I, Daniel Blake: Joining Social Cleansing to International Legal Research

I, Daniel Blake: Joining Social Cleansing to International Legal Research

Dr Mohsen al Attar & Dr Henrique Weil Afonso

Crises are common to contemporary global society. The reasons are plentiful including the perilousness of denationalised production, the over-exploitation of resources, and, perhaps foremost, the intensification of social inequalities precipitated by both of the former. Each of these exacerbates individual precarity and collective vulnerability.

As precarity and vulnerability swell, constituencies lose faith in the established order. It hobbles along, in some parts, while disintegrating altogether in others. To hold the pieces together, ruling powers boost their use of coercion, hoping that intimidation will quell the unrest. The adoption of reactionary laws by legislatures, the murder of protestors by police forces, and the imposition of draconian sentences by judges are examples of the ways in which the branches of government seek to preserve a crumbling edifice. Another strategy, and the one we explore in this essay, is the practice of social cleansing.

We proceed in four parts. In the first, we examine I, Daniel Blake, the masterpiece by Ken Loach that dramatises the morbidity of social cleansing. In the second, we adumbrate the concept. In the third, we detail recent legislative changes in Brazil which, combined, embody a programme of social cleansing. In the final, we draw tentative conclusions and argue for developing the concept as a heuristic device. We believe it could help consolidate research programmes that investigate, among others, the nefarious impacts of abusive constitutionalism, the collapse of democratic capitalism, and embedded neoliberalism in international economic law. 


Ken Loach is an iconoclast. This is evident to anyone who has seen his films or heard him speak. Alongside his comrade, Paul Laverty, he is renowned for swinging a sledgehammer at the self-aggrandising narrative of the British state. Whether we are confronted by Cameron’s Big Society, Blair’s ‘values of the human spirit’, May’s strong and stable, or Johnson’s Global Britain, to Loach and Laverty, these slogans are much of a muchness serving to conceal the class warfare that undergirds British politics. I, Daniel Blake is a powerful iteration of their critique. 

Throughout the film, we are bludgeoned by the tribulations of Daniel Blake. Daniel, an elderly carpenter who suffered a heart attack, is deemed ineligible for an employment allowance as he “can walk 50 metres unaided” and “raise his arms to waist height”. We note that these criteria are neither satirical nor hyperbolic, drawn from the manuals of the Department for Work and Pensions. They showcase the perversions of the British social welfare system, deployed to discipline, intimidate, and punish prospective recipients; the idea(l) of wealth redistribution is now little more than a distant dream.

As legal scholars viewing the film, we were struck by the familiarity of the critiques I, Daniel Blake encapsulates. For example, Dimitris Kaltsonis alludes to many of these issues in a recent post in Legal Form. To Kaltsonis, the film’s depredations are emblematic of the crisis of democracy or, to quote Wolfgang Streeck, the collapse of the marriage between democracy and capitalism.

The origins and ills of democratic-capitalism are well trodden. In the post European-war period, a new compromise emerged between capital and labour to counter the appeal of socialism and communism. Instead of the naked exploitation of the Industrial Revolution, the new economies would empower labour and capitalists alike. Through the adoption of robust social welfare and industrial regulation, workers were assured new skills, a decent wage, and greater purchasing power. Hand-in-hand, the state, industrialists, and workers would usher a future of collective prosperity. 

The plan worked in the beginning – les trentes glorieuses – at least for Western European states who could still rely on the wealth of the Third World to fund their welfare systems and fuel their markets. Within a generation, however, the compromise collapsed under the weight of denationalised production and the threat of capital flight. Governments bludgeoned organised labour, in some places collapsing it altogether. Emboldened by their new freedoms, capitalists took a hatchet to the nascent welfare system, decreeing it profligate and a perversion of the twin ideals of meritocracy and productivity. Today, “the ruling classes are trying to dismantle all the popular gains that are burdening them” Kaltsonis proclaims, for “they must combat every challenge to the measures that radically redistribute wealth to the detriment of the weakest.”  

We recognise that these developments vary from state to state, from region to region. And yet, we agree with Kaltsonis that “despite the variety of forms and paces, the development of a common trend and its basic characteristics can be safely discerned.” As we deliberated the film, we wondered whether a heuristic device might help capture these developments, uniting the research of scholars such as Kaltsonis, Streeck, and us in strategic ways. We propose social cleansing.


Social cleansing is a peculiar term. Few have heard of it and, among those who have, even fewer agree on a definition. When applied, the interlocutor is usually shoehorning the symbolic power of ethnic cleansing, a far more familiar concept. On one hand, it characterises assaults carried out against certain kinds of people that seek to disappear or eliminate them altogether. Elites target those who are houseless, impoverished, or require social assistance, demeaning and demonising them in equal measure. In addition, social cleansing also captures strategies that ostracise people from their social support network. For example, to make desirable real estate in London available for re-development, boroughs have undertaken a programme of evictions of social tenants, relocating them to other cities, often hundreds of miles from their homes. Treating their communal bonds as gratuitous, councils cleanse people from their communities.

Alongside housing, assaults manifest in the form of policy and regulatory adjustments in labour, trade, education, health, and social assistance, adjustments which eliminate the capability of these groups to thrive. These changes pay no heed to Keynesian or Fordist impulses, reverting states to pre-welfare modes of social regulation and selection. As if haunted by the ghosts of Darwin and Malthus, the state abandons any pretense to the diffusion of social security, the expansion of life chances, or the safeguarding of vulnerable groups from the regressive cycles of a market economy. Instead, we find ourselves in the grasp of a neo-Darwinian Leviathan that is reorienting state power in service of the atomised individual, a being wholly abstracted from their social environment, in competition with everyone and in solidarity with no one.

Under these conditions, the concept of social cleansing acquires purchase and potential. It is not only that state forces gun down the houseless and bus them to nowhere, but that the state cleanses itself of its social impetus. Welfare is supplanted by workfare; public housing is replaced with private tenancy; community schools are converted into free academies; and universities are reduced to service enterprises. Margaret Thatcher’s slogan – There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families – was not descriptive but aspirational. More and more, to speak of society is to speak in the past tense.

Hence the value of developing social cleansing as a heuristic: the concept locates patterns and policies that compel us to question the contemporary meaning of social, of welfare, and of the two words combined. It is clear that the re-imagination of social welfare is linked to both neoliberalism and international economic law. Just as the modern state abstracts the individual from their environment, so too do the international financial institutions (IFIs) abstract the global economy both states and populations, creating a seemingly autonomous entity devoid of any social obligations or ramifications.

The examples abound. Economic deregulation and denationalised production promote openness toward market mechanisms, allowing predatory economic transactions and nebulous notions of efficiency to inform the delivery of public goods without regard for variations in capacity or distribution. Moreover, just as the IFIs are guided by contractual relations with states, national governments develop the same outlook toward citizens, transforming responsibilities – the state will provide x – into conditionalities – the state may provide x insofar as the citizen does y – recasting the conditions of citizenship. Daniel Blake is to blame for his penury for missing a CV writing workshop. Succumbing to the cult of the individual, crude binary categories – strivers and skivers – corral people into ideal and vile types. Social accountability is a casualty in both cases as those who succeed are absolved of any responsibility toward the collective just as those who fail are denied any support from it. In all instances, the state is cleansed of the social. 

In the following section, we provide a concrete example of legal patterns of social cleansing from the Brazilian landscape.


On 25 March 2021, the Brazilian Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, announced his intention to raise public funds for the auxílio emergencial. Seemingly magnanimous, the programme aims to assist nearly 70 million Brazilians caught in a cycle of precarity due to the ongoing crisis. The only obstacle, Guedes asserts, is the speed at which he can privatise a plethora of public companies and channel the revenue to finance the programme. Even benefits need a quid pro quo. 

Two months prior, the government rehearsed another prototypical Daniel Blake action. They sought to launch the Inclusive Production Bonus (IPB), an allowance designed to mollify the worst impacts of the pandemic. In exchange, recipients must participate in a professional qualification course organised by the Federal administration or forfeit the allowance. To add icing to the proverbial conditionality cake, the IPB was made contingent on the approval of a Constitutional Amendment that codifies fiscal discipline in public expenses during times of crises. Also folded into the IPB was Carteira Verde e Amarela, a programme that made many labour rights flexible. To the chagrin of Guedes, the IPB was eventually shelved. He, however, was not deterred and Brazilians now face a Pyrrhic choice: receiving emergency relief from the pandemic or retaining state assets. 

