Asylum and austerity: a means to separate the ‘should haves’ and the ‘should have nots’

Victoria Canning, The Open University

 

When austerity erodes essential public services, it is easy to create categories of ‘should haves’ and ‘should have nots’. Alongside other migrant groups, people seeking asylum are increasingly seen as burdensome, to the detriment of their rights, dignity and civil liberties.

 

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The gradual erosion of welfare has long been a cilice forced onto those most dependent on financial support. Decisions made under the guise of austerity have taken that a step further, slicing through the very mantel of public services, not only those receiving benefits or care, but those giving them. Legal aid cuts have reduced the capacity for lawyers to provide free guidance, whilst the strain of cuts to the NHS renders healthcare staff stretched, stressed and well beyond safe working environments.

 

Alongside the creeping criminalisation of migration, the language of austerity has provided ample justification for reducing asylum rights in the UK. In times of particular financial hardship, it becomes ever easier for the state and the public to call for measures reducing support to people who are seen as ‘non-citizens’. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the cascading austerity cuts have been hard felt by people seeking asylum. Since 2010, individuals and families seeking asylum have faced reductions in legal aid, and now face ever more significant barriers accessing services for mental health problems, sexual violence counselling, or post-torture support. Since refugee groups often have disproportionately violent histories, these services are absolutely vital.

 

Austerity has, in reality, encouraged an environment that facilitates neglect and increased violence against people seeking asylum, amongst other migrant and non-white populations. When I started researching the British asylum system in 2008, at the beginning of the ‘crisis’, I could not have imagined that the social or economic landscape for people seeking asylum could get much worse. I found that the lack of access to interpreters impacted on the health of pregnant women and their children, sexual violence services were thinly stretched, and local foodbanks in Mosques and churches were commonplace. Support was minimal, but it was at least existent in some capacity.

 

Now, at the height of austerity and scores of interviews and thousands of hours of activist participation later, it is plain to see how the social, legal and economic conditions have rapidly evaporated. To echo the sentiments of a community mental health worker:

 

Five, six, seven years ago Liverpool had so many organisations supporting asylum seekers and probably that’s because there was a lot of funding available from government or local authorities or even trust funders.  Over the last two, three years things have changed, there isn’t a lot of money around, so a few other organisations have had to shut down their doors, they’ve had to streamline their services.

 

‘Streamlining their services’ suggests making services more focussed. In reality, it has basically meant that fewer specialised organisations exist, with central and local cuts – some of the most severe across the UK – adding further weight onto the few shoulders that are still available to carry it.  This is a key issue for women fleeing domestic violence who otherwise face the reality of daily abuse. As a councillor in the North-West of England put it:

 

In terms of women’s issues as refugee and asylum seekers they were just expected to be absorbed into the existing organisations but what people didn’t realise that the existing organisations were only working to a minimum capacity because of their funding. Now with austerity and the European Brexit and stuff like that, that’s beginning to look even worse, if you can imagine it to be any worse.

 

As I argue in The Violence of Austerity, and as advocacy and pressure groups such as Sisters Uncut and Safety 4 Sisters can attest, cuts to specialist services have the capacity to effectively facilitate deaths. If women cannot escape cycles of violence, gain access to refuges and receive emotional support – if they are depressed or feeling suicidal – some women will die. Such deaths are foreseeable when financial support is all but eradicated. Ignoring their potential has been a decision central to the agenda of austerity, not a by-product of it.

 

Deflecting responsibility on to those who least deserve it?

 

In a recent interview in Merseyside, a case worker for a refugee women’s service told me she felt that, ‘there has been definitely a concerted drive to divert attention away from the fact that there’s been less money provided, and put attention on stuff like, “Well who else could be using the services who doesn’t have as much right to the service as you?”’. In other words, rather than looking at those responsible for austerity, we are encouraged to look at those around us as potential threats to dwindling resources.

 

The reality of life in asylum has, however, long been more than arduous. Currently, people seeking asylum in Britain receive £36.95 per week in cash (£5.28 per day), but those who are awaiting asylum appeals receive £35.39 per week on a prepayment card. Considering that people seeking asylum received around £5 per day in 2008, at the beginning of the so-called ‘economic crisis’, and that inflation has increased on average 2.6 per cent each year since then, the end result of the infliction of such poverty is clearly foreseeable. Evidencing the harmful effects of this meagre entitlement, in 2014 Refugee Action found that:

 

Half of asylum-seekers surveyed couldn’t buy enough food to feed themselves or their families. [Our] research also found that 43 per cent of asylum-seekers miss a meal because they can’t afford to eat while a shocking 88 per cent don’t have enough money to buy clothes.

 

Over the past few months, I have spoken with women seeking asylum who are literally choosing between food and legal support payments. Cuts to support workers are devastating for people who can’t read English or who gain no advice, because it literally means not being able to access food or healthcare – even if they have the right to do so.

 

If there is one point to take away from a collection as hard hitting as The Violence of Austerity, it is that the decisions made in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis were exactly that – decisions, made by some of the very people responsible for ensuring welfare and protection. They were not made by people seeking sanctuary – people requesting protection – who will likely feel the social and economic impacts of austerity for years to come.

 

Victoria Canning is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on‘‘Multiple forms of violence in the asylum system’. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER

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Naming the prison for what it is: a place of institutionally-structured violence

David Scott, The Open University

 

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Photo of prisoners on social media following HMP Birmingham Disturbances – Source: ibtimes.co.uk

 

Headline after headline in the British Press in recent months has placed a spotlight on prisoner violencePrisoner violence, especially that perpetrated by prisoners against prison officers, has been consistently portrayed as reaching epidemic proportions.  Statistics have been rolled out again and again detailing rises in assaults on staff, prisoner homicides and general levels of prisoner interpersonal violence in the last four years.  Yet much of the recent media focuses only on the physical violence perpetrated by prisoners.  Whilst such interpersonal physical violence should not be ignored or downplayed, it is only one kind of prison violence and by no means the most deadly.

 

Individual Pathology?

Violence is regarded by many people to be immoral and the perpetration of physical violence considered problematic by most people in most circumstances.  Official condemnations of prisoner physical violence, from the Justice Secretary, politicians, penal practitioners and penal reformers certainly have not been in short supply in recent times, but often explanations of prison violence have been reduced to prisoner individual pathology.  Pathologically violent prisoners have a deprived nature and inherent tendency towards violence (in other words, prisoners are dangerous, violent and irrational people who would be equally, if not more, violent on the outside). Analysis has rarely gone beyond this framework of understanding and it has been the approach of the current government, exemplified in the recent white paper on prisons. Physical violence by prisoners is being taken seriously and this is because it is not only the most visible form of violence but also because prisoner violence presents a direct threat to the state’s monopoly on the use of force.  But the problem of prisoner violence, and the problem of violence within prisons more generally, cannot be reduced to an increase in the number of violent prisoners alone, if at all.

 

The problem with the “individual pathology” argument is that ignores the brutal fact that prisons are inevitably structured according to the dictates of domination and exploitation.  Prisons are distinct moral places where normal moral conventions for daily interactions between prisoners and penal authorities can be neutralised. Physical violence in prison should not then be dislocated from the permanent and irremovable situational contexts and structures of penal confinement. Hierarchical and antagonistic relationships are naturalised in prisons and result in an ‘unequal exchange’ between people ranked differently, creating a form of structural vulnerability.  This is a key generator of conflict, antagonism and physical violence. Systemic exploitation takes many different forms in the prison place, such as through the informal prisoner code or bullying.  For prisoners, physical violence can be a way of acquiring goods and services, keeping face or fronting out problems.  In social hierarchies there are always winners and losers, with the losers open to physical (and sometimes sexual) exploitation.  Though the physical violence of prisoners is often relatively minor (with the exception of 2015 in recent times in the UK there have been only small numbers of prisoner homicides) victimisation and exploitation are routinised and part of the social organisation of the prison.  But this is not the only form of prison violence.

