The Welfare State They Were In
Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister seems like a soundtrack of breezy lives of personal heartbreak and occasional triumph unencumbered by the larger troubles of the world. But the album is a direct product of Scotland’s welfare state.
Put on a record by the Glasgow indie pop band Belle and Sebastian, and the working-class battles that established the welfare state of countries like Scotland, where the band is from, will be the furthest thing from your mind.
The band pioneered the “twee” sound of the 1990s, with cute lyrics mostly about romance or simple storytelling for its own sake backed by reserved, quiet music — with, in their early, classic albums, nary a distortion pedal in sight. There’s little sense of the many miseries of life under neoliberalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, beyond those of heartbreak and the troubles of everyday life.
But there’s an interesting anecdote in a documentary produced by Pitchfork about the band’s classic album If You’re Feeling Sinister, which Belle and Sebastian are performing tonight at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Within the first five minutes of the documentary, you learn that lead singer Stuart Murdoch suffered greatly from chronic fatigue syndrome in the nineties — so badly that he couldn’t work or finish school. He was unable to leave the house much at age twenty-one; he tells the stories of getting up and playing a few songs on the piano, then needing a rest, then repeating the cycle.
“I remember quite distinctly the first song I wrote,” Murdoch says. “That’s something I could do. It became very valuable to me. It was definitely my reason to exist.”
Likewise, some of his future bandmates like bassist Stuart David moved to Glasgow at that time with few prospects, musical or economic. Both, however, signed up for a Scottish social welfare program called Beatbox, a course for unemployed musicians that paid them a modest check and gave them a practice space.
“They gathered up all the waifs and strays from the town and they said okay, you’re in a music course now,” Murdoch says. David doesn’t romanticize it — he describes it as a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” Murdoch remembers the music they were making as “terrible,” but “the only game in town,” at a time when he had few other options.
So they began recording together. Beatbox allowed them to record “maybe once a month” in the studio, David recalls. The rest is history, which the band moves on quickly to tell.
But a clear takeaway is that without the Scottish welfare state, Belle and Sebastian would not exist. If You’re Feeling Sinister is a direct product of UK social democracy.
And it’s a product of a welfare state that, for all the attempts to shred it during the era Belle and Sebastian first began playing together and since, was broad enough at that time to provide some level of subsistence not just for “the deserving poor,” whoever that is — not just single mothers and unemployed former factory workers or miners, but also hipster musicians. And the program didn’t just cut them a check but gave them a place to meet other struggling musicians and play together.
Conservatives have long been open about their aim to obliterate the welfare state, and have done a stellar job at doing so. Many American liberals happily joined them in the neoliberal era — here in the United States, it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who promised that the “era of big government is over” and that he would “end welfare as we know it.” He, too, succeeded. But many American liberals don’t support the complete destruction of the welfare state. They just want it to go to the poor who truly deserve it. They wanted means-tested welfare programs that were narrow as possible, providing for as small a number of people in truly desperate life situations as possible.
That obsession with means testing and narrowing the scope of who gets covered by social-welfare programs — as opposed to universalist social welfare programs like Medicare that cover everyone and act as engines of solidarity, binding people together in a collective project and giving everyone a stake in defending those programs — is still with us today. You can see it in the rhetoric opposing universal free public college by politicians like Hillary Clinton (and echoed by some Democratic presidential candidates and liberal pundits today), who insisted that she wants college for everyone but doesn’t think rich people should get it for free.
You also see it in the occasional outrages about hipsters, usually college-educated and white, who should be getting a “productive” job somewhere but instead are leaching off of the public, sucking up valuable resources that should be going to the more deserving poor. Peter Frase wrote about this phenomenon in 2011.
The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hardworking or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification.
Personally, I’m grateful for the welfare state provisions that helped pay the rent for the earliest iteration of Belle and Sebastian and brought them together to play and eventually record together. If such programs had been restricted to some mythical poor person who was more authentically in need, we wouldn’t have If You’re Feeling Sinister and the rest of the band’s vast discography. (Some of my Belle and Sebastian-hating friends would prefer this, but they are wrong.) This is why we need social welfare programs that are as broad as possible, providing not just for the arbitrarily chosen “deserving poor” but everyone. A welfare state that was broad enough to include down-on-their-luck hipster Scottish musicians helped them flourish, bringing the incredible beauty they’ve created over the course of their careers into being.
Corey Robin once wrote in these pages that “the point of socialism is to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. God, that would be so great.” That’s what the Scottish welfare state gave to some of the future members of Belle and Sebastian: it helped them meet their animal needs, giving them the opportunity to come together and bemoan the state they are in. Everyone, no matter their education or “cultural capital” or ability to work, should have those needs met, to allow their creativity to fully flower in art or music or scientific research or whatever else their heart might desire.
Belle and Sebastian probably have a lot of people they want to thank for supporting them throughout their career and helping bring them to this point. Personally, I think they should dedicate tonight’s show to the Scottish welfare state.