Are we part of a rigged system?

Danny Taggart watches I, Daniel Blake, from Director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty.

Like many of British Director Ken Loach’s previous films, going back to his debut Cathy Come Home made over 50 years ago, I, Daniel Blake offers a dramatically grounded social realist commentary on issues affecting British society. His first film tackled the threat of homelessness for many in post-war Britain, and led to the establishment of the charity Shelter; I, Daniel Blake considers the contemporary subject of welfare reform, the benefits system, and in particular the use of sanctions to change claimant behaviour.

The film was meticulously researched, with the filmmakers and actors travelling round the UK talking with people on different sides of the benefits system, including claimants and job centre staff. Like much of Loach’s work, the film takes up an explicitly political position, which will appeal and alienate in roughly equal measure. For psychologists though, there are subtler but important political undertones.

The plot initially focuses on the eponymous Daniel (comedian David Johns), a Newcastle bricklayer and widower who has a serious heart attack, leaving him incapable of work and in need of state benefits for the first time in his life. The films opens with a tragicomic telephone call between Daniel and a healthcare professional, who leads him robotically through a questionnaire to assess his readiness for work and the extent of this health problem. Daniel becomes increasingly exasperated at the meaninglessness of asking questions about his ability to raise his hands over his head, when what is wrong with him is a bad heart. It becomes clear that procedure is key here, and the protagonist has entered into a world of Kafkaesque complexity and futility.

As a psychologist, I watched this scene with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have supported clients through this process, and so feel a connection with Daniel’s plight; but it also made me uneasy. The unerring return to the form by the healthcare professional, ignoring Daniel’s actual experience, sounded eerily like the administration of a psychological measure, where emphasis is placed on reliability at the expense of the person’s subjective and idiosyncratic experience. I think this opens up a wider question of whether the discipline of psychology has contributed to the problems of welfare reform through a myriad of interventions, including ‘nudge’ research into behavioural change, the introduction of psychological therapy as a ‘treatment’ for unemployment, and the ‘psychologisation’ of structural problems.

On his travels through a modern day Dantean circle of hell, Daniel meets Katie (whose character is stunningly rendered by the actor Hayley Squires) and her two young children. They have been displaced from their home in London to Newcastle, thereby touching upon another malaise of our time, gentrification. Katie also falls into the traps laid out in the system and soon is foregoing meals and heat so her children can eat. Indeed it is a scene in a food bank involving Katie that is among the most moving sequences I have ever witnessed on film, a triumph of artistry and sensitivity for all involved, while also a damning indictment of modern Britain.

What emerges is an unlikely friendship between the two, characterised by solidarity and cooperation. Daniel mends and fixes Katie’s home, and she offers him much needed home cooked meals and companionship. These scenes of social connectedness lie at the heart of the film. Loach clearly contrasts the ordinary relationships that bind us to one another with the alienation, rationalisation and atomisation of the state institutions that have lost their way, and no longer serve the needs of the citizenry.

The film avoids attempting to psychologise the suffering of the two principal protagonists. While both Daniel and Katie suffer moments of physical and emotional breakdown, neither of them are seen to develop diagnosable mental health problems resulting from their experiences. This is important, as it allows the film to movingly observe the increasing immiseration of the characters at the mercy of an unfeeling bureaucracy, without them needing to become mentally ill in order to be worthy of audience compassion or state intervention. For according to the logics of the new welfare system, if Daniel Blake was depressed, then maybe what would help would be a course of psychological therapy, rather than access to a respectful, universally available social security provision as entitled to him under a social contract when he started paying into the system many years before.

Loach’s film has been compared to the work of the great chronicler and social commentator of the Victorian age, Charles Dickens. However I, Daniel Blake is Dickensian only in so far as it uncovers every day stories of injustice and structural inequality. Where it differs is that there are no malevolent figures to blame, such as Ebenezer Scrooge or Uriah Heep. The job centre staff are mostly overwhelmed and incapable. No, in I, Daniel Blake the real monstrosity is the system that starves Daniel, Katie and her children through proceduralism, standardisation and inflexibility.

What is of concern for us is where psychology can be implicated in the structure of a bureaucracy that, like a casino, is rigged from the outset. For if we are to believe, as promotional material for the film suggests, that we are all Daniel Blake, then we also have to consider the unappealing possibility that as psychologists we are also part of the system that dehumanises, ignores and ultimately destroys him. 

Dr Danny Taggart, Academic Director Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, University of Essex.

See also 'Is unemployment being rebranded a psychological disorder?', and 'Despising the poor'. Read the BPS Briefing Paper on Work Capability Assessment Reform.

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