The European Convention on Human Rights, which came into force on 3 September 1953, guarantees a range of political rights and freedoms of the individual against interference by the State. The Convention came about as an international response to the horrors of World War Two, and the Holocaust.
Before the incorporation of the Convention, people in the United Kingdom could only complain of unlawful interference with their Convention rights by lodging a petition with the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That all changed on 2 October 2000 when Labour’s Human Rights Act 1998 came into force, allowing UK citizens to sue public bodies for violations of their Convention rights in domestic courts.
David Cameron wants to scrap the Human Rights Act and has pledged to leave the European Convention. Human Rights are the bedrock of any democracy. He also wants to scrap consultations, impact assessments, audits, judicial reviews: all essential safeguards for citizens and mechanisms of democracy.
Government policies are expressed political intentions, regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences.
How policies are justified is increasingly being detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of propaganda to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.
A clear example of an ideologically-driven policy is the Welfare “Reform” Act, which is founded on a stigmatising, Othering narrative: benefit recipients are portrayed as the enemy that battles against fairness and responsibility. The mythological economic “free-rider,” a “burden on the state.” The “reforms” left people in receipt of lifeline benefits much worse off than they were, the word reform has been used as a euphemism for cuts.
Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has launched a new propaganda scapegoating advertising campaign encouraging people to phone a hotline if they suspect somebody they know is fraudulently claiming benefits.
I’m sure that serious fraudulent claimants inform their friends and neighbours of their every activity, including holidays, sleeping arrangements, moments of intimacy and all of their benefit payment details, all the time, so that makes sense…
Mark Harper said: “Those who cheat the system need to know we will use everything in our power to stop them stealing money from hardworking taxpayers.”
Yet we know that there isn’t a real distinction between benefit claimants and hard-working taxpayers, as the Tories would have us believe. Many people on benefits are also in work, but are not paid a sufficient wage to live on. Most people claiming benefits, including disabled people, have worked and contributed income tax previously.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the poorest citizens, including people claiming benefits, pay proportionally more indirect taxes than the wealthiest citizens, such as VAT. The strivers/skivers rhetoric is simply a divert, divide and scapegoating strategy. Growing social inequality generates a political necessity for prejudices.
The real cost of out-of-work benefits is over-estimated in relation to the welfare bill for pensions and in-work benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit, obscuring the increasing role that the British state plays in subsidising the scandalously low wages paid by increasingly exploitative employers, in order to meet a minimum standard of living for the hardworking.
The hardworking taxpayer myth is founded on a false dichotomy, since it is estimated that around 70% of households claim benefits of one kind or another at some point in their lives. In the current climate of poor pay, poor working conditions, job insecurity, and high living costs, the myth of an all pervasive welfare-dependent something for nothing culture is being used to foster prejudice and resentment towards those unfortunate enough to be out of work. It also serves to bolster right-wing justification narratives that are entirely ideologically driven, which are aimed at dismantling the welfare state, while concurrently undermining public support for it.
As the Huff Post’s Asa Bennett points out, there are much bigger costs to the taxpayer that the government are reluctant to discuss.
For example, the tax gap, charting the estimated amount of taxes unpaid thanks to evasion, avoidance, error and criminality, soared to £34 billion, according to HM Revenue and Customs. This equates to £1 in every £15 owed in taxes not being collected last year.
The National Audit Office found that the Department for Work and Pensions had made £1.4 billion in declared benefit overpayments, an increase of nearly 6%.
Meanwhile, the DWP estimate that between £7.5 billion and £12.3 billion of the six main benefits it administered were left unclaimed in 2009/2010. On top of that. HMRC suggest that several billion pounds more is most in unclaimed tax credits, with childless families missing out on £2.3 billion worth. That’s a grand total of 22.1 billion that ordinary taxpayers aren’t claiming, even though they are entitled to do so.
Iain Duncan Smith’s Department have wasted an estimated total of £6,221,875,000.00 of taxpayers’ money on the implementation of Universal Credit and private company contracts, amongst other things. (See We can reduce the Welfare Budget by billions: simply get rid of Iain Duncan Smith ).
Duncan Smith’s claims that his policies are about fairness and saving taxpayers’ money, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The policies are entirely ideologically-driven. We have a government that uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. One Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. A conservative deputy mayor said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.”
These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the most economically vulnerable citizens – those with the “least broad shoulders” – to understand that these comments reflect how conservatives think.
This is a government that is using public prejudice to justify massive socio-economic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinist survival of the fittest neoliberal “small state” principles.
The Tory creation of socio-economic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Tories’ welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision.
The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision and public services.
The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:
“If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014
Delingpole conveniently fails to mention that a majority of people needing lifeline welfare support are actually in work. He also fails to mention that while this government were imposing austerity on the poorest citizens, the wealthiest got generous handouts from the Treasury, in the form of tax breaks – hundreds of thousands of pounds each per year.
