion is chaotic, and everything is up for grabs.

Yet, once we put all the data together, those noisy, attention seeking outliers no longer drive the story. The dull reality this month, as in most months of this parliament, is that public opinion hasn’t moved at all. We estimate Labour this month at 37.8%, up 0.2% on last month. The Conservatives come in at 31.9%, up 0.9% on last month, but merely a return to their steady position in the autumn after a brief Christmas downtick. UKIP stand at 11.8%, down 0.3% on the month, while we estimate the Lib Dems at 7.2%, down 0.6% on last month, one of their weaker showings but not yet evidence of any sustained decline on their long run equilibrium.

While commentators paid to follow the torrent of current affairs full time tend to read meaning into every minor tremor in the polls, in reality public opinion moves slowly, and seldom. The current deadlock in public opinion – with Labour steady in the high thirties, the Conservatives in the low thirties, UKIP around 10-13% and the Lib Dems a little behind them, is by our count the sixth phase in the evolution of the parties’ standing with the electorate over the course of this Parliament. The story to date has run like this:

Phase 1. May 2010 to December 2010: The Conservatives share is high and steady in the initial Coalition honeymoon period, while left-leaning Liberal Democrats angered by their party’s alliance with the Conservatives depart for Labour in droves. Lib Dem support falls, and Labour’s rises, throughout this period. The cumulative swing in support during this period was very large – 12 points or more – sufficient to put Labour ahead of the Conservatives within a year of their worst defeat for a generation. The Liberal Democrats slump to below 10 percent by the end of this period, and has remained steady at 8-10 points ever since.

Phase 2. January 2011 to November 2011: A slow decline in Conservative fortunes as the economy stagnates and the public sours on austerity spending cuts. Labour’s revival stalls as they run out of left of centre Lib Dems to recruit and prove unable to win over disaffected Conservatives. UKIP support begins ticking steadily up in the period, but remains largely below the media radar.

Phase 3. December 2011 to February 2012: A rare example of current events triggering a genuine shift in public opinion, as Cameron’s EU veto, and the widespread positive coverage of it in the Eurosceptic parts of the press bring the Conservatives a short lived win over UKIP, enough to bring their support briefly level with Labour. 

Phase 4. March 2012 to December 2012: The Conservatives’ support collapses sharply in the spring, while Labour’s rises. Labour moves from a dead heat to a ten point lead in a few months. While the “Omnishambles” budget, and other political mis-steps such as the bungled deportation of Abu Qatada are possible triggering events, it is also possible that the Conservatives’ Christmas 2011 rally was unsustainable, and that they were bound to revert to their equilibrium position once normal service resumed. Things level off by the summer, and for the rest of the year the Conservatives languish around 10 points behind Labour. UKIP continue their slow but steady rise, and by the end of the year are competing with the Lib Dems for third place.

Phase 5. January 2013 – June 2013: UKIP become the big story as their support surges ahead, and they deliver an impressive and largely unexpected haul of local election victories. The wave of positive media coverage that ensues further propels them upwards, to a peak of close to 15% at midsummer. The UKIP surge is reported largely as a Conservative problem, but the polls tell a different story: both Labour and the Conservatives lose ground as UKIP advance. UKIP are more than just a Conservative revolt, as our sister blog UKIPwatch has explained.

Phase 6. July 2013 – present: UKIP fall back a little as the media move on to other stories, but the insurgents keep much of the new support they have picked up and remain well ahead of the Lib Dems in third. The Conservatives recover their lost ground, but Labour do not, resulting in a narrower lead of 5-8 points over the Conservatives. By the autumn, the pattern is set and has continued to date.

Six phases in four years suggests that, with over a year to go, there is still time for another twist in the tale. While this is true, the scope for large shifts ahead of the election is narrowing every month. Who is going to change their minds? The ten percent bloc of the electorate that switched from the Liberal Democrats to Labour at the start of the Parliament shows few signs of having second thoughts, and, given their hostility to the government and its leading figures is almost equal to Labour’s, there is little reason to think they will in the near future. Labour’s gains from this group look secure.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ten percent chunk of the electorate who have switched their allegiance to UKIP also look tough to convince. These voters are angry, disaffected and deeply hostile to the whole political mainstream. It is possible that concerns about the futility of a UKIP vote in most local constituencies will induce some to drift back to the mainstream, but we wouldn’t bet on it. Given their generally bitter outlook, such voters may prefer staying home than backing one of the hated “LibLabCon”.

The balance therefore lies, as it often does, with the mushy middle and the economy. The likeliest driver of a shift in sentiment over the next year would be if sustained economic recovery started to be felt in the pockets, and the minds, of uncommitted voters. Conservative pundits are fond of likening 2015 to 1992 – an election when a large Labour lead evaporated due to lasting public concerns about the opposition party’s ability to manage the economy. They should also give thought to the sobering possibility that 2015 will instead play out like 1997 – when an unpopular Conservative incumbent waited in vain for a surging economy to deliver a rebound in their support. The same combination of buoyant economic numbers and stagnant poll numbers is playing out again today, and every month it continues, the brows in Conservative Central Office will be furrowing a little deeper.

P.S. In an excellent blog on Lib Dem prospects, Lewis Baston has queried whether our method is a little bearish on the party. We agree with many of his points, and will return to this issue in more detail in a future post. Our modelling choices do look a little harsh on the Lib Dems at present, but this was not so clear when we set up our polling model in 2010, and we are reluctant to confuse our analysis by changing our methods half way through a Parliament. The choice of model does have some impact on overall Lib Dem support levels, but it has no impact on the broad trend: the Lib Dems lost over half their support in their first year in government and have, to date, found no effective methods to bring their national popularity back up again. However, we agree with both Lewis and Stephen Tall that the national poll numbers are misleading for the party, whose fate will be decided, more than those of the other parties, by their local constituency campaigns.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

This blog is cross-posted at Manchester Policy Blogs, NottsPolitics and The Telegraph blogs.

Channel 4, Fat and the Facts

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Watching Supersize vs Superskinny, Channel 4’s latest venture into the ever-popular fat voyeur genre, I was struck by one thing in particular. Unlike the casual viewer, it wasn’t the enormous quantities of food that participants consumed (or actually in this case were forced to watch their ‘superskinny’ counterpart struggle down), nor the gratuitous footage of even bigger Americans in undignified situations, nor even the perma-tan and blonde highlights of the creepy Dr. Christian. Instead, having spent much of the last 4 years analysing the way political actors make sense of and argue about obesity, what stood out for me was the constant stream of facts and figures that viewers were bombarded with. From Perspex containers filled with kilograms of sugar and fat (a ‘shock’ technique filched from Jamie Oliver) to the sober clinical assessments delivered by the good doctor,  the show seemed to be jam packed with references to scientific claims on obesity and its impact on health.

This observation aligned neatly with what I had found in my research—a seemingly universal fetish for ‘the evidence’ whenever the issue of obesity comes up. Indeed, every policy actor I have come into contact with in both the UK and Australia, whether in public or private, seems to share this obsession. The evidence of my own gathered over this time shows that these actors typically litter their comments on the subject with facts and statistics, make extensive and deferential reference to ‘the evidence’ in general, and speak of the need for (or at least of the faint hope for) policymaking around this issue to be ‘evidence-based’. Now, to be clear, these actors disagree vehemently about the nature of obesity as a problem and about how public policymakers ought to react: for some, the obese are lazy oafs sponging off the NHS; for others, they are helpless victims of an ‘obesogenic’ environment poisoned by the wicked food industry; and for others still, they are objects of a moral panic inflamed by special research and pharmaceutical interests. Yet all share an obsession for the evidence, such that these conflicting accounts are all avowedly ‘evidence-based’. So how does that work?

An elegant explanation is that evidence is just a discursive resource that actors can draw on; that the fierce debate over the ‘obesity epidemic’ and its implications for public policy are just another case of science falling victim to politicisation. What I argue in this article (or view for free here), recently published as part of a special issue for Policy Sciences on ‘Evidence and Meaning’, is not that this is explanation is entirely wrong – I absolutely concur that ‘the evidence’ is not some innocent, neutral object beyond the dirty reality of politics and policymaking—but that it is overly simplistic. The debate over obesity is not a case of fixed coalitions drawing on scientific evidence solely for the purpose of reinforcing their preconceptions. It is a complex, dynamic one in which apparent ‘allies’ frequently and often openly contradict each other with respect to ‘the evidence’.

