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The Humanism of Ken Loach’s Film I, Daniel Blake

Walter G. Moss -- The whole film can be viewed as a cry of despair against the “welfare reform” policies put in place by the Conservative Party (Tories), which has provided British prime ministers since 2010 when David Cameron assumed the position.
I, Daniel Blake

Hayley Squires and Dave Johns

In a previous review of an earlier film (Jimmy’s Hall) by director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, Ed Rampell referred to them as “arguably the greatest contemporary leftist writer/director team in the English-speaking world now making pro-worker films.” In the pair’s newer film, the award-winning I, Daniel Blake (2016), now available on Netflix, their leftist sympathies are once again evident.

But before getting into the politics of the movie, it should first be said that it is first class entertainment. The acting is excellent, especially by the two main actors, standup-comedian Dave Johns, age 59, who plays Daniel Blake, and Hayley Squires as Katie. Like some of Chekhov’s best plays, it is a tragicomedy, calling forth both tears and laughter.

The whole film can be viewed as a cry of despair against the “welfare reform” policies put in place by the Conservative Party (Tories), which has provided British prime ministers since 2010 when David Cameron assumed the position. Especially notable was the Welfare Reform Act of 2012. In the film itself, there are few specific jabs at the Tories, but one stands out. Cheering a protest that gets the film’s hero, Daniel Blake, arrested, one onlooker yells out:

You should be arresting the wankers
who came up with sanctions. Eh?
That preachy baldy cunt. What's his name?
Ian Duncan [actually Iain Duncan Smith] fucking what's-his-face.
Aye, and the posh dicks in their mansions
who came up with the fucking
bedroom tax for disabled...
Listen, youse are all gonna
be out of a fucking job anyway.
Privatizing you, eh?
All the fucking Tories, man.
Aye, members of the fucking big club, eh.
Fucking posh Eton twats. (All film quotes are from the movie script.)

Moreover, in a 2015 interview, Loach made clear his view: “There needs to be more public outrage around benefit sanctions and the reliance on food banks . . . The present system is one of conscious cruelty. It bears down on those least able to bear it. The bureaucratic inefficiency is vindictive and hunger is being used as a weapon. People are being forced to look for work that doesn’t exist.” He adds, “This is a real open wound in our society. We are just closing our eyes to this,” and “working people are no longer in control of their own lives. All this is about dividing people into skivers and strivers. There needs to be public rage about this.” Loach finds “the idea that someone in the system can decide whether or not you can eat is appalling.” Although he primarily blames the Tories for the situation, he also faults the Labour Party for not being more vocal on the issue.

Both the post-heart-attack Daniel and Katie, a young single mother-of-two befriended and aided by him, are unemployed and spend most of the movie dealing with the bureaucratic maze and nightmare that the 2012 Welfare Reform Act and other Tory measures left them to face.
In mid-2018, two years after the film first appeared, a five-year extensive UK study which tracked hundreds of claimants concluded that the policy of cutting benefits to punish so-called rule violations was ineffective. “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes,” which include poverty, sickness, and desperation crimes.

I, Daniel Blake

Dave Johns, Ken Loach, Hayley Suirs and Dylan McKiernan

What lie behind benefit sanctions and the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 was a belief shared by many U. S. conservatives and Republicans. In his Toward a Democratic Left (1968), Michael Harrington described it as the myth “that the poor are essentially lazy free-loaders.” In a 2012 essay, “Blessed Are the Poor, But Not in America,” I discussed this right-wing myth in more detail. More recently, in Jill Lapore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, I found this quote from Ronald Reagan, “Working men and women should not be asked to carry the additional burden of a segment of society capable of caring for itself but which prefers making welfare a way of life, freeloading at the expense of more conscientious citizens.”

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Flash forward to today, and the Trump administration still reflects the belief in this myth. A recent NPR article stated that “three-quarters of a million people would likely lose their food stamps later this year under a new proposal by the Trump administration. The goal is to encourage able-bodied adults to go to work and get off government aid. But opponents predict people would go hungry instead, if the rule goes into effect.”

Although it is easy to view I, Daniel Blake as an indictment of conservative thinking about welfare, I was more impressed with Loach’s humanism—a humanism that transcends right-left politics. In a 2012 essay, “The Humanism of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt,” I wrote that it is not only the hero’s “empathy with victimized Congolese and Peruvian Indians that makes this novel so humanistic, but also Vargas Llosa’s ability to depict his hero’s complex and detailed mix of human “weakness and greatness.” Yet the novelist was also a Peruvian who ran for his country’s presidency and believed in cutting back government “interference” in the “free” play of market forces.

Similarly, U.S. conservative David Brooks is distrustful of “big government.” While most progressives believe that federal controls are the main way to prevent capitalistic excesses, Brooks has serious doubts. Yet his newest book praises those whose “energies are devoted to helping others get better.”

I, Daniel Blake

Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, and Dylan McKiernan

Although the inhumane treatment of Daniel and Katie in Loach’s film flows mainly from Conservative Party policies, treating people as statistics, as “things,” rather than fellow human beings, is not limited to those infected with right-wing ideologies. In my History of Russia, for example, I mention that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “was critical of [Soviet] bureaucrats reluctant to interact with the common people,” and “often criticized bureaucratic practices.” Also, “Like most bureaucrats, [Communist] party members deeply resented and resisted changes that threatened to disrupt their everyday existence.” How bad bureaucratic red tape could be early in Putin’s presidency was indicated “by what a local politician on the island of Sakhalin told U.S. journalist Andrew Meier: to launch a fishing boat, one needed forty-nine officials’ signatures; to set up a kiosk, it took twenty-two signatures.” Moreover, some conservatives might point to the bureaucratic nightmares faced by Daniel and Katie as evidence of the dangers of any “big-government” welfare programs.

The closing words of Daniel best get to the heart of the problem.

I am not a client, a customer,
nor a service user.
I am not a shirker, a scrounger,
a beggar, nor a thief.
I'm not a National Insurance Number
or blip on a screen.
I paid my dues, never a penny short,
and proud to do so.
I don't tug the forelock, but look my
neighbour in the eye and help him if I can.
I don't accept or seek charity.
My name is Daniel Blake.
I am a man, not a dog.
As such, I demand my rights.
I demand you treat me with respect.
I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen,
nothing more and nothing less.
Thank you.

These words remind us of others by an earlier Englishman, W. H. Auden, in his poem “The Unknown Citizen,” which satirizes treating citizens as mere statistics. Treating people this way can stem from ideologies as Pope Francis has reminded us when he warned people not to become “ideological Christians” because it makes them “rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness” But it can also come from just being too egotistical, too unloving, too unwilling to treat anyone else (as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber phrased it) not as an it but as a thou.

The main appeal of I, Daniel Blake is that despite being treated like an “it,” by British bureaucrats, Daniel handles it with grace and humor, and treats others, especially Katie and her two children, with love.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss