Welfare Reform and the Production of Ignorance

Welfare benefits in the UK have in recent years risen faster than wages. So the coalition government introduced the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill – which passed comfortably in the Commons earlier this week – putting a 1 per cent cap on social security increases for each of the next three years. At a time when inflation stands at 2.7 per cent, what’s going on here? The government, so they tell us, are ‘standing up for hardworking people’ (as the Conservative’s poster put it) and ‘backing the workers, not the shirkers’ (the Prime Minister’s infamous line). That’s an interesting tactic. The coalition divides society into those who work hard and ‘get on’ and those who don’t – those who skive rather than strive, who ‘have the blinds down’ while the rest of us go to work in the morning (that line is the Chancellor’s) – and uses the discourse to drive through its cuts.

As a number of commentators have noted (see, for example, Owen Jones’ brilliantly vitriolic piece in The Independent and Seumas Milne in The Guardian), the coalition government has been working hard to construct social security recipients as the workshy and the feckless, scroungers and fraudsters, in recent months and years. It has been, to use the language suggested by Edinburgh geographer Tom Slater in his just-published Antipode paper, ‘The Myth of “Broken Britain”: Welfare Reform and the Production of Ignorance‘, producing ignorance. The debate and discussion surrounding the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill demonstrates well how ignorance isn’t merely the absence of knowledge; it’s the outcome of a struggle, something which has been actively created and sustained, and which is ‘strategically and perniciously’ (Tom’s words) deployed to deflect reality.

Tom takes what he calls an ‘agnotological’ approach to the analysis of Conservative politicians and right-wing think tanks and how and why they manufacture ignorance about the causes and nature of unemployment and poverty despite the existence of a considerable body of social scientific evidence. ‘Agnotology’ is “the study of ignorance making, the lost and forgotten…knowledge that could have been but wasn’t, or should be but isn’t…” (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008: vii). Tom, it seems to us, is quite right to draw geographers’ attention to the study of ignorance – its production and maintenance, of how knowledge fails to ‘be’, how it disappears, is delayed or neglected. His paper is required reading for anyone interested in what made the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, and myriad similar state actions in our neoliberal times, possible.


Proctor R and Schiebinger L (eds) (2008) Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press