Last week, voters in the UK chose to re-elect the Conservatives to rule Britain another five years. Because of this decision tens of thousands of people will needlessly suffer. Some will die. It is really that simple. Britain’s current austerity politics have been linked to widespread social harm, and we have been promised that there will be much more austerity to come.
The Tories’ election manifesto includes the promise of more measures aimed at saving £12 billion in welfare. These 12 billion will come out of the money we have put aside to protect the weakest among us. Those least able to defend themselves are going to be hit hardest.
In the rhetoric of post crises politics, these cuts are necessary to lift Britain out of recession. They are a sacrifice we all must bring, because “In a world of fierce competitiveness – a world where no-one is owed a living – we need to have a welfare system that the country can properly afford.” The idea that welfare cuts and austerity are suitable measures to strengthen an economy is on shaky empirical grounds, to say the least. The idea that austerity is the only way to save money is nonsense. The 12 billion in saving are offset by tax cuts to the wealthy. In this election the Conservatives have promised to put the threshold at which tax payers would have to pay the top tax rate up to £50.000 a year. Voters last week decided that it is more important for people who are reasonably wealthy to be a little more wealthy than that the needs of those who have very little are met. In short, the British electorate have decided they want to be ruled by party whose actions are fundamentally and obviously immoral. How did that happen?
Shortly after the results were announced the parody site “The Daily Mash” released an article titled “Voters surrender to their inner bastard”. It is easy to agree with this interpretation of events. What other explanation can there be than that those who voted Tories are simply selfish bastards who don’t give a shit about the desperation they cause? The problem with this interpretation is that it is probably not how David Cameron or any of his voters see themselves. The rhetoric of the Tories is full of “values”. Cameron is a self-described Christian who believes that “A sense of compassion is the centrepiece of a good community. “ Many critics’ main reaction to the professed moral uprightness of the Tories is to call “hypocrite”, to dismiss it, and to assume that they are merely pretending to care about anyone but themselves. We see those who support neoliberal policies as villains who purposefully lie and pull the wool over everybody’s eyes. But what if that isn’t actually true? What if in voting the Tories (or in being the Tories), people are not merely “surrendering to their inner bastard” but genuinely believe they are doing the right thing?
How is it possible then for there for Mr Cameron and his voters to show such a callousness towards those most in need of compassion? How is it possible for them to keep believing that what they are doing is the right thing? How do they make sense of the social harm their actions cause?
For the Tories and their voters to implement their profoundly anti-human policies while believing they are morally upright citizens, they must somehow convince themselves that those who are hurt don’t really matter. Those suffering under neoliberal policies must somehow be recast as not quite “full” people. As people who do not deserve to be treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, which is how we are supposed to treat full people.
There are two main ways this is happening. The more obvious way is that the Tories justify their destructive policies is by blaming those suffering for their own misfortune. Poverty is not caused by structural inequalities, it is caused by individual failing. A good illustration of this mentality is Conservative politicians’ reaction to the rise of food banks in Britain. Time and time again Conservative politicians have reacted to the most visible effects of austerity with derision and claims that food banks are not only not necessary, they are actively encouraging people to live irresponsibly.
The second way Conservative politics manage to hide the damage they do. The coupling of human worth with economic productivity. The slogan the Conservatives campaigned under this year was mostly “For a strong economy and a bright future” or “Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy”. “The economy” (whatever that might exactly be) is the overarching value that every other value is inferior to. This view of the world translates into a view of humanity. If economic prosperity is the beginning and end all of what you believe to be important, people’s worth is inextricably connected to their economic usefulness. They can be economically useful in two ways: as consumers or as workers. One bit of campaigning material quotes Cameron as saying “We’re the real party of working people: giving everyone in our country the chance to get on.” They promise full employment, with every individual experiencing “the pride of a pay check”. This slogan puts a positive spin on policies that try not only to give anyone the opportunity to work, but also to force everyone to work.
