Targeting the Vulnerable

Vickie Cooper and David Whyte (eds.), The Violence of Austerity

Pluto Press, 230pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780745399485

reviewed by Abigail Rhodes

At the turn of the century an obscure home office poster was discovered in Barter Books, a shop in Alnwick, Northumberland, with the motivational slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. It had been prepared in 1939 for use in case of a coastal invasion of the UK by the Nazis and was designed to steady the national nerves in the face of such a calamitous event. The poster was never used in these circumstances but became a fashionable, ironic, comedy catchphrase after its unearthing in 2000. The phrase adorned mugs, t-shirts, key-rings, fridge magnets, bags, tea towels, pencil cases and, of course, posters, and cultivated an industry fuelled by the selling of post-war nostalgia. It’s a powerful image of a clichéd yet outmoded expression of ‘traditional’ English stoicism, of British pluck, of stiff upper lip, and it is a gloriously kitsch memento of a determined resolve in the face of hardship. This nostalgia for remaining positive in the face of adversity provided an easily identifiable and artistic backdrop to the ‘age of austerity’ that the UK entered following the financial crisis of 2007/8. We were told by the media and successive governments to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, to ‘make do and mend’ and that ‘we were all in this together’.

This comradely belt-tightening narrative set the stage for ensuring that the necessity of austerity measures was clear and provided an historical lens through which we were asked to cope with them. We were told that the deficit accrued from the bailout of the banks was actually a result of public and personal profligacy: we had collectively spent too much. Successive Labour governments had overspent on the public sector, handing out gold plated pensions to public servants and dishing out welfare to anyone who filled out the necessary forms. In turn, we, the public, had gone overboard by purchasing as many consumer goods as we could possibly acquire on credit. In short, the financial crisis was represented as stemming from a combination of government recklessness and debt-fuelled consumption. Despite no hard data to support the idea that government overspending caused the deficit, the only way out of the economic mess was to cut back. From this perspective, austerity is viewed as a purely economic procedure that comes down to nothing more than the fiscal need to cut the deficit and to slash public spending. It was this view that was put forth as the rationale behind austerity policy in the UK, which included measures such as a freeze on Child Benefit and public sector wages, a reduction in housing benefits, the implementation of the 'Bedroom Tax' and the introduction of Personal Independence Payments, to name but a few. However, it was the façade of togetherness that, as this book demonstrates, ‘played a key part in the ideological making of austerity’ by organising consent for the cuts and simultaneously deflected blame from the private sector and banks.

The politics of austerity not only has a scarcely hidden ideological dimension, in that it was framed as the common sense and only way to pay for the massive increase in public debt caused by the financial crisis, it also has a deeply nefarious dimension that is kept from public scrutiny. In The Violence of Austerity, editors Vickie Cooper and David Whyte draw together research that collectively presents evidence of the ‘violent consequences of government policy conducted in the name of ‘austerity.’ Together the 24 articles expose austerity as a process of cuts to publicly funded services that has led to the design of policies that target the most vulnerable in society. These cuts are implemented through various bureaucracies and institutions that make each policy a reality and routinise the harmful effects of deciding whether, for example, someone is legally homeless or fit for work. In each of the four sections the contributors examine in researched detail the impacts that workfare, the asylum system, fuel poverty, homelessness and work capability assessments (WCA) have on the mental and physical health of hundreds of thousands of people in the UK today.

The use of benefit sanctions is a feature of both the workfare scheme and WCA measures and underpins the rise of food bank usage, food and fuel poverty and homelessness. The impact that such sanctions have on individuals is evidenced in the shocking stories throughout The Violence of Austerity. In his chapter on ‘Welfare Reforms and the Attack on Disabled People’, John Pring charts the series of brutal cuts to disabled people’s support as Personal Independence Payments (PIP) slowly replaced the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) from 2013 onwards. One impact of this cut was that ‘by July 2016 up to 700 disabled people a week who had previously claimed DLA were being forced to hand back their Motability vehicles.’ There were more cuts to come, as eligibility for the out-of-work disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), began to be assessed through the WCA. These assessments, delivered by private companies (Atos from 2008 and Maximus from 2015), determined whether an ESA claimant was fit for work. However, it was discovered that in a number of cases these private assessors had not sought evidence of illness from GPs, psychiatrists or clinical psychologists, resulting in people being forced back into work when they were not well enough. Pring recounts one notable incident, the case of Andrew Davidson, whose coroner’s report stated that his ‘decision to take his own life had been triggered by being found “fit to work.”’ As the article goes on to demonstrate, Davidson’s case is not an outlier, with one study showing that thousands of people have died not long after being found ‘fit for work’. More worrying still, is the evidence that even if you are ‘lucky’ enough to be offered ESA there is the constant threat of benefit sanctions that are regularly implemented without the knowledge of the recipient. As one anonymous welfare rights officer tell us:

‘Frequently clients do not know that they’ve been sanctioned until they don’t receive their benefit. They’ve received no letter and given no information on the right to appeal . . . Client have told me they are shoplifting to eat.’

The violence of such punitive measures has led to the formation of the movement Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), set up to ‘fight the austerity-driven erosion of disabled people’s living conditions and human rights.’ Another grassroots organisation that campaigns against the impact of austerity on benefit claimants is Boycott Workfare. The group aims to expose the violence of the workfare scheme and to ‘end forced unpaid work for people who receive welfare.’ In essence, workfare sees people told that they are to be placed in compulsory work placements or have their Job Seekers Allowance taken away. In their contribution, Jon Burnett and David Whyte analysed the testimonies of over 500 people that had been logged on the Boycott Workfare’s website. Their analysis revealed that working environments in some of the organisations that had signed up to the government’s scheme were almost Dickensian in practice. Claimants reported being ‘expected to complete physical labour at an intense pace,’ were afforded no breaks, some mentioned that they had to pay for access to the toilets and many reported having their illnesses ignored by employers. Not only were people were being forced to work at an unhealthy rate but, in several cases, they were working in unsafe and often illegal conditions. Alarmingly, the employers with the highest number of abuses were charities or social enterprises.

The picture of austerity Britain painted by this important book stands in stark contrast to the image painted by successive governments since the crash. The financial crisis may have started out as solely an economic problem to be solved, but it was ideologically reworked, in the UK, into the political problem of how to allocate blame and responsibility. This ideological reworking focussed on the profligacy of government spending on public services and welfare – a narrative that was assisted by the negative image of welfare that reassured workers that those on benefits were ‘feeling the pinch too’, that ‘we were all in this together’, and that we needed to Keep Calm and Carry On. What The Violence of Austerity clearly articulates is that the consequence of this reworking is the de-politicising and normalising of a number of increasingly punitive measures that have a harmful, and in some cases fatal, effect on people and their lives. This book works towards exposing and confronting the impact of austerity and highlights the work of a diverse body of activist and campaigning groups who tirelessly challenge the government, its policies and the institutions that implement them, in the courts and on the street.
Abigail Rhodes is an M3C/AHRC-funded PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham.