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Universal Discredit

By De-Arrest Editorial Group, 7 September 2015

This arresting essay presents an in depth account of the so-called 'system-upgrade' of welfare reform in the UKplc: Universal Credit

Reposted from:


For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.


According to the British state, work no longer pays. The reason why it no longer pays is not that wages are too low or too high, that there are no jobs or not enough, or that there are too many people. Nor even is the claim always the one most well-handled by conservative minds joined up to their tabloid opposable thumbs, that welfare payments to individual claimants are prohibitively expensive. The reason why work no longer pays has (according to the British state) nothing to do with words like ‘high’ or ‘low’ and still less with their metonyms ‘rich’, ‘poor’, ‘proletarian’ and ‘bourgeois’, all of which are unpalatable terms best left to the dark ages that set in at around the time of the Norman invasions and lifted abruptly one afternoon in July 1994. For the British Conservative ‘modernisers’ who congealed into power in 2010, the reason why work no longer pays has nothing to do with issues of class at all. The problem was merely technical. On their account, the British welfare ‘system’ was outmoded. It was ‘perverse’, induced ‘mis-direction’, and encouraged ‘systematic abuse’.[1] Dismayed welfare consumers were bamboozled by the intricacies of welfare claim procedures in the manner of iPhone 5 users forced to adopt Atari 8800s while riding backwards on penny farthings. If there did remain nevertheless some few conscientious objectors still holding out against a much needed system-upgrade, it was evident that they were either troglodytes or nostalgists, gone-in-the-tooth hangers-on from an era in which dole offices still had queues instead of open-plan offices and ‘mining’ wasn’t yet something that you did on a computer in partnership with an auditing firm. No thinking person could resist the conclusion that what was needed was a root-and-branch debug, a rationalisation from top to bottom.

Back then it didn’t take long for the majority of influential opinion-reduplicators to fall into line with the particular rationalisation scheme that was being proposed. ‘It’s now hard to find a mainstream politician or thinker who isn’t in favour of the universal credit’, bowed and scraped some buffoon in the New Statesman on 9 November 2010.[2] The acknowledgement of former Labour Party Work and Pension Secretary James Purnell, that he too had been in favour of the change, only ‘deepens the consensus’. Great Britain needed a welfare system that was simpler, more modern and domesticated, and less likely to piss ‘wildly’ on the carpet of the national accounts. It was agreed that the conclusion was strictly unpolitical.

Five years later, in the middle of 2015, after many reports of catastrophic ‘IT errors’ and similar technical failures, critical commentators are beginning to become concerned. Mainstream politicians are no less persuaded of the bottomless depth of their agreement now that many thousands of working-class people have been forced to lie face down in six inches of it; but, among adversarial TV hosts, Guardian journalists, and policy researchers, a flicker of doubt can be detected. Is the technical simplification promised by the state being misused at the expense of working-class claimants? Might a slower pace of change have been preferable? Has a ‘good idea’ gone terribly wrong?[3]

The following text will adopt a different approach. It will show that the slogan of ‘making work pay’ has justified a deepening of state technologies for the intrusive involvement in working-class life that goes further than any other similar project since the widespread imposition of the payroll tax system in in the build-up to WWII;[4] that it has immensely enlarged the visibility of working-class life to state ‘information managers’; and that it has provided its police operatives with a great number of means of inducing hopelessness or anxiety that fall short of (but can therefore be more widely applied than) its traditional method of prudentially targeted terrorism. By advancing the automation of Active Labour Market Policies and the enforcement of jobsearch requirements, the policies that the slogan has been used to promote have diminished the marginal cost to the state of punitive deterrence.

The most prominent of these policies was the proposed introduction of a single, ‘simple’, ‘universal’ benefit, or Universal Credit. It is Universal Credit that is most often now arraigned as a technical failure, and in the following account of, respectively, its pre-history, its justification, and its actual main features I will show exactly why it has been a technical success, if not in the direction of ‘making work pay’ then in the direction of what can anyway be shown was the state’s intentions right from the start, which was to equip itself with the technical capacity to punish cheaply those who are not working enough.


1) 1999–2010: Simplifying Impoverishment


Of all of the resources of rhetorical evasion used to disinform the public as to the meaning of Universal Credit, probably the most important is the idea that Universal Credit is ‘a reform’. According to the high-water mark of current usage, if the state is not ‘reformed’, then it will inevitably lag behind, sag in the middle, undergo hair loss and deterioration of short-term memory, and in general cease to function in the manner in which its preternaturally juvenescent customers are entitled to expect. The unsubtle anthropomorphism of this position can be and in fact is fleshed out by the idea that the state does not only ‘require’ but actively ‘needs’ reform, on a scale of intensity that runs from ‘much’ through ‘urgent’ and which hits its provisional rock-bottom at ‘desperate’ (as in, this is a desperately needed reform) – a conveniently scalable falsehood that affords its user base of bureaucrats and PR minions a measure of rhetorical discretion in the concealment of just how many people with real needs the ‘reforms’ are likely to destroy. Meanwhile, the unsubtle brutality of the changes that are justified under this heading can be and in fact are carefully concealed by the fact that the deeply rooted linguistic opposition of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’ means that the first of those two words has acquired a patently misleading connotation of gentle moderation.

