Category Archives: Welfare

The Human Cost of Demonisation

by Michelle La Guilla

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TRIGGER WARNING FOR RAPE

I have struggled with mental illness since the age of fourteen when I was raped by one boy while another watched. Whether that incident caused the black depressions, self hatred, skin crawling anxiety, intermittent self-harm and terrifying panic attacks that followed, or whether it merely triggered something already latent that would always have been lying in wait for me, I have no idea; whichever, my life has been plagued ever since by fear, shame, suicide attempts and the unbearable, enduring feeling that I am somehow simply bad.

Mental illness has taken me from therapist to hospital, confined me to bed, sent me spiralling into addiction and abusive relationships, and almost taken my life. It has also enmeshed me in the benefits system for most of my adulthood. In the eyes of the right wing press and according to government rhetoric, I am a pariah, a workshy scrounger, a burden on hardworking taxpayers.

Such narratives obfuscate two facts: the first being that I would give anything to be different, to not spend months at a time too scared to leave the house, just wanting to die at the worst times. The second is simply this: I am a person with my own hopes and dreams; I spent twelve months in rehab and have been clean the four years since; I was a straight A student until yet another breakdown forced me to put my studies on hold; I volunteer spending time with unwanted animals; I am a fiancé, daughter, sister, friend; when I am well enough I write. I am simply not stable enough to work; still I try my hardest to be a kind and decent person.

Yet now I find I have internalised the slurs; there’s an insidious little Voice of the Daily Mail in my head, chastising me if I am up later than 8am, constantly sneering how worthless and parasitic I am. It’s a dreary vicious circle which negates all my efforts to get better by destroying my self-esteem. Because my condition is invisible, I become afraid to go out, scared people will judge me, think there’s nothing wrong with me, hate me.

It’s a great weight on the soul to be vilified, even when that vilification extends to millions; it doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate from general (‘benefit scroungers’) to particular: me. And I wonder whether those who would have the likes of me tarred and feathered have forgotten we are human at all.

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There may be trouble ahead… & behind

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but while we still can let’s face the music & dance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnfKmNRfLYU

By Elizabeth Lee Reynolds

Waking up this morning (early afternoon) to read about the devastating cuts coming into effect today and in the very near future [i] made my stomach turn a little (& desperately hope it was all a very bad April Fools’ joke). Mostly though I questioned for about the thousandth time how and why the tories think these disgustingly unequal policies will really help our economy, or society in general.

Of course the simple answer is they are posh deluded little bastards, drunk on power and entirely out of touch with the real world. But there is a much longer answer that traces an attack on the Underclass/Problem Families/Other somewhat derogatory term you wish to use that has been present in both this nation and others for a very long time.

The following piece is a not particularly edited essay written for John Welshman’s HIST277 course In Search of the Underclass: Politics and Poverty in Britain Since 1970. I do recommend this module to anyone who happens to do history at Lancaster. Although it is a little frustrating and I sometimes found the whole thing to be a little derogatory and also the majority of people who take it seem to be posh quasi-conservative prats who enjoying examining the “Underclass” as if they were another species, it is pretty interesting and reveals how there seems to be a Cycle of Misunderstanding in governments towards those struggling in society.

Even if you don’t read this I strongly encourage everyone to read some of the resources I used for it, particularly: Ruth Levitas’ enlightening explanation of where the government got their figures and facts for 120,000 Troubled Families (Ruth Levitas, ‘There may be ‘trouble’ ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled’ families’, Poverty and Social Excusion in the UK, Policy Response Series No. 3 (2012) pp. 4-5 http://www.poverty.ac.uk/system/files/WP%20Policy%20Response%20No.3-%20%20%27Trouble%27%20ahead%20%28Levitas%20Final%2021April2012%29.pdf I slightly stole the name for this post from her, but she stole it from above song) & Richard Wilkinson’s ‘What difference does inequality make?’ which is a very straightforward explanation of how inequality is undeniably incredibly detrimental to society. Seriously everyone read it! It’s not very long at all & is possibly one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while (http://www.thpc.scot.nhs.uk/Presentations/Wellbeing/Wilkinson.pdf). John Welshman’s articles are also pretty interesting in regards to a history of inequality and “Underclass”. & If you can be bothered to find it in the library I also found Frank Field’s Unequal Britain A report on the Cycle of Inequality an interesting read (historically wise).