In light of this rather more optimistic stance, I ponder what this might mean in democratic terms. I acknowledge, of course, that the primacy of ‘the evidence’ has some drawbacks in this regard. While all the actors engaged in this debate (including and perhaps especially public health experts) also draw extensively on alternative forms of knowledge—common sense, professional experience, personal anecdote, etc—these claims are always enfolded within or made subordinate to claims about the evidence. This has pretty obvious exclusionary implications. But, on the other hand, the common refrain to the evidence has two key benefits. The first is that the currency given to evidence keeps all actors on board, even when they do not feel they are getting their way. They have faith that ‘the truth will out’; that the evidence proving their case will mount and become so compelling that policymakers will have no choice but to pursue their preferred course of action. The second benefit is that by committing to justifying their claims with reference to ‘the evidence’, all actors across this debate are submitting their accounts to a common standard of assessment. By demanding so publicly and vociferously that policymaking on obesity be ‘evidence-based’, they run the risk of being ‘hoisted with their own petard’ if their own use and interpretation of the facts is not seen to add up.

Which leads me back to the sums being done at Channel 4. If the show’s researchers are so concerned about facts and figures, then perhaps I should point them to the growing evidence that Dr. Christian’s methods of shock and humiliation do appalling damage to self-esteem and (as a result) are almost always counter-productive for weight loss and health in the long term. But something tells me the channel may be about as committed to improving public health in Supersize vs Superskinny as it is to advancing social welfare through Benefits Street.

Floods and Mayhem: What current events tell us about the complexities of governance

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

The continued spread of flooding across south-west England this weekend, in addition to causing untold misery for tens of thousands of people, also finally provoked that most unsavoury of public bloodletting: a gloves-off fight between  government ministers and the relevant arms-length agency over who is to blame for the chaos. Eric Pickles, the Local Government minister (standing in for the Environment Secretary who is on sick leave) and Lord Chris Smith, the chair of the Environment Agency (and a former Labour Environment Secretary), have in recent days taken to the airwaves to argue about who is responsible for the flooding. Pickles has blamed poor advice from the Environment Agency which shaped the government’s response. Smith has pointed to lack of funding for the Agency and Treasury rules which govern its operation. Unusually in a scenario such as this, Owen Patterson, the off-sick Environment Secretary, has let it be known that he does not agree with Pickles pronouncements regarding the Environment Agency. For some, the blame-game is high political sport.

This is just the most recent in a long list of instances which demonstrate the tremendous complexity of modern governance. When things go wrong, politicians blame those inside agencies and similar organisations for not implementing policies properly and for making mistakes, while those in the agencies blame politicians for cutting funding and failing to understand the details on the ground.  And while the blame-game continues, those in the midst of the trouble, struggling with flooding, demand action to alleviate suffering and for the fault-finding to wait until later. Indeed, untangling exactly what has caused the scale of recent flooding is no mean task. Global warming? An unusually wet and stormy winter? Lack of public funds for flood defences? Failure to dredge rivers? Overpopulation on flood plains? There is no single, simple answer, and the true source will certainly turn out to be a complex mixture of these causes, and more besides. In public policy, identifying the cause of a problem is a hugely significant component of correctly identifying suitable solutions, and it’s rarely an easy exercise.

Listening to the debates surrounding the current flooding emergency demonstrates the highly technical and scientific nature of public policy making, and also just how contested it is. Evidence can be brought to bear for and against river dredging. For and against the value of allowing lands to succumb to flooding. For and against prioritising urban over rural areas. And the policy instruments which are brought to bear are consequently often highly contested and controversial. As the UK is set to experience further such weather events in the coming years, those with an interest in governance and public policy making would do well to understand this extremely technical area in terms of flood management, and explore what it tells us about the capacity of institutions of governance to respond.

Long-term Trajectories of Crime in the UK: a new ESRC project


In what ways do changes in economic and social policies at one point in time result in changes in patterns of crime, victimisation and anxieties about crime at another? How do shifts in social values affect national-level experiences and beliefs about crime and appropriate policy responses to it (such as public or political support for punitive punishments like the death penalty)? What have been the long-term consequences of almost two decades of neo-conservative and neo-liberal social and economic policies for the UK’s criminal justice system and the general experience of crime amongst its citizens? Similarly, how do changes in the crime rates affect the sorts of social and economic policies pursued? What lessons does the recent past offer us today, when policy announcements about further cuts to public expenditure are commonplace and economic growth uncertain and faltering?

These are questions that will be explored by a new ESRC-funded project undertaken by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Southampton, Professor Stephen Farrall, Dr Will Jennings, Professor Colin Hay and Dr Emily Gray. Using the Thatcher and Major governments as our case study, our aim is to explore the experiences of crime, victimisation and fear of crime at the national and regional levels, and for key socio-demographic groups, dating back to the 1970s (and where possible earlier than this). This project builds on studies that highlight the importance of recognising feedback between social, economic and criminal justice domains – and develop a methodology for analysis that considers both the aggregate and individual-level (Farrall & Jennings 2012Jennings et al. 2012Hay & Farrall, 2011Farrall & Hay 2010). The core insight of our approach is the potential for spillover from one policy domain to another, and how these feedback processes are structured in time, with institutions and populations becoming locked-in to path dependent processes of action and reaction. 

