Capitalism often has two tactics to disguise its culpability in causing social problems. One is to criminalise the failings of the system, such as making sleeping rough for homeless people illegal. The other approach is to medicalise them. The government plans to integrate employment and mental health support for benefit claimants. This includes putting 350 psychological therapists into centres and pushing online therapy to the jobless.
Unemployment is being redefined as a psychological disorder at a time when the UK government has pledged to cut the welfare bill by £12 billion. In the UK and other rich nations such as Australia and the US, welfare claimants are increasingly required to comply with interventions intended to modify their emotions, beliefs and personality. Claimants must demonstrate characteristics considered desirable in a job candidate – such as confidence and enthusiasm – in return for welfare. Sanctions – loss of benefits for up to three years – or referral to unpaid work placements may be imposed if a claimant's attitude is considered deficient.
While the Department for Work and Pensions has denied that anyone will lose benefits if they refuse therapy. But the Conservatives' manifesto warned that "people who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced." Claimants are already coerced into "confidence building" programmes, made to take part in humiliating psychological group activities (like building paperclip towers to demonstrate team work), and obliged to take meaningless and unethical psychological tests to determine their "strengths". Unsolicited "motivational messages" are emailed to some job seekers daily. What's striking is that the focus of these activities isn't a job, or specific job-related skills or qualifications. Key outcomes specified in lucrative government contracts to companies providing interventions are "employability" and "job readiness" – achieving a "mindset that will appeal to employers", as one course puts it. A narrow set of character traits are touted as essential to getting and keeping a job: confidence, optimism, aspiration, motivation and infinite flexibility. Bogus constructs like "psychological resistance to work" and "cultures of worklessness" are used to legitimise coercive regimes that stigmatise and punish.
The policies that rebrand unemployment as a psychological disorder distract from the insecurity and stark inequality seen in many labour markets. They promote the therapeutic value of work at a time when work is increasingly unable to provide either an income high enough to live on or emotional satisfaction. Workfare schemes have already created a claimant workforce that lacks the legal rights and protections extended to other workers. Plans to add mandatory psychological treatment is a matter of grave concern.
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