in which there are only problem families and problem individuals

Jeremy Bentham reduced society to the sum of individuals:

The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members.

His words were echoed by Margaret Thatcher, in speech and in interview

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

Presumably, Thatcher had to augment Bentham’s assertion in order to conform to neoclassical economics’ use of “the household” in its models; as well as to adhere to the Conservatives’ obsession with “the family” as an entity central to the arrangement of order.

The denial of the existence of society is necessary for the rejection of government as a source of public good, managing shared risk and providing shared infrastructure and public services. If there is no such thing as society, then the role of government is to correct men and women – and families – who are failing to perform as individuals for the public utility.

This underpins Ian Duncan Smith’s mission to identify and deal with “problem families”, so that they can be put to work. It also underpins charging for NHS services, as proposed by Charlotte Leslie.

For Leslie, the problem is the individual’s problem behaviour in misusing services. It cannot be a societal issue, because there is no such thing as society: that is, the causes of non-attendance at GP appointments or drunken attendance at A&E cannot be consequences of many agents and actions in a complex system, and is thus reduced to the failings of individual men and women (and families).

The answer, then, is to modify individual (or, presumably, family) behaviour: and the way to to do that, argues Leslie, is by charging. There is – as someone was fond of saying – no alternative.

The wilful denial of the existence of society, and of the complexity of the interactions between individuals, families, communities, culture, and agents such as government, businesses and individual ministers forces a denial of reality.

We may as well believe that that there is no such thing as consciousness, only individual neurons; or no such thing as weather, only individual molecules of water vapour. By denying reality, we impose false limitations on possible actions, impose ideology over material evidence,  and even render ourselves incapable of action at all.


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