The Conservative party of Great Britain has a survey on its web site, which purports to ask your views on their reforms of the benefits system in this country. There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter about this survey (spoiler: the questions are loaded, so you can’t really give your view), and I thought it would be worth a look, because it’s a great example of two different theoretical approaches to language and power relations, which kind of meld together very well.
First of all, let’s look at the wording of the questions. Follow the link above, or look at the graphic. I’ll wait.
Question 1: Should benefits increase more than wages?
Question 2: Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that the average family earns through going to work?
Question 3: How do you think we could make the benefits system fairer?
As I’ve indicated above, these questions are obviously loaded – even the one that apparently offers you a free-form field in which to type your views. In order to back that statement up, we can use a couple of theoretical approaches, both from my beloved French theorists.
The first approach comes from Jean-François Lyotard
and his 1983 book The Differend: Phrases in Dispute.
“Differend” is a deliberately odd word, chosen by Lyotard to describe the kinds of political and aesthetic arguments you sometimes have, where neither side can even agree on what it is you’re arguing about. This sounds complicated, but it’s not really. It’s what happens when someone asks you a question and you’re best response would be to say, “Unask
the question, you fool.”
Imagine a white, middle-class gun-toting American shouting at a Native American teenager to “Get off my lawn!” To the white person, raised in a capitalist system in which property rights take priority, his right to say that is perfectly clear. To the native American teenager, the response might be, “Get off my land! Go back to Europe, 500 years ago, and take your millions of fellow immigrants and your political and economic system with you.”
Suddenly, we’ve shifted the terms and the scope of the argument, and we’re never going to agree on a solution that satisfies both parties. All the matters in this situation is who has the most power, and how are they going to exercise it?
In Question 1, the Conservatives ask, Should benefits increase more than wages?
What are the underlying assumptions? That benefits already do increase more than wages? Whose wages? And why use the word wages instead of, say, salary, or a more neutral term such as income? If you say income, the argument blows away on the wind. Are we sure that benefits do increase more than, say, an average income? If we look across our unequal society, and compare the incomes of a top percentage of the population, do the incomes of people on benefits actually increase faster? And what “top percentage” should be use to make the comparison? Top 10%, 20%, 40%? Do we really think if we looked at the increased income of the top 10% of our society and compared that increase to the bottom 10% that we would find that benefits had increased more than wages?
And why didn’t they ask something like, Should benefits increase in line with average incomes? Or, Should benefits keep pace with price inflation?
Why not? Because they’d get different answers. The question is loaded so that the outcome of the survey gives them an opportunity to say something like, “70% of the British Public don’t think that benefits should increase more than wages.”
The word wages implies something: hourly pay. People on hourly rates of pay are among the lowest paid workers. In other words, the Conservatives are only asking if welfare benefits
should increase more than hourly rates of pay. Well, most people on hourly rates of pay (like the minimum wage) would like to see them increase, I should think. So it’s obvious what the answer is.
But again, unask the question. Because they’re not giving you any evidence that benefits are increasing faster than hourly rates of pay. What they are doing is seeking to create a division between working class people who claim benefits and working class people who work for very low rates of pay. These two groups should really be natural allies against a political and economic system that keeps them poor while the rich get increasingly rich. This question drives a wedge between them.
Which brings us to Michel Foucault
and his analysis of discourse. The group who controls the discourse (the encoding of texts, whether written, auditory, or visual) has the power. By asking their questions in this way, the Conservatives are exercising power.
Question two asks, Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that the average family earns through going to work?
Again, we can unpack this. What do we mean by fair? What evidence is there that “people” can claim more in benefits than the average family earns through work? What’s the difference between “people” and “average families”? What if – and here’s a thought – average families were also people? What if we’re actually talking about the same group, and this division between them was entirely imaginary? (Clue: all “average” families are entitled to claim Child Benefit.)
What’s an average family? How many people in this “average family” are working? Isn’t it a bit scandalous that average pay
in this country is apparently so low that people who are not working but claiming benefits actually get more? And who claims benefits anyway? Are these benefits really only claimed by non-working people
? Isn’t it the case that a lot of benefits are claimed by working people whose wages are so low that they need to claim benefits to make ends meet? Is society really a competition between people who work and people who don’t? And are people on benefits really “winning” this competition?
And why all this focus on poor working people and poor people on benefits? Is being poor now a crime? Why aren’t we discussing fairness at the top end of the income scale? Is it fair that people can turn themselves into corporations in order to buy houses and avoid paying tax? Is it fair that the top 10% of households have 40% or the wealth (as the Office for National Statistics says
)? Why aren’t the Conservatives asking this question? Answer: because we’re not talking about the same thing, and because they don’t really care about fairness. But they’re in control of the conversation when it comes to this particular survey.
Finally, question 3: How do you think we could make the benefits system fairer?
What’s the differend here? Well, the underlying assumption of the question is that the benefits system is unfair. So even though it’s a free-form field in which you can type anything, the question being asked forces you to live in an imaginary universe in which the benefits system is unfair. The previous two questions have underlined this, by turning the benefits system into a competition between poor working people and poor non-working people. In fact, the benefits systems as a safety net was designed to protect our whole society, and includes universal benefits like child benefit, old age pensions, and so on. The built-in fairness of the benefits system is that you pay taxes when you work so that, should you be unable to work, you can claim some kind of income benefit in order to live. The perceived problem of our society is that too many people live permanently on benefits and never find work. That’s a big problem to have to tackle, and the root causes of that are a whole different economic argument.
By focusing the survey on benefits and the people who claim them, the Conservatives are laying the blame for unemployment (and under-employment) on a group of people rather than on an economic system. In other words, they’re maintaining the power relationships in our society by controlling what it is we talk about. They’re also generating controversy (they obviously knew this survey would be controversial), which means that the media will focus on the controversy, and somehow never get around to asking the bigger questions.