Is austerity an act of violence?

Matt Ford
Thursday, 11 September 2014

Identifying violence?

On 10 September the Centre held a roundtable discussion on the extent to which we can understand austerity policies as acts of violence against vulnerable groups. We had four speakers who each outlined how various aspects of austerity coalesce to produce effects synonymous with violence.

Dr Sarah Steele analysed how the Immigration Act 2014 might affect access to the NHS. She speculated that the consequences were likely to be very harmful to both migrants and the wider population. She concluded that narratives of economic crisis, the underserving other, and universalism limited to the nation state were being deployed to portray austerity as a ‘white knight’ and conceal a neo-liberal privatisation agenda.  

Dr Vickie Cooper described the huge physical and psychological trauma experienced by vulnerable groups as a result of current housing policies. She explained that this is most apparent in the link between housing vulnerability and suicide, but other consequences such as extreme financial hardship, forced relocation and homelessness were also highlighted. Attention was drawn to the fact these developments may have brought homelessness back onto the agenda as a social rather than individual problem.

Ewa Jasiewicz concentrated on fuel poverty as an act of social violence, through energy companies' prioritisation of profit over people, and the state’s apathy towards this corporate malevolence. She proposed a rights-based approach to addressing people’s energy needs.

Finally, Heather McRobie coherently mapped the nexus of austerity policies which cause extreme vulnerability for a large number of women. She cited how discourses of austerity intersect with pre-existing modalities of discrimination to exclude women from the public sphere in particular, but also, paradoxically, from the private sphere.

Theorising violence?

These presentations stimulated an energetic discussion about the utility and appropriateness of using violence to describe these kinds of phenomena.

One attendee questioned this notion, contemplating whether broadening the concept to describe structural processes may diminish the significance of acts of interpersonal violence. They also sensed that using the term violence may over-dramatise very complex problems which need considered, technical solutions.

Others were less dubious. They described a feeling of weariness at having to constantly euphemise acts and processes which cause severe physical and emotional harm. In this sense, the concept of violence was seen as the perfect device for identifying these effects and pinpointing social and individual culpability. Animating the discussions in this way, rather than stalling potential solutions, would instigate action in a hitherto static political environment.

Some went further to suggest that the effects of these structural processes were compounded by prohibiting the use of the term violence to describe them, as it led to additional exclusion and powerlessness for those affected.

The suggestion that violence be defined as a continuum in order to reconcile these conflicts was deemed problematic by some. In terms of the physical and emotional trauma caused by these phenomena, it seemed meaningless to try to disaggregate them. One attendee observed that it is not violence which is nuanced, but how we choose to describe it.

We hope that those who came to the event found it as useful to their attempts to understand these phenomena as we did, keeping in mind that these discussions are not merely semantic exercises, but a necessary prelude to effective action.

Our December 2014 issue of Criminal Justice Matters will focus on the theme of 'How violent is Britain?', based on the recent conference in May held at the University of Liverpool.