Kafka in the Era of Neoliberalism

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake, is a searing indictment of the Brexit era.

Victory against austerity.

The specific target of the film’s ire is the mess that remained after neoliberalism’s war on the British welfare state, with unemployment services being outsourced to the private sector.

But the film also asks probing questions about the direction in which every society in the developed world seems to be heading.

What will happen to our humanity as more and more decisions are made by computers or people who must act like them?

As might be expected from a storyteller like Loach, the film shows the predicament of the working class at a time when the divide between haves and have-nots has been rapidly widening.

However, unlike other recent protagonists from this demographic, Daniel Blake has not yet been rendered expendable by technological change. There is still demand for someone of his experience,  whether at work or home.

It isn’t Daniel Blake’s job that has been downsized, but that of the government workers who might once have been able to help him.

Because a heart attack has made it too dangerous for Blake to do his job as a skilled carpenter, he must navigate a bureaucracy that has been deliberately re-engineered to prevent honest working-class people like himself from securing the benefits to which they are entitled.

That’s what Loach wants us to perceive, anyway. And the narrative makes his point with both laughter and tears.

At the film’s beginning, Blake finds that he has been denied the government assistance he has been depending upon until he is sufficiently healed from a heart attack.

In the sort of scenario that Franz Kafka, an insurance adjuster by trade, used as the basis for some of his best stories, Blake confronts a paradox.

On the one hand, his doctors have made it clear that he is not yet fit to return to work.

On the other, an administrative scoring system implemented without these doctors’ input has been used to determine that he is too fit not to be working.

As a result of this bind, Blake must seek remedy through bureaucratic procedures that are intended to be mutually exclusive. He needs to appeal his fitness score to once again receive the aid intended for sick or injured workers like himself.

Because Daniel Blake has no clear sense of how long this appeal will take, however, he must also file for unemployment benefits in the interim.

Perversely, the latter requires him to spend time applying for new jobs he has been forbidden to take, a pointless exercise that frustrates him enormously. After all, his old job is still waiting for him.

The film focuses more attention on the first quest. Over and over, Blake is directed to go online. Although talented at many household pursuits, he has never used a computer before and finds the simplest tasks baffling, such as using a mouse.

Since Blake is not far from retirement, this ineptitude comes across as a generational failing. Even if the world still needs his handiwork, it has passed him by in other respects.

Like the 2022 Tom Hanks film A Man Called Otto and the 2015 Swedish film A Man Called Ove on which it was based, I, Daniel Blake wants audiences to recognise that older people still have a valuable role to play in society.

In Blake’s case, he befriends Katie, a single mother from London forced to move north to secure public housing.

Eager to prevent his professional skills from atrophying, Blake makes her a lovely bookcase. This is his way of telling her that she should keep trying to better herself through education. He also watches her children when she is out.

This part of the plot is quite similar to what happens in A Man Called Otto, except that both Blake and Katie lack the middle-class comforts that make that other film bearable.

In one scene, he accompanies her to a food bank, where she gets reprimanded for eating a can of fruit on the premises.

When Blake finds out that Katie is doing sex work to make her financial situation less precarious, he decides to confront her at the small brothel where she is working. This is one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes.

We recognise that, despite Blake’s current predicament, he spent his younger days in a considerably less harsh world. It’s hard for him to grasp just how bad things have become for teenagers and twenty-somethings.

But the fact that he is willing to try, however grudgingly, marks him as sharply different from the Brexit or MAGA supporters who compensate for their sense of impotence by raging against the younger generations.

This is the kind of old dog that can learn new tricks.

If there were still a government bureaucrat nearby with the authority to act on Blake’s case, this lack of familiarity with computer technology wouldn’t present much of a problem.

But everyone Daniel Blake encounters at the local government office has seemingly been forbidden to deviate from the inflexible procedures dictated by decision-makers far away.

It’s like having one of those immensely frustrating conversations with a call centre employee in the developing world, the kind who is only permitted to utter an extremely limited number of statements.

In this case, however, the workers Blake interacts with look and sound a lot like him.

From Loach’s perspective, the Tory Britain of the mid-2010s represents the undeveloping world.

The woman who oversees Blake’s unemployment benefits ruthlessly enforces rules that make little sense. When an older worker recognises his plight and tries to provide even a little extra assistance, her superior harshly reprimands her.

As much as this woman would like to humanise the impersonal bureaucracy that employs her, she fails miserably because she has not been entrusted with the power to make exceptions.

Blake hears a rumour that the firm responsible for giving him his administrative score is American. This would be fitting since the safety net in the United States was never as robust as in the United Kingdom.

Yet the betrayal that this outsourcing represents goes deeper than national differences.

The problem isn’t that the firm isn’t British, but that it is a firm at all.

To the extent that governments relinquish the power to make exceptions and rules, they are accelerating our progress into a “post-human” future that threatens to reduce all of us to robot-like functionaries, if not replacing us with actual robots.

In other words, while the state is responsible for making and enforcing laws, its essence must be discerned in the dialectical relationship between those laws and the exceptions that its representatives are permitted to make.

Once a government ceases to give those representatives the power to deviate from the script, it loses most of its reason for being.

That, unsurprisingly, is the argument that Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and other vanguardists made for the neoliberal agenda in their assault on big government, and it remains the argument that their ideological descendants continue making today.

What remains to be seen is how long the Daniel Blakes of this world will continue to support institutions designed to deny them government services.

While this outsourcing is supposed to streamline government operations, it exacts a brutal toll on the increasingly expendable people who used to comprise the working class.

The downward spiral of the film’s protagonist communicates the potential fate of millions.

Watching Daniel Blake’s struggles is a strange experience for Americans like me.

Even the tentative steps towards better health care for the working poor under the Affordable Care Act during Barack Obama’s first term didn’t come close to the comprehensiveness of the UK’s National Health Service, even after its partial dismantling.

Therefore, the radical curtailment of benefits pushed by the Tories during David Cameron’s tenure (2010-2016) is difficult for us to register.

Bad as things may be in the UK, they could still get worse. And, in the seven years since I, Daniel Blake, was released, they most certainly have.

Screenshot courtesy of eOne. All rights reserved.