Government austerity demands that we die within our means

Victoria Cooper, The Open University

David Whyte, University of Liverpool



Image source: Lee Davy/FlickrCC BY 2.0


As we move towards the general election, we are paralyzed by what is probably the biggest single issue affecting ordinary people in the country: austerity. We are unable to fully understand both the economic madness of austerity and the true scale of the human cost and death toll that ‘fiscal discipline’ has unleashed.

Since coming into power as Prime Minister, Theresa May has made a strategic decision not to use the word ‘austerity’. Instead she has adopted a more palatable language in a vain attempt to distance herself from the Cameron governments before her: “you call it austerity; I call it living within our means.”

The experience of countless thousands of people is precisely the opposite: people are actively prevented from living within their means and are cut off from their most basic entitlement to: housing, food, health care, social care and general protection from hardship. And people are dying as a result of these austerity effects. In February, Jeremy Corbyn made precisely this point when he observed the conclusions of one report that 30,000 people were dying unnecessarily every year because of the cuts to NHS and to local authority social care budgets.

But this is really only the tip of the iceberg. The scale of disruption felt by people at the sharp end of these benefit reforms is enormous.  Countless thousands of others have died prematurely following work capability assessments: approximately 10,000 according the government’s own figures. People are dying as a result of benefit sanction which has fatal impacts on existing health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Austerity is about dismantling social protection. The crisis we face in social care is precipitated by cuts to local authority funding.  In the first 5 years of austerity, local authority budgets were cut by 40%, amounting to an estimated £18bn in care provision.

A decade of cuts, when added up, also means that some key agencies that protect us, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency will have been decimated by up to 60% of funding cuts. Scaling back on an already paltry funding in these critical areas of regulation will lead to a rise in pollution related illness and disease and will fail to ensure people are safe at work.

The economic folly is that austerity will cost society more in the long term.  Local authorities are, for example, housing people in very expensive temporary accommodation because the government has disinvested in social housing.  The crisis in homelessness has paradoxically led to a £400 million rise in benefit payments.   The future costs of disinvesting in young people will be seismic.

Ending austerity would mean restoring our system of social protection and restoring the spending power of local authorities.  It would mean, as all the political parties except the Conservatives recognise, taxing the rich, not punishing the poor in order to pay for a problem that has its roots in a global financial system that enriched the elite. It would also mean recognizing that the best way to prevent the worsening violence of austerity and to rebuild the economy is to re-invest in public sector jobs.

In our book published this week, we bring together 31 leading authors to challenge this violent agenda. The book provides a comprehensive guide to the social violence that has been unleashed by austerity and shows, unequivocally, that austerity is not about ‘living within our means’ like some kind of fantasy household budget in Hampstead.  Austerity is designed to punish already disenfranchised populations, in targeted and violent ways.

Both the economic madness and the vicious cruelty of austerity have been almost written out of this election.   Come June, the next elected government has to produce a viable alternative strategy to austerity if it wants to reduce the death toll and properly protect its people.  No matter how the politics of Brexit or the politics of devolution and independence play out in the future, austerity is the key political issues that will shape the lives and deaths of the British people.

The Violence of Austerity, edited by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, is published by Pluto Press.


This post was originally published by Open Democracy.


Over the next four weeks we will  publish a series of blogs by HERC authors included the new book ‘The Violence of Austerity.’  Vicky Canning, Dan McCulloch, Steve Tombs and Joanna Mack will each describe in detail how austerity is having profoundly violent impacts.  The book is available to buy from Pluto Press


Defining Zemia

Avi Boukli, The Open University


What is fascism?

A student asked me

and can you believe
I couldn’t remember
the definition?

 — Solmaz Sharif, from “Force Visibility”, Look: Poems, published by Graywolf Press 2016.


Zemiology, since its emergence at the start of the 21st century, has an ambiguous relationship with criminology. Whilst the tensions are often overstated, recent attempts to reconcile and harmonise these two perspectives are also problematic. In this brief blog spot, I focus on “zemia”, the central concept around which zemiology has been organised. While this is the first attempt to define “zemia” based on its historical and linguistic past in the context of zemiology, this current work is part of a larger project (Boukli 2019; Boukli and Kotzé in print).

Briefly, zemia can be approached in four different ways:

  • It can be taken to denote a communicative idea, thought, feeling or emotion.
  • Its meaning may be understood in relation to performative speech acts conveying wear, decay, attrition, wastage, lack, loss, disadvantage, bodily harm, damage, disaster, spoiling and debt.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to criminal jurisprudence.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to the practice or institution of punishment of a) crimes; and b) deviant transgressions, as well as to informal “punishment” in a less literal sense.