This essay is written on David Cameron’s approach to addressing the issue he sees of ‘Troubled Families’ in Britain (of which there are supposedly 120,000) and how this exacerbates an unfair view of those who suffer most in society and who his current furore of cuts effect the most. Although this was written pretty recently the Coalition’s attacks have been so rapid in the last few months the examples given can sometimes seem a little outdated, apologies for that. & sorry for this unnecessarily lengthy introduction, so finally here goes… (oh & add your own witty caption as to what Cameron could be saying in the photo, I had a few but I can’t edit a photo to save my life)

In December 2011 David Cameron made a speech addressing the need for the Government to focus more on an alleged 120,000 ‘troubled families’ in England. This idea is certainly nothing new in Government policy or academic rhetoric on those considered to be at the bottom of society. The similar concept of ‘‘problem family’ became a preoccupation during the Second World War’ which itself ‘metamorphosed’ from ‘the search for a ‘social problem group’’ in the 1920’s and early 1930’s.[1] Since then, the ideas of ‘Underclass’ and similar concepts have become a focus of social science and national politics. There are multiple differing explanations to these societal issues; those who say it is an issue of individual behaviour and others who understand the problems as being rooted in larger structural issues. Here my focus will be on the latter of these perspectives and this analysis shall propose that the state is creating a sense of an enemy within society, through the concept of ‘troubled families’, to divert attention from larger issues of inequality across the population.

The speech was made in the wake of the London Riots that rippled across cities in England over a few days in the beginning of August 2011. Like the aforementioned debates on poverty itself, the London Riots provoked a variety of commentators; the events began with a protest for Mark Duggan, a young man shot by a policeman, in Tottenham but quickly escalated to acts of arson, looting and other violence throughout London and spread through the country. Cameron himself recognises that for this escalation to occur the riots would have to be seen as ‘a boiling over of problems that had been simmering for years’. [2] Tottenham not only has a ‘history of riots’[3], such as the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, but is also one of ‘London’s poorest boroughs’[4]. These facts point to the idea that for decades there has been something structurally wrong within this part of the country, yet whether this was what motivated the looters is another matter. While some commentators suggested that ‘the riots were more apolitical’[5] others stress there were some looters who ‘expressed a political rage – about the way the cuts affected communities, about having no route to social or economic mobility’[6]. It would be naïve to call either of these analyses wrong; the riots were a consequence of both behavioural and structural issues, but it must be remembered while some opportunistic looters grabbed television sets and trainers others grabbed less materialistic items like food, pointing to a sense of need rather than simply desire.

While acknowledging this issue of a fundamentally unequal society Cameron glosses over the issues at the top of society, claiming that action has already been taken, and focuses his attention on the 120,000 families he perceives to be the real issue. In his speech Cameron stated that ‘a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society’ (Cameron, 2011) making it evident he is taking an immensely behavioural approach to the issue and ‘the consequences of that behaviour for society’ (Cameron, 2011). It can be said that what Cameron achieves here is to demonise those who may be considered victims of an unequal society. The main point of evidence for this claim is where Cameron got the figure of 120,000 families from. Ruth Levitas reveals the source to be analysis from a 2004 Families and Children’s Study, which designates the families to be those with five of seven characteristics, being: no parent in work, overcrowded housing, no parent with qualifications, mother with mental health problems, at least one parent with long standing disability and showing a level of material deprivation.[7] These criteria clearly reveal families suffering from problems, rather than the image the Coalition creates of families causing problems. This is confirmed by the Communities and Local Government report which lists the criteria of ‘troubled families’ as having ‘no parent… working, children not being in school and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour’, although this report also uses the original 120,000.[8] The report also fails to acknowledge where they have calculated the alleged £9billion that these families cost. It is evident that they are combining those that have troubles and those that are troubling to society into one, confirmed by Eric Pickles’ statement that they are ‘both troubled and causing trouble’ (Levitas, 5).

This failure in understanding the specific problems that people have is nothing new in government policy making, the New Labour government launched the Family Intervention Project which was criticised of failing ‘by targeting the wrong people for the wrong reasons… while failing to tackle the real underlying causes’, particularly in areas like mental health.[9] Much earlier governments proposed radical solutions to ‘problem families’ such as the suggestion of ‘segregation and sterilisation’ in the 1940’s.[10] Despite politicians often focusing on behavioural problems, academics and commentators can often take a more structural view. This can be seen by examining, for example, the difference between Keith Joseph’s concept of ‘Cycle of Deprivation’, which focuses on people’s inadequacy as parents and other personal failures, and the concept Frank Field raises of ‘The Cycle of Inequality’. Field marks the issues caused by the increasing gap between rich and poor making aspirations constantly out of grasp for those at the bottom of society, these problems range from income to health.[11] It is evident through multiple studies that there is a psychological effect of inequality and deprivation can lead to the behavioural aspects politicians often choose to focus on.