Poverty cannot be explained away by reference to simple narratives of the workshy scrounger as Delingpole claims, no matter how much he would like to apply such simplistic, blunt, stigmatising, dehumanising labels that originated from the Nazis (see arbeitssheu.)
This past four years we have witnessed an extraordinary breakdown of the public/private divide, and a phenomenological intrusion on the part of the state and media into the lives of the poorest members of society. (For example, see: The right-wing moral hobby horse: thrift and self-help, but only for the poor. ) Many people feel obliged to offer endless advice on thrift and self help aimed at persuading poor people to “manage” their poverty better.
Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazism and Stalinism, which she distinguishes from Italian Fascism, because Hitler and Stalin sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State and furthermore, they sought to dominate and control every aspect of everyone’s life. There are parallels here, especially when one considers the continued attempts at dismantling democratic processes and safeguards since the Coalition took office. Many policies are aimed at ‘incentivising’ certain behaviours and perceptions of citizens, using psychology to align them with political and defined economic goals. Citizens are increasingly seen by government as a means to an end.
Further parallels may be found here: Defining features of Fascism and Authoritarianism.
Between February 1933 and the start of World War Two, Nazi Germany underwent an economic “recovery” according to the government. Rather like the “recovery” that Osborne and Cameron are currently claiming, which isn’t apparent to most citizens.
This economic miracle, sold to the people of Germany, entailed a huge reduction in unemployment. However, the main reason for this was fear – anyone who was found guilty of being “workshy” (arbeitssheu) could then be condemned to the concentration camps that were situated throughout Germany. Hitler frequently referred to the economic miracle, whilst people previously employed in what was the professional class were made to undertake manual labour on the autobahns. People didn’t refuse the downgraded status and pay, or complain, lest they became Arbeitsscheu Reich compulsory labor camp prisoners, and awarded a black triangle badge for their perceived mental inferiority and Otherness.
Behaviour can be controlled by manipulating fear, using a pattern of deprivation. Benefit sanctions, for example, leave “workshy”people without the means to meet their basic survival needs and are applied for periods of weeks or months and up to a maximum of 3 years.
That the government of a so-called first world liberal democracy is so frankly inflicting such grotesquely cruel punishments on some of our most vulnerable citizens is truly horrific. It’s also terrifying that the media and the British public are complicit in this: they fail to recognise that the Social Darwinism inherent in Tory ideological grammar is being communicated through discourses and policies embodying crude behaviour modification techniques and an implicit eugenic subtext .
There were various rationales for the Nazi Aktion T4 programme, which include eugenics, Social Darwinism, racial and mental “hygiene”, cost effectiveness and the welfare budget.
The Aktion T4 programme used the term euthanasia as bureaucratic cover and in the minimal public relations efforts to invest what was essentially eugenics. It is clear that none of the killing was done to alleviate pain or suffering on the part of the victims. Rather, the evidence, including faked death certificates, deception of the victims and of the victims’ families, and widespread use of cremation, indicates the killing was done solely according to the socio-political aims and ideology of the perpetrators. The Nazis believed that the German people needed to be “cleansed” of the so-called racial enemies, but the Aktion T4 programme also included people with disabilities, the poor and the workshy.
Although many were gassed using carbon monoxide or killed by lethal injection, many more of these people deemed “life unworthy of life” were simply starved to death.
The Holodomor – “extermination by hunger” – was Joseph Stalin’s intentionaly inflicted famine, designed to destroy people in the Ukraine seeking independence from his rule. As a result, an estimated 7,000,000 people starved to death. The attitude of the Stalinist regime in 1932–33 was that many of those starving to death were “counterrevolutionaries” “idlers” or “thieves” who “fully deserved their fate”. In 2008, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognised the Holodomor as a crime against humanity.
Implementing policies that lead to members of vulnerable social groups starving, which is an INTENTIONAL political act, however, is not currently included in the UN Treaty definition of genocide. Nor are disabled people amongst the categories of groups protected by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
While I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.
Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes tenable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards politically defined others, that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.
The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as the Other: an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, extermination of the group being targeted.
Economic recession, uncertainty and political systems on the authoritarian -> totalitarian spectrum contribute to shaping the social conditions that seem to trigger Allport’s escalating scale of prejudice.
In the UK, the media is certainly being used by the right-wing as an outlet for blatant political propaganda, and much of it is manifested as a pathological persuasion to hate others. The Coalition clearly have strong authoritarian tendencies, and that is most evident in their anti-democratic and behaviourist approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.
Vulnerable groups are those which our established principles of social justice demand we intervene to help, support and protect. However, the Coalition’s rhetoric is aimed at a deliberate identification of citizens as having inferior behaviour. The poorest citizens are presented as a problem group because of their individual faulty characteristics, and this is intentionally diverting attention from wider socio-economic and political causes of vulnerability. Individual subjects experiencing hardships have been placed beyond state protection and are now the objects of policies that embody behaviourism, and pathologising, punitive and coercive elements of social control. Vulnerable people are no longer regarded as human subjects, the state is acting upon them, not for or on behalf of them.