Current zemiological work fits most closely with the second category of the list above. Indeed, within this growing body of work copious references are made to various forms of financial, physical, psychological and environmental harms which impinge upon basic human needs and rights as well as earth’s well-being. This includes, but is not limited to, poverty, debt, malnutrition, inadequate housing, the proliferation of preventable illness and disease, pollution, destruction, accelerated animal extinction, resource depletion, genocide and numerous other deleterious events or absences that emanate from either too little or too much state intervention (Hillyard and Tombs 2007; Muncie 2000). Similarly, Tifft and Sullivan (2001:198) define social harms as “actions or arrangements that physically and spiritually injure and/or thwart the needs, development, potentiality, health, and dignity of others”. In other words, the perpetuation of social conditions that facilitate the proliferation of what Arendt (1958:134) has called the “waste economy” and of what Bauman (2004) subsequently refers to as the mass production of “human waste”.

While much of the social harm literature acknowledges the intellectual debt owed to early pioneers such as Sutherland (1945) and more recently Mathiesen (1986) and de Haan (1990), the intellectual debt evidently runs much deeper. Indeed, Plato follows the Socratic paradox, according to which no one causes harm out of their own will (οὐδεὶς ἑκὼν κακός). Rather, any form of harmful injustice emanates from ignorance, or by omitting to act or intervene (Plato 2000 Republic Book IX, 589c; Pemberton 2004). From this, it becomes obvious that the English word “harm” is not as conspicuously ambiguous as the Greek word “zemia”. Yet even with this ambiguity a few points of clarity can be teased out. Zemia is sometimes (quite commonly in Ancient Greek) used to mean (a) “make worse”. However, it is also sometimes used to denote (b) “hurt”. For instance, we may hurt someone without necessarily making them worse. We may “hurt” someone by thwarting them, by interfering with their interests, by making life somehow more unpleasant for them (e.g. by fining, by depriving them of drugs and cigarettes, by preventing them from drunk driving), but we do not thereby necessarily make them worse than before. For example, punishment could take the remedial form of treatment, which may actually do some good. That is, if zemia is used in this latter sense it is inflicted upon someone in order to make them better (Cross and Woozley, 1994:21-21).

Very much aligned with the speech acts outlined above in approach two, zemia, according to the Greek Neohellenic Lexicon by Aulos, denotes not only damage, but financial loss or deficit due to a “wearing down or decline” of some kind. Similarly, Aristotle distinguishes between kerdos (gain) and zemia (loss) and in doing so identifies the mean between these two poles as dikaion (just). Any deviation from the mean is to transgress an external standard of distributive fairness and therefore constitutes injustice. In this context, then, Aristotle asserts that gaining (kerdainein) more than one’s own share while causing another to suffer a loss (zemiousthai) is to commit an injustice (Balot 2001). As a result, at the very core logic of free-market competition lies zemia, animated by unrestrained competition and unlimited gaining with no social obligation.

Zemia is then linked to relational justice. For Aristotle, “justice is something in relation to some people” by which he means that it is not a characteristic of an individual but rather a characteristic of a good divided up by individuals, who stand in a certain relationship to one another (Balot 2001:27). This is particularly interesting considering our current socioeconomic immersion within an inherently exploitative capitalist system and its attendant dominant ideology of capitalist cruelty. Another reading of zemia makes this link between capitalist exploitation and harm a little more explicit. According to Allen (2000:69), zemia primarily meant “harmful loss” or “payment” and understood outside the context of punishment the word “linked the process of punitive exchange to the process of monetary exchange and to the status of citizens as economic actors”.

However, as intimated here, and articulated in approach three above, zemia can also be understood in the context of punishment. Indeed, Allen (2000) identifies a number of punitive words used in fourth century Greece to signify punishment, among which she notes the word zemia as denoting penalty. In this context, zemia and its cognate zemioo (verb, meaning to cause zemia) refer to the effect or consequence punishment has on the wrongdoer rather than a “set of relations between people or their roles in punishment” (Allen 2000:69). Allen (2000:174) further demonstrates the punitive tones zemia possesses by referring to Demosthenes’ (21.42) explicit description of laws as a codified delineation of how much anger should be ascribed to various wrongdoings: “Observe that the laws treat the wilful and hubristic wrongdoer as worthy of greater anger (orge) and punishment (zemia)”. Moreover, in Kata Agoratou, Lysias uses the term zemia in several places to denote punishment in either the form of fines or the death penalty. Similarly Xenophon, in Apomnemoneumata (3.9.10-3.9.13), uses the terms “imminent zemia” and “death is the zemia” to signify zemia as punishment in the legal sense. Crucially, in Protagoras Plato argues for the utilitarian efficacy of zemia/punishment by highlighting its seemingly reformative and preventative utility. The word zemia therefore means both penalty and punishment and refers to disparate sentencing practices from fines to death. Furthermore, the cognate word zemiotis (ζημιωτής) refers to the person who sets a penalty.

From this brief historical excavation of zemia’s deep roots we can see that zemia is the word missing from today’s puzzle. In a world of snap decisions, elections, connections and separations, zemia can encapsulate a wider range of meanings linking structural and interpersonal harms.


Photos © Avi Boukli

Forthcoming relevant publications:

Boukli, A. (2019) Zemiology and Human Trafficking, London & NY: Routledge.

Boukli, A. and Kotzé, J. (eds.) (In Print) Zemiology: Reconnecting Crime and Social Harm. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.