A Dutch court has ruled that mass surveillance of welfare recipients is a breach of their human rights. This process has attracted attention because of its concern with technology and surveillance society, but the truth is that poor people have always been subject to surveillance. In the US, where the Constitution protects people from unlawful searches and seizures, people in receipt of benefits were told in the 1960s that of course they have the right to refuse entry, but that the authorities then have the right not to pay them any benefit. (The case is in Piven and Cloward’s Regulating the poor.) In the UK, the obsession with sex in the lower orders has all too often been manifest in the surveillance of couples to see who was sleeping with whom. I lost one tribunal because the department had a diary of early morning surveillance on the house. I won another where they were an elderly and of mixed race, and the tribunal were content to accept that it was a commercial relationship. I’ve referred before to circumstances where HMRC had commissioned the sort of examination of financial records – and jumping to conclusions – that wouldn’t be tolerated for the respectable middle classes.
There are lots of people in sociology who will immediately link this to Foucauldian ideas of ‘discipline’ and surveillance, but I think it’s got more to do with attitudes to the poor: They are not like Us, and They have to be Watched. At the same time as we’re talking about high-tech surveillance, Australia has been rolling out electronic benefit and transfer cards as a way of controlling the way that poor people spend the little money they’re allowed. The purpose is to make sure that people don’t fritter their benefits on drink and gambling (not that there’s much reason to think they do). The restraints are inconsistent with the basic idea of social security or pensions – and, for that matter, with the kind of free-market ideology which holds that people should be given the money to pay for things like education or health care. The whole point of cash benefits is that people get to decide how they use them. The basic case for limiting spending is the assumption that poor people can’t be trusted.
I thought of calling this the ‘new paternalism’, but the truth is that it’s never really gone away. Five hundred years ago, Juan-Luis Vives was arguing that the ‘censors’ (or overseers)
should inform themselves of the life and customs of poor people, whether they be children, young men or elderly. They should know what the children do, how they are progressing, what are their habits and character, what they might become, and, if some of them sin, whose fault it is. All this has to be corrected. The censors should take care to know if young and old people are living according to the laws they have been made aware of. … They should know whether everyone conducts themselves with economy and temperance. They should reprimand those who spend time at games of chance or who frequent wine or beer taverns. If one or two warnings are not enough, they should be punished. Penalties will be imposed according to the judgment of those who, in each town, are most prudent … Special care must be taken to protect against frauds by idle people and malingerers, so that they do not have the chance to cheat.
The urge to control the poor was there before social security came into existence, and it will be there when we are all gone.