Frank Field reports data from 1973 showing that at this point the richest 10% in Britain accounted for 99% of income (Field, 59). This uneven distribution continues today, for instance last year it was noted the richest 1,000 people had increased their wealth by £155bn, enough to pay off the current deficit with a meagre £30bn to spare.[12] In his speech Cameron acknowledged that ‘when one group in society seems to have a life apart from the rest, that can have a corrosive effect on others’ (Cameron, 2011); he lists some ways he is tackling the problems at the top of society but it is plain to see that in reality his policies have increasingly been focused on welfare cuts. One must question the government’s commitments to tackling inequality when their recent decisions include a ‘challenge on EU agreement to slash bankers’ bonuses’ and the bedroom tax, reducing benefits to people in social housing with “spare” bedrooms.[13] Academics have argued that this problem of inequality is what makes ‘some of the most affluent societies seem to be social failures’; these unequal relationships in society increase the feelings of anxiety and lack of trust as well as violent tendencies.[14] Despite these issues inequality has been proved to cause, it is unsurprising that David Cameron chooses to focus as little attention on them as possible, especially since his own fortune has been rumoured to be inherited from off-shore tax avoidance[15]. There is also evidence that these early head starts have given Cameron the boost needed to reach the heights of Prime Minister while others struggle to dream of such aspirations. In a study in India it was shown that children who previously received similar results in tests began to achieve differently when they were made aware of their social position, those from lower castes performance was substantially reduced (Wilkinson, 4), thereby the structural creates the behavioural.

Through rhetoric like the ‘troubled families’ the government not only reaffirms the social stratification of citizens, but also sustains a demonisation of lower classes that is propagated in some media, creating an enemy and threatening ‘other’ in society. This discourse is perpetuated by politicians and certain media outlets over successive generations, aggrandising the section of society who ‘choose to live on the dole’ and a creation of a ‘‘Shameless” culture’ (Cameron, 2011), has successfully shaped the public opinion on welfare. A TUC survey carried out at the end of 2012 showed a shocking disproportionately negative response towards benefits from the public. When asked how much of the welfare budget they believed went to those unemployed, the average answer was 41% while the true figure is only 3%. Similarly on average people believed almost half of those on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimed for over a year when the true figure is just over a quarter; overall the poll revealed an immense hostility towards welfare with 59% agreeing it had created a culture of dependency.[16] These kinds of opinions and their amplification by those in power continues a negative image of underclass and undeserving poor, which are concepts that have been present in the debate for decades. These types of ideas help to keep the marginalised of society away from the concerns of the mainstream, such that cuts to benefits and other areas of the public sector may be seen to only affect those who deserve it, because they refuse to find other means to sustain themselves.

However, as is increasingly being made clear, it is not just those who, for whatever reasons, only receive money from benefits that suffer from the severe cuts that the Coalition Government are making. For example, in February 2013 it was revealed that in certain areas of Lancaster and Morecombe, such as Heysham North, one in three children are living in poverty, with Councillor Margaret Pattison commenting that ‘[m]ost people that are suffering at the moment are working people’, proving that those effected are the deserving poor as well as those some may consider undeserving.[17] Again this approach to those in poverty is nothing new, politically it was agreed in the early 1950’s ‘that the problem was not poverty’, although, as it is today, many academics opposed this behavioural analysis and pointed to overarching structural issues.[18]  This negative image of those on welfare, no matter what their situation, can be seen to be continued in Cameron’s speech with lines such as ‘I hate the idea that we should just expect to pay ever larger amounts in welfare to an ever larger chunk of society… and never expect the recipients to change their lives’ (Cameron, 2011). It may be argued that influencing these ideas allows him to make the damaging cuts to welfare that he intends with little public outcry as so many people think it is pushing those who are idle to work, when in reality the damage is far more widespread.

By focusing his interest in families who are struggling at the bottom of society and failing to tackle the issues that are made at the top, extending the already immense inequality, the Coalition succeeds in averting attention from the source of the financial crisis that currently plagues the majority of the global markets.  Events like the London Riots can only be expected when those already suffering the most in society are put under further pressure because of a financial crash they did not cause. Even when some behaviour can be marked as apolitical and opportunistic it is undeniable that the spark for this violence is lit by ‘class-motivated, Cameron-led coalition initiatives’ (Scambler, Politics of Class). It is overwhelmingly apparent that Cameron, and his party as a whole, is one that is motivated by class interests. From its traditional ideological foundations there is an acceptance of inequality in Conservative thinking. Edmund Burke, regarded as the founder of modern conservative philosophy, asserted that social inequality ‘was part of the natural order’.[19] The supporters of welfare, the Liberal Democrats, have been absorbed and the Tory policies win out in an ideologically contradicting Coalition.

The Coalition, or more truthfully the Conservatives, have focused on the 120,000 ‘trouble families’ because it allows them to perpetuate and extenuate the inequality within society. While events like the London Riots break out and there is an increase in movements against the cuts across the country the government realises some may be waking up to their hypocrisy. Against this, policies like the ‘troubled families’ programme help to keep the anger of the general public focused on ‘scroungers’ living off ‘the dole’.

