violence of austerity

The Violence of Austerity demonstrates the terrible impact of cuts and austerity. It shows why we must keep fighting for radical change, argues Ian Middlebrook


The Violence of Austerity, eds. Vickie Cooper and David Whyte (Pluto Press 2017), vii, 238pp.

Seven years of austerity following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), overseen by the Coalition and Conservative governments since 2010, have created a programme of state violence, argues this well-researched and rigorous collection of essays by leading academics and activists. The most vulnerable individuals and communities in the UK have been relentlessly targeted through ideological scapegoating, persecution, and cuts to vital services. The figures set out in this eminently readable collection, covering twenty-four aspects of austerity across four sections (Deadly Welfare, Poverty Amplification, State Regulation, and State Control) are truly damning. This research should be a source of great shame to the architects of the harm and misery the authors so effectively spotlight.

In fact, I suggest this is a go-to collection of essays for activists, campaigners, and the general public who want reliable information on the social harm caused by government cutbacks of the last seven years. The sources deployed throughout are, for the most part, freely available online (with details neatly presented in the notes for each convincing chapter), enabling those campaigning against slogans and propaganda to draw on compelling data to change minds and dispel the ‘deception [that] austerity is necessary’ (pp.8-10).

The new normal: the political violence of the state

As editors Vickie Cooper and David Whyte argue in their excellent introduction, ‘the age in which we live is one in which the political violence of the state is becoming normalised’ (p.24). The extraordinary pressure people face is an inevitable outcome when political strategies to target vulnerable individuals have been legitimised and normalised by the administrative ‘assemblage of bureaucracies and institutions through which austerity policies are made real’ (p.3).

The dominant political narrative of ‘hard choices’ and ‘living within our means’ – endlessly recycled by a compliant media, and the position of Theresa May and leading Conservatives in the election campaign – is no longer palatable to the public after years of cuts to education, health, and care services, especially when it is washed down with ample evidence of economic failure. The policies of the government since 2010 have added £700 billion to the national debt while they have systematically dismantled and underfunded social programmes, welfare provision, the NHS, and vital services for the elderly:

‘24 per cent fewer elderly people now receive support than in 2011, and estimates project an ever increasing proportion of people will be removed from the care system for years to come’ (p.21).

The research in this book makes abundantly clear that ‘austerity policies have been designed in such a way that target the most vulnerable and marginal groups in society, hitting them harder than any other income group’ (pp.10-11). As Danny Dorling reveals in his chapter (‘Austerity and Mortality’), ‘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’ (p.45). Dorling pulls no punches, concluding: ‘David Cameron left office in June 2016 with UK life expectancy falling. No other post-war prime minister has achieved such a terrible outcome’ (p.49).

Attacking mental-health services

The Conservative record on mental-health provision (see, in particular, the recent Question Time election special, BBC 1, 2 June 2017) rings hollow after you have read Mary O’Hara’s chapter (‘Mental Health and Suicide’), in which she exposes the reality that:

‘mental health services receive just 13 per cent of the total NHS budget, while mental illness is responsible for 23 per cent of the loss of healthy years of life caused by all illness nationwide’ (p.37).

O’Hara draws on figures by the Centre for Economic Performance, then goes on to discuss research by the charity MIND revealing that 46% of people with mental health problems have ‘considered or attempted to take their own life due to social factors such as debt and welfare difficulties’ (p.38). Perhaps the most telling exposure of the government record on mental health is that ‘by 2015, funding for mental health services was estimated to have fallen in real terms by 8.25 per cent over four years’ (p.38).

Shifting the blame and the burden

The masterful deception after the GFC was to shift focus from the banking sector – away from discussion of new regulation necessary to prevent catastrophic collapse in a future crisis – to the argument that we must all play a part in resolving this mess: ‘we must all live within our means’, claimed the government. This ignored the consensus of economists who advocated Keynesian stimulation to maintain levels of public spending. The ‘public deficit’ has since been reframed countless times as one of overspending by the Blair and Brown administrations which, as Cooper and Whyte explain, borrowed less, on average, than the Conservatives under Thatcher and Major (p.5).

Privatisation is opening up new markets for investment, corporation tax has been cut (30% to 20% since 2008); and polluting industries such as shale gas have received sweet deals (30% tax on profits, compared to 62% usually paid by the oil and gas industry, p.19). Private companies are reaping the rewards of brutal austerity enforcement, and financial institutions have been protected. Corporate capitalism has emerged from the GFC in a healthy state, and is clamouring for further investment opportunities, particularly in health provision, to give one obvious example.

Another area targeted for privatisation and profit is illuminated in the excellent chapter, ‘Fracking and State Violence’, which explores what David Harvey has termed accumulation by dispossession, a process using the ‘virtuous disguise of politics,’i to enforce ‘the physical enclosure and privatisation of land and resources (p.159). The authors examine increasing state violence in response to community opposition to fracking.ii

There are chapters on welfare reform and the attack on disabled people through use of the work capability assessment; and one on the violence of workfare, by Jon Burnett and David Whyte, exposing health and safety offences, as well as offering testimonies of appalling conditions endured by those who have been forced to participate in ‘workfare’ schemes – all these contributions build a picture of established institutional violence against vulnerable individuals and communities.

Section 2, Poverty Amplification, contains shocking detail on child mortality, hunger and food poverty: we live in a country in which ‘Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty calculate that 20,247,042 meals where given to ‘people in food poverty’ in 2013/14’ (p.94).

This is followed by work on austerity’s impact on rough sleeping in which Daniel McCulloch writes brilliantly about the disgraceful increase in homelessness and the multiple challenges, in terms of health, mental health, and violence, homeless people routinely face. McCulloch describes how cuts to services and austerity measures have driven more people onto the streets:

‘Between 2010 and 2015, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England more than doubled, increasing year-on-year’ (p. 172).

The legal violence of austerity

One of the important points Robert Knox drives home, in ‘Legalising the Violence of Austerity’, is that ‘Law-sterity always involves the threat of the state imposing fines upon local government officials, which can ultimately lead to prison sentences’ (p.185). Local Authorities are facing budget cuts and the legal obligation to enforce them. We desperately need political change because, as Knox reminds us, the ‘law’s violence is […] crucial in turning progressive governments into austere subjects who both implement austerity and – ultimately – internalise its logic’ (p.186).

Cooper and Whyte argue that the real politics of austerity is a project to disassemble permanently the ‘protection state’: 631,000 jobs in the public sector have been axed since 2010, with an additional million predicted to be lost by 2020 (p.20); cuts to police spending since 2011 amount to 14-20% of the total budget; severe cutbacks to local authorities are leaving them without environmental health inspectors; and the Environment Agency is ‘facing paralysing cuts’ (p.21). The authors argue convincingly that ‘austerity does not have to be viewed as a natural or normal response of governments’ (p.25). Each contribution throws into sharp relief the multiple ways inequality is reinforced by government policy:

‘Austerity is a class project that disproportionately targets and affects working-class households and communities and, in doing so, protects concentrations of elite wealth and power’ (p.11).

Atrocious levels of racial discrimination and gender inequality persist: in Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel’s chapter, ‘Woman of Colour’s Anti-Austerity Activism’, they argue that ‘austerity measures violently erase the experiences of women of colour in Britain’ (p.121); and 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’ (p.118), we realise the extent of this problem. On a more positive note, the sheer number of groups and campaigns that have been set up since 2010 to speak out for and protect people are testimony to the growing spirit of opposition to systemic discrimination, austerity, and neoliberalism.

Why we need an end to neoliberal austerity

This book is an important contribution to the resistance, part of the critical pressure required to spotlight institutional violence. Such a correcting lens, focusing hard facts, after years of economic ineptitude, will leave neoliberals and supporters of austerity shouting their slogans to audiences that may now judge them by their record.

Forty years of neoliberal politics enforced by Western governments, compounded by almost ten of economic crisis, and harsh austerity in the UK, have been calamitous. Violence is not too strong a word to describe it.

An article published in The Guardian, just days before the country will go to the polls to vote in the most important election in decades, lists 129 leading economists who support Labour’s policies for economic change. Compelling arguments bolstered by persuasive research, set alongside the voices of those directly harmed by austerity measures, make this an important book – each short, rigorously researched, chapter stands as a damning indictment of neoliberal economics and the politics of austerity. There is growing space for a new politics in these rapidly changing times, but we must all participate now, and beyond the election, to make it happen.

i David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile, 2014), p.58. Quoted by Will Jackson, Helen Monk and Joanna Gilmore, ‘Fracking and State Violence’, in The Violence of Austerity, ed. Vickie Cooper and David Whyte (London: Pluto, 2017), p. 158.

ii Read the full report of one example of state violence the authors offer in this fascinating chapter, by Joanne Gilmore, Will Jackson, and Helen Monk, Keep Moving! Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp, Liverpool: Centre for Crime and Social Exclusion, Liverpool John Moores University and Centre for Urban Research, University of York, 2016; PDF available online: