The Violence of Austerity

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This is a collection of 24 short articles covering different, but interlinked, aspects of austerity. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is to describe recent and current government policies as violent. As the articles show, in rich detail, this is metaphorically and literally true. Ken Loach referred to the “conscious cruelty” of the Tories. Cooper and Whyte show it goes beyond that. And then came Grenfell.

The impressive range of subjects includes the impact of cuts on mental health, the savage assault on people with disabilities, the stigmatisation of asylum seekers, the denigration of young people and the deadly consequences of undermining health and safety at work. Underlying all of these issues is the systematic attack on the welfare state and the benefit system that keeps some people’s heads above water. One of the weaknesses of anthologies is the loss of a thematic flow. But The Violence of Austerity overcomes this with useful cross-referencing and comprehensive notes for further reading.

The Introduction is particularly useful. It places the politics of austerity in its wider economic context. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was, as Cooper and Whyte describe, the pretext for the attempt to restructure public services. But it’s important to remember that this effort predates 2007. As the quote from economist Paul Krugman says, “the drive for austerity was about using the crisis, not solving it”.

The chapter on eviction and repossession distills the impact of policies designed to visit violence on working class communities. Record numbers of people are losing their homes as an uncontrolled market collides with poverty wages and benefit cuts. This book covers a lot of ground, but a chapter on the violence of bogus regeneration programmes that are seeing more people “purged” from their homes would have been a good addition.

In his chapter on Manchester’s street homeless Steven Speed explores how public authorities have become the “architects of austerity”. The city saw a tenfold increase in street homelessness between 2010 and 2015. Instead of leading campaigns to demand investment in more truly affordable homes, the city council spent its efforts (and public money) on tearing down the camps that homeless people built to provide mutual shelter and protection. Meanwhile, millions of pounds were being spent on glamour zones to present the image of a “Northern Powerhouse”.

The criminalisation of the homeless is one of many grotesque examples of the violence of austerity the book describes. One of the most worrying things when reading it is the knowledge that Universal Credit will make things worse. But as the Cooper and Whyte argue, these things are not inevitable. Uniting the many anti-austerity campaigns through a “spirit of resistance” is the way to turn the violence of austerity back on itself. This book is a good summary of the arguments such a movement needs. After Grenfell we know the full extent of the violence the capitalist system will do.