2001 Theodore Dalrymple
How the welfare state maintains the underclass
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Theodore Dalrymple (1949) is the pseudonym of Anthony M. Daniels, a retired British psychiatrist who worked in some African countries as well as in British prisons and hospitals. He became known with his 2001 book: Life at the bottom: the worldview that makes the underclass. His experiences with patients, a lot of whom came from poor neighbourhoods, resulted in is vicious attack on Western welfare states. According to Dalrymple the most important social problems in Western countries like criminality, drug abuse, aggressive youth culture, hooliganism … are the result of a nihilistic and self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live their lives. The political left has always tolerated this behaviour by pointing at structural causes to social problems and poverty, by focussing on other than individual reasons to social needs. The medicalization of social needs by labelling them as personality disorders is a type of deceit. Professionals should, with lots of patience and understanding for the situation, not cover up the real causes and convince their clients to go and live a different life.

Dalrymple turns around some of the fundamental views in social work. In his opinion professionals are diverting people in social needs away from their own individual responsibility for the situation they are in. People are also made too dependent on institutions. As a consequence, the way these social professionals and their services work keeps the underclass in existence.
This is also the perspective Dalrymple has on drug abuse, the topic of his 2006 book Romancing Opiates. He argues that drug abuse does not lead to criminality, but rather the reverse. Criminality is much more the cause than the result.

Dalrymple’s ideas are controversal and quiet contrary to those that emerged and dominated social work in the last decades of the 20th century. That generation was full of understanding, good intentions and identification with the citizens in need. Harshness and repression were not done. Dalrymple now turns these attitudes into submissiveness and indifference. For many social workers this may be a culture shock, but those who compare these views with those of e.g. Octavia Hill a century earlier will see many similarities. The statement “it’s not the housing that needs to improve, but the housing habits of poor citizens through education” comes from Octavia Hill, but could as easily have been from Dalrymple. In the views of the pioneering social workers, poverty was often the result of poor choices, wrong habits and thus personal responsibility. Hence, they argued, people should be helped to change their lifestyle and get rid of their bad habits.

People at the political right and conservatives have heralded Dalrymple and his publications to argue that the welfare state has become too soft, too permissive, almost a land of Cockaigne where everything is, like in Breughel’s paintings, free for all. This results in an erosion of personal responsibility. As an alternative, they call for less social work, and more conditional care provision.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert, based on the Dutch version by Jos van der Lans
Date of first publication: 06-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2019

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