By Daniel Margrain
Author Milan Kundera’s aphorism that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”, might well have been written for the starving, poor, sick, mentally ill and disabled whose suffering the vast majority of the political-media class are attempting to wipe from the pages of history.
One rare exception is the Daily Mirror who occasionally report on the plight of world’s “unpeople”. I will never forget, for example, their courageous coverage of the Iraq WMD debacle or the fact they were the only corporate daily paper at the time to give prominence to John Pilger’s insightful journalism. Also, to their credit, shortly before the last General Election, they availed their readers of the attempts by the Tories to cover-up rates of suicide among Britain’s sick and disabled people who the government deem fit for work.
The Mirror’s revelations underpinned the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) refusal to release figures highlighting the number of Incapacity Benefit and ESA claimants who had died between November, 2011 and May, 2014. It was only after concerted political pressure from below that the government were eventually forced into releasing the information by the Information Commissioner (IC).
The DWP Secretary at that time, Iain Duncan Smith, who admitted that his department have a “duty of care” to benefit claimants, disingenuously insisted that there was no evidence of a ‘causal link’ between the governments work capability assessment (WCA) and the subsequent 590 recorded deaths from suicide.
This was contradicted by the coroners findings which stated that all of the deaths “certainly aren’t linked to any other cause”. It was subsequently revealed that WCA assessors “used psychological ‘nudge’ techniques to push the mentally-ill and those with disabilities towards suicide in order to reduce the ‘burden’ on society caused by these “useless eaters”.
The recorded figures of avoidable deaths resulting from the attempts by WCA assessors to ‘nudge’ people off benefits towards work, almost certainly represents the tip of an enormous ice berg.
In an an attempt to humanize some of those who died in this way, concerned citizens have recorded the personal details of some of the individuals and the circumstances that led to their untimely deaths. This information can be viewed here, here, here and here. It’s particularly shocking to this writer that in Britain in 2017 many of those listed died of starvation.
The recent personal testimony of commentator Stewart Bailey provides a graphic insight into how assessors are encouraged to push claimants off-benefits towards serious hardship. Mr Bailey’s account which highlights a series of misrepresentations and falsehoods made by assessors in relation to his health condition, is supported by the findings of the Disability News Service (DNS) who have collected evidence as part of a lengthy investigation.
The DNS allege widespread dishonesty by assessors working for the outsourcing giants Capita and Atos. Claimants spoke repeatedly of dishonesty, “fraudulent conduct” and “lie after lie after lie” told by assessors in their reports, on which DWP decision-makers based their decisions on their eligibility for Personal Independence payments (PIPs).
This comes on top of the introduction (April 6, 2017) of the governments policy to reduce tax credits to families with two children meaning 116,000 households will be affected pushing an additional 387,000 children into poverty. Levels of welfare payments in the UK are so low that they have been described by the Council of Europe as “manifestly inadequate“.
The DNS findings also come a few days after their revelation of new plans which indicate that the Tory genocide against the sick and disabled is set to accelerate. The news service have revealed that new government reviews into PIPs means that disabled people are constantly in fear of having their payments cuts or, worse, halted.
The DNS point out that nearly half (45%) of PIP claimants who had a planned review of their award in 2016 either saw it cut or lost it entirely based on the absurd pretext that cutting benefits to the long-term disabled will help them into work.
Joe Whittaker, chair of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “The imposition of yet another stage in the already oppressive process to ‘support disabled people into employment’, cynically named a ‘health and work conversation’, is another pernicious attempt to weaken the rights of disabled people.”
Caroline Richardson, one of the authors of a report on last years green paper for the Spartacus Network of sick and disabled campaigners published last month (March, 2017), said the plans show “a total ignorance of the level of sickness or disability that the claimant may be experiencing, and will subsequently lead to huge stress and deprivation at what may be a crisis point in people’s lives”.
The Spartacus report accused ministers of using the green paper as a “smokescreen” to disguise their intention to cut support and force sick and disabled people into inappropriate work.
Life unworthy of life
While all decent people rightly regard this ‘involuntary euthanasia’ strategy to be deeply shocking, it should be noted that it is far from being a new one. Years before moving towards explicit racial genocide, the Nazis developed the notion of ‘useless mouths’ or ‘life unworthy of life’ to justify their killing of ‘undesirables’ who like the Tories they regarded as a ‘drain on society’ whose value was measured solely in terms of their perceived negative impact on the ‘taxpayer’.
These ideas are a variant of nineteenth century ‘Social Darwinism’ and eugenicist theories, which adapted Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest to describe relationships within society or between nations and races as a perpetual evolutionary struggle in which the supposedly weaker or defective elements were weeded out by the strongest and the ‘fittest’ by natural selection.
Off benefits into coffins
Following Duncan Smith’s resignation over a scandal in which people are being pushed off benefits into coffins, many people were hopeful of a change in policy direction under his successor, Stephen Crabb. But these hopes were soon dashed after the latter announced a further six years of “welfare reforms” (euphemism for £12 billion of cuts to the most in need).
What independent journalist, Mike Sivier, correctly, in my view, described as a preventable “war of attrition” amounts to an ideological attack on those who are least able to defend themselves. This war is continuing under the current DWP minister, Damian Green, after it was recently revealed that the government reversed Tribunal rulings that would have extended financial support to 160,000 people with disabilities.
The attempts by the Tories to humiliate and inflict immense suffering on the weakest in society, is what film-maker Ken Loach described as the British governments “conscious cruelty” towards them.
The ethnic cleansing of the poor by stealth is not, of course, limited to British citizens but forms an integral part of an historical continuum that extends throughout the world. The Nazi Genocide was an extreme version of the ruling classes attitude towards ‘undesirables’.
The symbiosis that exists between the UK government, M15/6, the vice-chair of the BBC Trust and British arms manufacturer, BAE Systems (ie the industrial-military complex or ‘Deep State’), is a contemporary expression of how this ‘conscious cruelty’ is being played out in relation, for example, to the killing fields of Yemen.
UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia exceed the amount given in aid to Yemen by a factor of ten and is indicative of how imperial power, whose corollary is the industrial-military complex, is actively complicit in a famine that is engulfing the country. As Chris Murphy, citing a Huffington Post article, put it: “I feel like a broken record, but please read this – we are plunging Yemen into famine – on purpose.” Even the Economist concedes that famine which is menacing millions of people throughout the country, is a consequence of war, not drought.
Not only is the UK government providing the Saudi regime with the BAE bombs that are being dropped on Yemeni civilians but, as historian Mark Curtis has shown, it has a long collaborative history of training and funding Jihadist Islamist groups in its various proxy wars in countries that include Libya, Iran, Pakistan, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Bosnia. The famine in Yemen is directly linked to the UK governments collusion with radical Islam as part of its strategy to extract resources from the country.
In essence, the poor and weak are viewed by imperial power as nothing more than expendable objects to be dehumanized, stigmatized and exploited as part of the imperial game of profit maximization. Whether it’s the culling of ‘useless eaters’ in Britain, the historical asset-stripping of Africa, the contemporary conflicts in Syria and Iraq or the famine in Yemen, the principles and objectives are invariably the same – the theft of resources, the exploitation of the poor and weak and the undermining of basic human rights.
These ideas would not have come as any surprise to the politicians of the Victorian era who would have shared with Tory Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, Chancellor, Philip Hammond and Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, an ideological commitment towards ending ‘welfare dependency’ and promoting ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and the ‘responsibility to protect’. Then, as now, lofty sounding morals are regularly evoked.
One of Hammond’s prominent 19th century counterparts was ‘India’s Nero’, Lord Lytton. Like Hammond, Queen Victoria’s “favourite opium-smoking poet”, vehemently opposed efforts to interfere with “market forces”. In 1877-78 Lytton rubber-stamped the export of a record amount of wheat grain to Europe rather than relieve starvation in India.
During the late 19th century, India, under Lytton, had effectively become a Utilitarian laboratory where millions of lives were wagered against dogmatic faith in omnipotent markets overcoming the “inconvenience of dearth”.
Free market zealot
A similar Utilitarian laboratory had been established by Britain in Ireland during this late Victorian period. Under the tutelage of free market zealot, Chancellor Lord Charles Trevelyan, the Irish famine ‘relief effort’ was put into place that resulted in a politically-induced genocide no different in principle to the ‘cheque book euthanasia’ policy of the modern day Tories.
The tragedy of the famine is commemorated each year by people from all over the world. Later next month (May 20, 2017), those gathered will descend on the beautiful County Mayo coastline in the west of Ireland to take part in the ten mile Famine Walk from Doo Lough to Louisburgh – the town where on the night of March 30, 1849, hundreds of starving people arrived seeking relief and workhouse shelter.
They were met at the shelter by the local Poor Law guardians whose role was to ‘inspect’ them as certification for their ‘official pauper’ status. This would then supposedly entitle them to a ration of food to be eaten the following morning at a fishing establishment called Delphi Lodge owned by the Marquess of Sligo, ten miles away.
Many didn’t arrive at their destination having died from exposure to the harsh elements or through starvation. The few that did make it were refused the relief they were told they were entitled to and they died on their homeward journey, with the bodies remaining where they fell.
Such tragedies were common in Ireland in the mid-19th century. By 1871 the population of the country had halved, with at least 1.5 million dead. Two million fled to America, many of them dying during the voyage or on arrival. The historian and critic, Terry Eagleton, describes the famine as “the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe, an event with something of the characteristics of a low-level nuclear attack.”
In echoing the kind of detached but scornful class-based attitude the contemporary ruling elite have towards their working class minions Trevelyan, in a rather casually racist manner, said of the Irish:
“The great evil with which we have to contend, is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Lord Clarendon, an establishment Anthony Wedgewood (Tony) Benn, of his day, pleaded with the Liberal PM, Lord Russell to intervene, stating:
“Surely this is a state of things to justify you asking the House of Commons for an advance. For I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in such a policy of extermination.”
Clarendon’s call for Russell to intervene wasn’t heeded and neither were similar calls to prevent famines in other nations during the Victorian colonial era – China, India, Egypt, Korea, Brazil, Russia, Ethiopia and Sudan. In the latter two countries alone, an estimated one-third of the populations died.
The European empires, together with Japan and the United States, rapaciously exploited the opportunity to wrest new colonies, expropriate communal lands, and tap novel sources of plantation and mine labour. As Mike Davis points out:
“What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the nineteenth century’s final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre. The total human toll…could not of been less than 30 million victims. Fifty million dead might not be unrealistic.”
The famines of the Victorian era continue to resonate today throughout Africa. Then, as now, they were a symptom of social and economic policies that result in unnecessary deaths. Even in the 19th century this was well understood.
The radical journalist and humanitarian, William Digby, principal chronicler of the 1876 Madras famine, as well as famed naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, both viewed mass starvation as an avoidable political tragedy not ‘natural’ disaster. Published in 1898, Wallace characterized the famines in India and China, together with the slum poverty of the industrial cities, as “the most terrible failures of the century.”
Millions died, not outside the capitalist system but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. Indeed, they were killed by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Locke, Hobbes, Bentham, Malthus and Mill in much the same way as hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of today’s poor, mentally ill and disabled have, under the Tories, died as a result of the neoclassical economic Chicago School’s application of the sacred principles of Friedman and Stigler.
The consensus view among the ruling class of the Victorian era was that famine was deemed to be a morally justifiable “salutary cure for over-population.” Today, over three million of the world’s children die needlessly from hunger. Indebted countries are forced to export food as a “free-market” commodity while the producers are denied their own produce and many of them go hungry, and their children starve.
That is what happened in Ireland and India. In Trevelyan and Lytton’s day it was known as Liberalism. Today it is known as ‘neoliberalism’. “England made the famine”, wrote the Irish socialist, James Connolly, “by a rigid application of the economic principles that lie at the base of capitalist society.”
In essence, nothing has changed. The ruling class attitude towards the poor and sick who suffer as a result of the political consequences and actions of those who rule over them, is as deeply embedded today as it was a century and a half ago.