Austerity and the Attack on the Poor and Vulnerable


If there’s one thing the British government and its media mouthpieces can rely on it’s a general public who are quite happy to spread their propaganda for them – not since the riots of 2011 have I witnessed such a degree of slavish, unthinking  repetition of falsehoods and lies as can be seen on forums and social media networks in response to the recent wave of cuts to the welfare system. It’s as if people have lost the ability to think for themselves, finding comfort in a patently false narrative which blames the victims of savage austerity while simultaneously ignoring or excusing the crimes of the rich and powerful.

To paraphrase David Cameron’s election campaign pledge to the people of Britain: “I believe that a good test for any Government is judged upon how it cares for it’s most vulnerable in society in good times as well as bad times. If you are sick, disabled, frail, vulnerable or the poorest in society you have nothing to fear if I get into Downing Street as prime minister, because I will protect that group of vulnerable people in society.” While it’s no surprise that he did an about-turn on his election promises, the spectacularly vicious manner in which he has betrayed the poor and vulnerable of this country will surely go down in history as a particularly cruel act of political deceit.

The raft of cuts implemented on April Fool’s Day (who said the government doesn’t have a sense of humour? Admittedly it’s a sick and twisted one) will have a negative impact on millions of Britons, many of whom will be forced into extreme poverty and destitution. From Child Benefits to Working Tax Credits and the lamentable “bedroom” tax, which penalizes people for “under occupancy” despite the severe shortage of smaller accomodation for them to relocate to, the cuts will render a large number of people homeless and exacerbate child poverty well beyond its already worrying levels.

In addition to having their benefits cut, the sick and the disabled, including those suffering from terminal illness, are being forced back into work as government contractor Atos Healthcare deems everyone from cancer patients to partially blind thalidomide victims “fit for work”. Those on Jobseeker’s Allowance are forced to work full time jobs in Workfare schemes to receive their benefits, amounting to little more than slavery – when the court of appeal ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions was acting unlawfully, the government simply reworded the scheme and rushed through an emergency law to block compensation payments. The slightest infraction can lead to a person losing all their benefits, sometimes for several months; and a system in which Job Centres are given sanction targets means that many are being deliberately tricked into slipping up so that sanctions can be imposed. It is a particularly cynical ploy to cut back on spending while at the same time manipulating the unemployment statistics.

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith (commonly known as IDS) demonstrated both his arrogance and disconnect from reality by claiming in an interview on Radio 4 that he could live on £53 a week, sparking an online petition with nearly half a million signatures calling for him to prove it. IDS, a particularly mendacious politician who is married to the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe and lives at the taxpayer’s expense in Lord Cottesloe’s 17th-century Old House in the village of Swanbourne, is fanatical in his task of dismantling the welfare state, but is himself no stranger to exploiting the system for his own personal gain, whether it’s spending £36 of taxpayer’s money on a breakfast or employing his wife as his diary secretary (naturally, when this became something of a scandal, parliament cleared IDS of any wrong-doing). Indeed, benefit fraud is dwarfed by MP expenses overclaims, although no politicians face prison for riding on the government gravy train. (When faced with losing their subsidised food, peers in the House of Lords shifted the costs onto their catering staff by cutting their rate of pay).

Despite David Cameron’s claim that “we’re all in this together”, the wealthy of Britain are in no danger of facing hardship as a result of austerity measures. Quite the opposite – while the poor are set to become increasingly impoverished, millionaires around the country have been given huge tax breaks which will save them as much as £100,000 annually. This includes  hundreds of bankers, many of whom have recently awarded themselves millions in bonuses despite being instrumental in bringing about the financial crisis, who will save an average of £54,000 each. That these cuts for the rich – many of whom hide money in offshore tax havens –  have been brought into effect on the same day as benefits have been stripped from the poor demonstrates that, in addition to a sick sense of humour, the government also has a sadistic streak. Perhaps it is a hangover of the Bullingdon Club, the exclusive society at Oxford University of which David Cameron, George Osbourne and London Mayor Boris Johnson were all members, where these men of privilege would burn a fifty pound note in front of a beggar as part of an “initiation ceremony“.

The negative impact of the sweeping cuts to the welfare state run deep. With considerably fewer jobs available than there are unemployed and a system which fails to cover even the basic costs of living, thousands if not millions of Britons will slide indo grinding poverty from which there is little chance of escape. The economic depression (let’s call it what it is instead of dressing it up as a “double dip recession“) has taken an immense collective toll on the psyche of the people – the British Medical Journal reported on a paper which suggested that over 1000 people have been driven to suicide between 2008-2010, and since then, suicide has become the biggest killer of men in the UK.

Those who do manage to find a job have no guarantee of avoiding hardship – the government is now considering freezing or even cutting the minimum wage, meaning that the working poor will become increasingly worse off. Chancellor George Osbourne’s slogan “making work pay” appears to be missing the final word “less”. Unless you’re a Tory MP, in which case you demand a £31,000 pay rise, making it all the more ironic that the propaganda campaign against the welfare state has been built upon labelling claimants “scroungers”.