The aims of the project are:

  1. to understand the long-term trajectory of crime rates alongside relevant political, social and economic developments and interventions (paying attention to both neo-liberal and neo-conservative strands of thinking, Hay, 1996, Farrall and Hay 2014);
  2. to develop an approach to making long-term assessments of dramatic and sweeping policy changes which could be adopted by other researchers.

Our project, which is interdisciplinary in nature, will chart such trends generally as well as exploring the impact of the growing existence and tolerance of economic inequalities since the 1970s on a range of key processes related to crime (such as unemployment or growing levels of economic inequality). In this way we will be able to throw light on to the long term impact of shifts in social and economic policies on experiences of crime and associated phenomena. Such an examination will be crucial in a wider understanding of what (might) happen when one dramatically breaks with a previous political consensus (in this case, Keynesianism) and embraces a new, radically different one (in this case thinking inspired by ‘New Right’ political philosophies).

Part of our impact strategy includes the production of a 30min film in a modern history style which outlines our findings. We’re working with DocFest (the world’s 4th largest documentary festival) to make a film about the project. The call for producers and directors interested in making the film is now out, with the deadline of 14th February.



Farrall, Stephen, and Will Jennings. (2012) ‘Policy Feedback and the Criminal Justice Agenda: an analysis of the economy, crime rates, politics and public opinion in post-war Britain.’ Contemporary British History 26(4): 467-488.

Farrall, Stephen, and Colin Hay. (2010) ‘Not So Tough on Crime? Why Weren’t the Thatcher Governments More Radical In Reforming the Criminal Justice System?’ British Journal of Criminology 50(3): 550-569.

Farrall, Stephen, and Colin Hay (eds.). (2014) Thatcher’s Legacy: Exploring and Theorising the Long-term Consequences of Thatcherite Social and Economic Policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hay, Colin, and Stephen Farrall. (2011) ‘Establishing the ontological status of Thatcherism by gauging its ‘periodisability’: towards a ‘cascade theory’ of public policy radicalism.’ British Journal of Politics and International Relations 13(4): 439-458.

Farrall, Stephen, and Colin Hay. (2014) ‘Exploring and Theorising the Long-term Impacts of Thatcherite Social And Economic Policies.’ In Stephen Farrall and Colin Hay. (eds) Thatcher’s Legacy: Exploring and Theorising the Long-term Consequences of Thatcherite Social and Economic Policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jennings, Will, Stephen Farrall, and Shaun Bevan. (2012) ‘The Economy, Crime and Time: an analysis of recorded property crime in England & Wales 1961-2006.’ International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice 40(3):192-210.

The question of revolution is not romantic, it is unavoidable

By Justin Murphy, Politics & International Relations

Cross-posted here. Follow Justin on Twitter: @jmrphy

If I insist on the revolutionary position, it is not to insist on the dichotomy between revolution and reform. Most of us today will agree with Gorz that there exists a class of revolutionary reforms, at which point the relevant distinction becomes the distinction between revolutionary reforms and reformist reforms. Today, Nancy Fraser suggests the critical distinction is between “system-conforming” changes and “system-transforming” changes, but it seems to me that the long-standing theoretical and practical difficulty remains the same: which types of projects (individual or collective) effectively oppose capitalism and push society toward justice, and which types of projects (whether through mystification, co-optation, or defeat) merely improve capitalism for some at the price of renouncing the system-level opposition which would be the maximally true, coherent, and just position.

To my mind, this is the essence of the revolutionary position: To believe that the organisation of the world’s institutions are unjust, to see empirically that a key feature of these institutions is precisely that they offer particular groups small gains in return for their renunciation of system-level opposition, to therefore locate this precise mechanism as the essential and perhaps only mechanism which is able to maintain such massive worldwide system-level injustice, and finally to assume the theoretical and practical position to never renounce system-level opposition in exchange for any particular gain less than the absolute system-level transformations which are required for justice, no matter how relatively transformative such gains might be.1

Because of the almost primordial or, in any event, perennial quality of this tension and its unavoidable need for resolution in any theoretically defensible political project, I see no way that any political theory today can innocently elide the question of revolution. I do not say that any political theory today must be explicitly revolutionary in any specific sense. I say only that distinctions between “system-conforming” and “system-transforming” beg the crucial question which will always arise for those who agree to pursue system-transforming collective action: when the state, the market, and/or the thousands of institutions such as the university (defined by irrevocable cognitive and material allegiances to the state and market) offer us a particular “transformation” on condition that we demobilise just enough to not threaten the equilibrium of the institutional arrangement as such, should we accept that transformation or not?

That is, after individuals and groups choose “system-transforming” rather than “system-conforming” agendas, what are the conditions under which it is justified for them to demobilise their system-transformative demands in exchange for some political victory which improves the world but is less than what they see as a fully adequate transformation of the system? For this is the perennial dilemma with which all system-transforming political projects constantly struggle, and indeed it is this dilemma to which the very notion of an anti-capitalist (system-level) perspective is supposed to counter.

Finally, while I zealously affirm that any defensible revolutionary position will not only be anti-capitalist but also feminist, anti-racist, ecologically sustainable, and inclusive of many other human differences which “revolutionaries” have a long history of betraying, in no way do these inclusions obviate the question of revolution. Indeed, it is precisely because gender, race, and ecological as well as class struggles so urgently require truly system-level institutional transformations, that it is all the more important for us to maintain what is specific about the question of revolution and the meaning of the revolutionary position.

No matter how naively romantic the revolutionary position rings to our contemporary ears, it’s naiveté and romanticism is only a function of the merely contingent strength of the current status quo, and moreover our aversion to this seeming romanticism of the revolutionary position is itself merely the cognitive inheritance of a politics now more than ever defined by collaboration with injustice rather than resistance to it. Perhaps the meaning of the revolutionary position is indeed nothing more than an integral naiveté, but on the wager that real integrity to a truth is exactly the most emancipatory political force in the world. And perhaps the most dangerous romanticism existing today is the notion that humans have suddenly been absolved of having to decide whether they will negotiate with oppressive institutions or overthrow them.

  1. This phrasing is purposely agnostic about what exactly constitutes justice or what any ultimate institutional configuration should look like (or how this would be determined). This is because, for the moment, I am trying to sketch what is essential and specific about the revolutionary position as inclusively as possible with respect to any particular vision of political justice. Thus, the only essential premises with which one has to agree here are: 1) that there currently exist system-level injustices in the arrangement of institutions, and 2) that we can at least in principle admit the possibility of a globally just arrangement of institutions. One does not even have to agree that capitalism is the name of the currently unjust institutions, to see how a commitment to system-level injustice necessarily implicates one at least in the question of revolution.

We all Live on Benefits Street

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton ( You can read more posts by Richard here.

You may have heard that there’s a television show called Benefits Street, which promises to reveal “the reality of life on benefits”, neatly wrapped in episodic, half-hour, commercial-interspersed packages. The show – like all good things – has earned the right to be called “polarising” by the media.  But it also throws up (in both senses) a number of questions with which political theorists of justice frequently grapple.

Many have already questioned whether ‘benefits claimants’ are portrayed fairly, accurately or ethically in the show. But there is surely something more deeply questionable about the concept of Benefits Street. What is it, we might ask, that makes the residents of Benefits Street different from the rest of ‘us’[1]? Is it fair, in other words, to set apart (let alone demonise) a person, or a community in terms of the benefits they receive?

This, after all, is one of the unsaid premises of the show, and why it has generated the discussion that it has. ‘We’ are looking at how ‘they’ live, and having ‘our’ say on it. But what makes the ‘us’ and the ‘them’? One response might be to emphasise that it is not the benefits that really matter at all, but rather the fact that many of the residents are out of work. What makes them different, some might (and do) say is that they (unlike ‘us’) are ‘non-contributors’[2]. Those of us in work are giving back to society somehow, by way of income taxes – and perhaps – by way of the labour we expend.

However, whilst contribution is clearly part of the story of Benefits Street, it doesn’t fully explain the focus of the show, and the benefits panic on which it draws (and feeds). After all, many of the residents of Benefits Street do work – as do many millions of benefits claimants nationally. And indeed, the common vernacular doesn’t talk of ‘non-contributors’ but rather ‘benefits claimants’, ‘people on benefits’ and worse, ‘benefits scroungers’. It is illustrative, I would suggest, that the show is called Benefits Street, and not ‘Non-contributors Street’.

