A nightmare vision of the welfarist trap

A reissue of Zoe Fairbairns’ dystopian novel Benefits is a timely reminder that left-wingers weren't always such big fans of welfarism.

Neil Davenport

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Among a broad spectrum of British left-wingers, the welfare state is treated as the most sacred institution in British society. Unemployment benefit, child benefit, incapacity benefits, housing benefit… all are held up as paragons of a left-inspired virtue. Nothing agitates left-leaning commentators more than Lib-Con proposals to slash welfare payments. Apparently the poor, the plebs and ‘the vulnerable’ could not cope without the army of welfare professionals providing them with support and sustenance.

Yet this hagiographical account of the welfare state is a fairly new turn on the left. Left-wingers weren’t always so taken with welfarism. It seems that the more the left’s faith in ordinary people’s capacity to sort their lives out has declined, the more it has endowed the state with extraordinary qualities, virtues and powers.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, some radical sociologists deplored the expansion of welfarism, viewing it as an extension of bureaucratic control over the citizenry. Sociology texts asked, ‘Who benefits from benefits?’, and the answer was often: the establishment and those at the top of the class system. Following Marx’s point that very early systems of welfare were a ‘disguised form of alms’, radical sociologists argued that welfare simply ‘bought off’ the lower orders and encouraged them to identify with and respect state structures.

In the 1980s, many a crusty anarchist would point out the inconsistency among some left-wingers of being anti-state while simultaneously claiming welfare benefits. In promoting the idea that the state was ‘neutral’, and that it might possibly be coaxed to improve poor people’s lives further, welfarism actively discouraged political independence of the state and its offshoots.

It was this radical tension – of being politically opposed to the state while advocating economic dependence on it – that was explored in Zoe Fairbairns’ dystopian feminist novel, Benefits. Written in the febrile political atmosphere of late-1970s Britain, Benefits is about a future state’s sinister attempts to control women’s fertility, and to encourage responsible parenting, through the introduction of a universal ‘wages for housework’ benefit.

Although rarely out of print since it first appeared in 1979, Benefits has recently been re-issued, with a new introduction by Fairbairns, for the e-reader age. It is now being marketed as a political attack on ‘anti-welfarist Tories’, yet as Fairbairns points out, anyone who views Benefits as simplistically ‘anti-Thatcherite’ is missing its key point: that welfare benefits can become a weapon of social engineering and control. On top of critiquing aspects of welfarism, Benefits lays into radical feminism’s self-defeating slogan, ‘The personal is political’, while passionately championing women’s liberation and equal rights – feminism’s one-time aims.

Like many dystopian novels, Benefits is rooted in the fears, the panics and the politics of the period it was written in. So although it is set in the dying days of the twentieth century, it rather charmingly echoes the late 1970s: all tower-block grime; politico slogans on walls; squats; communes; poorly designed radical pamphlets. It also speaks to the more alarmist rhetoric of that period of the mid- to late 1970s. From ecologists predicting Europe-wide famine to the New Right’s panic over single mothers to respectable racists complaining about ‘coloured immigration’, the political feeling in Benefits is unmistakably mid-Seventies.

Yet because she has a good understanding of the dangers of encroaching state power, Fairbairns gets many of her ‘predictions’ for what would happen in Britain just right. The novel’s right-wing politicians complain that the ‘wrong people are breeding’ and ‘the right type of people’ must be encouraged to do so instead. This seems like a reference to the late Conservative minister Sir Keith Joseph, who once advocated that poorer people should be forcibly sterilised to prevent them having kids. In recent years, of course, regulating the breeding and behavior of the ‘wrong’ type of parents has become a pursuit of the right and left.

Equally prescient in Benefits is the way its fictional state believes that ‘poor parenting’ can have a corrosive impact on the individual and society; this has become an unquestioned orthodoxy today.

Many dystopian novels hint at a future in which pornography has become staple entertainment. Benefits does that, too, and this also speaks to the reality of twenty-first-century life, especially to today’s increasing separation of sex from genuine intimacy (it talks about ‘all that sex and no babies’).

In Fairbairns’ nightmare vision, women who want to receive benefits must undergo ‘a programme of education for motherhood’. This sounds suspiciously like parenting classes, which are increasingly common today, especially for poorer families, or what David Cameron calls ‘chaotic families’. Also, in imagining a future in which parenting is redefined as a ‘national service’, Benefits hints at today’s creeping nationalisation of individual families. The novel even features a supra-sovereign state called Europea, where British politicians willingly offload their own parliamentary responsibilities. Sound familiar?

Alongside the mindless fun that can be had in checklisting Fairbairns’ ‘predictions’, Benefits has another great strength: illustrating how and why radical feminism allowed these authoritarian developments to take place. The book features a sinister right-wing pressure group called FAMILY, which aims to show that a woman’s biology is her destiny. That is, a women’s primary role should be mother and carer. One of the novel’s key activists, the traditionalist Isabel Travers, points out that FAMILY and the women’s liberation movement ‘are both on the same side’. Sounds a bit far-fetched, even for a fantasy sci-fi novel? Actually, this point looks like a rather sly and clever dig at the then emerging essentialist feminists, who argued that women possessed ‘superior qualities’ of sensitivity, creativity and being caring. The solution to women’s oppression, these feminists believed, was to elevate women’s allegedly natural virtues over the more masculine tendencies of patriarchal society.

The activist Travers says: ‘The true liberation of women will never come about until proper respect and value is placed upon their role as nurturers.’ As a consequence of this argument, and to the feminist campaigners’ surprise, FAMILY endorses the ‘wages for housework’ demand in the form of a ‘benefit’. As the reactionary politician David Laing puts it, ‘Motherhood was not a misfortune to be insured against; it was a national service to be paid for’. The measure ends up wrong-footing radical feminists, who suspect it is being used as a form of social control but who nonetheless promise to ‘fight to the death to prevent it being taken away’. This despite the fact that the benefit is about encouraging women to stay at home and rein in their ambitions and their desires for active citizenship. It is, to all intents and purposes, a foretelling of the various incapacity benefits we have today, which likewise encourage some two million people to stay stuck on their sofas.

Benefits makes a strong point: that the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ can be manipulated to enlarge state authority within the home. As we have seen with police campaigns against domestic violence, or the ongoing panic about child abuse in the family, radical feminism has become the politically correct way through which individuals and families are policed in modern society. How did the noble fight for women’s equality end up backfiring so spectacularly?

For all its anti-traditional lifestyle posturing, radical feminist theory was always more conservative than it appeared. Take radical feminist theories of patriarchy, the belief that male domination over women is the most fundamental division in society. Radical feminists like Kate Millet argue that the origins of women’s oppression lies in the family structure and is then generalised throughout society. That is, the fact of male dominance in social institutions springs from the existence of male dominance in the nuclear family.

Although this is essentially a negative appraisal of family relationships, it nonetheless bears a striking resemblance to traditionalist conservatives’ belief that the ‘organic society’ is built upon the ‘natural impulses’ between men and women – that is, upon the ideal of the family. Both theories essentially naturalise and mystify the real origins of power and conflicts within modern society. Both depoliticise explanations of power structures by reducing everything to the question of the relationship between men and women. By contrast, Friedrich Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, showed that in truth it was the rise of private-property relations that shaped the nuclear family and women’s subordinate role within it. That is, wider social forces shaped the family, not the other way round, as both traditionalist conservatives and radical feminists seem to believe.

The problem with depoliticising the question of where real power lies is that the state can end up being viewed as entirely neutral, even benign. Far more than reformist state socialists, radical feminists’ biggest achievement has been to rehabilitate state agencies and parliamentary laws as a positive and beneficial force in society. In the 1980s, Ken Livingstone – as leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) – was one of the first to co-opt radical feminists into local government – but the wider, more conservative establishment quickly saw how useful feminist rhetoric could be for enhancing state legitimacy. Furthermore, the notion that the ‘personal is political’ provided a much-needed route into regulating personal lives, which were once considered off-limits for politicians and the state.

In Benefits, the journalist and activist Lynne Byers damns the cynical housework-benefit experiment. She concludes that privacy and family intimacy, far from being a male conspiracy, are a vital source of our humanity and should be reclaimed from state bribes. Sadly, there aren’t enough voices like that in the real world today. In Benefits, and in real life, radical feminists fail to see the grim irony of asking a paternalistic state to treat us all like helpless little girls. Thankfully, Fairbairns does, and this timely reissue of her novel deserves a wide readership.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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