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“How people get lost in the system”

I, Daniel Blake
Blinde Vlek? Film & gesprek over de macht van de bureaucratie
Vrijdag 18 november 2016 | 19.30 - 22.00 uur | LUX, Mariënburg 38-39, Nijmegen


I, Daniel Blake, is a film from Ken Loach about 59-year-old woodworker Daniel Blake, who cannot work anymore due to his severe heart problems. In the opening scene, a woman from the government helps him filling out the most ridiculous questionnaire in order to receive an Employment and Support Allowance from the British Government. He clearly is eligible for the allowance, but according to his answers, which are mainly about how well he is at moving his limbs, he is not. He has to go job hunting so he will get a Jobseeker’s Allowance, even though his physicians have told him not to work. Therefore, whenever anyone does find him suitable for a job and offers him one, he has to turn it down. The job hunting is just a façade to receive the monthly payment. When Daniel is at one of his regular visits to the Job Centre, he meets Katie, a single mum of two from London, who got kicked out of her old flat. Daniel and Katie become friends and they help each other in their desperate situation. Katie is trying the best she can so her children can have a ‘normal’ life. She is going out of her way to provide for them.


Sander Heijne, freelance investigative journalist who has worked for multiple newspapers, such as De Volkskrant, and NRC Handelsblad, has investigated bureaucracy in the Netherlands. While working for these newspapers, he encountered a lot of emails from people who are in terrible situations like Daniel’s. One thing he noticed was that they distrust the government. Most of the emails they sent contained a high conspiracy level. Those people feel the government is counteracting them in everything they are trying to do to build up a life for themselves. The people who are not using the government’s safety net feel, in turn, that people who are are just trying to up their benefits. Quite a few of these people think that disadvantaged people only try to profit from the different kinds of allowances. Heijne claimed that bureaucracy comes from institutional distrust of the people not using these benefits. One question Rob van de Ven, the moderator of the discussion and programme maker of Radboud Reflects, asked was whether people should put more trust in each other in order to overcome this institutional distrust. Heijne proposed to abolish the different allowances and to just use one general allowance, like a basic income, for people who need it. In this way, the government will be able to treat their citizens with more respect. They will be able to maintain their dignity. As Daniel said in the film: ‘I am no client, customer, beggar, thief or citizen service number. I am a man and not a dog. Treat me with respect. I am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less.’ Instead of institutionalised distrust, Sander opted for institutionalised trust. Some people will misuse the system, but most of them won’t. Instead of looking at the few bad apples, he suggested that we should look and help the good ones.

The system

Another important point that came up in the discussion was that in the film, one can clearly see that people from the government who are doing everything according to the rules, only make it more difficult to get an allowance for the people who need it most. Everything Daniel does is not good enough. This is repeated time after time by a horrible person from the job centre. Daniel does not have the means to go against this horrible person in a legal way, so at one point, he gets his spray out and graffities the wall of the job centre. He demands to know what the decision of the government is regarding his Employment and Support allowance. The message reads: ‘I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve and change the shit music on the phone!’ Derk Venema, philosopher and lawyer, who is currently an assistant professor of the Faculty of Law of the Radboud University, believes we can learn a lot from Habermas in this respect. Habermas suggested that there is a discrepancy between the lifeworld and the system. According to Venema, the system has colonised the lifeworld in the case of Daniel Blake. A government needs a system with rules, but the resulting justice system is detached from the lifeworld. The rules are for everyone, in general, and they are supposed to be very abstract. Accordingly, concrete cases need to be interpreted according to these rules. There is no one-to-one relation between the abstract rules and the concrete situations. If the government hires people who are very good at observing the rules, they might be doing the wrong thing. The people executing the government’s rules need to get some leeway. If needed, for example for humanitarian reasons, they must be able to deviate from those abstract rules.


In conclusion, I, Daniel Blake makes you think about the systems governments from different countries have made up in order to care for their people. The safety nets governments are so proud of are not always working the way they are intended. One can question whether we should try to include more leeway for people judging separate cases. In this way, their treatment of people in devastating situations could be more case specific. Furthermore, it might be good to think of the way governments treat people in general. Do those governments need to think of people as inherently evil or can they give these people the benefit of the doubt?

By: Hannelore Heuer