The Universal Credit ‘reform’ announced in November 2010 was conceived of as a means to bring to an end to what was in fact not what it was peremptorily asserted to be, a ‘chaos’, but in fact a fairly carefully designed two-track programme for the management of an increasingly redundant domestic working class. Despite the great cloud of ‘complexity’ in which these two tracks were said to be shrouded, so that explaining what they involved or why exactly they needed to be reformed was a hopeless task in which even the most prodigiously expert policy specialist was liable to disappear for years at a time, only to re-emerge naked and tied to a lamppost in the suburb at the end of Kafka’s The Trial, neither is especially difficult to describe. The first passed through a number of revolving doors joining the Job Centre to the prefab offices of several large private-sector ‘work training’ contractors, had at its centre the ‘Job Seeker’s Allowance’ programme that paid a weekly lump sum to claimants including the temporarily and long-term unemployed, and was increasingly designed to ‘activate’ claimants, which is to say to bully them either into accepting bad low-wage employment or into seeking help from other sources wherever this might be forthcoming.[5] By contrast, the second track involved the distribution of wage top-ups to workers in badly paid jobs and was meant to ease the transition towards an exploitative ‘services-based’ economy, in something like the way in which, two hundred years previously, the Speenhamland system of wage top-ups had eased several generations of agricultural workers into the furnaces of mid-nineteenth century industrial capitalism.[6] Its main programme was the system of Tax Credits that began to be expanded from the late nineties onwards and which a decade later was the single most expensive item in the UK welfare bill after state pensions;[7] and its functioning was to a certain extent conditional on steady rates of accumulation in the UK’s high-value added financial services industry.

For some time before the election of the Conservative-led government in 2010, state administrators had been meditating how to bring this increasingly expensive two-track programme to an end by amalgamating the second track with the first; or, in other words, by replacing a system of wage-incentives for highly exploited workers with a massively expanded system of disciplinary intervention and oversight. This undertaking involved considerable and expensive technical innovations and could not easily be introduced without some convenient pretext, since, as current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith himself never tires of stressing, there can be no mass programme of social impoverishment without a corresponding programme of mass deception. Thus no sooner had the new principle for managing the underemployed working class been settled upon than there sprang up out of its head like a particularly prolix boil a new vocabulary of bureaucratic mystification. In the last years of the New Labour administration, the key term of this vocabulary came to be ‘simplification’.[8] According to the term’s earliest promoters, distinct benefits systems for the disabled and for single parents (with distinct exemptions from onerous job-search ‘conditionalities’) lead to a system of greatly excessive ‘complexity’: a suboptimal and by evident implication feudal polity in which overlapping benefits, fraudulent claimants, and irrational incentives mount up into a single heap of social problems so patently retrograde that they would have made even Breughel the elder sick onto his canvas. The threatened removal of financial support from people with terminal cancer or exhausting child-care obligations is by this means reimagined as an act of indisputably beneficial ‘rationalisation’ on a par with the abolition of serfdom in Imperial Russia, an assertion that is itself ‘overlapped’ by the now familiar idea that benefits claimants are pursing unnatural, ‘perverse’ incentives and if observed closely enough will probably reveal themselves to be unwholesome sex offenders.

What this meant in practice can be analysed quite briefly. A ‘Benefit Simplification Unit’ was set up in the Department of Work and Pensions in December 2005 with a humble full-time staff of five civil servants and, after just eighteenth months of scrupulous nail-paring, cream-skimming, and chaff-sorting, issued forth its Simplification Guide to Best Practice, a sort of Idiot’s Guide for simplifiers and professional cognitive retrenchers. Between 2006 and 2007 a House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee met to discuss benefits simplification; and in 2007 a great clot of think tanks and ‘expert advisors’ was unfrozen into action, releasing into the streams of public policy debate a veritable dribble of ‘independent’ proposals and recommendations.[9]

The first humanly significant result of all of this high-level watercooler talk was Labour’s decision in 2008 to abolish Incapacity Benefit and to introduce in its place the new Employment Support Allowance. Incapacity Benefit had itself been introduced in 1995 to replace the Thatcher-era Invalidity Benefit – a benefit that had been relatively easy to sign up for because one of its express purposes was to keep down unemployment figures.[10] The scheme that superseded it in the mid-nineties had matched a piece of politically correct phrase-mongering[11] to a more punitive testing regime and an early exercise in the privatisation of assessments,[12] pump-priming the exquisite appetites of then relatively insignificant British public-sector outsourcing cannibals like Capita and Serco; but what it had not done was helpfully pre-digest those who according to its own criteria truly were victims of an ‘incapacity’ back into the unemployed more generally, by sifting them into discrete stomachs named work-ready, progression to work, and no conditionality. The Employment Support Allowance that came online in 2008 triumphantly introduced these sub-divisions into the disciplinary apparatus of ‘the sick’ like an emetic into the latter stages of a banquet. It promised a system that from now on would be equipped to ‘simplify’ the outrageously over-complex population of disabled citizens back into the shit jobs that state-sponsored medical practitioners declared to be the best-practice defence against psychiatric morbidity.[13] In a presage of things to come, the French multinational Atos was instructed to begin sorting ESA claimants under the new work headings,[14] a professor from the University of Bath was commissioned to write a report on ‘personalising’ the threats and demands used to ‘activate’ claimants,  and in 2009 the Welfare Reform Bill introduced a number of exaggeratedly punitive workfare stipulations intended to buy the support of voters who were preparing to switch their allegiance to the Tories.[15]

In spite of the murderous hatefulness of this first round of ‘simplifications’, at no point did it go so far as really to put in question the basic structure of the post-Thatcher welfare system outline above. In fact, all of the undertakings I have just described imply a trajectory of development: an indication of where the British welfare state might have gone if only the basic architecture of low-wage cash supplements and punitive workfare had been sustained. Somewhere towards the end of this trajectory, we would find the convergence of British welfare provision with the infamously stunted form that has grown up in the United States, which is to say that we would find the completed transformation of British welfare into a deeply punishing system of intrusive claimant management in which welfare recipients are responsibly bludgeoned into accepting their absolute and irreversible destitution. The pathos of such an outcome would be derived from the fact that the historical contingencies that prevented the emergence of a full system of social security in the US, including the aftereffects of agricultural slavery in the South, the weakness of the American executive branch, and the failure of the US working class to organise itself into an independent labour party – from the fact that these contingencies had finally been deprived of most of their influence, permitting other countries at last to catch up on the great ladder of state-administrative cruelty.[16]

But presently things look slightly different. Despite the fact that the ‘British leadership’ that President Obama thinks is so important for ‘the cause of human dignity’ presently finds itself at a historically low ebb,[17] in the domain of abusive high-tech welfare reform the UK state has clawed its way right back to the cutting edge. Its recent pursuits go beyond anything that can be identified in the US-style reforms introduced in Britain during the 2000s or indeed in the US welfare big bang of the 1990s, and they supply in graphic and lifeless detail an image of exactly what human ‘dignity’ means in a society in which the wealth that is accumulated by the ruling class is extracted from populations other than the one that it finds itself obligated to buy off, supervise, manage, degrade, demoralise, or kill, depending on the objective pressure of ‘external market constraints’ and the incalculable contingency of just how many people happen to be watching.



2) 2010–2015: Universal Discredit


The reason why things did not develop quite as they might have done has a great deal to do with the radicalisation of reform policies encouraged by the crisis beginning in 2008. Before 2008 state and ‘independent’ proposals for the benefits simplification focused on ‘integrating’ excessively numerous benefits, reducing complexity, increasing transparency, and in general on moving towards a system in which wage labour is institutionally encouraged, which in this case is a euphemism for imposed. Pre-crisis proposals for a single benefit like the ones presented in David Freud’s Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work (2007), the House of Commons Select Committee publication Benefits Simplification: Seventh Report of Session 2006–7, and the Institute for Public Policy Research’s One for All? (2007) share this irreproachable ambition with reports of the post-crisis period such as the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies’ Benefits Simplification: how and why it must be done (2009) and the Duncan Smith sponsored capstone produced by the Centre for Social Justice, Dynamic Benefits: Towards Welfare that Works (2009). But the pre-crisis and post-crisis reports are distinguished by the evidently more radical intentions of the latter, and the post-crisis reports are eclipsed in turn by the government White Paper of late 2010.

Like most revolutions from above, the first sign of the post-crisis radicalisation of state reform proposals was apparently perfectly innocuous. As the deadly pall of diminished expectations descended upon previously rude financiers, susceptible welfare specialists all at once came down with a new idea. All at once they began to notice that not only were claimants ‘confused’ by overcomplex benefits, but that they were also (and more deleteriously) trapped in them, so that simplification as it has been previously defined was no longer a sufficient remedy. More specifically, hundreds of thousands of British workers were understood to be unemployed simply because they face prohibitively high Marginal Rates of Taxation (MRTs).

This ‘realisation’ quickly led to a transformation of what benefits simplification could be taken to mean. Prior to the introduction into the UK policy ‘debate’ of the idea of benefit ‘traps’, discussions of benefits simplification had tended to be centred around one or another version of what was described by comment consent as a SWAB (Single Working-Age Benefit).[18] SWABs were held to possess the special virtue of eliminating ‘complex’ advantages that accrue to long-term claimants of disability-related benefits and thus of eliminating too the ‘perverse so-called incentive to be sick’,[19] a measure that was understood to be in the interests of underemployed state sub-contractors whose role is to simplify perverse so-called incentives by abolishing the sick themselves. But the SWAB proposal tended to leave various benefits untouched, including Working Tax Credits and Child Credits, both of which were core New Labour policies and in any case the only way state managers could conceive of keeping the low-wage ‘segment’ of the domestic labour market profitable for its favoured high-value entrepreneurs. Tax Credits were therefore immune from systematic ‘reform’ until certain conditions had been fulfilled, such as (a) a situation had arisen where the administration in power no longer felt obligated to justify them; (b) their cost had drifted upwards to the level at which they could be treated as a fiscal ‘problem area’;[20] and, more importantly, (c) ‘policy specialists’ had developed a defence of their abolition that could be framed opaquely in terms of the inefficiency of the benefit rather than in a way that, precisely because it was more truthful, was more likely to induce spasms of impetuous popular revulsion; for example, by means of the more truthful assertion the spectacle of organised mass suffering is reassuring to a global investor class.

Once the crisis and the subsequent surge of electoral support for the Tories had conveniently wrapped up points (a) and (b), point (c) appeared on the political landscape like a sinkhole opening up in the middle of a lawn. And it was into this ‘justification gap’ that policy experts now began to shovel their new idea. In the offices of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies it was suddenly discovered that Tax Credits ‘disincentivised’ wage labour. They did not provide, as state administrators had previously claimed that they provide, a reliable financial incentive to work over 16 or 30 hours per week, but, instead, they were the principal culprit in the creation of a ‘culture’ of voluntary unemployment. Because Tax Credits were responsible for high Marginal Taxation Rates (MTRs) for low-income workers, they were not the solution to the social problem of worklessness but, in fact, its most essential support – the loophole down which whole armies of workshy Alices were able to advance, day by day and hand in hand with their feckless NEET offspring, into the perennial Wonderland of Lifelong Benefits Dependency.

In the face of this irrationality, it was discovered, not even the most aggressively invasive ‘SWAB’ could hope to suffice. What was required was, instead, a truly ‘universal’ benefit – one that could absorb in-work tax credits as well as ‘jobseeker’s allowance’ and then spit out once and for all a single, ‘logical’ system of capitalist employment incentives. Since this new system should include Tax Credits, it would be called a Universal Credit, overriding all of the distinctions that had previously kept separate different kinds of state subsidy to the workless poor, low-wage workers, and high-profit employers. It would be based on a single ‘generous’ taper, abolishing the glitches that derived from the existing ‘patchwork system’, and most fundamentally it would annihilate the ‘intuition’, disastrously widespread among benefits claimants, that life on benefits might sometimes be preferable to life spent trapped directly under the thumb of a manager in capitalist retail.




These last few paragraphs represent a rough sketch of the ostensible rationale behind the radicalisation of the UK state welfare ‘reform’ project. The remainder of this text will restrict itself to making two comments on the rationale as stated. The first of these is, obviously enough, that it is a deception, or, more specifically, that it makes no sense to believe that the state had suddenly become concerned with the ‘plight’ of those groups of benefits recipients who faced (and who six years later still face) a high marginal rate of benefits withdrawal when moving into work. This can be seen, inter alia, from the way in which the designers of UC exaggerated its economic benefits, so as to make it appear as if the scheme would be compatible with long-term austerity. The fact that these exaggerations were tremendously clear from the outset, so that the realisation of the UC’s stated aim would be liable to increase rather decrease welfare expenditure, is, when seen in conjunction with the fact that welfare austerity was evidently non-negotiable, and that the scheme still attracted the state’s support – is at least one principal indication that the scheme had another, unstated purpose, which ‘simplification’ schemes of the pre-crisis period were unable to accommodate.

The second comment is about what this purpose might have been. It is, by now, a well-known fact that one of the innovations associated with Universal Credit is that not only the unemployed but also part-time workers (i.e., workers who in the past would have received Tax Credits) will be subjected to job search conditions ‘in exchange for’ the money that the state makes available to them. But it is less often recognised that this change could not have taken place without the state significantly reducing the administration costs involved in tracking workers’ earnings. The technical reforms necessary to reduce these costs could not easily have been justified otherwise than with reference to the need for a single, ‘rationalised’ system of benefits payments in which all claimants (including claimants of Tax Credits) are exposed to benefits withdrawal rates calculated in the same way; or, in other words, other than by means of the systematic exaggeration of the costs to the economy incurred as a result of irrational benefits ‘traps’. From this perspective, the extension of sanction ‘regimes’ to low-wage workers is not a side effect of but the principal aim of Universal Credit, the extensiveness or ‘radicalism’ of which has almost nothing to do with ‘reforming’ marginal withdrawal rates in the interests of targeted groups of claimants (an aim which could have been achieved by other means, and which is in any case now being abandoned),[21] but which was in fact the only way to justify, publicly and without any show of embarrassment, the implementation of a deeper transformation: not a ‘reform’ but, instead, a genuine historical revolution in the marginal costs to the state of administrative intrusion, surveillance, abuse, and permanent, low-intensity civil war from above.


(i) Lips Moving in a Basket


The idea that Universal Credit was needed in order to ‘make work pay’ was reliant on the contention that the system that it replaced did not do so. When Duncan Smith first advertised his new project in 2011, he spoke touchingly of his sorrow at the thought of the hundreds of thousands of British ‘households’ that according to his own research had become ‘trapped’ in the British benefits systems. Before the words had even yet finished weeping out of his loudspeaker, journalist supporters had fallen upon the metaphor, renditioned it into their weekly columns, and subjected it to their enhanced interrogation techniques.[22] For the majority of salaried British copywriters, nothing could be worse than the idea of decent, upstanding, proudly British working people made into prisoners in their own bank accounts by the actions of disreputable and ideologically-motivated characters with names like ‘Housing Benefit’, ‘Working Tax Credit’ or ‘Income Support’. ‘Making work pay’ meant tracking down these programmes and extracting from them a confession, denouncing whoever was responsible for smuggling them into the legislature, and sentencing the relevant offenders to be hung, drawn, reset, renamed, out-sourced, means-tested, or quartered, depending  on the percentage of claimants who turn out to be war veterans and the opinions of the patriotic British Landlords Association.

In the midst of this epic theatre of belt-tightening, it was not always easy to remember that new measures were being implemented, unless of course you were one of the people selected to be coerced onto their trial programmes, in which case it was illegal to forget. What was Universal Credit? On the state’s own account, it was a system of calculation, applicable to all benefits claimants, that would (a) estimate the claimant’s entitlement to benefits, and (b) establish a rule for the removal of these benefits as the claimant ‘moves into work’ so as to ensure that the rate of removal does not under any circumstances discourage the claimant from accepting employment. This was all that it was. The most detailed of the reports to set out a ‘design’ for the programme, which, unsurprisingly, is the report published by Duncan Smith’s own think tank in the year before the 2010 election, elegantly ignores such delicate questions as the identity of potential financial ‘losers’ from the scheme, the IT-structures required for its implementation, and, most expressively of all, the nature of the punishments and ‘sanctions’ that would serve as its main prop on the supply-side.[23]

The main claim of the CSJ report was that the benefits system should be made ‘dynamic’, ideally with a ‘dynamic benefits model’, the details of which could be transposed from the famously dynamic ‘private sector’.[24] In practice this meant two things. Firstly, the CSJ sought sponsorship from Oliver Wyman, the management consultancy that in 2005 was responsible for advising the senior management of Citibank to increase their holdings of collateralized debt obligations.[25] This was hardly a coup, since Stephen Brien, the researcher in control of the ‘Dynamic Benefits’ project, was a director at Oliver Wyman and had held this position since 1997. Having ensured their private-sector credentials, the CSJ then set about constructing its model, the objective of which was, as Brien wrote, to allow its creators to ‘understand how the welfare system “looks” or “feels” to the claimant and – crucially – how they are likely to alter their behaviour in response to changes in the system’ (p. 35). By ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ Brien did not mean that the ‘model’ would actually involve stipulating ways of speaking to claimants about their experience. The CSJ had no further interest in what claimants had to say, since they had already conducted two or perhaps even three focus groups with benefit recipients and thus had accumulated more than enough information to nail down the opinions of these test subjects in a number of discrete information boxes. What the authors of the report wanted to do instead was to find a way of distilling into a formula the effects of benefits payments on claimant decisions about whether or not to take work, or, in other words, of modelling what were assumed to be claimant ‘choices’. This led them to model the effects of changes in Marginal Taxation Rates on employment by transposing into welfare policy a microeconomic theory of consumer choice, in which benefit claimants are dressed up as consumers, and ‘jobs’ are mystified into a generic good the supply of which is always equal to consumer demand.[26] The choice of a claimant-consumer of whether or not to buy a job using the one currency that could plausibly be made available to her is determined by an ‘elasticity function’ the exact value of which is simply assumed,[27] but which in any case treats the level of employment as something determined by ‘decisions’ made by the unemployed in view of the prevailing wage levels.

