Book Review from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Cut Out: Living Without Welfare', by Jeremy Seabrook. Pluto Press/Left Book Club £12.99.
This volume combines two elements. One consists of interviews Seabrook conducted in the West Midlands, mainly Wolverhampton, with people who were at or near the bottom of the social pyramid. These are interspersed with his comments on the ‘welfare’ system and government attacks on it.
Some of the experiences revealed in the interview accounts are just appalling, and many go back years, well beyond the current austerity policies. One woman is nearly sixty but has only ever had one holiday in her life; she is lucky if, after everything else has been paid, she has £10 a week for food. Another woman is paying off a loan at £43 a fortnight, has rent arrears of nearly £400 and owes £1400 on water bills. One man has been paying back £7.20 a week to the Department for Work and Pensions for thirteen years, after he misunderstood the rules for working while claiming benefits. He is illiterate and could make no sense of the various letters he received. Older immigrants from South Asia (especially the women) often speak little English, and this affects their ability to cope with the benefits system.
The bedroom tax is often mentioned as a big contributor to people’s problems. One woman with hereditary neurofibromatosis keeps her electric wheelchair in one room, but it is counted as a bedroom for purposes of the tax. Many people live in permanently cold homes because of the cost of heating, and they buy the very cheapest food (such as twenty pieces of chicken for £2 from a supermarket). In addition, the difficulties of living on benefits are not just financial: there is the loneliness and isolation, and the disrespectful (to put it mildly) treatment from Jobcentre staff. Many who had dreadful experiences as children, whether from sexual or other abuse or the early death of a parent, are still suffering in later life, but the welfare system pays little attention to such past histories.
Seabrook’s main claim is that poverty (in the sense of destitution) has to remain because, from the view point of capitalism, it represents a deterrent aimed at those who are living somewhat above this level. The poor must be punished but should not be eliminated; they can be used to frighten others into conformity. The welfare state might appear to be redundant, given the wealth of advanced industrial countries, but it is in fact still needed, as misfortune, such as ill health, an accident or redundancy, can strike almost anyone.
Seabrook believes there is little chance of overthrowing capitalism, but his book provides plenty of evidence of why this needs to be done as soon as possible.