People are still debating if Stalin’s Holodomor conforms to a legal definition of genocide, no-one doubts that Hitler’s gas chambers do, though Hitler also killed thousands by starvation.
Our own government have formulated and implemented policies that punish unemployed people for being “workshy” – for failing to meet the never-ending benefit conditionality requirements which entails the use of negative incentives, coercion and behaviour modification to “support” a person into work – by withdrawing their lifeline benefit. We also know that sanction targets have led to many people losing lifeline benefits for incoherent and grossly unfair reasons that have nothing to do with an unwillingness to cooperate or work.
Since benefits were originally calculated to meet basic living requirements – food, fuel and shelter – it’s inconceivable that the government haven’t already considered the consequences of removing people’s means of meeting these fundamental survival needs. Of course, the Tory claim that this draconian measure is to incentivise people to “find work” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when we consider that there isn’t enough work for everyone, and certainly not enough work around that pays an adequate amount to actually survive on.
Furthermore, the Tories “incentivise” the wealthy by rewarding them with more money (such as the £107,000 tax break that was handed out to each millionaire every year from our own taxes by Osborne). It flies in the face of our conventional and established wisdom that reducing people to starvation and desperation will somehow motivate people to do anything other than to try and survive. (See Maslow’s Hierarchy, and two tragic accounts of the consequences of imposed sanctions.)
Tory austerity is all about ideology – the dehumanisation of the poor, and the destruction of public services and provisions – state infrastructure – and nothing to do with the state of the economy. It’s also about cutting money from the poorest and handing it to the wealthiest. Many economists agree that austerity is damaging to the economy.
There has been a media complicity with irrational and increasingly punitive Tory policies. But why are the public so compliant?
Decades of research findings in sociology and psychology inform us that as soon as a group can be defined as an outgroup, people will start to view them differently. The very act of demarcating groups begins a process of ostracisation.
As well as the political and social definitions of others, there also exists deeper, largely unconscious beliefs that may have even more profound and insidious effects. These are related to whether people claiming benefits are even felt to be truly, properly human in the same way that “we” are.
This is called infrahumanisation. Infra means “below”, as in below or less than fully human. The term was coined by a researcher at the University of Louvain called Jacque-Philippe Leyens to distinguish this form of dehumanisation from the more extreme kind associated with genocide.
However, I don’t regard one form of dehumanisation as being discrete from another, since studies show consistently that it tends to escalate when social prejudice increases. It’s a process involving accumulation.
According to infrahumanisation theory, the denial of uniquely human emotions to the outgroup is reflective of a tacit belief that they are less human than the ingroup.
Poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and welfare claimants are the frequently outgrouped. It is these most stigmatised groups that people have the most trouble imagining having the same uniquely human qualities as the rest of us. This removes the “infrahumanised” group from the bonds, moral protection and obligations of our community, because outgrouping de-empathises us.
This would explain why some people attempt to justify the cuts, which clearly fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. This is probably why fighting the austerity cuts is much more difficult than simply fighting myths and political propaganda. I think the government are very aware of the infrahumanisation tendency amongst social groups and are manipulating it, because growing social inequality generates a political necessity for social prejudices to use as justification narratives.
During a debate in the House of Lords, Freud described the changing number of disabled people likely to receive the employment and support allowance as a “bulge of, effectively, stock”. After an outraged response, this was actually transcribed by Hansard as “stopped”, rendering the sentence meaningless. He is not the only person in the Department for Work and Pensions who uses this term. The website describes disabled people entering the government’s work programme for between three and six months as “3/6Mth stock”.
This infrahumanised stock are a source of profit for the companies running the programme. The Department’s delivery plan recommends using “credit reference agency data to cleanse the stock of fraud and error”.
The linguistic downgrading of human life requires dehumanising metaphors: a dehumanising socio-political system using a dehumanising language, and it is becoming familiar and pervasive: it has seeped almost unnoticed into our lives.
Until someone like Freud or Mellins pushes our boundaries of decency a little too far. Then we suddenly see it, and wonder how such prejudiced and discriminatory comments could be deemed acceptable and how anyone could possibly think they would get away with such blatantly offensive rhetoric without being challenged. It’s because they have got away with less blatantly offensive comments previously: it’s just that they pushed more gently and so we didn’t see.
It’s also the case that the government distorts people’s perceptions of the aims of their policies by using techniques of neutralisation. An example of this method of normalising prejudice is the use of the words “incentivise” and “help” in the context of benefit sanctions, which as we know are intentionally extremely punitive, and people have died as a consequence of having their lifeline benefit withdrawn.
As Allport’s scale of prejudice indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subliminal expressions of prejudice and subtle dehumanisation, which escalate. Germany didn’t wake up one morning to find Hitler had arranged the murder of millions of people. It happened, as many knew it would, and was happening whilst they knew about it. And many opposed it, too.
The dignity and equal worth of every human being is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings.
As a so-called civilised society, so should we.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone