Neil Davenport talks about the recent re-publication of Zoe Fairbairns’ dystopian feminist novel, Benefits:
Written in the febrile political atmosphere of late-1970s Britain, Benefits is about a future state’s sinister attempts to control women’s fertility, and to encourage responsible parenting, through the introduction of a universal ‘wages for housework’ benefit.
Although rarely out of print since it first appeared in 1979, Benefits has recently been re-issued, with a new introduction by Fairbairns, for the e-reader age. It is now being marketed as a political attack on ‘anti-welfarist Tories’, yet as Fairbairns points out, anyone who views Benefits as simplistically ‘anti-Thatcherite’ is missing its key point: that welfare benefits can become a weapon of social engineering and control. On top of critiquing aspects of welfarism, Benefits lays into radical feminism’s self-defeating slogan, ‘The personal is political’, while passionately championing women’s liberation and equal rights — feminism’s one-time aims.
Like many dystopian novels, Benefits is rooted in the fears, the panics and the politics of the period it was written in. So although it is set in the dying days of the twentieth century, it rather charmingly echoes the late 1970s: all tower-block grime; politico slogans on walls; squats; communes; poorly designed radical pamphlets. It also speaks to the more alarmist rhetoric of that period of the mid- to late 1970s. From ecologists predicting Europe-wide famine to the New Right’s panic over single mothers to respectable racists complaining about ‘coloured immigration’, the political feeling in Benefits is unmistakably mid-Seventies.
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Equally prescient in Benefits is the way its fictional state believes that ‘poor parenting’ can have a corrosive impact on the individual and society; this has become an unquestioned orthodoxy today.
Many dystopian novels hint at a future in which pornography has become staple entertainment. Benefits does that, too, and this also speaks to the reality of twenty-first-century life, especially to today’s increasing separation of sex from genuine intimacy (it talks about ‘all that sex and no babies’).
In Fairbairns’ nightmare vision, women who want to receive benefits must undergo ‘a programme of education for motherhood’. This sounds suspiciously like parenting classes, which are increasingly common today, especially for poorer families, or what David Cameron calls ‘chaotic families’. Also, in imagining a future in which parenting is redefined as a ‘national service’, Benefits hints at today’s creeping nationalisation of individual families. The novel even features a supra-sovereign state called Europea, where British politicians willingly offload their own parliamentary responsibilities. Sound familiar?