 

Prison Officer Violence

For a long time physical violence by prisoners against prison officers was taken for granted as a part of prison life.  With the promotion of a “zero tolerance” policy by the Prison Officer Association in 2012 this appears to have changed.  However it still seems to be regularly accepted that physical violence can and will be deployed by prison officers where and when deemed necessary.  Prison officer violence is also connected to the asymmetrical penal hierarchies.  Although staff cultures differ in their intensity across and within prisons, the hierarchical nature of the prison place exacerbates the ‘us and them’ mentality. Physical violence against prisoners is sometimes viewed by staff as not only necessary but also morally justifiable.  Violence is used for the right reasons to control the less eligible prisoner, something which has been referred to by Richard Edney in 1997 as “righteous violence”.  Prisoners are placed beyond the realm of understanding and the norms of common humanity.  They are Othered.  Using violence against prisoners has also in the past been used as a means of gaining respect and status as well as providing ‘excitement’ in the otherwise bleak and monotonous routine.

 

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Prison officers control and restraint – source: videohit.tv

 

Prison officer autobiographies in recent years are a valuable source of information on the nature and extent of prison officer violence.  They inform us that for prison officers the location and timing of physical violence is often carefully chosen.  Sometimes it takes place in concealed and isolated spaces of the prison where the officer cannot be easily seen; other times officers may utilise the opportunities given to them by prisoners – such as targeting unpopular prisoners during prisoner disturbances or on the way to the segregation unit or applying greater force than necessary when applying restraints.  More indirectly, prison officers can facilitate prisoner-on-prisoner interpersonal violence by turning a blind eye, such as leaving the cell of a potential victim open; failing to patrol hot-spot areas known for prisoner assaults; or failing to intervene when physical violence erupts between two prisoners.

 

That prisons are drenched in violence does not mean, however, that physical violence is constantly exercised.  Physical violence may well be rare events in certain penal institutions, but this does not mean people live free from the shadow of violence. What is always present though is the fear of violence.  The exercise of violence can be explicit, as for example through the structured humiliations and denials of dignity within the daily role of the prison officer – strip searches; control and restraint; locking people into a cell and so on – or it can be implicit when prisoners conform because they know physical violence will follow if they do not.

 

Institutionally-Structured Violence

This is, however, a further form of violence in prison.  This silent, invisible yet potentially deadly form of violence has been named as institutionally-structured violenceInstitutionally-structured violence refers to the harmful outcomes created by the deprivations structured within penal regimes that restrict access to necessary life resources, thus negatively impacting upon health, wellbeing and intellectual, physical and spiritual development.  Operating independently of human actions, institutionally-structural violence has a permanent, continuous presence in the prison place and in the end produces suffering and death.  Rather than a perverse or pathological aberration, institutionally-structured violence is an inevitable and legal feature of prison life. Institutionally-structured violence is constructed through the operation of the daily rules, norms and procedures of penal institutions and impacts upon how prisoners and staff interact. Institutionally-structured violence exists when autonomy and choices are severely curtailed; human wellbeing, potential and development are undermined; feelings of safety and sense of security are weak; and human needs are systematically denied through the restrictive and inequitable distribution of resources.

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HMP Manchester – Source: prisonuk.blogspot.co.uk

 

 

A person can never be truly free in prison – everywhere they will be restricted by invisible (and sometimes quite visible) chains that place significant limitations upon human movement. Restrictions on prisoner contact and relationships are structurally organised and whilst physical violence is relational and dependent upon a number of contingencies, institutionally-structured violence is embedded in, and socially produced by, the situational contexts of daily prison regimes.  Most obviously, we think of this in terms of prison conditions, crowding and the spatial restrictions created by the architectural dimensions of the prison place itself.  Prisons are a specifically designated coercive spatial order controlling human freedom, autonomy, choices, actions and relationships.  External physical barricades regulate the conditions of social existence through sealing the prisoner from their previous life, whilst internal control mechanisms survey constraints on the minutiae of the prison day.  Security restrictions on prisoner movements – such as access to educational and treatment programmes; religious instruction; work and leisure provision – are carefully structured and regimented around predetermined orderings of time and space.  The architecture of the prison place determines the location of events and distribution of bodies and in so doing also highly regulates relationships, and subsequently physical violence.

