Tag: ken loach

21st Century Victorian Holocausts

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.

Deception

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.

Historical continuum

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.

Expendable

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.”

Pleading

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.”

Resonates

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.

Disabled people: marginalised, dehumanised & declared fit to work

 

By Daniel Margrain

This time next month, council tax bill increases that average five per cent will have arrived on the door mats of millions of people. The low paid, unemployed and pensioners with fixed incomes will be among the hardest hit. But there is another group of people – the disabled – who will be hit even harder. This increase will likely push many of the most vulnerable of our citizens over the edge of an already gaping precipice that began widening following drastic reforms to the welfare system that followed the 2012 Welfare Reform Act. Further drastic cuts occurred four years later following the passing of the Welfare Reform and Work Act which, it has been estimated, will have cut nearly £28bn of social security support to 3.7m disabled people by 2018.

What film director Ken Loach described as the “conscious cruelty” of the Tory government seems to know no bounds. A few days before the May, 2015 General Election, 100 disabled people from a variety of backgrounds – ranging from nurses to actresses, academics to museum managers – signed and published a letter addressed to the British electorate – saying they believe that “if the Conservative Party was to form the next government, either our own lives or the lives of others in our community would be in profound danger”. The letter continued: “Disabled people have been hit by spending cuts nine times harder than the general population, and those needing social care have been hit 19 times harder…Now we read of £12 billion more cuts.”

This ought to have been the cause of massive, sustained outrage and disgust, and should certainly have been sufficient enough to have brought down not only the minister responsible at the time, Iain Duncan Smith, but the entire Tory government. But not only were the government under Cameron re-elected, but Duncan-Smith’s revised plans to transform disabled people’s lives by getting them into work, ended up killing many more of them in the days, weeks and months that followed.

Cheque book euthanasia

On August 27, 2015, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures revealed that between December 2011 to February 2014, 2,650 people died after being told they should find work following a “Work Capability Assessment” (WCA). Duncan-Smith, who admitted that his department has a “duty of care” to benefit claimants, disingenuously insisted that there was no evidence of a ‘causal link’ between the WCA and the subsequent 590 recorded deaths from suicide, despite the fact that the coroners findings stated that all of the deaths “certainly aren’t linked to any other cause.”

Not only did the Conservative government try to cover-up the figures, but have continued with a policy strategy that has resulted in the killing of hundreds or possibly thousands more people after they have been deemed “fit for work.”

Such a policy can reasonably be described as ‘cheque book euthanasia’ in as much as it is clear that the intention to kill is deliberate, conscious and systematic. While researching for the film I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s script-writer, Paul Laverty referred to a statement made to him by a civil servant who described the victims of this cheque book euthanasia as “low-lying fruit”, in other words the easy targets. Several whistle blowers he met anonymously said they were “humiliated how they were forced to treat the public.”

While all decent people rightly regard this ‘involuntary euthanasia’ strategy to be deeply shocking, it should be noted that it is not 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 its killing of ‘undesirables’. As was the case with the Nazi’s, the underlying narrative of the Tories is that the long-term unemployed, sick and disabled are a ‘drain on society’ whose value is measured solely in terms of their perceived negative impact on the ‘taxpayer’.

Social Darwinism

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.

Many people might opine that to compare modern day Tories to Nazi’s is far-fetched. While they may have a point, it’s nevertheless undeniable that similar disturbing parallels and types of trends that blinded Germans to the potential of Adolf Hitler can be found in contemporary society. For example, both Nazi Germany and the Conservative government over time, created – through a strategy of divide and rule – a climate in which the marginalization and the dehumanization of targeted minorities were blamed for societies ills.

What is also undeniable, is that a universal social security system that has at its basis the proposals set out in the Beveridge Report (1942), has been in steady retreat from the mid- 1970s with a greater emphasis on means-testing and exclusion. The Conservative government under David Cameron, and now Theresa May, seem to be taking this ethos several stages further with their Dickensian ‘back to the future’ strategy not experienced since the Poor Law of the 19th century and before.

Civilized society?

