The Violence of Austerity collects the voices of campaigners and academics to show that rather than stimulating economic growth, austerity policies dismantled the social systems that operated as a buffer against economic hardship, exposing austerity to be a form of systematic violence.
This article, by Jon Burnett, highlights the troubling way that the government has manipulated public discourse to turn the population against some of Britain’s most vulnerable people. Burnett contends that the ‘scrounger’ and anti-migrant rhetoric espoused by politicians and their media mouthpieces is indivisible from austerity politics, helping to sustain it by obscuring its effects.
This essay is about the ways that two forms of institutionally produced hatred – hatred targeted at migrants and hatred targeted at welfare claimants – have become closely interlinked by ‘austerity politics’. This chilling symbiosis has become apparent in a relentless barrage of headlines about migrant hordes, supposedly exploiting public services and undercutting wages, and the British benefit ‘cheats’ supposedly too idle to work and abusing the welfare state. As the Daily Express condemns the ‘millions’ of migrants grabbing ‘our jobs’, it celebrates the latest ‘blitz’ on British ‘benefit cheats’. As the Sun launches a war on benefits culture (‘leading the charge to rid Britain of a generation of scroungers’), it simultaneously issues a ‘red-line’ demand to the prime minister to ‘halt immigration from the EU’, claiming that ‘this is not racism … [i]t is a simple question of numbers’.
Such campaigns are organised separately. But they feed off and into each other. And they are replicated day after day to the point where they have become a routine aspect of popular culture. Both are voyeuristically treated in television programmes like Benefits Street and Immigration Street. Those programmes stem from the same ideological enterprise: to reduce their subjects to objects of ridicule and contempt, turning human struggles into a sneering form of entertainment.
Here we see how this tabloid barrage is sustained by an aggressively violent politics that is being orchestrated from the centre of government. It further shows how the conditions that fuel this violence have been intensified by ‘austerity politics’. I therefore argue that hate is produced in a context where the blame for an economic crisis is placed on its victims, and in the process, generates further victims of hate. The violent effects of this politics make their targets more vulnerable to racist attacks and hate crimes. While the institutional orchestrators of this hate will never be held accountable, they are, as I will show, clearly identifiable. When David Cameron gave his first major speech on immigration as prime minister in 2011 he was lauded by a coterie of right-wing commentators for insinuating that migration ‘threatens our way of life’. In a speech that was described by the British National Party (BNP) as ‘advocating [our] policy’, Cameron claimed that immigration had ‘created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness’, and that ‘controlling immigration and bringing it down [was] of vital importance to the future of our country’.
Despite being peppered with criticisms of the previous government’s immigration policies, much of what Cameron proposed built upon what had gone before. His demand for ‘good immigration’, not ‘mass immigration’, for example, echoed the managed migration strategy that New Labour had already put in place, in which migration was to be managed as a means of meeting labour and skills shortages. At the same time, the notion that migrants’ access to the welfare state had to be restricted was of paramount importance. For Cameron, the link between immigration and welfare was explicit:
Migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work. That’s where the blame lies – at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it … So immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency.
Five years later, and against the backdrop of the EU referendum which proved fatal to Cameron’s premiership, these claims had become Conservative political orthodoxy. And at their core reside two of the folk-devils that have been elevated to the forefront of narratives of austerity: the migrant and the home-grown ‘scrounger’. When the government invokes its ‘skivers’ versus ‘strivers’ rhetoric, its bankrupt ‘shirkers’ versus ‘workers’ discourse, it is migrants and welfare claimants who are frequently the targets. And the relentless procession of policy experiments they are subjected to are linked, ideologically, through a framework central to the politics of austerity. For if one of the aims of successive layers of immigration policy has been to reduce migrants to units of labour, denied access to social rights as much as the law will allow, another aim of successive layers of welfare ‘reform’ and social policies is also to create an expendable workforce from British citizens within, who are rapidly being stripped of their right to access welfare provision. The mechanisms put in place to achieve these aims are not the same. But one goal they have in common is to satisfy an unquenchable demand for exploitable labour, and the government recognises that presenting them as symbiotic legitimises the long-standing assault on and transformation of the welfare state.
It is in this context that measures such as the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for refused asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, the ramping up of deportations and workplace raids, and the attack on migrants’ welfare are linked to a more general escalated attack on social security and an assault on workplace protections. These things, of course, have their own roots and histories. They cannot be reduced simply to their relationship with each other, and they are certainly not the sole responsibility of the current Conservative administration. But, together, they make up part of an ongoing attempt to restructure the composition of Britain’s labour force through the appeasement of nationalist demands to ‘manage’ and ultimately reduce migration to the UK. They are two flanks – in other words – of the same political project.
And when resentment to welfare and free movement is legitimised, hate becomes normalised. As campaign groups, support centres and self-organised networks have repeatedly shown, certain forms of violence have intensified under the rubric of austerity. But they are rarely given official recognition. In a survey published by the Disability Hate Crime Network in 2015, ‘scrounger rhetoric’ was highlighted in the testimonies of around one in six of 61 disabled people who described being verbally or physically assaulted in disability hate crimes.10 Six charities in 2012 stated that a narrative of ‘benefit scrounging’ or ‘faking’ was fuelling hostility. Discussing an increase in disability hate crimes coming before the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) between 2008/09 and 2013/14, one of the co-founders of the activist group Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) remarked that the figures were ‘no doubt fuelled by the constant media-fuelled campaign against benefit claimants’.12 There were around 62,000 disability-related hate crimes each year in 2012/13 and 2013/14, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). In 2014/15, the last year for which figures are available, 2508 offences were recorded by the police – an increase of 15 per cent from two years earlier.
It took only a few days after the outcome of the EU referendum to find an outlet in abuse and attacks, including: Eastern Europeans told to ‘go home’; cards with ‘no more Polish vermin’ posted through letterboxes; racist graffiti daubed on community centres; people stabbed; and Muslim-owned businesses firebombed. But while the violence has been given a new sense of acceptability, it is a continuation of what has been a long feature of the UK, and has intensified under conditions of austerity. Nobody listened in 2014 when charities such as Flowers of Human Hearts, which provides support and advice to Polish people, warned that hate crimes against Eastern Europeans were rising and that this was related to the narratives spun around the recession. Nobody listened when groups such as the Alliance Against Romanian and Bulgarian Discrimination warned in the same year that a climate was being created where physical attacks could be carried out with impunity.
Of the 106,000 racist incidents recorded in the CSEW on average a year, not all, of course, are targeted at migrants. But of those that were, and of those that continue to be carried out, there appears to be a special ferocity reserved for those people who have lost or, it is assumed, are not in employment. In Peterborough a few years ago, homeless migrants living in tents were subjected to arson attacks after a local MP, lauding a scheme by the authorities to have them removed from the country, called them ‘vagrants’ and a ‘drain’ on his constituents, telling a national newspaper, ‘[i]f they are not going to contribute to this country, then, as citizens of their home country, they should return there’. In Hull some years ago, a homeless Polish man was left with shattered collar bones, broken ribs and cracked vertebrae after being run over (and reversed over for good measure) while looking for food in some bins by a man who shouted at him to ‘get a job’. In the run-up to the EU referendum, far-right groups took it upon themselves to begin roaming around, looking for homeless migrants so that they could be filmed, humiliated and presumably later identified for punishment. They have continued to do so.
Of course, the surges of violence against migrants and disabled people can neither solely be reduced to the politics of austerity nor are the only forms of violence linked to austerity. As the academics Sylvia Walby, Jude Towers and Brian Francis have shown, for example, ‘violent crime against women and by domestic perpetrators is increasing’, and this increase is linked to an economic crisis that has ‘reduced income levels and increased inequalities and thereby reduced the propensity of victims to escape violence, including exiting violent relationships or enabling conflicted households to split up’. The intensifications of homophobic violence, meanwhile, cannot be separated from the ongoing evisceration of LBGT specialist support services.
But as particular forms of individual violence escalate under the rubric of austerity, they increasingly mirror the institutional violence that is being implemented by the government. And in this context they serve the interest of the UK’s political elites. When disabled people are assaulted as ‘scroungers’ who ought to be forced into any form of employment, when there are attempts to hound migrants out of country through physical force and intimidation if they are no longer deemed to be of economic value, this violence echoes – whether unwittingly or not – the stated aims of government policy. They are ideologically connected to the policies which express these same things as desired outcomes, albeit in different ways, and inflict serious social harms in order to achieve them.
This is manifested, for example, in the intensification of workfare policies and benefit sanctions, in conjunction with other methods of welfare ‘reform’, which, in their attempts to force people into deregulated, flexible labour markets, routinely lead to death. According to some estimates, 80 people per month die shortly after being declared ‘fit for work’. It is manifested in the immigration policies which, well before the EU referendum, had already successfully managed to reduce people to units of labour (with EU citizens initially denied access to things like housing benefit and losing the right to reside if out of employment after certain periods, and non-EU nationals subjected to other forms of conditionality), and are utilised to remove those who no longer fulfil their ‘role’.
A climate of hate crimes in contemporary Britain is therefore supported and sustained by austerity politics in a context where the blame for an economic crisis is deliberately targeted against the most vulnerable groups. Thus, the targeting of benefit claimants can merge with certain forms of racism and ultimately be mobilised to render the most precarious sections of the workforce more compliant and ‘flexible’. The individualised hate that is given increased legitimacy under the context of austerity cannot be divorced from the institutional violence that is accelerating in the name of austerity.
Jon Burnett is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Swansea. He has published widely on issues relating to forced labour, racism and neoliberalism, hate crime and medical power. He is a member of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations.
The Violence of Austerity is edited by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte and is available from Pluto Press.
Jon Burnett has contributed the chapter Austerity and the Production of Hate.