 

The harm generated by the general lack of privacy and intimacy; the ‘forced relationality’ between prisoners sharing a cell; insufficient living space and personal possessions; the indignity of eating and sleeping in what is in effect a lavatory; living daily and breathing in the unpleasant smells of body odour, urine and excrement; the humiliation of defecating in the presence of others are all examples of institutionally-structured violence.  Yet if these visible daily spatial constraints were all there was to institutionally-structured violence then prison reformers’ calls for improved prison designs, conditions, greater forms of autonomy and enhanced resources allowing prisoners to choose how they live their lives might be considered sufficient. But sadly they are not.

 

Prisons are places of estrangement.  They will always be places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons are places which constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, alienation and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons are lonely, isolating and brutalising experiences.  Prisons are places of dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of their basic human needs. Combined with saturation in time consciousness / awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death.  For prison officers cultures of moral indifference and neglect are facilitated in such a culture where prisoner shared humanity is neutralised and the pain and suffering of fellow humans ignored.

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Source: BBC News

 

Abolish Violence

The starting point is to name the prison for what it actually is – a place of institutionally-structured violence.  This entails denaturalising taken for granted deprivations structured within daily penal regime and acknowledging that prisons produce a specific moral climate that is more likely to dehumanise and dehabilitate than positively transform an individual.  Through articulating the brutal mundaneness of everyday prison life so corrosive to human flourishing and wellbeing we can facilitate a new culture that can assist in making the full extent of prison violence more visible.

 

Prisons are the enemy of the people, not their protector.  Prisons life is an unfolding human tragedy for all those caught up in exploitative and oppressive relations. Focusing on prisons as a form of institutionally-structured violence also highlights the tensions around promoting the criminal law as a means of responding to social harms such as sexual violence.  Indeed, the punishment of sexual violence has not only led to the reinforcement of state legitimacy but in the USA at least to further expansion of the penal net among poor, disadvantaged and marginalised women.   The belief that prisons can be used to ‘control’ male violence and create greater safety and public protection are today key ways of legitimating the prison place: by focusing on institutionally-structured violence it is possible to challenge this logic.  The prison cannot provide a means of increasing the safety and well-being of anyone, be they ‘victims’, ‘offenders’ or ‘bystanders’.

 

When focusing on ‘institutional structures’ though we must be careful the argument is not reduced to a crude form of social pathology.  There is also always the danger that such analysis can lead to the denial of human agency.  Human choices are constrained by social circumstances, not determined by them.  So we should acknowledge that current patterns of interactions in prison can be challenged.  Prison authorities and prison officers should be encouraged to talk openly about the harmful consequences they see on a daily basis: they, alongside prisoners, can bear witness to truth of current penal realities and should be allowed to do so without negative consequences.  Whilst it is impossible to change all the structural arrangements of the prison place, there are still everyday operational practices and cultures that can transformed.  Emancipatory humanitarian changes can be introduced to mitigate the worst excesses of institutionally-structured violence.  Some need deprivations can be removed and many daily infringements of human dignity can be greatly reduced.  Cultural changes can be made to promote a democratic culture providing first a voice to prisoners and then a commitment to listen to that voice with respect and due consideration. Finding new non-violent ways of dealing with personal conflicts and troubles in prison would also reduce the extent of physical violence and would help de-legitimate cultures of violence.

 

Yet prisons can never free themselves of violence entirely.  Prisons systematically generate suffering and death.  We must then urgently, vigorously and robustly call for a radical reduction in the use of prison.  Quite simply, violence can never be used as a weapon against violence.

Prison deaths: a case of corporate manslaughter?

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Attention has finally fallen on the crisis of safety in British prisons. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Some argue that prison has always inherently been, and remains, a place of degradation which is systematically generating suffering and death. A place where the victims are overwhelmingly prisoners – a fact that might be obscured by the loud voices of the Prison Officers’ Association.

On the other hand, there is something peculiar in this present crisis. It feels like a perfect storm of rising prisoner numbers, cuts in staffing, widespread demoralisation among prisoners and staff, all combining to deliver evidence of a record year for killing and self-inflicted deaths.

In this context, but specifically following the news of the fatal stabbing of Jamal Mahmoud at HMP Pentonville in November 2016, Emily Thornberry, the local MP, called for an investigation into whether an appropriate “duty of care” had been extended to the deceased during his time at the jail. Indeed, one commentator noted that Mahmoud’s death had come “as little surprise given the substantial rise in violence at the troubled local prison over recent years”, violence which had been documented in “report after report”.

Caught in the Act

Such a call seems appropriate and timely. In 2011, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (CMCHAct) was extended to the prison service, so that a prison itself, through the actions or inactions of its senior management, can be held to account for deaths within its walls.

A prosecution under the Act requires a failure in the way in which the organisation is managed or organised which amounts to a gross breach of its duty of care. This in turn requires evidence that the failure fell “far below what can reasonably be expected”. That may include consideration of the “attitudes, policies, and systems of accepted practices” of the organisation, while a substantial element of the failure must be at senior management level.

Now there is no doubt that the Act was introduced ostensibly and primarily to deal with the failure of common law manslaughter to hold large, complex, profit-making companies to account for multiple fatality disasters. In this respect, it has hardly been a success. Thus, at the time of writing, over eight years after the CMCHAct came into force, there have been 19 successful prosecutions under the Act – none, arguably, against a company of the size and complexity that could not have been prosecuted under the pre-existing common law.

But is there a case for testing the Act in the context of deaths in prison? I would argue that there is, on at least two counts.

Sharp practice? Alex G./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Danger zone

First, prisons are especially dangerous places. According to HSE data released last month, fatal injuries (as opposed to fatal illnesses) to workers in 2015/16 totalled 144. Almost a third of these (43) occurred in construction, with the other most dangerous sectors being agriculture and manufacturing (each with 27 recorded fatalities). Notwithstanding the significant limitations of HSE data, such figures pale into comparison when compared with the numbers of killings and self-inflicted deaths in British jails.

In 2011, the year the Act was extended to cover prisons, there were 190 deaths in prison; this year, there have been over 300. All in all, since 2011, there has been a consistent, year-on-year increase in the numbers of such deaths, which total nearly 1,400 for the period. It seems almost inconceivable that none of these 1,400 deaths involved at least sufficient evidence for a prosecution to be taken under the CMCHAct.

Second, we know, and have long known, that it is precisely “attitudes, policies, and systems of accepted practices” which generate deaths and violence in prison. Just as we also know that some institutions are more poorly managed than others.

It is, sadly, also too easy to identify clusters of deaths in specific jails. For example, there have been 17 self-inflicted deaths at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes since 2013 – the latest, 41-year-old artist David Rayner, was found in his cell on August 25.

Bleak outcomes. sean hobson/Flickr, CC BY

Ignored recommendations

More generally, a constant stream of inquest findings, inspectorate, investigation and monitoring reports, and inquiries into prisons from Baroness Corston to Lord Harris, reveal consistent failings and are able to produce rigorous, evidence-based recommendations to protect the health and safety of prisoners and staff in British jails.

The vast majority of these have been systematically ignored. But the fact remains that this volume of evidence would strongly indicate that in the case of many deaths in prison, management was likely aware of risks to which they failed to respond, a key element of the senior management failure test under the law.

Many deaths in prison are the result of gross breaches in the duty of care through attitudes, policies and practices woven into the fabric of the prison service. The time is overdue for the CMCHAct to be tested there. This is not to imply that effective reform of prisons can come through the law. In fact, the best way to reduce prison violence is through an explicit policy decision to make prison the last resort of sentencing policy in an effort to massively reduce the prison population. It now stands at a near-record level of 85,000, and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe.

However, a successful prosecution under the Act would provide a powerful, symbolic message that the routine, systematic deaths of those to whom the state and the prison service has a duty of care cannot continue without legal accountability.

 

This article originally appeared in the Conversation on the 1st of December at: https://theconversation.com/prison-deaths-a-case-of-corporate-manslaughter-69729

 

Austerity as Bureaucratized and Organized Violence

Vickie Cooper, Lecturer in Criminology

In July 2014, a member of the Disability News Service sent a Freedom of Information Inquiry to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), asking it to reveal mortality statistics on those who have died while in receipt of benefits and/or while serving a benefit sanction. Typically, Ian Duncan Smith, head of the DWP refused, claiming that the DWP does not review such cases. However, after mounting pressure, including an ongoing petition and pressure from within the House of Commons itself, it was subsequently revealed that the DWP carried out 49 – 60 reviews of people who died while claiming benefits. In a separate but recent review by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the government claims that it found “‘no particular case’ in which a ‘benefit sanction alone’ had directly led to the death of a benefit claimant”, but conceded that in 33 of those cases, the procedure could have been improved. This review makes recommendations that the DWP should conduct a system for formal death inquiries where an individual dies ‘whilst in receipt of that benefit’. This system, it is recommended, should be comparable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where death inquiries are made upon public request.

This particular Freedom of Information request is critical for thinking beyond the poverty implications of austerity, as it forces us to think more about the violent and harmful implications. A sharp rise in suicide mortality across those economies most impacted by austerity suggests that these post-crash economies are having particularly violent and harmful affects. Here in the UK, reports of ‘benefits-related suicides’ are being brought to our attention thick and fast. Perhaps the most familiar benefit-related suicide, one that raised much media attention, was the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihul, near Birmingham. Following a thirty-minute assessment, the housing authority concluded that Stephanie Bottrill would have to pay an additional weekly fee for her spare bedroom. In her suicide note, Stephanie Bottrill blamed the government for causing her such stress.

Accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, a death inquest led to various speculations as to why Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide. As such, Stephanie Bottrill’s history of mental health issues were called into question and were used to undermine the political significance of her death – as though the harms of austerity are any less significant or political when they impact upon those with mental health issues. A spokesperson in defence of the council responsible for making Stephanie Bottrill’s assessment claimed that she was in a ‘situation’, living in a house,  ‘that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy’. The coroner passed a verdict that Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide due to ‘stress and anxiety’ and no local authority or government official was reviewed and/or policy implementation revised. But the biggest twist in the tale is that Stephanie Bottrill may have been exempt from paying bedroom tax. According to the pre-1996 exemption rule, any adult or family member living in the property before 1996, are exempt from paying bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill had been living in her accommodation since 1995.

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Esther McVey and Chris Hayes during Parliamentary Inquiry into benefit-related suicides. Photo: screengrab, BBC Democracy Live

We know from Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide, that economic crises are often followed by a rapid rise in numbers of suicide mortality. However, the rise in suicide mortality is not as a result of encroaching poverty levels, but the extent to which economic crises disturb the ‘collective order’. And nothing quite disturbs a sense of order like citizens being evicted from their homes and further displaced from those communities they once inhabited. The psychological and physical responses to welfare policies in this post-crash period is not the fact that individuals and communities now find themselves destitute and on the margins, but the means by which it is done and the disorder that ensues.

While increasing suicide mortality is one way for us to think about austerity as harmful and violent, perhaps it is not indicative enough of the violent and harmful impacts of austerity. Durkheim reminds us that:

“those who kill themselves through automobile accidents are almost never recorded as suicides; those who sustain serious injuries during an attempt to commit suicide and die weeks or months later of these injuries or of inter-current infections are never registered as suicides; a great many genuine suicides are concealed by families; and suicidal attempts, no matter how serious, never find their way into the tables of vital statistics.”

The problem with relating suicide mortality with social injury caused by economic crises, is that many of the harmful and violent outcomes are hidden and multifarious: the suicides that are recorded are only the tip of the iceberg.

Austerity as Organized Violence

Another way to think about the harm and violence of austerity is to pay more attention to those bureaucracies and organizations challenged with the task of enforcing it. Since 2010, the welfare reforms have encompassed a whole range of assessments for determining new thresholds of eligibility, with the aim of removing people from their benefits entitlement. Benefit claimants have been forced to make the transition from old benefit entitlements, to new ones; with new rules, new measures of entitlement, new guidance frameworks and more strict sanctions for those claimants who fail to adhere to these new rules. In this transition, claimants have had to undergo new benefits assessments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Spare-room Subsidy (bedroom tax) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

