The Violence of Austerity

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September 28, 2017

The institutional response following the global financial crisis of 2007-08 is well documented. The catastrophic causal chain that materialized saw the masters of the universe on Wall Street and the City of London plummet back to earth; in a panic to save them, bailout packages were swiftly approved amidst public outcry.

After a short-lived Keynesian experiment in 2009, the restatement of austerity and structural liberalization reforms were swiftly adopted. Since 2010, governments slashed public spending, with G7 countries trimming their deficits from an average of 6.6% in 2008 to 2.7% in 2015. State managers succeeded in absorbing the costs of finance capital into national accounts, transferring the costs of the crisis onto citizens. International institutions reinforced their hegemony, as witnessed by the Greek government’s capitulation to the Troika in 2015.

The belt-tightening narrative then – that fiscal discipline is necessary because during a period of protracted economic downturn, public expenditure had to be reigned in so that private sector could stimulate growth – is spurious; an ideological façade considering that private debt was the problem. Even more telling is that since 2010 – when austerity measures were rolled out – the richest have doubled their wealth.

Austerity, after all, isn’t a single phenomenon but a flexible and overlapping set of local strategies implemented to maximize the transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top by removing regulations designed to protect citizens and workers, while striping away public services in favor of privatization. Austerity is thus a reconfiguration of the state and at its core a class project; one designed to consolidate class power by attacking the weakest and most vulnerable in society.

In The Violence of Austerity (Pluto Press: 2017), editors Vickie Cooper and David Whyte attempt to shine a light on the nefarious dimension of institutionalized fiscal waterboarding and its brutal consequences on society, which remain hidden from public scrutiny. Covering a range of famous cases of institutional violence in the UK over the last seven years, the book brings together the voices of academics and campaigners to illustrate that rather than stimulating economic growth, austerity policies have led to a dismantling of the social systems that operated as a buffer against economic hardship, exposing the “violent consequences of government policy conducted in the name of austerity.”

Divided into four sections (‘Deadly Welfare’, ‘Poverty Amplification’, ‘State Regulation’, and ‘State Control’) totaling 24 deeply researched articles, contributors examine the specific impacts that austerity policies have had on both the physical and mental health of thousands of people.

The endless recycling of the political narrative of “living within our means,” as the book shows, can no longer be swallowed by the public after years of cuts – given that the policies of the Conservative-led government since 2010 added £700bn to the national debt while dismantling welfare provision and underfunding the National Health Service (NHS) along with other social programs.

Even the elderly were not to be spared. As Danny Dorling points out in the chapter ‘Austerity and Morality,’ “between 2008 and 2013, public sector cuts led to some 483,000 old and disabled people in the UK either losing their care support or becoming no longer eligible to claim it.”

It should come as no surprise that the private sector reaped the rewards of austerity. Corporate capitalism emerged from the financial crisis with renewed vigor, chomping at the bit to emaciate what remained of the post-war consensus and its social safety net, with sectors such as health primed for privatization.

There are chapters that reveal the severity of welfare reform (20bn of benefit cuts), and how attacks on disabled people through the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) have resulted in up to a staggering 10,000 deaths; and one where Jon Burnett and David Whyte expose health and safety offenses, replete with testimonies by those forced into ‘workfare.’ Many organizations that signed up to the government’s workfare scheme, Burnett and Whyte reveal, had appalling working environments that seemed Dickensian in practice. Furthermore, housing reforms in 2013 saw the Bedroom tax instituted, while local housing allowances and benefit caps were hit, and 18-21 year-olds removed from benefit schemes.

Indeed, the public housing crisis and cuts to local councils was crystallized most vividly in the disastrous Grenfell Tower fire this June – where health and safety regulation was contracted to the lowest bidder, and low-income families were increasingly priced out of neighborhoods by hawkish property developers.

There are also alarming details on child mortality, hunger, and food poverty. In the second section of the book, Rebecca O’Connell and Laura Hamilton mention that in the world’s fifth richest country, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty has calculated that “20,247,042 meals were given to ‘people in food poverty’ in 2013/14.” Rough sleeping is another issue, which Daniel McCulloch tackles in accounting for the dramatic increase in homelessness in the UK, as cuts to services between 2010 and 2015 more than doubled the estimated number of those sleeping rough.

Legal discipline further underpins the systemic violence unleashed by austerity. Local authorities, facing stern budget cuts, are under legal obligation to enforce them. As Robert Knox importantly emphasizes, “Law-sterity always involves the threat of the state imposing fines upon local government officials, which can ultimately lead to prison sentences.” A reckoning with law-sterity then involves “overturning ‘common sense’ ideas about law” in order to transcend its violence, for as Knox warns, the “law’s violence is […] crucial in turning progressive governments into austere subjects who both implement austerity and – ultimately – internalize its logic.”

Racial discrimination and gender inequality equally persist, if they are not further heightened following austerity. In ‘Woman of Colour’s Anti-Austerity Activism,’ Emejulu and Bassel argue that “austerity measures violently erase the experiences of women of color in Britain,” particularly when “African and Caribbean women have an unemployment rate of 17.7 per cent, for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women it is 20.5 per cent, compared to 6.8 per cent for white women.”

Over three decades of neoliberalism, tempered by almost a decade of economic crisis and ensuing austerity measures, have been devastating. What Cooper and Whyte’s book provides is a necessary demystification of the ideological and institutional violence that encapsulates the UK government’s response to the greatest financial earthquake since the Great Depression.

Replete with hard facts, poignant testimonials, and a penetrating gaze upon unscrupulous profiteering, the picture of austerity Britain painted by the book is far from the narrative that ‘we were all in this together.’ What The Violence of Austerity lucidly articulates are the societal outcomes of de-politicizing and normalizing a vast set of punishing governance techniques that have had a harmful, in many cases fatal, effect on working people. It rings loud and clear that there is both an economic and moral case for ending neoliberal austerity, and it should be seen as an essential contribution for those resisting its ongoing violence.

Amar Diwakar is a freelance writer and research consultant for Global Risk Intelligence. He has an MSc in International Politics from SOAS and blogs at Splintered Eye.