It is the “benefits scrounger” narrative which has been crucial in drumming up public support for the dismantling of the welfare state. This narrative has been a staple ingredient of right-wing and tabloid media for some time – a dirty tapestry of distorted statistics, cherry-picked extreme cases and outright lies which seeks to tar all unemployed and sick with the same derogatory brush. This scapegoating is largely effective, and turns the poor against the poor while the tax-dodging rich continue to line their pockets. A particularly despicable example of how low this propaganda can get is the way in which the deaths of six children, killed in a house fire set by father Mick Philpott, was used as political capital by the right wing, with the Daily Mail describing the killer as a “vile product of the welfare state“, as if the benefits system leads directly to manslaughter. Never let it be said that the Tories shy away from exploiting the tragic death of innocents to further their political goals.

This is a global phenomenon, intimately tied to the international banking system. Outside the UK, austerity measures have resulted in waves of unrest throughout Europe, where Greece and Spain have been hit particularly hard. Mass protests and rioting have become commonplace, although the mainstream media has done its best to avoid reporting on the true extent to which people are taking to the streets. In Greece, which has been used as something of a laboratory for austerity measures, there has been mass poverty, unemployment and suicides, with police meeting protestors with tear gas and batons. It is feared – justifiably so – that this unrest will spread throughout Europe – after all, one of the major institutions responsible for creating the current financial mess, Goldman Sachs, is effectively taking over control of governments in the eurozone. Spain, Portugal and Italy have also had  a number of large protests, and similar marches against the “bedroom tax” in the UK suggests that the British public may be on the verge of rising from its slumber.

Some EU leaders can see the writing on the wall, and have urged David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to ditch the “all-austerity” approach to the economic crisis in the face of this growing popular anger. Lack of faith in the political process in bringing about positive change for the masses has been exacerbated by a number of fraud and corruption scandals involving the very same leaders who have been pushing forward destructive economic policies: Italy’s ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is involved in tax fraud, sex-for-money and other cases; in France, its former budget minister was charged with tax fraud as two former presidents are mired in charges of embezzlement and illicit campaign financing; in Spain, the country’s ruling Popular Party has been accused of using a slush fund to make secret payments to senior members.

It is not surprising that this combination of austerity for the masses and bribery, corruption and cronyism for the politicians has all but eradicated what little trust the people may have had in the good faith of their elected leaders. The pretence of honesty and virtue has slipped, perhaps permanently, revealing the true nature of politics in all its self-serving ugliness, where greed is good no matter how destructive it may be to either the human race or the planet. Seemingly unaccountable for their actions and protected by an increasingly repressive police state, the public, with no advocates in the political system and despairing for their future, are left with few options other than to take to the streets.

Considering the increase in social division, instability, unemployment and political unrest, it was not without a hefty dose of irony that the Nobel committee awarded the European Union the peace prize in December 2012 (it wasn’t the first time the recepient of the prize caused controversy – a number of war criminals and murderers have been awarded the prize in the past). As part of the troika, along with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, the EU has been instrumental in setting ablaze a conflagration which could ignite the continent in wave upon wave of violent protests.

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher died today, remembered by many Britons for her infamous Poll Tax which prompted mass protests and riots across the UK. Could Cameron’s legacy be similarly blighted by widespread social unrest caused by the “bedroom tax” and his equally callous attack on the poor and vulnerable? Cameron’s cuts and tax breaks are a clear continuation of Thatcher’s policy of de-regulation and cuts to public funding; the public who support these cuts to the welfare state based on transparent propaganda about “benefit scroungers” serve only to assist the government as they pass the promise of poverty on to their children. Perhaps only a committed, peaceful opposition to austerity from the people – in the UK and everywhere else around the world where such policies are destroying the standard of living for everyone but the ultra-rich – will save us from waking up in a world defined by masters and slaves.


3 responses to “Austerity and the Attack on the Poor and Vulnerable

  1. How long before the real rioting starts?

  2. I couldn’t agree more! The war on welfare is ubiquitous worldwide. The effort to privatise public spaces and services in all their forms began well before 2008 and has since been ratcheted up. While the state has significant power and we might question how democratic it actually is, corporations are illusive entities able to cloak injustices and legitimately bear principles which are contrary to the interests of the public. Thus, it is more useful to operate in these arenas of low accountability. Here we have an explanation of the attempt to implement a philosophy of a small state which exists only to protect ‘private property’ – in which individuals also own themselves. The trap with this neo-liberal creeper is that if protection of private property is – the – primary principle from which a system is organised, what’s salient is that some people are considered to a greater extent than others by the state: Indeed, those who have the most. Moreover, the same rich people lobbying governments and making waves in the IMF and WB for these changes for years, are also the ones who will gain the most after their implementation. It is more money, more power, more influence, but with minimal accountability. Considerations of private property should be way down on the list of good things for governments to do. It’s people and their ‘welfare’ that need to come first.

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