These new thresholds of entitlement and eligibility, and the volume of assessments they entail, should not be underestimated as we think about how austerity is violently enforced through bureaucracies and organizations. Putting these new measures of eligibility in motion, the government and local authorities have recruited a number of private companies to administer the new rules of eligibility. Companies such as Experian, A4e, ATOS, Maximus and Capita have all been recruited to assess and process millions of benefit claimants. Where authorities claim that these companies ‘improve the quality’ of their assessment process, individuals assessed by them would most likely claim the opposite. A government inquiry into the standard of assessments made by the company Atos, revealed that 41 per cent of face-to-face assessments ‘did not meet the required standards’. When A4e set unattainable targets to reduce the number of people claiming employment seeker’s allowance, staff members resorted to ‘numerous offences of fraud’ in order to remove people from their benefit entitlement. Such offences involved ‘tricking’ claimants into carrying out job-search activities that, as a result of learning difficulties, they could not complete and were subsequently sanctioned. Although privatisation plays a significant part in the violent enforcement of austerity, local authorities have also been reprimanded for conducting benefit assessments unlawfully.

So how we can we think of these bureaucratic practices as organized violence? Mainstream policy analyses frequently dismiss the political significance of administrators of eligibility and entitlement as technical systems that separate ‘the deserved’ poor from ‘the undeserved’. But history tells us a more compelling story about the role of bureaucracy and organizations for enforcing and legitimating a violent political order.

Systems of classification and eligibility have a long history in shaping society and political relations. At worst, repressive regimes have relied upon bureaucracies to enforce formal eligibility rules to disqualify and deny citizens access to fundamental rights  – often relegating them to ‘stateless’ and ‘non-human’ identities. The Apartheid regime in South Africa began with the classification and reclassification of race that enabled the state to organize the violent expulsion of certain racial and ethnic groups and deny citizens their most basic rights. Similarly, Hannah Arendt observed that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not atypical monsters, but mundane bureaucrats, as demonstrated in her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trials.

These violent histories raise two key points for thinking about austerity as bureaucratized and organized violence. First, they reveal the manner in which violent political orders are legitimated at the bureaucratic level and second, how bureaucracies are necessary for reconfiguring socio-economic relations through systems of ‘entitlement’. These relations often include: property relations, race relations, class relations, family relations, gender relations, geographical relations and state-citizen relations.

And austerity serves as something of a peculiar model in this process. Austerity and the bureaucratic means by which it comes to be enforced is about reconfiguring social relations. Here, gender-relations and new benefit rules are a good case in point. With Universal Credit (which amalgamates six benefit and tax credits) claims are made on households, not individuals. The Women’s Budget Group argues that the design of Universal Credit – with its system of joint assessment, joint ownership and joint income – reshapes gender relations as it reinforces the ‘single breadwinner model’, a model that has disadvantaged women throughout history. In reshaping gender relations, Universal Credit is positioning women in harmful positions as it allows for abusive male partners to centralise and control household finance. Financial abuse is a common source of power and violence that is exercised over women and Universal Credit simply gives the abuser more money and more opportunity to control.  This comes on top of overwhelming evidence from Women’s Aid showing that the provision of domestic violence specialist services and hostel accommodation available for women, is diminishing directly as a result of local authority cuts.

Clearly, the government is failing in its duty to promote gender equality and protect women from harm and violence.

In this post-crash period, the war on the poor has resulted in various social injuries including debt, child poverty, evictions, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. Hell-bent on the idea that removing people from their basic entitlements can restore economic order, the government is throwing people onto unknown margins in order reduce the budget deficit.  But justifying this level of harmful and violent economic policy – as a means to an end, to reduce deficit budget – does not wash. Austerity is not a means to an end, but a long-term strategy by which governments are violently and legitimately disrupting the rights of citizens. As Hannah Arendt put it, violence is rarely a means to an end, but a power structure and political order that ‘outlasts all aims’.

It is worth paying closer attention to the rising levels of psychological and physical harms affecting young people as the next round of welfare reforms will disproportionately affect young people. With the new welfare reform bill, the Conservative government looks set on excluding young people between 18-21 years old from housing benefit entitlement (who are also claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance). Despite homeless charities ferociously ringing alarm bells showing how these policies will result in homelessness, the government wants young people to ‘earn or learn’. And bureaucracies will play a key role in enforcing these new rules as it begins to assess and remove approximately 20,000 young people from this benefit entitlement.

This blog first appeared at Open Democracy on 10 August 2015, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/vickie-cooper/austerity-as-bureaucratized-and-organized-violence