In his 1931 novel Aldous Huxley imagined a dystopian future where people were conditioned from before birth to conform to their given social status, and critical thinking no longer existed. And in 1948, George Orwell conceived a fear-driven world where horrors would be masked through the appropriation of once-positive language. The 21st-century DWP appears to have regarded both these terrible visions as a blue-print for its treatment of the unemployed – adding a healthy dollop of more modern cod psychology along the way to make it all seem more palatable.
In our neoliberal world, the blame for being unemployed lies firmly with the individual who has ‘failed’ to find a job, and not with a system that fails to create jobs and only succeeds in increasing inequality. The DWP and its subcontractors must therefore be seen to make these ‘failures’ employable, and the unemployed must be conditioned to accept their personal accountability. Much of the responsibility for this conditioning has been handed to the private contractors who run the Work Programme, and they have taken up the task with enthusiasm. Indeed, the list of courses provided by Triage Central Ltd (reproduced below) could almost be mistaken for parody. There is even a section entitled ‘Working Towards a New You’ – which, it seems, can be accomplished in just 1 or 2 days. All those who have found their attendance at Triage to be a major source of fear, stress, anxiety, loss of confidence and depression, will be pleased to discover that in just a few hours all these problems can be addressed by the very same people who helped cause them in the first place. You can also spend an hour learning ‘assertiveness’ – but you’d better be careful not to learn this too well and assert your rights if you don’t want to leave in the company of the police. There is a bit of practical stuff around computers and interview skills, but the rest reads like a particularly annoying self-help book, with titles such as ‘How to spot a tiger and climb a mountain’. I don’t know about tigers, but I can certainly spot the psychobabble behind this mountain of misery.
The DWP also employs around 60 ‘work psychologists’ to assist their ‘hardest-to-help customers’ with the aid of psychometric tests and motivational interviewing. (See ‘My working day’, Moira Coates on her life as a work psychologist for Jobcentre Plus, published in Work and Organizational Psychology Arena.) Of course there is nothing wrong with helping people, who want to work, to look for ways in which problems of health and disability can be accommodated. However, even the most well-meaning psychologist is bound to be compromised when working as part of a system so clearly based on fear and punishment and on ensuring that the lower orders know and keep to their place: a system set up by a government that persistently claims that ‘work is generally beneficial for health’. The health benefits of work are hammered home in the government’s Guidance for GP’s on how to issue the new ‘fit notes’ that, without a hint of irony, have replaced sick notes. George Orwell, eat your heart out.