In contemporary terms then, it is increasingly the receipt of benefits that operates as the primary frame for the issue of welfare, rather than one’s level of contribution. In the emerging ‘makers’ vs ‘takers’ narrative – the successful mark themselves out as different not only in terms of their contribution, but also in terms of their not taking from the state. In this world-view, the very act of claiming benefits is seen as deplorable in itself – as one’s being ‘on the take’ somehow, or worse ‘dependent’ or ‘reliant’ on the state.

This view seems problematic in many ways, but even if we do it the courtesy of taking it seriously, does it really allow us to mark the residents of Benefits Street as different from the rest of society? This seems doubtful. Take an apparently unrelated example: The Coalition’s flagship ‘Help to Buy Policy’. This loan scheme enables middle income citizens to purchase houses, and drives national home values up in the process. Putting aside the questions of whether inflating another housing bubble is good economics, it’s worth noting that this policy can itself be seen as a kind of hand-out. Being debt funded, the Government is essentially borrowing from future taxpayers. This money is then transferred to purchasers of homes, and indirectly to existing owners of property through rising prices. Thus thanks to Help to Buy the owner of a £1,000,000 property in London might see its value rise by 10% (a year!) as a result. This is to say they will receive, in effect, a bonus of £100,000 paid for by tomorrow’s taxpayer (including, of course, the residents of Benefits Street). A financial benefit from the state, we might say.

Now this is not to say that this is necessarily problematic. It might well be good to support the housing market, and encourage home ownership. But what it does illustrate is the way in which redistributive benefits – by many other names – are claimed by all strata of society. Indeed, almost every economic policy worth writing is redistributive in some degree. When Royal Mail was privatised, for example, a public asset – owned by all citizens – was sold off cheaply to predominantly wealthy investors, or the pensions funds they invest in. Here too is the redistribution of wealth from one section of society to another. However, we see rather less moral panic when the recipients of these transfers are wealthy individuals and (perversely?) when the quantities of money involved run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, rather than, say, the £56 a week the unemployed residents Benefits Street receive in JSA[3].

And once we think about it, these kinds of redistributive benefits are surely only the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t the point of society that everyone benefits? This at least is what most political theorists from Hobbes to Rawls have argued. Even those at the top of society benefit greatly from the state, to the extent that they are arguably just as dependent on it. Many business owners object loudly at this kind of sentiment. They, after all, built their firms with their own hard work and initiative, earning the wealth and security that goes with it. But surely in a very real sense they are just as dependent as the residents of Benefits Street. Would their business exist without the infrastructure they use for deliveries? Would their business exist without someone educating the staff that they employ, or healing them when they fall ill? Would their business exist without someone regulating their competitors and supplies, such that neither can cripple them through foul-play or error? Would their business exist without, for that matter, without someone managing a growing stable economy in which they can sell their goods? If such business-people are to blame the state when it mishandles the economy, then they must surely accept that it enables their industry when it manages it properly.

Of course, none of this is to say that we might not question whether the state ought to be providing these goods, benefits and security. As Robert Nozick famously argued – the fact that an individual benefits from something might not justify our providing it to them without their consent. Perhaps free markets can provide all of the above, as effectively and with less coercion?

But note that this is a totally different question. What we are interested in is whether the residents of Benefits Street are unique in their relationship with the state. And it seems difficult to see how they are. Instead, what we see is how the receipt of a particular kind of benefit is being marked out as controversial, or deplorable. And how convenient that it be that which is received by the most vulnerable in society.

Of course, we ought not to conclude from this that no-one has the right to believe or act as if ‘benefits claiming’ is condemnable somehow. But what it does imply is that we had better be prepared to take our own snouts out of the trough when we do so. Otherwise the sound we make is likely to be rather revolting.

[1] Declaration of interest: Like most young(ish) scholars, the author has received a range of welfare benefits at different points in time.

[2] Of course, talk of ‘contribution’ in this fashion is horribly problematic. First, of course, not all individuals or communities have equal ability to contribute. For starters, most developed economies choose to maintain mass unemployment as a policy tool to fight inflation. Secondly though, society’s notion of what contribution means seems far too reliant on what it is that the market applies a price to. Thus on conventional measures a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother would be ‘contributing’ to society quite handsomely, whereas a mother (or father) who spent a day raising a child, supporting a working spouse and caring for an elderly relative would be seen to contribute nothing.

[3] This phenomenon mirrors that of our focus on the frantic chasing down of ‘benefits cheats’, and our relatively relaxed attitudes towards tax evasion by the super-rich.