‘Austerity’ is a word which is becoming increasingly prevalent in politics, academic debate and the media in recent years. Whilst austerity is supposedly temporary, it has affected us all and will do so increasingly in the years to follow. Austerity is not merely a word in political discourse but a shared and lived experience.
On Wednesday 27th April 2016, we explored the austerity agenda at an event entitledAusterity: Local and Global. The event brought together a panel of scholars from a diverse range of disciplines to explore the origins, local and international formats, and potential trajectories of the austerity agenda. The daytime event featured a postgraduate and activist panel and the evening event consisted of presentations by Professor Raymond Tallis, Professor Sylvia Chant, and Professor Guy Standing. The event was convened by Dr Susie Jacobs from the department of sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Austerity is a lived experience, affecting each one of us directly or indirectly. Sam Strong, PhD student at the University of Cambridge, explored the lived experiences of austerity at the foodbank in his talk ‘Shameful Subsistence: Encountering the Lived Experiences of Austerity at the Food Bank’. He worked at a food bank as part of his research and saw first-hand the tragic effects of austerity on normal people. He presented testimonies of those who used foodbanks, including the story of Paul and Jenny, both of whom had not received their benefits through no fault of their own, and had previously “never thought [they] would need to use a food bank”. Austerity also has indirect effects; Rowan Sandle from Leeds Beckett University explored the effects of the cuts on lone parents in her presentation ‘The Psychological Cost of Austerity: A Focus on Lone Motherhood – Experiences and Representations’. Statistics show that whilst cuts to mental health and the public sector do not affect women directly because women are more likely to be on welfare and/or working in the public sector and 92% of lone parents are women, one-parent families are ultimately drastically affected.
One result of austerity is NHS privatisation, which Professor Raymond Tallis of the University of Manchester explored in his evening lecture entitled ‘The Dismantling of the NHS: from Lord Howe’s Wicked Dream to George Osborne’s Austerity’. In his words “I’m going to talk about wickedness, we don’t talk about wickedness enough. But what is truly wicked is the vandalism of one of the greatest achievements of civilisation in the UK”. The NHS reached its highest levels of satisfaction in 2010, and 84% people are against its privatisation. However, in the past 6 years privatisation has encroached the general public through a combination of “defunding, discrediting, and devolving”. In the 1990s, the phrase ‘business plan’ became common talk within hospitals, which then had to compete for money and resources. To Professor Tallis “competition is anti-cooperation”. The Private Finance Initiative, which was embraced by the labour party, greatly increased funding to the NHS but simultaneously allowed taxpayers’ money to be directed from health-care to profits, and not redirected into the economy. Professor Tallis dubbed the initiative as “Plans for Future Insolvency”. By painting the NHS in an increasingly bad light in the media, privatisation is an ongoing process, allowing fragmentation, cherry picking of health care and inequality throughout. In 2015, the UK reported a 5.7% death increase, which was the first increase since 1970. In the words of Michael Portillo: “if we’d have told the public what we were going to do nobody would have voted for us”.
The media has a large role in perpetuating the myths enveloping austerity. Narratives of shame surround those in need of welfare who are frequently referred to as “lazy” in headlines such as “End the War On Scroungers”. Rowan Sandle described TV shows such as Benefits Street as “poverty porn”, which aim to paint the vulnerable in a negative light. However, this propaganda has little basis in reality, and the theory differs much from the reality.
Dr John David Jordan of Manchester Metropolitan University presented on ‘Welfare’s Austerity Regime? Exploring Ideology and Reality in the UK Government’s ‘Work Programme’. The work programme is a compulsory scheme launched in 2011 to help get people back to work, in theory the programme provides job seekers with incentive and assistance in finding jobs and long-term employment. However, in reality, staff are too busy to check the number of jobs applied for a week, and 80-90% do not get work. For the few who do find ‘sustained employment’, this often consists of many short-term jobs, after which they join the programme again. However, the real problems lie in the sanctions made by staff. Staff are expected to make 2-3 sanctions a day, including cuts to benefits. This can result in immense hardship, debt, starvation, homelessness and poverty.
The culture of shame surrounding the acceptance of welfare perpetuates neoliberal views that poverty and hunger are a result of individual failings. Feelings of shame and the experiences of impoverishment are belittled, leading fewer people to seek help. Sam Strong describes it as the “blaming and shaming of poor people”, resulting in a culture where sympathy is not offered to the vulnerable people who need it, for example, in the case of Jenny and Paul who did not receive their benefits through no fault of their own.
Emma Bimpson from the University of Leeds in her talk, ‘Moral and Political Economies of Welfare – Contesting Directions in Local Housing’, suggested that through the media and the representation of welfare “normalisation of risk is being used to govern individuals”. There is a distinct tension between support and independence. This precarity, in which anyone can be devoid of welfare, support and money has been transformed into “a normalised political instrument”, in which the blame and responsibility is forwarded onto the individual. Acknowledgement of this is necessary to achieve political change and put a stop to shame and blame.
Professor Sylvia Chant from LSE disputed the characterisation that “poverty has a female face” in her talk in the evening session, ‘Questioning the ‘Feminisation of Poverty’ in the Global South, and the Wisdom of Feminised Anti-poverty Policy Approaches’. She argued that the “feminisation of poverty in the Global South”, namely Gambia, Philippines and Costa Rica, is inaccurate and in reality gender gaps are narrowing. However, the media have relied upon an unverified and anonymous statistic that “women are 70% of the world’s poor and rising”. By perpetuating this myth, gender equality and economic growth and poverty are misaligned and misconstrued. The result is that more responsibility for ‘solving’ poverty is placed on women, who are an already marginalised group in the Global South. UN Women assured the public that “it is unknown how many of those living in poverty are women and girls” in 2015. Professor Chant suggested that if we cannot separate our problems and find accurate solutions for each, we will not achieve social change.
However, social change is not going to be achieved in the same ways and forms as in history, as the world is a different place than it was in the labour revolts of the 1930s, for example. Professor Guy Standing from SOAS explained how neoliberalism, with its privatisation, commodification and systematic dismantling of all systems of social solidarity, has given rise to a new class system, including, most notably, the precariat, who he describes as “a dangerous class”. This precariat suffers unstable labour, in which they have to work a lot for very little and with no guarantee of employment. The group rely on monetary wages, rather than state benefits. This class is unlikely to be able to practice the qualification they are trained within, and are devoid of a political voice as no party represents their needs – meaning this group do not identify as a collective. However, Professor Standing argues that we need “new forms of collective action in an age of individualisation”: “the unions just aren’t doing it anymore”.
Jon Las Heras from the University of Manchester explored the ways in which a Basque trade union have deviated from major trade union strategies developed in the rest of Spain to achieve results in his talk entitled ‘The Insubordination of a Basque Trade Union: Collective Bargaining Strategies in the Automotive Value Chain’. ELA co-ordinated with smaller trade unions, social movements and non-governmental organisations to develop an overarching platform demanding rights from the Basque government.
As Steph Pike from the Manchester People’s Assembly explains, “there is strength in numbers”. Steph believes austerity is a “political decision” as “the money is there for everything we need”. The People’s Assembly organised 5-days of protests during the Conservative party conference in October 2015, providing the party with “a barrage of Manchester style welcome”. The People’s Assembly “galvanises activists”, to bring people together to show the possibility of an alternative to austerity. Steph explained “austerity will continue unless we fight back and stop it”, and “we can fight back, together we are strong”. Similarly, Brigitte Lechner, Stockport for Mental Health Activist, explained that “solidarity”, or the “movement of people together in one direction towards one goal”, was what “saved” the Stockport Wellbeing Centre.
As poverty, inequality and precarious employment spread across the globe, ‘austerity’ is no longer merely a description or an abstract concept, but something we can see happening on the streets, in the media, and in the world around us. We live in an age where it is getting increasingly difficult to find help when you need it, and as a result, the classes are changing. However, what this event showed is that this is not the only long-term future. By “galvanising” ourselves, we can create a more equal future: “activism is a weapon of the powerless”.
Humanities in Public’s World strand continues this weekend with Beyond Babel: A Multilingual Film Festival. To see the full schedule of events, go to: http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hip/world/
This event was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website at: http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hip/news/detail/index.php?id=4340