Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash


“Austerity is an instrument of malice” Richard Horton (2017) in the BMJ

A sustainable society not only has to consider what its source of energy is, but also what its social cohesion might be. We have to look at social processes that either work to bind us together or to drive us apart. One of the latter is ‘Institutional or Structural Violence’. If a social structure, a policy or an organisation enacting its normal functions directly or indirectly causes harm to people, either deliberately, or as unintended consequence, then structural or institutional violence can occur. One current policy so described is that of the UK’s ‘Austerity’ put in place in 2010.

The Violence of Austerity is discussed in detail in recent 2017 book by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte.

That ‘normal’ society can be violent is not, of course, a new idea. Ancient Rome and Greece provide plenty of examples of ‘normalised violence’. Although Thomas Hobbes warned us that life can be ‘nasty brutish and short’, Enlightened Modernity, however, was supposed to be different. Progress based on liberal values, free markets and reason was supposed to be beneficial to all. Warnings about industrial capitalism were certainly voiced:

When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.”

Freidrich Engels (1845) ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’.

We still have industrial capitalism, of course, routinely injuring and shortening lives across the globe. Some countries now have developed finance capitalism or ‘knowledge-based economies’ and thus reducing the harms industrialism brings. It might be thought that these societies are less violent or even non-violent. This might be true at the macro level of analysis, yet it remains the case that they can be very violent and at times violent by design. Stephen Pinker(2011) argues that violence in the world has declined and thus the world is getting better, although this is not guaranteed. This is an argument worth discussing but I am not sure if this negates the concept of structural or institutional violence.

Let us be clear from the outset. This is not about interpersonal violence carried out by one person directly on another using physical or emotional force. This is about Institutional violence, carried out by smartly dressed ordinary men and women in offices up and down the country, who often are merely following orders or who were architects of the policies that kill or cause physical and psychological harm. The malefactors of great wealth stand behind the lines cheering them on, using their propaganda news media to convince the victims that the victims are to blame. The malefactors of great wealth also grow fat on the proceeds of the sales of products designed to dull the senses and anaesthetise the pain caused by institutional or structural violence – high fat, sugar loaded fast foods, cigarettes, alcohol, cheap TV and mass culture in a dystopian miasma of false dreams. Many of the current Sunday Times Rich List (2018) are merely surfing the structural waves of capital accumulation. Of the Billionaire ‘Self Made Men’ of the Rich List, Graham Scambler argues:

“…it is not only the case that the putative British Dream (talent plus hard work can lift one into the super-rich) is (statistically) illusory, but also: (a) that it represents a symbolically, and frequently physically, ‘violent’ pro-capitalist aspiration and propensity to exploit/oppress others…..

Some may doubt the existence of institutional violence, perhaps arguing that only human beings can directly inflict pain. Johan Galtung (1969) in ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’ wrote of structural violence; a violence in which some social structure or social institution causes harm by preventing people from meeting basic needs. This is a model of violence that goes beyond notions that focus only on individual agency. Gregg Barak (2003) in ‘Violence and Nonviolence: pathways to understanding’ argues:

Like interpersonal forms of violence, institutional forms include physically or emotionally abusive acts. However, institutional forms of violence are usually, but not always, impersonal: that is to say, almost any person from the designated group of victims will do. 

Yes. “Any Person” from the sea of faceless ‘skivers, shirkers, unemployed, disabled, sick, mentally ill, low paid and feckless’ who have been systematically stripped of their personhood by bureaucratic processes designed to make their lives hell in order to ‘incentivise’ them to find work. In 2018, we may add the Windrush generation of migrants experiencing deportation due to a Home Office policy of deliberately creating a ‘Hostile Environment’ for illegal immigrants, which of course the Windrush generation are not.

Barak goes on: “Moreover, abuses or assaults that are by corporate bodies—groups, organizations, or even a single individual on behalf of others—include those forms of violence that over time have become “institutionalized,” such as war, racism, sexism, terrorism, and so on. These forms of violence may be expressed directly against particular victims by individuals and groups or indirectly against entire groups of people by capricious policies and procedures carried out by people “doing their jobs,” differentiated only by a myriad of rationales

People “doing their jobs” using thoughtlessness, banality and cliché to justify their actions or perhaps because of fear of joining the ranks of the precariat themselves. The current most important banality and cliché currently in force is ‘Austerity’ and its attendant lies used as justification.

Johan Galtung argued:

violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations

  1. Violence is a phenomenon which reduces a person’s potential for performance. A distinction must be made between violence and force, since the former breeds negative results, while this is not necessarily so in the case of the latter. This is an important option because many people consider that violence may have both positive and negative results.
  2. Violence should be objectively measured according to its results, not in a subjective manner: Suicide rates, mental illness, mortality and morbidity rates, hunger and poverty may be objective measures.


Felipe, MacGregor and Marcial Rubio refer back to Galtung and provide their own definition of violence:

A physical, biological or spiritual pressure, directly or indirectly exercised by a person on someone else, which, when exceeding a certain threshold, reduces or annuls that person’s potential for performance, both at an individual and group level, in the society in which this takes place”.

What pressure is being exerted on people undergoing work capability assessments in the UK? Consider this story:

“A few days ago I saw a patient with very severe MS. She was bed bound and cannot move any part of her body. She requires 24-hour care which has always been provided by a live-in carer. At the last Atos medical the assessor felt she only needed 12 hours of care in the day and not at night. He was aware that recently she had developed an overwhelming infection in the night and been rushed to hospital by her carer who had heard her moaning from the other room.

I was seeing her write an appeal letter against this decision which could clearly be life-threatening for her. I read my letter out to her which detailed her severe disability and requirements and as I looked up I realised she was crying. “I am so sorry, I am so sorry,” she kept saying. “I feel such a burden to everyone. I am so sorry.”

As doctors, we see the cruel human consequence of legislation.

Laura Marshall-Andrews GP  Brighton The Guardian letters Thursday 10th May 2018


Criticism of structural or institutional violence and the denial of its existence may focus on the need for an actor; an actor who can then be held liable for such action. Personal or direct violence is a violence in which an aggressor can be identified, face to face, whereby the victim can recognise a guilty person through direct confrontation. But this is far too narrow a definition as it ignores the wider policy context in which ‘good people do bad things’.

If these definitions hold, current government ministers, civil servants, local authority bureaucrats and perhaps some health professionals are complicit in the violence inflicted upon those with learning disabilities, claimants for universal credit, those who died undergoing work capability assessments and those who died in Grenfell Tower. For an example, see ‘Death by Indifference’ (Mencap 2007) and ‘The Learning Disability Mortality Review 2016-2017’ (LeDeR 2018).

It is the contention of Cooper and Whyte, along with Stuckler and Basu, that ‘Austerity kills’. Structural and Institutional violence thus arises from the implementation of Austerity.

In 2013 David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu published ‘The Body Economic – Why Austerity Kills’ and stated that since 2007 the total number of suicides had risen by 10000 across the US and Europe while millions lost access to basic healthcare. Chopra (2014) reviews the book and points out that:

Mental health outcomes feature prominently in these analyses. For instance, the authors report 1000 excess suicides in the UK due to the effects of this recession and a second wave of ‘austerity suicides’ in 2012”.

Following the Great Financial Crash (GFC) of 2008, the neoliberal project in the UK was given an opportunity to push further on its (class) agenda which had been based on reducing State support for the public sector and social security claimants, encouraging privatisations, establishing financial deregulation, reduction of corporate tax and removing ‘red tape’ such as worker’s rights and environmental protection. The theory was based on ‘trickle down economics’ and Hayekian ‘free markets’. Jobs, growth and investment would follow. Austerity in this context was seen as a necessary corrective to the failing economy. It was not mentioned of course that one reason for the GFC was neoliberalism itself. So, we have a neoliberal policy being implemented to correct the failures of neoliberalism.

For the sake of argument, lets accept the claim that indeed the UK since 2010 enjoyed pre-crash levels of growth above OECD averages (it has not), produced a high number of well-paid secure, high skilled jobs with wage growth (it did not), and that investment significantly rose (it has not) and that productivity has soared (it has not). What is Austerity and what are its founding myths?

If a major tenet of neoliberalism is a reduction in state withdrawal from services and from support for workers and claimants, Austerity turbocharges it in the name of deficit reduction to address the national debt.

Austerity is first and foremost a move to permanently dissemble the protection state (Cooper and Whyte 2017) through reductions in targeted public spending. The view is taken that skivers and shirkers have grown fat on the largesse of the British Welfare State, a State that breeds dependency and since the GFC, it is argued that is now unaffordable. It is not about reducing state spending per se, as subsidies to the nuclear industry and help to buy schemes attest. Indeed State spending as a % share of GDP has not really moved since 2010. It is this that makes the ‘reduction of state spending’ neoliberalism rhetoric (as ideologically based class war) but not for the rich.

