As I continue in my research around the abuse of older people I am beginning to wonder if those in power are really interested in trying to develop a system to safeguard those most vulnerable in society. It seems to me government policy across both social care and the benefits system is increasing the vulnerability of many in society by framing every response to social protection in an economic context. Much of the policy around benefits and social care is , in my view, abusive in itself and meets the definition of ‘structural abuse’.
Structural abuse has been defined as ‘the process by which an individual is dealt with unfairly by a system of harm in ways that the person cannot protect themselves against, cannot deal with, cannot break out of, cannot mobilise against, cannot seek justice for, cannot redress, cannot avoid, cannot reverse and cannot change’
The limited dialogue around benefits & care, along with the use of metaphors such as ‘big society’ and ‘age of austerity’ in policy and the media has arguably led to a focus primarily on an economic and neo-liberal discourse framing the issue of ‘need’ in a negative light. Neoliberal policies influence subjectivities across society, promoting self -care and self-determination in a free market economy. In respect of subjectivity Foucault (2008) suggests neoliberalism represents a reconfiguration of human nature and the social order in accord with the dictates and demands of the market. It is in this sense the merging of government policy and neoliberalism creates a particular form of governmentality, which Read (2009) defines as “a particular mentality, a particular manner of governing, that is actualized in habits, perceptions and subjectivity” (p.34).
Read (2009) suggests as such neoliberalism ‘is not just a manner of governing states or economies, but is intimately tied to the government of the individual, to a particular manner of living’ (p.27).
And this is where I feel we are at in terms of benefits and social care. Individuals are expected to be their own ‘government’, families their own ‘welfare state’. Is this feasible though given the global financial crisis, current unemployment rates, the complex nature of family life today and the structural abuse that seems to seek to marginalise those in receipt of benefits?
Ideology imbued with the neoliberal vocabulary of independence, deregulation, primacy of the individual, self-determination, freedom of choice, the free market and laissez-faire economics, big society and small government provide the backdrop to individuals lives, or ‘biographies’ (Beck, 1992) where Beck suggests the “individualized individual’ has been created, stating ‘that is, where people learn to see themselves as the centre of action, the planning office… (Of) his/her own biography” (Beck, 1992, p. 135). Individuals are then no longer constrained by factors such as age, social class, gender, or ethnicity, and consequently produce their own “biographic solutions to systematic contradictions” (Beck, 1992, p. 137) as they increasingly engage as ‘consumer citizens’ in a privatized welfare and social care system. However, the role of conceptual nets such as neo-liberal economic theory in shaping individuals and family biographic solutions needs to be understood, as Lucey (2001) suggests “the idea that one can be the author of one’s own biography is overly optimistic” (p. 184).
An article in The Guardian at the weekend by Vandana Shiva made many good points suggesting the dominant neoliberal model of economics has become anti-life. For me our whole system of social care and protection has become anti-care. Of course I believe those who can provide and care for themselves should, however, with structural abuse perpetrated against wider society on the current scale I fear many more will become vulnerable and require state support, in one form or another. Arguably the real currency of any social protection system should be fairness and compassion.
I’ll end on a quote from Vandana Shiva ‘We need to create measures beyond GDP, and economies…to rejuvinate real wealth, remember the real currency of life is life itself’.