Work and economic recovery become an overarching goal that displaces all other ideas. For the political theorist Hannah Arendt, at the point where one idea replaces all others and is seen as the all-embracing explanation for everything, ideas become dangerous. In her essay “On the Nature of Totalitarianism” she writes that “… ideologies are systems of explanation of life and worlds that claim to explain everything, past and future, without further concurrence with actual experience.” (p.349-350) She charges these ideologies with an “arrogant emancipation from reality” which is clearly echoed in the Tories’ continued insistence that further deregulation will lead to overall prosperity.
I am not comparing modern day Britain to a totalitarian regime. However, just because Arendt developed her ideas based on the most drastic examples of political violence of the last century does not mean they can’t be applied to other situations. Hannah Arendt herself said that it is dangerous to tolerate evils just because they are comparatively smaller than those of totalitarian mass murder. In her essay “The Eggs speak up” she argues against accepting lesser evils to ward of bigger one. She writes that “…all historical and political evidence clearly points to the more-than-intimate connection between the lesser and the greater evil. If homelessness, rootlessness, and the disintegration of political bodies and social classes do not directly produce totalitarianism, they at least produce almost all the elements that then go on to its formation.” Totalitarian mass murder and moral indifference justified by the belief in neoliberalism are not the same phenomena. But they do share a troubling propensity to justify dehumanizing policies by referring to one all-encompassing goal.
The Tories are well vversed in the justification of lesser evils. The striving for a “strong economy” combined with their fetishizing of work justify the dehumanizing politics of austerity and workfare we have seen in the last five years. Another evil the Conservatives have been very quick to justify is the fate of refugees. Last year the UK stopped supporting sea rescue missions on the Mediterranean Sea. The government justified this decision by claiming that the existence of rescue missions encouraged people to make their unsafe journeys. If the rescue missions are stopped, the government argued, people would be de-incentivised and less likely to make the dangerous journey.
Many decried this reasoning as cynical. In a world where everything and everybody is reduced to their economic value, however, it makes sense. Refugees fleeing from war and hunger are reframed as “economic migrants” who have made a rational informed decision to make their way to Europe. Everyone who does not fit in with this view is made invisible. Like those amongst us who cannot work for one reason or another, refugees are superfluous.
The concept of superfluousness was developed by Hannah Arendt in her work on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and later further developed by Zygmunt Bauman in his study of modern capitalism. For Arendt, superfluousness is a natural consequence of totalitarianism and colonial imperialism. It is the exclusion of individuals from what we recognise as fully human. Bauman picked up Arendt’s terminology to describe the way modern capitalist societies produced “human waste”. Those who cannot support capitalism through their power as consumers are excluded. They are stripped of their humanity and made disposable.
The result of making people superfluous is that they do not need to be treated with the same dignity and respect that we would normally show towards another human being. The Conservatives don’t need to think about those who may never be economically useful because to them they don’t exist. All refugees are really economic immigrants. All long term unemployed people are “skivers”. The refusal to even think about those made superfluous is mirrored in some of the specific policies implemented by the Conservatives. Measures like instating a benefit cap or the “bedroom tax” make it clear that those on benefits are seen less as individuals and more like a mass of people. These measures affect almost everyone on benefits the same way, regardless of their individual circumstances.
But the most drastic example of the Conservatives’ attempt to not have to think about the harms they cause is their plan to scrap the European Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act, unfortunately for the Conservatives, applies to everyone. As such it is inconvenient. It clashes with the stern economic rationality with which the Conservatives are defining who deserves to be a full human and who can be disposed of.
Over the coming years we will be seeing the results of this year’s election. Britain is going to become an even more hostile place for many, while a few will continue to grow and prosper. The thought that we are governed by a group of cynical rich people who are knowingly causing suffering in order to enrich themselves is scary. The thought that they might actually believe every word they are saying is terrifying.