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Surviving in a panopticon: the reality of life on benefits

When you live on benefits, your privacy is no longer your own – and this is a deliberate function of this punitive regime


Inside ne of the buildings at the prison designed along the idea of a panopticon, Presidio Modelo in Cuba

Frimann (2005), WikipediaInside one of the buildings at Presidio Modelo, Cuba

The panopticon was designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s as an institutional building within which all the inmates could be observed by a single watcher, placed in the centre of a circular building. Whilst the watcher couldn’t see all the inmates at the same time, the inmates could never tell whether they were being observed or not, as it was designed so they were unable to see the watcher. Therefore, the watcher might not even be there, they could disappear entirely, the prisoners would never be able to know. As a result, they had to modify their own behaviour because they might be being watched at any time, and could never know whether they were or not. The idea meant that the inmates developed their own interior watcher, observeto and monitor their own behaviour constantly. Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, developed the panopticon as a metaphor for the modern disciplinary society, in which the state constantly oversees the behaviour of the citizens, and saw it as a mechanistic tool and oppressive system of permanent visibility as a tool of power. Metaphorically it is also used to describe the internet and the way the employer can constantly observe what each employee is doing on their computer, and the more technological our society becomes, with the Internet of Things, and the way we use social media, the truer this becomes. Our only defences become encryption and legal limits on what the state may and may not access.

Before the reforms of the Labour government, it was the place of our GPs to decide whether we were fit for work or not, but Blair instituted a system of application and assessment, which requires giving the state our medical information and pleading with it to accept that we are unable to work (or in the case of PIP/DLA that we meet specific criteria that prove we require certain levels of assistance). While I believe discussions over one’s medical problems, physical limits, and need for assistance should be had with our GPs and social services – the two groups best placed to know what one is and isn’t capable of, I accept that if the government is going to take on this role, it requires information. What a lot of people don’t realise is how much information. Once you’re disabled you get used to telling people about your most intimate bodily functions, and the assistance you need with the most personal things.

The current focus on benefit fraud and benefit fraud investigations is frightening for anyone on benefits. No matter how honest you’re being, no matter how well you follow the rules you become terrified. Any disgruntled neighbour, any former friend, everyone you know becomes a potential risk, a potential source of a leak to the DWP claiming you’re claiming fraudulently. Anything you put online, any brave face photo on facebook, any message to a friend could become ‘evidence’ against you, however patently false, made-up, or exaggerated. If you have a rare and exciting good day and are able to do slightly more than usual – watch out, you might be caught doing something you can’t normally do, and be accused of lying about being unable to do it. The DWP have used facebook photos of people smiling to claim they’re not in pain. I put a lot of work into being able to smile through overwhelming pain, and now that could be used against me. Things fluctuate for me at the moment. Admittedly the fluctuation is between having to use a bedpan and being able to get up and go to the toilet, between taking a week to write a post like this, and being able to do it in one day, between being able to have a half hour conversation and being able to chat for a couple of hours, but there are fluctuations. I’m caught in the bind between desperately wanting things to improve and being terrified in case I get caught able to do slightly more than I could when I applied for benefits. Admittedly at the moment I can do a lot less than when I applied, but that fear is still there. This is worsened by being a left-winger, having a stance that I know the government disagrees with. It makes me worry that at any point anyone I know and trust could be an undercover police officer.

The result is life in a panopticon. It’s always possible that the government might be observing me, so I always have to act as if I’m under observation. Despite knowing I’m doing nothing wrong I also know that the DWP has brought trumped up cases based on no evidence against people before, and I know that it might happen again, with me as the victim, so I have to constantly ensure that nothing I say or do could possibly give the wrong impression just in case. Life under constant potential monitoring is incredibly bad for my mental health. I no longer know what’s a realistic fear and what’s paranoia, I’m cautious about what I tell friends, and afraid of making new friends.

The scroungers rhetoric turns benefits from a right into a privilege. Rather than having the right to a decent life, and the money needed for that, despite being disabled, receiving benefits is a privilege. I feel like there’s a constant expectation that benefit claimants should be grateful to the tax payer for their survival, and afraid to spend money on things that aren’t necessary. You read suggestions about benefits being replaced by supermarket cards that prevent you spending money on certain things (as was trialled with asylum seekers in Birmingham), you read criticism of people on benefits for having nice things – mobile phones, televisions etc. The underlying message is that we must be ‘deserving’. We must be righteous, only spending money on approved purchases. We must be crawlingly grateful for the government for giving us them. They are a privilege that can be taken away (sanctions) if we don’t do what we’re told. The safety net turns out to have holes in. Survival is not a right. It’s horrendous for anyone who already has self-esteem issues, and would probably cause them in anyone who didn’t. People are treated as if disability and unemployment are our faults, as if the lack of full employment in society is because people didn’t want to work, when actually the number of unemployed people far outstrips the number of available jobs. Rather than a society where everyone is valued for their innate humanity, people are only valued for what they can do – and even then, only for what they can do economically, contributions to society in other ways don’t count. It’s a very sad situation.

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