In its conventional application in the field of labour economics, this line of reasoning is used to determine the labour ‘supply’. Whether there is employer demand for the labour that workers are willing to provide is something that is not conventionally addressed in theory, so that when, for example, a similar methodology had been used by the Institute of Fiscal Studies to justify another, more modest tax and benefits reform proposal in 2008, no one made any overbearingly precise estimates about likely changes in levels of unemployment. Nor was it assumed that the IFS proposal would save the state money. The idea instead was that the tax and benefits system could be reformed in order to increase the total amount of money redistributed as well as the incentives for lower-income workers to move into work without significantly affecting overall national income.[28] The claim by the Centre for Social Justice that its proposal would induce 600,000 people to move into work by tweaking their incentive structures and save £700 million per year in the welfare bill[29] was therefore a fanciful extrapolation from a theory which even its own most ardent defenders would typically admit is unsuitable for estimating employment ‘effects’.[30]

This result may not in itself constitute a surprise. But the reason why it is important to present this analysis, to insist on the stupidity of the claim that Universal Credit would ‘make work pay’ for everybody, is that the claim was absolutely essential to the idea that Universal Credit was not an austerity project. All of the elaborate econometric ‘projections’ of massively expanding levels of employment with static state expenditure, the dynamic calculations of behavioural elasticity, and the taper rate infographics tastefully done up in reassuring baby blue, were in the end merely variations on this single theme: that it simply wouldn’t matter that UC provided the state with greatly expanded powers of oversight and intervention, or that its degree of system integration would make Bentham’s Panopticon seem like an underground sensory deprivation chamber by comparison; and that the reason why it wouldn’t matter was that the ‘optimisation’ effects created by the new work-incentive system would mean that any punitive potential implied by the UC reform programme would never have to be realised. The ‘theme’ was a lie from top to bottom, unconvincing even to the people who designed the ‘models’ that the Centre for Social Justice put to use. No one ever honestly believed that the state’s targets for getting people off benefits could be achieved simply by modernising taxation schedules; but they may very truly have believed that the technologies that were required for this modernisation might also serve the purpose of dramatically lowering the costs of bureaucratic intimidation. The emphasis on ends at the expense of means was simply a matter of convenience. Critics of the programme could be left to bicker unendingly about the likely cost savings right up until the moment when its blade dropped down and sliced off their head. Even now in the basket you can still just about see their lips moving.   


(ii) Terror at the Margin


In December 2013, the UK government Digital Transformation Project released its own three-minute video about the real purposes of Universal Credit.[31] The video appears on its Youtube channel and to the warm and only moderately stupefying accompaniment of a piece of synthetic lift music depicts the Universal Credit online interface being operated on PCs, iPhones, and a generic white CGI smartphone that hovers over a solid plane of CGI grey. A male voice of reassuringly middle-class idiomaticity narrates the Universal Credit USP. ‘Universal Credit is a single monthly payment that responds to claimants’ earnings, ensuring that they will always be better off in work’, it says, caringly, as if in anticipation of the objection that earnings are at high risk of abandonment, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, monophobia, and other psychic diseases illnesses localised in the two almond-shaped masses of neurons known as the amygdala. The software, the voiceover goes on, continuing its stop-gap psychotherapeutic dissertation – the software includes a ‘journal’, which, because it is accessible to both claimants and advisers, as well (presumably) as the managers of advisers and their efficiency-minded auditors, will encourage DWP parole officers to express their passions uninhibitedly, to offer their ‘clients’ intimate ‘encouragement’, and in general to intrude on them whenever they see fit. By this means the Jobcentre Plus ‘service’ will be expansively inflated into the ‘real time’ that claimants might previously thought of as their own. These same claimants will be presented with to-do lists each time they log into their phone, made fluently trackable, and assigned personal risk ‘ratings’ depending on how much money they happen to be claiming. ‘The digital element provides a single, simple, and secure way for agents and claimants to manage whatever they need to do’, concludes the voice.

Videos like this one disclose just what the consolidation of UK welfare programmes under the sign of ‘simplification’ has meant. Only by means of the establishment of a ‘single’, ‘universal’ benefit did it become possible in principle to subject all benefits claimants no matter what their earnings or life circumstances to this form of surveillance and management. Without this prior labour of consolidation, propaganda-advertisements like the one just described would be nothing but that: the merest dystopias of automated social control; a technocrat’s wish fulfilment fantasy cut adrift from the means of its social realisation. For no other reason was it necessary for the state to impose an equivalence between, on the one hand, helping people whose benefits financially discouraged them from entering into wage labour, and, on the other, the introduction of a single system of benefits. The assertion of this identity was merely a means to a goal that had for strategic reasons to remain unstated.

This point can be demonstrated technically, by means of a brief explanation of why the goal of generalised surveillance relies on the existence of a single benefit. In the British benefits system now being replaced, Job Seeker’s Allowance (for which payments are estimated on the basis of numbers of hours worked per fortnight, so that earnings information must be collected on a fortnightly basis) is cancelled once a claimant is working more than sixteen hours. The main reason for this is that were it not to be cancelled, the administrative costs of the scheme would grow at a rate disproportionate to the amount of money that it distributes. The existence of a separate scheme for the distribution of money to workers in low-wage or part-time work (Working Tax Credits) is the expression of the need to avoid a system that involves the regular (labour-intensive) monitoring of claimants’ earnings: Working Tax Credit is estimated on the basis of claimant income during the tax year prior to the one in which the benefit is paid out. JSA defined as a particular system of monitoring is therefore in administrative terms the taser to WTC’s more touchingly benign tear gas; but JSA could never have been massively expanded to encompass all claimants without first massively decreasing the costs to the state of collecting and calculating the effects of fluctuations in claimant earnings.

In other words: no attempt could have been made to move all claimants onto a single benefit with the same log-in screen, ‘to-do list’, risk-algorithm and digital sanctions regime without first of all knowing just how little money their exploiters were each month transferring into claimant accounts. The creation of the technical capacity to monitor claimant incomes was itself a significant technical and political task, which could not have been easily justified on the grounds that the state wished to make it easier for itself to issue threats to the recipients of in-work benefits. And all of this provides a better basis on which to interpret the sudden ‘discovery’ of policy advisors in the immediate post-crisis period. Their discovery – that the benefits system was riddled with ‘traps’, and that the only sensible way to ‘make work pay’ would be the introduction of a single, ‘universal’ benefit – this discovery established the grounds on which the state could pursue a technical overhaul the purpose of which was:

(i) to lower the costs of data collection on claimants and by this means

(ii) to facilitate a massive de facto expansion of the most intrusive of the British welfare programmes (JSA).

