Rudolph Virchow (1848) argued that ‘medicine is a social science and politics is nothing more than medicine on a grand scale’.
Structural and Institutional violence arises from the implementation of Austerity. Cameron, Osborne, May and Hammond have blood on their hands. Johnson, Gove, Rudd, Grayling…….
In 2013 David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu published ‘The Body Economic – Why Austerity Kills’ and stated that since 2007 the total number of suicides had risen by 10000 across the US and Europe while millions lost access to basic healthcare. Chopra (2014) reviews the book and points out that ‘Mental health outcomes feature prominently in these analyses. For instance, the authors report 1000 excess suicides in the UK due to the effects of this recession and a second wave of ‘austerity suicides’ in 2012‘.
Following the Great Financial Crash (GFC) of 2008, the neoliberal project in the UK was given an opportunity to push further on its (class) agenda which had been based on reducing State support for the public sector and social security claimants, encouraging privatisations, establishing financial deregulation, reduction of corporate tax and removing ‘red tape’ (worker’s rights and enviromental protection). The theory was based on ‘trickle down economics’ and Hayekian ‘free markets’. Jobs, growth and investment would follow. Austerity in this context was seen as a necessary corrective to the failing economy. It was not mentioned of course that one reason for the GFC was neoliberalism itself. In effect we have a neoliberal policy being implemented to correct the failures of neoliberalism.
For the sake of argument, lets accept the claim that indeed the UK enjoyed pre crash levels of growth above OECD averages (it has not), produced a high number of well paid secure, high skilled jobs with wage growth (it did not), and that investment significantly rose (it has not) and that productivity has soared (it has not). What is Austerity and what are its founding myths?
If a major tenet of neoliberalism is a reduction in state withdrawal from services and from support for workers and claimants, Austerity turbo charges it in the name of deficit reduction to address the national debt.
Austerity is first and foremost a move to permanently dissemble the protection state (Cooper and Whyte 2017) through reductions in targetted public spending. The view is taken that skivers and shirkers have grown fat on the largesse of the British Welfare State, a State that breeds dependency and since the GFC it is argued is now unaffordable. It is not about reducing state spending per se, as subsidies to the nuclear industry and help to buy schemes attest. Indeed State spending as a % share of GDP has not really moved since 2010. It is this that makes the ‘reduction of state spending’ neoliberalism rhetoric (as ideologically based class war) but not reality for the rich.
Austerity is based on the idea of ‘expansionary fiscal consolidation‘ (Alesina and Perotti 1995). Government cuts to public spending will (the theory says) encourage more private consumption and business investment. Not cutting public spending jeopardises investment and competitiveness. The reality is that public consumption in the UK is debt fuelled rather than from higher wages, and investment remains very poor.
Three myths underpin this approach from 2010:
- We all played a part in the financial crisis (New Labour caused the crash).
- Austerity is necessary.
- We are all in this together.
However, this masks real reasons for the policy:
- To further ease Capital Accumulation for the rich.
- To further extend wealth by growing inequality and through dispossession.
- To permanently dissemble the protectionist State.
In short: the violence of class war. Capital v Labour, the irreducible foundational contradiction of capitalism.
The institutional violence meted out by for example by G4S and ATOS is ‘ordinary’ mundane process violence, it is not exceptional but routine as experienced in people’s lives, involving fear humiliation, hunger, shame and early deaths. Using ‘maladaptive coping’ such as eating high fat sugary food, smoking, excessive drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected promiscuous sex, are as much reactions to as causes of poverty and violence. This ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’, which points to poor individual lifestyle choices, ignores the wider determinants of health, the mass of data on the ‘social gradient’ in health and of health inequalities. It also does not understand the complexity of personal agency and social structure in which reflexive deliberations (our inner voices) mediate between objective social structures, cultures and our personal concerns and projects.
Institutional violence is pervasive and normalised so that we don’t always see it or feel it for what it is. Food banks, deportations, homelessness, debt, trafficking, evictions, precarity in low wage jobs are becoming part of the social fabric that is getting thinner by the day. This violence is slow violence whose effects may take time to come through. It also provides a pervasive threat of violence for those lacking the financial, social, cultural capital to either protect themselves or to escape.
Richard Horton (2017) in the Lancet (note not ‘Marxism Today’) outlined the arguments well:
“Economists are the gods of global health. Their dazzling cloak of quantitative authority and their monstrously broad range of inquiry silence the smaller voices of medicine, trapped as we are in the modest discipline of biology. Economists stepped beyond the boundaries of the body long ago. They now bestride the predicaments of our planet with confident insouciance. It is economists we must thank for the modern epidemic of austerity that has engulfed our world. Austerity is the calling card of neoliberalism. Its effects follow an inverse harm law—the impact of increasing amounts of austerity varies inversely with the ability of communities to protect themselves. Austerity is an instrument of malice. Search under austerity and you will find few countries unaffected. Greece, of course, but also Mozambique, France, Scotland, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Cameroon, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, and England. Economists advocating, and governments implementing, austerity naturally reject the word. Instead, they call austerity, “living within our means”. But be clear. What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice. A political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious. The Financial Times, a newspaper usually in thrall to the spectacle of economics, called these policies “inhumane” last weekend.
But austerity is also a social contract. People accept severe restraints in public spending, actively in democracies or passively in autocracies, because they accept the unpalatable prescription of abstinence. Yet the public too has a choice. And they are exercising that choice in countries across the globe. Take the UK. Back in 1991, two-thirds of the British population wanted more taxation and spending. But by 2006, only a third of people backed redistribution of wealth. If not welcomed, austerity was accepted. Not now. In the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, published last week, public opinion had turned against the idea of brutal scarcity. 48% of people wanted taxation increased to enable greater investments in society. 42% supported redistribution of income. And health was their priority—83% of people wanted more spending on our collective wellbeing. After a decade of cutting back the reach of government, the public is now demanding a stronger and more generous state. The contract authorising austerity has been torn up“.
Richard seems to be suggesting we may be at a turning point. I hope he is right, but with a Brexit fixated government backed by 30% of those eligible to vote (the 52%) and the cheerleaders in the right wing press driving politics onwards, I don’t yet see much hope.