Emboldened by what some perceive as a weakness in the Labour opposition to bring the Tories to account, the May government appears to be testing the limits by which civilized society is measured. Recently announced government measures intended to undermine the basis of legal rulings will, if successful, result in around 160,000 disabled people being stripped of their right to access Personal Independent Payment (PIPs).

These measures also undermine mental and physical health parity, contradicting a speech by PM Theresa May in which she promised to transform attitudes to mental health by reducing the stigma attached to it. This contradiction was underlined further after Tory MP George Freeman stated that benefits should only go to the “really disabled.”

The attempt to strip some of the most vulnerable people in society of their basic humanity in these ways are, in the words of the shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, “a step too far, even for this Tory government.”

Fine words. But will a future Labour government reverse these cruel Tory policies? Under a Corbyn government one would hope so. But judging by the actions of some other prominent members of the party in the recent past, this is not guaranteed. The acting Labour leader prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, Harriet Harman, for example, supported the principle of the Tory Welfare Cap.

Imaginary wheelchair woman

But Harman’s actions were put in the shade by those of Yvette Cooper. While Secretary of State for Work and Pensions under the previous Labour government, Cooper had drawn up plans that would almost certainly have met with the approval of Iain Duncan-Smith.

This is the relevant part of an article from April 13, 2010, which suggests that Cooper’s policy outlook is no different to that of the Tories she supposedly despises:

“Tens of thousands of claimants facing losing their benefit on review, or on being transferred from incapacity benefit, as plans to make the employment and support allowance (ESA) medical much harder to pass are approved by the secretary of state for work and pensions, Yvette Cooper.

The shock plans for ‘simplifying’ the work capability assessment, drawn up by a DWP working group, include docking points from amputees who can lift and carry with their stumps. Claimants with speech problems who can write a sign saying, for example, ‘The office is on fire!’ will score no points for speech and deaf claimants who can read the sign will lose all their points for hearing.

Meanwhile, for ‘health and safety reasons’ all points scored for problems with bending and kneeling are to be abolished and claimants who have difficulty walking can be assessed using imaginary wheelchairs.

Claimants who have difficulty standing for any length of time will, under the plans, also have to show they have equal difficulty sitting, and vice versa, in order to score any points. And no matter how bad their problems with standing and sitting, they will not score enough points to be awarded ESA.

In addition, almost half of the 41 mental health descriptors for which points can be scored are being removed from the new ‘simpler’ test, greatly reducing the chances of being found incapable of work due to such things as poor memory, confusion, depression and anxiety.

There are some improvements to the test under the plans, including exemptions for people likely to be starting chemotherapy and more mental health grounds for being admitted to the support group. But the changes are overwhelmingly about pushing tens of thousands more people onto JSA.

If all this sounds like a sick and rather belated April Fools joke to you, we’re not surprised.  But the proposals are genuine and have already been officially agreed by Yvette Cooper, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. They have not yet been passed into law, but given that both Labour and the Conservatives seem intent on driving as many people as possible off incapacity related benefits, they are likely to be pursued by whichever party wins the election…..”

If this wasn’t bad enough, it should also be noted that during Cooper’s challenge for the Labour leadership, she accepted an undisclosed sum of £75,000 from businessman Dan Jarvis which contributed to the New Labour enthusiasts campaign.

The mainstream media didn’t pay much attention to that scandal at the time, nor did they highlight Coopers subsequent hypocrisy and nastiness. Following what columnist Fraser Nelson described tellingly as “the terrifying victory of Jeremy Corbyn’s mass movement” at staving off the coup attempt against him, the Corbyn critic and New Labour MP for Normanton, Ponefract, Castleford and Nottingley tweeted the following:

Congratulations re-elected today. Now the work starts to hold everyone together, build support across country & take Tories on

Clearly, a day is a long time for liars to avoid tripping over their own pronouncements. Less than 48 hours after her insincere message on Twitter, the Blairite MP engaged in a media publicity stunt intended to draw a deeper wedge between the PLP and the membership.

Sisterly love?

Cooper’s crude ‘politics of identity’ strategy was to infer that shadow chancellor John McDonnell was a misogynist for his use of emotionally charged language in defending the “appalling” treatment of disabled people by the last government.

The context in which McDonnell made his remark was set against a backdrop in which former Tory secretary of state for work and pensions, Esther McVey, planned to cut the benefits of more than 300,000 disabled people. That Cooper rushed to the defence of a Tory who presided over some of the most wicked policies of arguably the most reactionary and brutal right-wing government in living memory, is extremely revealing.

What was also revealing was the media’s obvious double-standards. A few days prior to their reporting of McDonnell’s comment, Guardian journalist Nicholas Lezard called for the crowdfunded assassination of Corbyn. Needless to say, there was no media outrage at this suggestion.

Selective outrage is what many people have come to expect from a partisan anti-Corbyn media. In May, 2015, independent journalist, Mike Sivier reported on Cooper’s criticism of those “using stigmatising language about benefit claimants”.

But as the article highlighted above illustrates, while in office as Labour’s secretary of state for work and pensions, Cooper had drawn up plans that were as brutal as any Tory.

Indeed, the policy plans she drew up were subsequently adopted by the Coalition government under the tutelage of Esther McVey. In policy terms, it would thus appear Cooper has more in common with McVey than she does with McDonnell. This, and her disdain towards both Corbyn and McDonnell and the mass membership they represent, explains her outburst. She was not motivated by sisterly love.

Cooper’s deeds and words are yet another illustration as to the extent to which the ideological consensus between the New Labour hierarchy as represented by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on the one hand, and the ruling Tory establishment on the other, is structurally embedded within a dysfunctional system of state power that is no longer fit for purpose.

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‘I, Daniel Blake’: A tale of Dickensian cruelty in Tory Britain

By Daniel Margrain

The mismanagement of the UK economy by both the New Labour and Tory governments’ that followed the global crash of 2008 led to the poorest and weakest in society disproportionately picking up the pieces by way of savage cuts and austerity resulting from this incompetency. This is the context in which British film director Ken Loach denounced what he described as the UK governments “conscious cruelty” towards the poor following the screening of his latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ at the Cannes Film Festival five months ago. Loach’s questioning of the narrative which suggests that the poor are to blame for an economic predicament beyond their control rather than the vagaries of the capitalist system, is a notion that is widely accepted within the hierarchy of government.

Loach’s film, whose red carpet London premier two days ago (October 18) was attended by Jeremy Corbyn, is story about a skilled working class man who, after having suffered a heart attack, is at the end of his tether as a result of his attempts to navigate an uncaring, remote and labyrinthine ‘work capability assessment’ process integral to the UK benefit system. The scenario is one in which many of us would have experienced directly or known of friends or family who have/are going through a similar nightmare.

Loach’s denunciation of the Tory governments approach to welfare, is predicated on its unnecessary commitment to a supply-side economic strategy centered on ideology rather than pragmatism. Indeed, given the governments awareness of the causal link between their anachronistic work capability assessment programme and suicide rates, the hatred they have towards the poor can be said to be pathological.

Cheque book euthanasia

The governments strategy of ‘cheque book euthanasia’  is, in principle, similar to the way Nazi Germany, over time, created – through a strategy of divide and rule – a climate in which the marginalization and the dehumanization of targeted minorities were blamed for the ills of society. In Germany it was the Jews who bore the brunt of this treatment as the Nazi state methodically marked them out for destruction, first by innuendo, next by legal sanction and finally by the direct action of rounding them up and exterminating them.

Other groups including gypsies, communists, homosexuals and those with permanent disabilities were labeled as being ‘undesirables’, a drain on society and likewise a target for elimination. The process by which the Final Solution was implemented was as gradual as it was deliberate. By cultivating the notion that the unemployed and disabled are somehow ‘undeserving’ is to implant within the wider public consciousness the notion that some human beings are less worthy than others, are not a legitimate part of society and are therefore ‘sub-human’.

I’m not suggesting a direct comparison between Nazi Germany and the contemporary British state under the Tories currently exists. I am, however, arguing that there are disturbing parallels and similar types of trends that blinded Germans to the potential of Adolf Hitler which can be found within our society today. What is certain, is that a universal social security system that has at its basis the proposals set out in the Beveridge Report (1942), has been in steady retreat from the mid 1970s with a greater emphasis on means-testing and exclusion. The Conservative government under David Cameron, and now Theresa May, seem to be taking this ethos several stages further with their Dickensian ‘back to the future’ policy not experienced since the Poor Law of the 19th century and before.

Poor Law

The Poor Law was first established in Elizabethan times as the means of providing relief from local funds for those unable to provide for themselves. In the 19th century it became a national system of state support under which those who could prove they were destitute would receive public assistance on the condition that this assistance included a direct incentive to seek alternative self-support. It was provided on a more punitive (‘less eligible’) basis than the conditions of those in the worst paid employment. This early form of social security often took the form of the harsh conditions of the state institution known as the workhouse. The intention was to make the conditions in the workhouse so harsh that the ‘able-bodied’ unemployed would do virtually anything rather than apply for relief.

The only objective difference between then and the present is there is currently no workhouse in existence. However, there is no logical reason to think that the political establishment will not consider the re-introduction of a variation of the workhouse in the foreseeable future. History has shown that large swaths of the middle classes have been only too willing to succumb to the divide and rule strategies of the ruling elites by pointing their fingers at those less fortunate than themselves as long as they are not deemed to be directly affected by such strategies.

The middle classes of the mid-19th century, for example, had been willing to tolerate the poor living in overcrowded squalor and dying of disease or hunger. But by the late 19th century they understood how diseases could spread from poor to rich neighbourhoods and so pushed for the building of sewage systems, the clearing of overcrowded city centres, the supply of clean water and the provision of gas to light streets and heat homes. Then, as now, the ruling class attitude towards the poor was, at best, indifferent.

Women and children provided the cheapest and most adaptable labour for the spinning mills, and they were crammed in with no thought for the effect on their health or on the care of younger children. If capital accumulation necessitated the destruction of the working class family, then so be it! By the 1850s, however, the more far-sighted capitalists began to fear that future reserves of labour power were being exhausted. In Britain in 1871, the Poor Law inspectors reported:

“It is well established that no town-bred boys of the poorer classes, especially those reared in London, ever attains…four feet ten and a half inches’ in height or a chest of 29 inches’ at the age of 15. A stunted growth is characteristic of the race.”

The Mansion House Committee of 1893 drew the conclusion that “the obvious remedy…is to improve the stamina, physical and moral, of the London working class.”

Robert Malthus

A succession of laws restricted the hours which children could work, and banned the employment of women in industries that might damage their chances of successful pregnancy. In terms of the unemployed, sick and disabled, the ruling and middle classes of the Victorian era argued that they were justified in treating these groups in the manner that they did because they perceived them as a ‘drain on society’ – an argument that was reinforced by the pseudo-scientific writings of the 18th century Anglican clergyman, Robert Malthus.

According to Malthus, population growth will inevitably lead to resource depletion because, he claimed, there is a tendency for the mass of the population to reproduce at a greater rate than the ability of existing populations to produce food under conditions where living standards exceed the bare level of subsistence. It is little wonder that Malthus’s theory of population was invoked by 19th century capitalists and their apologists in order to justify paying workers their bare subsistence and no more. This myth continues to shape the decision-making processes of numerous contemporary social policy-makers and, moreover, legitimized, in part, the thinking that underpinned Hitler’s extermination policy.

Malthus’s theory also provides some insight as to why many people misguidedly believe that the world is over-populated and therefore that the “conscious cruelty” outlined by Ken Loach that continues to result in the deaths of the poor and weak, is deemed to be a price worth paying. Malthus’s theory, in other words, proffers the kind of justification for the attacks by the Tories, their apologists and supporters against some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is the cruelty and pathological hatred of the disadvantaged by the Cameron and May governments depicted in I, Daniel Blake that won the film the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Low-lying fruit

It is this kind of cruelty and pathological hatred of the working class by the ruling class that has continued to resonate throughout the centuries and which Loach has managed to capture so movingly on film. During the press conference at Cannes, Loach related the themes in I, Daniel Blake to a quotation by Bertolt Brecht – ”and I always thought the simplest of words must suffice. When I say what things are like, it will break the hearts of all”.

Loach said that what he tried to do in the film “was to say what things are like, because it not only breaks your heart, but it should make you angry… He continued, “In the places where…[the governments ‘work capability’ assessments] take place, some people who work there have been given instructions on how to deal with potential suicides, so they know this is going on… It is deeply shocking that this is happening at the heart of our world… the heart of it is a shocking, shocking policy.”

Script writer, Paul Laverty said:

“The people who are disabled, have suffered six times more from the cuts than anyone else, and there was a remarkable phrase by one of the civil servants we heard who talked about the cuts, who said “low-lying fruit”, in other words the easy targets. So this story could have been much harsher, it could have been somebody with mental health difficulties… we could have told a story from someone who is much more vulnerable, much more heartbreaking.”

Laverty continued:

“I think it’s very important to remember too the systematic nature of it….talking to whistle blowers, people who worked inside the Department of Work and Pensions… there are several people we met, and they spoke to us anonymously…They said they were humiliated how they were forced to treat the public. So there is nothing accidental about it, and it is affecting a huge section of the population.”

The commercial and critical success of I, Daniel Blake is a testament to the growing awareness of the repugnant way in which the political establishment in Britain treat many of their citizens. Whether the film will be as influential in affecting positive social change as one of Loach’s earliest films, Cathy Come Home, remains to be seen. We can only hope it does.

 

Victorian Holocausts & the Tory killing machine

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 Britain’s poor, mentally ill and disabled who lately have slipped from the media headlines and hence the consciousness of the wider public. To their credit, shortly before the last General Election, the Mirror newspaper reminded their readers how many ordinary mentally-ill and disabled people who had nothing to do with causing the financial crisis had committed suicide which the Tory government had attempted to cover-up.

Although initially the opposition from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to releasing figures highlighting the number of Incapacity Benefit and ESA claimants who had died between November 2011 and May 2014 was solid, increasing political pressure from below meant that they 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 has 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, despite the fact that the coroners findings stated that all of the deaths “certainly aren’t linked to any other cause”.

It’s clear that the DWP under Iain Duncan Smith practiced ‘chequebook euthanasia’  in which “WCA assessors used psychological ‘nudge’ techniques to push the mentally-ill towards suicide in order to reduce the ‘burden’ on society caused by these “useless eaters”.  A year down the line, and with Duncan Smith gone, many people hoped that there would be a change in policy direction. But this has been to no avail. After announcing that the government had “no further plans” for benefit cuts in March of this year, Duncan Smith’s replacement, Stephen Crabb has recently said to have gone back on his word.

Crabb has implied that six years of “welfare reforms” (euphemism for £12 billion of cuts) look set to continue for the sick and disabled which will almost certainly result in yet more unnecessary deaths among some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Mike Sivier has correctly, in my view, described this Tory policy as a “war of attrition” that “may clearly be seen as a genocide”. This form of ‘chequebook euthanasia’ would not be possible without the intervention of Chancellor, Gideon Osborne, who oversees the writing of the cheques.

The attempts by the Tories to humiliate and inflict immense suffering on the weakest in society, in what film-maker Ken Loach described as the British governments “conscious cruelty” towards them, would not have come as any surprise to Osborne’s Victorian counterparts. These Victorian politicians would have shared with the Tory Chancellor an ideological commitment towards ending ‘welfare dependency’ which then, as now, lofty sounding morals were regularly evoked.

One of Osborne’s prominent 19th century counterparts was ‘India’s Nero’, Lord Lytton. Queen Victoria’s ‘favourite opium-smoking poet’, vehemently opposed efforts to interfere with ‘market forces’. In 1877-78 he 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”.

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 ‘chequebook euthanasia’ policy of the modern day Tories. The tragedy of the famine is commemorated by people from all over the world who, next Saturday (May 21), will descend on the beautiful County Mayo coastline in the west of Ireland to take part in the annual 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 Ireland 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. Then, as now, they are 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 murdered 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 morally justifiable as a “salutary cure for over-population.”

Today, over 3 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 embedded today as it was a century and a half ago.

The Austerity Con-Trick

Cash machines targeted by Occupy protesters

Cash machines targeted by Occupy protesters (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The UK government mantra that it’s imperative to reduce the deficit (the difference between the money coming in and going out) is one of the greatest confidence tricks to have ever been fostered on the British people. In reality, the deficit could be wiped out at a stroke. In his documentary film The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach highlighted that in the decade after the war, the UK government built 300,000 affordable homes a year and brought the NHS into being.

The chart below shows at that time UK national debt – the accumulation of deficits – stood at about 180% of GDP. At present it’s about a third of that.

UK National Debt since 1900.

uk-national-debt
Source: Reinhart, Camen M. and Kenneth S. Rogoff, “From Financial Crash to Debt Crisis,” NBER Working Paper 15795, March 2010. and OBR from 2010.

So why in 2015 are we apparently unable to afford to prevent the most vulnerable in society from committing suicide as a result of cuts to their benefits, yet after the war we were able to build hundreds of thousands of affordable homes for people to live in as well as bring our NHS into being? Why the insistence on getting the deficit down especially since there is no law forcing the government to repay the debt?

The answer to those questions is that since the crisis hit in 2008, there’s been an iron clad consensus between both the Labour Party hierarchy and the Tory right, predicated on neoliberal ideology which is used as a weapon with which to beat the poor with by way of the former’s support for, and the latter’s implementation of, a sustained programme of austerity and cuts. It’s this iron clad consensus that Jeremy Corbyn wants to break.

The notion that it’s imperative the British government “balances the budget” in order to reduce government debt is nonsense, as is the analogy that national budgets need to be treated just like household budgets. The bailiffs won’t be entering the House of Commons or the Bank Of England any time soon. The truth is, unlike personal debt, the deficits and debts of governments’ are not of primary importance.

When he became chancellor in 2010, Gideon Osborne boasted that he would eliminate the deficit by April 2015. But that plan is in tatters. He has now put back the promise to 2018/19. The government had to borrow £3.7 billion more in the first seven months of last year. This was partly because North Sea oil and gas revenues plummeted to a four year low.

The UK is a relatively low wage economy compared to it’s major rivals and its productivity gap with these nations’ is at the widest it’s been for 20 years. Moreover, because many of the new jobs created in Britain are mainly part time (against a backdrop of the longest drop in real wages since records began), means that tax revenues are low.

In order to make up the shortfall between real and expected revenues, the government borrows money by selling bonds which are essentially IOUs with the promise of future repayment. In the meantime, the government pays interest on these bonds which are sold to banks, insurance firms and even pension funds. The total of bonds that have been sold is called “public debt”.

In a crisis like the one we’ve had since 2008, bond buyers can demand higher interest payments which they have done. This explains why the cost to the government in terms of the interest on the national debt has risen since the beginning of the crisis as illustrated in the table below.

uk-debt-interest-payments-total

To appease the bond buyers, the government has imposed austerity on the people. We constantly read in the gutter press about the rail workers allegedly holding the government to ransom, but never the bankers – funny that!

During the peak of the swinging sixties, government debt was greater than it is in 2015 and yet, unlike those golden days, we are told that both the government and the citizens of today have to tighten their belts as though we were living the austere days of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The truth is the post war Keynesian boom resulted in a steadily declining debt from it’s peak in the 1950s. This is because higher wages and high employment means greater spending power, which in turn means greater economic activity and higher government tax revenues.

This is precisely the kind of argument progressive capitalists like Nick Hanauer point to. The reason billionaires like him argue for a doubling in the national minimum wage is not because they are altruistic but because they understand that it’s in their best interests’ and that of the capitalist system as a whole. That message needs to be relayed to Cameron and Osborne.