Since 2018, the Bolsonaro administration has been relentless in seeking to curb checks and balances to its authoritarian agenda. The catastrophic management of the COVID-19 crisis is perhaps the most cruel episode of an ongoing erosion of safeguards, public institutions, and welfare policies, having already claimed the lives of 350,000 Brazilians. To this administration, the state must get out of the way of market forces and coerce those who resist with the machinery of abusive constitutionalism

Amendment no. 95 provides an example of how legal reforms can hollow out the normative content of constitutional protections. Approved under former President Temer, the amendment limits government expenditures in health care and education for the next two decades. Critics label it the “reform of the end of the world”, and they were not overreacting. In 2019, this reform translated into a disinvestment of 32 Billion Reais in public education and nearly 7 Billion Reais in public health care. It gets worse. As a result of Amendment no. 95, public spending on health care will drop from 1.7% to 1.2% of Brazil’s GDP by 2036. We need only juxtapose the state’s withdrawal from health and education with the 52 million Brazilians suffering in poverty (and the 13 million more in abject poverty) to appreciate the value of social cleansing as a frame through which to understand these developments. How will an already immiserated population cope? Returning to Kaltsonis, the ruling classes are dismantling redistributive burdens to the detriment of the most precarious. 

Guedes’ conditional welfare resonates with social cleansing. Such extreme provisions are possible in a society guided by contemptuous individualism, where safety nets are viewed with scepticism, if not disdain. Modern society is populated by a constituency of neoliberal legal subjects, emptied of any dignifying content, yet preserved by a veneer of legal belonging. The population exists, yes, but only as prospective contracting parties for the state and thus deserving only of conditional protections. 

Meritocracy supplies the ideological content for social cleansing. In Brazil and beyond, meritocracy functions as a flawless category of distributive justice. William Davies argues that meritocracy presupposes an economic system that effectively ranks goods, qualities, and achievements. Ranking of such disparate elements demands the simplification of the social domain. Neoliberalism provides this in abundance. It is much easier to classify individuals according to their ability to comply with state demands. Regardless of the outcome, citizens will get what they deserve, whether this translates into being supported or being cleansed. It is the simplicity of the equation that is, at once, most desirable and most dangerous. 

As the prospect of a better life dims, so too does the commitment of the individual to the collective. It is not that bonds within the political community are fraying but that they are being obliterated. In the process, the state and the individual are cleansed of the social. What starts as aggression against racialised, impoverished, or immiserated groups ends in the collapse of the underlying community. Much like ethnic cleansing, the endpoint of social cleansing is social disintegration.


Without spoiling the film, we caution you that I, Daniel Blake does not end well. How could it? Loach and Laverty describe ongoing practices of social cleansing across Britain. Similarly, Guedes’ blackmail happened a fortnight ago. The violence of social cleansing is neither historic nor hypothetical as the mounting body count continues to verify.

Tackling social cleansing requires us to first conceptualise the brutality in a coordinated manner, hence the proposal in this essay. Foremost, a heuristic device can help develop an integrated and comparative research agenda, uniting scholars investigating an array of topics. Frankly, because of the exploratory character of the concept, we are weary of concretising contours too soon. It surely includes social exclusion, economic exploitation and predation, not to mention disenfranchisement, all of which are intertwined with international economic law and political economy. These terms are poignant for each describes practices that impact upon social welfare in negative ways. However, the terms are often used autonomously, sometimes interchangeably, inhibiting the identification of wider patterns. 

Our vision for social cleansing proposes to resolve this conundrum by developing a device that will facilitate scholarly collaboration under a common banner. Through this device, we can fuse disunited research strands, allowing for disciplinary cross-fertilisation and cross-enrichment, even creating conditions for the exploration of a meaningful alternative.* 

Ruining communal bonds and abjuring social responsibility in the name of mammon is the height of political delinquency. The self cannot exist without the social though it sure can suffer.

*We encourage scholars interested in taking this conversation forward to contact us at mohsen.al-attar@cavehill.uwi.edu and henriqueweil@faculdadedamas.edu.br.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Featured, Trade & Economic Law
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.