The pseudonymous author of this memoir, Winston Smith, chose the moniker because of the maddening bureaucracy within which he worked. His blog, “Winston Smith—Working With the Underclass,” won an Orwell Prize for chronicling the labyrinthine, dysfunctional horror show that had become the British welfare state. And the name fit, conjuring up images of 1984 and the crushing toll the various ministries of the nation-state take on those caught up in their cogs.
But after the recent riots that ravaged London, one wonders if another literary mask might be more apt: P. R. Deltoid. It is, to be sure, a far more obscure allusion. Deltoid is the briefly seen public service worker in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, described by the antihero Alex as “my Post-Corrective Adviser, an over-worked veck with hundreds on his books.” Deltoid can do nothing but impotently warn Alex to change his ways—warnings that go unheeded, as Alex escalates his mayhem to theft, assault, rape, and eventually murder.
An overworked veck with too many souls on the books neatly describes our humble narrator, Winston. He works in the “Emmanuel Goldstein Project,” a housing project that takes in supplicants between the ages of 16 and 25. Deemed too old to live in foster care, too young to fully care for themselves, and “unable” to live with their biological families, these “young adults” are given a place to live by the state so they can get “some freedom and responsibility and a little help in making the transition to living as an adult.”
Freedom they get. Responsibility? Not so much. In lengthy, crushing detail, and anecdote after anecdote, Smith relates the failings of those he is charged with helping. They are, largely, drunken, violent louts who abuse the welfare state, demand more and more be provided them, and fear no repercussions for what they do. And by “no repercussions,” I mean none: not from the managers of the housing project, not from the police, certainly not from their families. These are youths growing up one step removed from a feral state, spending most of their time stoned, little of their time in classrooms or looking for work, and none of their time actually working. The result is an entire generation that has lost its way.
Consider his reaction to one encounter with “Kate,” a ward under his care (and under the state’s protection). When asked about the future, she replies, “I’m going to get a flat when I’m 18 and do whatever I want. . . . They’ve got to give me one because I’ve been in care. It’s the law.” Winston, reflecting on the sad fact that she’s right, fumes:
Somehow this seems wrong. She’s not yet 16 and she is already fluent in her entitlements and what she is owed by society by virtue of her position; I can picture her in a few years with several unruly urchins at her feet, demanding her entitlement to an even bigger flat.
Doubt this pseudonymous account if you like. As with any such work in which the author warns that “the timescales and chronology and the names and physical descriptions of people and places . . . have been altered and blended together in the interests of confidentiality,” some skepticism is warranted. But his subjects are far from atypical. The Washington Post recently told the sad story of a “struggling artist” who was outraged that the British government was cutting her family’s monthly housing subsidy from $2,800 to a mere $2,173.
The British spend $34.4 billion on housing benefits a year, up 50 percent over the last decade. As part of the austerity measures passed by the new Conservative government, that number was to be trimmed by 11 percent. And that, progressives tell us, is why we saw rioting in the street—chavs were pilfering Adidas track suits because the dole was (ever-so-slightly) declining.
Poppycock. In the wake of all this, one passage in Generation F leaps out:
I lose count of the number of times I’ve been told that one of our recidivist thieves who has been caught breaking into someone else’s house and taking their stuff is only doing it because he is poor but lives in a materialistic and consumer-driven society, and because he is unable to realise the norms of our materialistic culture or achieve the same levels of wealth as others due to an inherent and systemic inequality. Lots of my colleagues in the social sector actually believe this stuff, too.
There is a notable lack of actual poverty amongst the lower-middle-class louts with whom he deals—“most have TVs, microwaves, toasters, DVD players, video game consoles, and flash mobile phones”—but no deficit of moral failings: “There is an underclass of people . . . [who] see failure as a badge of honour, and the ‘three Rs’ have been replaced by the three Is: ignorance, indolence, and illiteracy.”
And that is the lesson here, the warning for those who would expand the welfare state: When you fill people’s troughs with all they need and all they want, and demand nothing in return, they’ll squeal for more. And sometimes, as the recent unpleasantness in London shows us, they’ll do more than squeal.
Sonny Bunch is a writer in Washington.