Put differently, the insistence that the main problem of the welfare system was benefit ‘traps’, and that these could only be dealt with by the introduction of a universal benefit, has meant that this process which has precisely nothing to do with the interests of impoverished people could be carried out with as if it were the purest outflow of moral philanthropy, with the explicit support of a veritable carnival parade of bourgeois interests: a procession of liars and hypocrites that extends from the functionaries of all major British political parties through to the international coordinators of exploitative best practice like the OECD, and which has at its rear the highest-circulation ‘liberal’ British news media, the flocks of courtiers now redeployed to academic sociology departments, and, inevitably, the professional mis-representatives of working-class interests now morally dehydrogenated and enthroned in the deepest and most impenetrable crypt of the British Trades Union Congress mausoleum.[32] Genuinely heroic and stubborn resistance carried out by a small number of activist groups has not been sufficient to expose the Centre for Social Justice’s ‘idea’ for the pretext that it is, under whose fucking idiotic sign all of the very significant technical work required to ramp up the practice of state surveillance and harassment has come to be treated as the direct equivalent to the introduction of the National Health Service or the universal franchise.[33]

Step-by-step the process has been carried forwards by a great number of government departments, giving the lie to the comforting rumour that the Department of Work and Pensions is full of isolated mavericks and that their project does not correspond to the larger interests of the state. Ramming the infrastructure into place for a single system of ‘generous’ work-incentives has meant first of all reducing the administration costs of ‘real time’ estimation of earnings, substituting out the faux frais of ‘manual’ staff data entry in a systematic drive towards the consultancy-firm nirvana of absolute automaticity. This technical challenge was initiated in early 2011 by the Tax Office (HMRC) and by the middle of 2013 had been so radically successful that it was even widely believed to have been delivered ‘on time’.[34] Once up and running, nothing prevented the system from being used to ‘equivalise’ in-work and under-employed claimants by eradicating the dual-system approach to the monitoring of their earnings, which, obviously enough, was essential to the creation of a single, ‘simplified’ benefit.[35] Precipitously the surveillance costs fell away in a manner not seen in the West since the market price of consumer electronics was revolutionised by the outsourcing of their production to destitute Chinese peasants. Instantly the impact assessments acquired a new tone of threatening prophecy. In a policy briefing note published by the DWP in 2011, a ‘new conditionality threshold was announced’.[36]




None of these considerations prove that the cipher named Iain Duncan Smith definitely understood in advance that the main feature of Universal Credit would be the technological basis it would provide for the automation of administrative punishment. Future biographers will perhaps weep bitterly over this fact. But what we can say more definitely is this. In the logical development of capitalist irrationality of which the recent fate of the British economy provides a kind of colourful diagram, the pressures of the world market have made various kinds of ‘reform’ urgently necessary. In the late 1970s and 80s, there was the ‘reform’ of national industry, necessary to ensure the strength of the British pound and the continued influx of capital into the domestic financial system. In the 1990s, there was the ‘reform’ of welfare arrangements, necessary firstly to ‘activate’ that portion of the population that had been made redundant by changes in the preceding stage, and then to subsidise and to ensure the relative passivity of workers in the new labour-intensive British industry of customer services and retail. Universal Credit was proposed in our own period as a means to ‘reform’ some of the anomalous effects to which, by virtue of their reactiveness, these earlier reforms had given rise. It was a kind of domesticated negation of the negation, a visionary modernisation programme with all of the nasty conflicts pre-emptively edited out for the benefit of sensitive readers. The reason why it didn’t work was not that it was ‘miscalculated’ or ‘technically overambitious’ but that it was not urgently necessary. The representatives of the world market in the 2010s were not interested in the ‘anomalies’ that had been introduced in the attempt to lubricate the process of deindustrialisation (Marginal Taxation Rates, welfare ‘traps’, et al.), but in the now ‘unaffordable’ means of amelioration themselves;[37] and it’s because of this greater urgency that, before it had even finished its trial run or outlived the first hot flush of its administrative youth, Universal Credit had been reduced to nothing but the discursive sheath for an altogether different kind of process.

The weapon outwears its reform. A reasonable question that may have occurred to anyone reading this text is the question of how this weapon may now be resisted, or what has already been done to resist it; or even how this programme is related to the many other, better understood reforms that have already led to so much human misery. As I write, the new capacities of the state for managing the consequences of massive withdrawal of the social wage have not yet been fully tested.[38] Tens of thousands of people are now being shunted onto the new system, the degree of functionality of which continues to be a matter of significant dispute. The rate at which cuts to the benefits of low-wage workers will be implemented is unclear, as are, for similar reasons, the statistics concerning the number of claimants whose benefits have already have been cut and who have responded by committing suicide. And yet despite these many issues still undetermined, in the long term things seem relatively simple. In the long term it will not be enough for the state to continue to solicit for its ‘reforms’ the support of those who are susceptible to the idea that work should pay (because in their own lives it always has), because in the long term more and more people will come to know from direct experience that in our society, in which the ‘margin’ of the redundant, the supernumerary and the unemployable is perpetually growing – that in our society the greatest technical advances do not exist to ‘make work pay’ but, on the contrary, for no other reason than to ensure that the destitute, the marginal, and the downwardly mobile are made to carry out so many needless and demeaning tasks, to comply with so many pointless imperatives, and to perform so many unremunerative and deadening chores that in the end they find themselves too exhausted to do anything about it.

