Monday, August 14, 2006

The State Bureaucracy

As a part time student I am eligible for 'Jobseekers' Allowance' (JSA). I am a self-financing student (meaning that I pay my own fees and pay my own way and so on). For the first time in my life I decided to apply for JSA over summer since, obviously, university teaching and school supply teaching dries up at this time. I have work lined up to start in September and October, and I have applied for jobs over the summer - only there seem to be few suitable employers about who want to employ me for two months only. I applied for JSA about 9 or 10 weeks ago now, and I am still flipping well waiting for a decision. The application has bounced back several times - I have been asked to fill in sections I was told not to fill in initially, have had to go backwards and forwards with various proofs and documents, and had to fill in extra forms which have been sent to me weeks and weeks after the first application was handed in. It is getting extremely annoying. Every time I go in to the Job Centre and ask what is happening, nobody seems to know - or they tell me to 'phone this number'.

Of course, I still have to turn up to sign on every two weeks - as part of the 'contractual agreement' between me and the state. Every time I go in, I have pointed out that the state has been failing to keep to its part of the contract, since it hasn't been providing me with JSA - even though I have to keep my side of the bargain.

I made the mistake, today, in my signing on meeting, of letting it slip that I was going away for a few days. To my immense annoyance (I nearly flipped), I was immediately handed a 'going away form', in which I had to account for my whereabouts and my availability for work and so on. I don't know why they don't just put an electronic tag on my ankle - it would save everyone an awful lot of paperwork.

The reason I was so annoyed is that I'm going away because I have completely run out of money - I cannot afford to live at the moment. I am going to stay with my parents so that I can get free food, essentially. The reason I have to go away, in other words, is because I don't have a job and because I am still bloody well waiting for JSA to come through. This makes no difference to the form-filling-in procedure. My absence is officially classed as 'a holiday' - this is about the most annoying thing that has happened to me in a long time. I am having to go away, in part, because the JSA application procedure has taken so long, and now I am having to account for my going away in terms that imply that I'm going away because I am a bad and irresponsible person. To cap it all I have to have a meeting scheduled for when I return to York, so that 'I can account for my absence'.

The other annoying thing about this is that my application for council tax benefit cannot be completed until I hear back about whether or not I get JSA. So one council department will not process their paperwork until another department finally gets around to deciding whether or not I am eligible for the 'safety net' of the JSA - a fucking 'shit safety' net if it takes over two months and counting for the buggers to unfurl it.

I didn't used to believe those stories I heard about 'state inefficiency' and the alienating, humiliating nature of the benefit claims process. Sadly, a lot of it seems to be true. I should say that, without exception, the council staff (who by all accounts are not well paid) have been friendly and sympathetic - it's the form filling, grindingly slow, impersonal bureacratic process which is at fault.

Of course, hostility to state bureaucracy is most often associated with the Thatcherite Right - those who want/wanted to 'roll back the state' and 'liberate the individual'. It's worth remembering, by the way, that the state actually grew vastly under the Thatcher regime - so much for their 'crusade' against 'red tape'. They weren't interested so much in humanising the state as much as they were in reducing benefits, humiliating claimants still further, beating down organised labour as brutally as possible, subsidising the rich and expanding the police and military sector (oddly, never classed as an 'inefficient' state bureaucracy - never chided for 'draining the public purse' or wasting 'tax-payers' money'). Hilary Wainwright often points out that the New Right's anti-bureaucracy rhetoric - its (false and cynical) championing of liberation and freedom from the stultifying coils of the state (what they wanted was 'freedom' for the rich and for business not to pay their share back into the 'public purse') was stolen from the New Left of the 60s and 70s. It was the socialist, student and feminist movements of the New Left which pioneered criticism of the top-down, centralist, unresponsive, alienating state. It was the New Left who first tried to create a new relationship between state and citizen - who first tried to devolve power to the citizenry, to front line state employees and to dissolve bureaucratic hierarchies in the state apparatus. It was the Left - like the Left administration in Livingstone's GLC in the 1980s and in the municipal government of 'Red Bologne' for example - who wanted to democratise the state, devolve decision making and adminsitrative power to the ordinary staff and to the communities which those administrations were supposed to serve. In the case of the GLC, of course, all of this good work was smashed by Thatcher, who couldn't afford to let the good idea of municipal socialism spread. Local government across the country in fact, was more or less smashed by the Thatcher regime - power was ruthlessly centralised.

I can't think there are many people on the Left now - apart from a few scary old Stalinists perhaps, or a few ultra-Fabian Social Democrats - who think that everything is hunky dory with top down, centralised state bureaucracy. It's the centre-left, the centre and the centre-right, now, who champion the faceless, centralised, unresponsive state - who run a mile from any real plans to democratise power. There' s no shortage of rhetoric of course - the ritual daily attacks on 'red tape' from New Labour and the Tories continue (whether in the form of thuggish threats from the sinister Dr Reid, or the more 'touchy feely', overly sincere ham-acting of Cameron) - but none of the major parties really want to devolve power. The drive to 'modernise the state' for all of these parties, is a drive, not to break down the barriers and the hierarchies, but the drive to cut costs and the drive to offload responsibility for state processes away from parliament and elected officials. The fanatical consensus at the moment - the political zeal for the (part) privatisation and 'marketisation' of sections of the state, for the bringing in of managers from private industry and carpet bagging 'consultants' and so on, has very little to do with democratic accountability or 'responsiveness'. The neo-liberal state is perhaps one of the most unaccountable, centralised and 'unresponsive' state orders that the modern West has experienced. The introduction of 'market discipline' has done more to remove the state from democratic accountability than anything else - is doing more to centralise power at the apex of (public/private) hierarchies than any Fabian central planner ever dared to dream possible.

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