Austerity is based on the idea of ‘expansionary fiscal consolidation‘ (Alesina and Perotti 1995). Government cuts to public spending will, the theory says, encourage more private consumption and business investment. Not cutting public spending jeopardises investment and competitiveness. The reality is that public consumption in the UK is debt-fuelled rather than from higher wages, and investment remains very poor.

Three myths underpin this approach from 2010:

  1. We all played a part in the financial crisis and New Labour caused the crash.
  2. Austerity is necessary.
  3. We are all in this together.

However, this masks real reasons for the policy:

  1. To further ease Capital Accumulation for the rich.
  2. To further extend wealth by growing inequality and through dispossession.
  3. To permanently dissemble the protectionist State.

In short: it is the violence of class war. Capital v Labour, the irreducible foundational contradiction of capitalism.

The institutional violence meted out by for example by G4S and ATOS is ‘ordinary’ mundane process violence, it is not exceptional but routine as experienced in people’s lives, involving fear humiliation, hunger, shame and early deaths. Using ‘maladaptive coping’ such as eating high-fat sugary food, smoking, excessive drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected promiscuous sex, are often as much reactions to as causes of poverty and violence. This ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’, which points to poor individual lifestyle choices, ignores the wider determinants of health, the mass of data on the ‘social gradient’ in health and of health inequalities. It also does not understand the complexity of personal agency and social structure in which reflexive deliberations (our inner voices) mediate between objective social structures, cultures and our personal concerns and projects.

Institutional violence is pervasive and normalised so that we don’t always see it or feel it for what it is. Food banks, deportations, homelessness, debt, trafficking, evictions, precarity in low wage jobs are becoming part of the social fabric that is getting thinner by the day. Air pollution from diesel particulates in cities kills. However, we think this is normal. We allow it to happen. This violence is slow violence whose effects may take time to come through. It also provides a pervasive threat of violence for those lacking the financial, social, cultural capital to either protect themselves or to escape.

Richard Horton (2017) in the Lancet (note not ‘Marxism Today’) outlined the arguments well:

Economists are the gods of global health. Their dazzling cloak of quantitative authority and their monstrously broad range of inquiry silence the smaller voices of medicine, trapped as we are in the modest discipline of biology. Economists stepped beyond the boundaries of the body long ago. They now bestride the predicaments of our planet with confident insouciance. It is economists we must thank for the modern epidemic of austerity that has engulfed our world. Austerity is the calling card of neoliberalism. Its effects follow an inverse harm law—the impact of increasing amounts of austerity varies inversely with the ability of communities to protect themselves. Austerity is an instrument of malice. Search under austerity and you will find few countries unaffected. Greece, of course, but also Mozambique, France, Scotland, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Cameroon, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, and England. Economists advocating, and governments implementing, austerity naturally reject the word. Instead, they call austerity, “living within our means”. But be clear. What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious. The Financial Times, a newspaper usually in thrall to the spectacle of economics, called these policies “inhumane” last weekend.

Richard seems to be suggesting we may be at a turning point. I hope he is right, but with a Brexit fixated government backed by 30% of those eligible to vote (the 52%) and the cheerleaders in the right-wing press driving politics onwards, I don’t yet see much hope.

So where does that lead us? The wider context is, of course, climate change, the effects of which yet to be fully felt in the UK. Our addiction to fossil fuels as a normal part of life, our lock into a high carbon economy society, means we can’t easily extricate ourselves from the daily violence we are doing to ourselves, each other and the biosphere.  Austerity is currently violent. Our carbon-based energy use locks violence into everyday life but separates its consequences from us to other countries and the biosphere.

However, the consequences may come back to the developed world with a vengeance.

John Urry (2011) in ‘Climate Change and Society’ describes future societal scenarios based on an analysis of our relationship to energy sources and the types of energy we use. One of which he calls ‘Hobbesian’ – a world of ‘regional warlordism’ or ‘barbarization’ in which violence is endemic.  The socio-ecological system breaks down resulting in declining physical resources, amenities and the erosion of the social and moral our civilisation. This social break down is a result of severe oil, gas and water shortages resulting from climate change threats to key infrastructures. People become less mobile and more local in survival mode, disconnected from central authority and control within a system of anarcho-capitalism. Many areas would be producer areas but disconnected from the consumption areas. Warlords fight to gain control of vital communication routes and production processes in much the same way as the illicit drug trade operates today. The super-rich would still be increasingly protected from everyone else in their walled and gated cities, but beyond these enclaves would be terrorists, refugees and slaves.

This is a Mad Max ‘Fortress’ world.

It is time for the dreamers, the philosophers, the poets, the artists, the musicians to help us to see a “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” (Charles Eisenstein).