Dr Chris Grover, who heads Lancaster University’s Sociology Department says that austerity can be understood as a form of structural violence – a violence that is built into society and is expressed in unequal power and unequal life chances, as it is deepens inequalities and injustices, and creates even more poverty.
The article, Violent proletarianisation: social murder, the reserve army of labour and social security ‘austerity’ in Britain, suggests that as a result of the violence of austerity working class people face harm to their physical and mental wellbeing, and, in some instances, are ‘socially murdered’.
Dr Grover calls on the Government for change and action. He cites the consequences of austerity in the social security system – severe cuts to benefits and the ‘ratcheting up’ of conditions attached to benefits as constituting ‘social murder.’
He refers to the process as ‘violent proletarianisation’ (the idea that violent austerity is aimed at forcing people to do [low] paid work, rather than being supported by social security).
“To address violent proletarianisation what is required is not the tweaking of existing policies but fundamental change that removes the economic need for people to work for the lowest wages that employers can get away with paying,” says Dr Grover, echoing what many of us have also observed and commented on.
Published on 19 December in the journal, Critical Social Policy, Dr Grover gives examples of where social security austerity has led to a range of harms:
- an additional six suicides for every 10,000 work capability assessments done;
- increasing number of people Britain dying of malnutrition
- increasing numbers of homeless people dying on the streets or in hostels
The article rationalises that austerity, the difficult economic conditions created by Government by cutting back on public spending, has brought cuts and damaging changes to social security policy meaning Britain has fallen victim to a brutal approach to forcing people to undertake low paid work.
This is something that many of us have also observed.
“The violence takes two forms,” says Dr Grover. “First it involves further economic hardship of already income-poor people.
“It causes social inequalities and injustices in the short term and, in the longer term.
“Second, the poverty that violent proletarianisation creates is both known and avoidable.”
Dr Grover adds that only by fundamentally rethinking current social security policy can change that protects the poorest people be made.
The article examines socioeconomic inequality and injustice, discussing the way it is used to force the commodification of labour power, and a consequential creation of ‘diswelfares ‘that are known and avoidable.
By keeping citizens poor, and without the means of meeting their most fundamental needs, the state creates a desperate reserve army of labour, which is open to exploitation by employers. Conditional welfare also coerces citizens into accepting any work available, regardless of how poor the conditions and wage levels are. There is no means of bargaining for job security, better working conditions or pay, since people claiming social security cannot refuse a job offer, without facing financial sanctions, and subsequently, destitution.
The author suggests that violent proletarianisation is a contradictory process, one that helps constitute the working class, but in a way that socially murders some of its reserve army [of labour] members.
Just as ‘the market’ allocates wealth and resources, it has also come to allocate life and death.
Grover takes his inspiration from Friedrich Engels’s account of the social murder committed by British capitalists to assess the contemporary impact of conservative economic policy, which they define as policies designed to maximize the accumulation of profit while socialising the associated risks and costs. Conservative neoliberals claim that if their policy prescription is followed, it will produce broad-based economic benefits including more rapid growth, higher incomes, less illness, and, even, more democracy.
The Lancaster university research contrasts the myths of Conservative economic policy with the reality. What Conservative economic policy has actually accomplished is a redistribution of wealth and power away from the vast majority of the population to private companies and their owners. The effects of these policies on citizens and workers have been politically determined economic instability, unemployment, poverty and widening inequality, resulting in suffering, harm and a rise in premature mortalities.
Social murder is a phrase used by Engels in his 1845 work The Condition of the Working-Class in England whereby “the class which at present holds social and political control” (the bourgeoisie) “places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death.”
Social murder was explicitly committed by the political and social elite against the poorest in society. Although Engels’ work was originally written with regard to the English city of Manchester in the Victorian era, the term has been used by other left-wing politicians such as John McDonnell in the 21st century to describe the impacts of Conservative economic policy (neoliberalism), as well as being linked with events such as the Grenfell Tower fire. The victims of Grenfell Tower didn’t just die. Austerity, outsourcing and deregulation killed them – just as the conditions of Victorian Manchester killed the poorest citizens then.
Engels said: “When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.”
Over 170 years later, Britain remains a country that murders its poor. When four separate government ministers are warned that Grenfell and other high rises are a serious fire risk, then an inferno isn’t unfortunate. It is inevitable. It is social murder.
The acts that culminated in the deaths were licensed by those in public office, or private sector authority, who had decided the lives of poor people mattered less than the profits of the rich. This is a logic that’s still very evident today.
The past decade of austerity has been one of political violence: of people losing their lifeline income for not being disabled ‘enough’, of families evicted from their homes for having more than two children or a bedroom that the state deems surplus to requirements.
These are tales of private suffering and immense misery, of a person or a household plunged into stress, anxiety, depression or worse.
Aditya Chakrabortty concluded last year, in his well-observed article about the Grenfell tragedy: “Class warfare is passed off as book-keeping. Accountability is tossed aside for “commercial confidentiality”, while profiteering is dressed up as economic dynamism. One courtesy we should pay the victims of Grenfell is to drop the glossy-brochure euphemisms. Let’s get clear what happened to them: an act of social murder, straight out of Victorian times.”
You can read the research report in full, without the paywall, here: Violent proletarianisation: Social murder, the reserve army of labour and social security ‘austerity’ in Britain
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