Between the undesirable because ‘destabilising’ options of bankruptcy and top-down terrorism, schemes such as Universal Credit press into the field of vision of state managers as a ready and easy third way. Unlike the ‘third way’ of the mid-1990s, this new golden mean does not promise to lead to the inauguration of the pleasure dome circumspectly renamed as the ‘social market’ but instead more directly to a furnace, into which all of the human energies that cannot be disposed of by ‘social’ investment may be harmlessly shovelled and burnt up. The queue of those who are told that they have to wait for their turn to be ‘integrated’ in this furnace is now longer than it has ever been; it stretches from one end of our class system to the other, from the furthest margins of proletarian society right into the centre of the waged working (‘middle’) class. Its participants arrive in their current predicament having a great diversity of personal experiences, and they observe their destination from a great diversity of angles and distances. The state takes heart from this, as it has always done. But the fact remains that no differences of perspective, no slight augmentations of or reductions to the length of the queue, no subtle revisions to the speed at which it moves or to the temperature at which its destination burns – that no point of detail and no amount of ‘debate’ no matter how sickeningly healthy will suffice to justify the idea that if only we look at it closely enough in the right light or with exactly the most appropriate degree of shade – that a furnace whose role is to waste people’s life for no reason could ever be made to look even for a second like a ‘compromise’.



[1] ‘Extra Cuts in Welfare Spending Loom’, The Financial Times, 23 June 2010, available at: <

[2] See < Purnell’s successor in the Ed Miliband shadow cabinet was similarly keen to stress the width of his support: ‘I’m broadly supportive of a system that could be easier for people to understand and offer better rewards to work’ <

[3] See e.g. Charlotte Jee, ‘Universal Credit: the anatomy of a government failure’, New Statesman, 11 April 2014: ‘It all started so well’. It did not.

[4] This transformation was achieved in several stages under the duress of wartime ‘national unity’ and had the effect of subsuming the majority of the waged working class into the British tax system. Previous attempts to tax the income of wage workers had been undermined by massive obdurate non-payment.

[5] The best account of the introduction of JSA remains the Aufheben text ‘Dole Autonomy vs. the Re-imposition of Work’, which is available on the Libcom website along with some updates and brief comments on contemporary developments in the US: <

[6] Some relevant discussion of the relationship between the UK growth model and rising living costs are presented in a discussion paper by the Angry Workers of the World, ‘Meeting on Crisis and Class Struggle in the UK’: <

[7] An account of Tax Credits is in William Davies, ‘Tax Credits: the success and the failure’, Prospect Magazine, June 2007; most but not all of the article can be read at: < Stats on costs have been compiled by The Guardian: <

[8] As a piece of flexible double-speak whose exact sense was always index-linked to the trials and tribulations of the total national capital, the phraseology of benefits ‘simplification’ afforded several advantages to its bureaucrat users, although undoubtedly the most significant of these was that it permitted what was in essence an attempt forcibly to separate the long-term unemployed from their benefits as a process that had in fact been conceived in their interests: as a means of diminishing the degree of cognitively taxing ‘complexity’ to which they were exposed.

[9] See Benefits simplification: seventh report of session 2006–7, vol. 1, p. 7. Simulated concern at the prospect of overtaxing claimants’ mental capacities has long been used to justify underpaying them. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage, 1993) contains an account of how state relief officials in Mississippi in the 1960s justified their refusal to distribute to claimants important information detailing eligibility on the grounds that the welfare manuals that contained this information were too long and would cause in claimants feelings of intense anxiety or confusion (p. 207). The DWP can of course argue in its defence that the Mississippi welfare manuals came to a paltry nine volumes, while the DWP’s online ‘Decision-Maker’s Guide’ amounts to a total of fourteen. How bad can being gradually starved to death really be?

[10] This latter point is endorsed unequivocally in the news journalism of the period. See e.g. ‘Disability Tests Fail to Net Savings’, The Guardian, 29 December 1995.

[11] The assumption is that it is less hurtful to one’s feelings to be classified as lacking a ‘capacity’ than as lacking ‘validity’. The state cares about ‘feelings’, which in its view are categorically dissociated from ‘sensations’ and indeed from any human experiences that might at some level be connected to the stomach, the brain, or to any other organ that can only be placated by inputs that possess a real market value.

[12] ‘Assessment of Disability Claims to be Privatised’, The Guardian, 13 December 1995.

[13] Waddell and Burton, Is Work Good For Your Health and Well-Being?, London: Tso, 2006, p. viii.

[14] Asos tests were a cruel and abusive process that would only become unmitigatedly terroristic when the contractor was instructed by the Department of Work and Pensions in 2010 to increase the number of claimants tested and the proportion of claimants who failed. The company was a primary target of disability rights and anti-workfare activists, who in 2014 succeeded in forcing it to withdraw from the contract.

[15] An overview is provided by Nicola Barker and Sarah Lamble, ‘From Social Security to Individual Responsibility: Sanctions, Conditionality, and Punitiveness in the Welfare Reform Bill 2009 (Part One), Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 31, 3 (2009), 321–32.

[16] Piven and Cloward, Regulating the Poor, pp. 422–8.

[17] CNN, ‘Obama Makes Case for “Essential” Western Leadership’, 25 May 2011, available at: <

[18] SWAB is an acronym so obviously redolent of state penal aggression that its selection is already an overwhelming proof of the absolute immunity of policy ‘designers’ to the human implications of the policies that they design.

[19] Institute for Public Policy Research, One for All? (London: ippr, 2007), p. 6. One of the ippr’s ‘project partners’ was A4e.

[20] That this attempt to manage the dynamics of a historical transformation of domestic capitalist accumulation was affected by the crisis can be easily conceived by looking at the statistics for the increasing cost of tax credits to the state. As a result of the expansion of the programme detailed above, the total cost of tax credits roughly doubled between the year 2002–3 and the year 2003–4, from £6.6 to £14 billion. By 2006 this cost had risen to £18.7 billion, only then to rise by a further £12 billion in the six years that followed. See Department of Work and Pensions [UK], ‘Tax Credit Expenditure in Great Britain’, October 2013: <

[21] This has been glaringly obvious since early 2014. See ‘Cuts May Undermine Work Incentives in Universal Credit’, The Guardian, 17 June 2014: < Early admissions can be dated to 2011: ‘Incentive to Work has Been Cut, Says Iain Duncan Smith’, The Telegraph, 5 December 2011 <

[22] An instance of bourgeois self-satisfaction so intense that it seems almost psychotic are the first paragraphs of Jenny McCartney, ‘Iain Duncan Smith Aims to Dismantle the Benefits Trap’, The Telegraph, 31 July 2010: <

[23] Stephen Brien, presiding oaf of the CSJ report, makes this point particularly clear in the Oral Evidence submitted in the House of Commons work and Pensions Committee in response to the Universal Credit White Paper: ‘If you’re willing to spend the money that we proposed – I mean we set out a design at the CSJ that deliberately set out to have no losers, and accepted the costs of that in order to put something down on the table so that the debate could focus on the principles and the costs rather than the winners and losers’. See White Paper on Universal Credit: Oral and written evidence, 26 January and 9 February 2011 (London: House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee), p. 5. It is conventional for people like Brien to think that ‘principles’ are something that is determined only after the problem of winners and losers has been resolved at the level of mathematical abstraction.

[24] All cited quotes, lies and manipulations stripped directly from Centre for Social Justice, ‘Dynamic Benefits: Towards Welfare that Works’. Available at: <

[25] Financial Times, ‘Spotlight falls on the role of consultancies’, 8 April 2010, available at: <

[26] The theory is in fact not at all original and has been a subject of dispute in neoclassical economics since at least the late 1920s, when the relationship between welfare provision and labour supply was first beginning to impress itself on bourgeois economists as a significant problem. The defenders of the theory’s modern variant might pose an objection to the effect that it does not assume that workers ‘purchase’ jobs, but only that they balance their preferences for ‘leisure goods’ against their preferences for ‘consumption goods’. But the immediate retort to this argument is that it involves importing into the theory an arbitrary assumption (that all people choose freely to work for no reason but to access means of consumption) for no other purpose than to conceal an absurdity of which the operators of the theory are secretly ashamed.

[27] The authors of the CSJ report rely for their information on elasticities on the work of an employee of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Stuart Adam; see his ‘Measuring the Marginal Efficiency Cost of Redistribution in the UK’. Adam is himself sceptical about the possibility of precisely measuring elasticity (though evidently not sceptical of the concept itself) and relies for empirical information on the work of a number of other authors, all of whom are cited in the paper.

[28] Brewer, Saez, Shephard, ‘Means-testing and Tax Rates on Earnings’ [2008], available at: <>.

[29] Centre for Social Justice, ‘Dynamic Benefits: Towards Welfare that Works’, p. 30. The estimation of total savings includes (for example) estimations of reduced ‘policing costs’ due to improved overall rates of employment.

[30] The greater or lesser sophistication of models that estimate the effects of welfare provision on what are called ‘income and earnings elasticities’ for low-income workers (i.e., the tendency of the poor to ‘choose’ to withhold their labour) extends to the inclusion of additional parameters that ‘model for’ non-earned income (savings), the ‘transactions costs’ of staying on welfare, and ‘structural error’ arising from – for example – the effects on preferences implied by the different skill-levels achieved by different groups of low-income workers. The assumption remains that labour supply can be estimated on the basis of an analysis of the influence of tax and welfare programmes on groups of individuals who withhold their labour only to a degree that they themselves choose, on the basis of their ‘preferences’.

[31] The video can be watched at: <

[32] For the broad and deep support offered by The Guardian, see the editorial ‘The Guardian view on universal credit: needs more work’, The Guardian, 7 June 2015. For the TUC, see Work and Pensions Select Committee, White Paper on Universal Credit, Session 2010–11, 1.1, Written Evidence Submitted by the Trade Union Congress: ‘The TUC is strongly in favour of benefit simplification and recognise that the Universal Credit, by reducing the complexity of the benefit and Tax Credit systems may help people move into work’ (available at: <

[33] Resistance to Universal Credit has been carried out on a small-scale with exceptional resolve by groups based in the areas in which it has been trialled. An important source of information is <>, which focuses on Ashton under Lyne, near Liverpool. A long list of activist groups and claimant advice initiatives is available on the excellent Johnny Void blog: <

[34] By the end of the year, according to the relevant reports by the National Audit Office, the HMRC had no further obligations but to conduct a bureaucratic mop-up operation against a rag-tag force of ‘family businesses’ whose failure to comply could predominantly be put down to computer illiteracy.

[35] It might be objected here that it would have been possible for the state to require claimants of in-work benefits to update the state as and when their working hours and earnings changed, and that this would have allowed conditionalities to be imposed without ‘real-time’ collection via the collaboration of employers. But any measure of this kind would only have encouraged workers to avoid providing updates, with the result that the state would have been obligated either to cancel the requirement or to institute exactly the expensive ‘manual’ surveillance programmes the need for which the real-time PAYE system overthrows.

[36] Initial reference was mainly to single mothers whose partners were in part-time work; but by 2013 it was obvious that  ‘conditionality  will apply  to  two  groups  of  UC  recipients  who  currently  face  no  forms  of  conditionality:  some part-time workers will face obligations to seek better-paid or longer-hours work, and some non-working  adults  whose  partners  are  in  low-paid  work  will  face  obligations  to  look  for work’. See Mike Brewer and Paola De Agostini, ‘The National Minimum Wage and its Interaction with the Tax and Benefits System: a Focus on Universal Credit’, February 2013, available at: <

[37] In its 2014 report on British ‘activation’ policies, the OECD worried that the evidentiary basis for the effectiveness of conditionality in the context of work programmes remained fairly inconclusive. It goes on to complain that the UK possesses a much too generous system of in-work benefits and recommends that these be replaced by a new regime of – conditionality. See OECD, Connecting People with Jobs [sic]: Activation Policies in the United Kingdom, available to be sneered at: <

[38] Though this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the weapon won’t soon be exported to other states. On this point, see SKYA, ‘Workfare politics: unemployment and class struggles in Greece’, available at <, which details the post-2011 implementation in Greece of policies that seem identical or near-identical to those imposed in the UK by New Labour during the late 1990s.