[i] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/mar/31/liberal-conservative-coalition-conservatives


[1] John Welshman, ‘‘Troubled Families’: the lessons of history, 1880-2012’, History and Policy, October 2012, http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-136.html 8th March 2013

[2] David Cameron, Troubled families speech, 2011 http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/troubled-families-speech/

[3] Karim Murji and Sarah Neal, Riot: Race and Politics in the 2011 Disorders, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4/24.html 8th March 2013

[4] Mary Riddell, ‘London riots: the underclass lashes out’, The Telegraph, 8 August 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/8630533/Riots-the-underclass-lashes-out.html

[5] Graham Scambler and Annette Scambler, Underlying the Riots: The Invisible Politics of Class, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4/25.html 8th March 2013

[6] Jenny Bourne, ‘The line between the political and the criminal can be a blurred one’, The Guardian, 26 September 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/26/spaghetti-house-siege-1976-political-criminal

[7] Ruth Levitas, ‘There may be ‘trouble’ ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled’ families’, Poverty and Social Excusion in the UK, Policy Response Series No. 3 (2012) pp. 4-5 http://www.poverty.ac.uk/system/files/WP%20Policy%20Response%20No.3-%20%20%27Trouble%27%20ahead%20%28Levitas%20Final%2021April2012%29.pdf

[8] Financial Report on The Troubled Families Programme by Department of Communities and Local Government, 2012, pp. 3 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/11469/2117840.pdf

[9] The troubled families agenda- what does it all mean?, Adfam briefing, 2012, pp. 6 http://www.drugscope.org.uk/Resources/Drugscope/Documents/PDF/Policy/TroubledFamilies.pdf

[10] John Welshman, ‘Troubled Families’: parallels with the past, http://www.poverty.ac.uk/articles-families-editors-pick/%E2%80%98troubled-families%E2%80%99-parallels-past 8th March 2013

[11] Frank Field, Unequal Britain A report on the Cycle of Inequality, (London: Arrow Books, 1974) pp. 62 (can be found in Lancaster University Library)

[12] Michael Meacher MP, The scourge of our wealth divide, The Guardian, 2 May 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/may/02/scourge-wealth-divide

[13] Nicholas Watt, ‘UK to fight EU plan to cap bankers’ bonuses’, The Guardian, 28 February 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/feb/28/uk-fight-eu-cap-bankers-bonuses

[14] Richard Wilkinson, ‘What difference does inequality make?’, Monthly Review, (2009) pp. 1 http://www.thpc.scot.nhs.uk/Presentations/Wellbeing/Wilkinson.pdf

[15] James Kirkup, ‘David Cameron’s inherited family wealth ‘based in foreign tax havens’’, The Telegraph, 21 August 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/9218119/David-Camerons-inherited-family-wealth-based-in-foreign-tax-havens.html

[16] Pete Murray, ‘Govt relying on ignorance to support benefit cuts- survey’, http://union-news.co.uk/2013/01/govt-relying-on-ignorance-to-support-benefit-cuts-survey/ 8th March 2013

[17] Nick Lakin, ‘Charities reveal pockets of high child poverty’, Lancaster Guardian, 28 February 2013

[18] John Welshman, ‘Troubled Families’: parallels with the past, http://www.poverty.ac.uk/articles-families-editors-pick/%E2%80%98troubled-families%E2%80%99-parallels-past 8th March 2013

[19] Frank O’ Gorman, Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy, Volume 2 (London: Routledge, 2004) p.46 (Don’t look for this, Burke is a berk, as the name would suggest.. I really think he might be where the insult came from, maybe in a few years we’ll be calling people a cameron…)

There’s Nothing Fair About Workfare

by Michelle La Guilla

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Do you trust this man?

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The article below first appeared in October 2012 on my blog trueredaintdead@blogspot.co.uk.  I am republishing it here to mark the Workfare Week of Action starting tomorrow, Monday 18th March. It will also appear on the campaign blog http://kickingtoryassonwelfare.wordpress.com/ where myself and Laurie AntiTory offer support, advice and information for anyone suffering under the welfare ‘reforms’. We have seen victories in the form of companies and charities pulling out of the workfare scheme in droves in response to public pressure, and in the courts for Cait Reilly (pulled off voluntary work in a museum to stack shelves in Poundland) and Jamieson Wilson.  However, EXTREMELY disturbing news has come out that the Government and DWP are rushing through a bill (the Jobseekers [back to work schemes] Bill) to override the court verdict and avoid paying back the sanctions they unlawfully stripped from individuals for not participating in workfare.  Furthermore, Labour are said to be supporting the bill, making it clearer than ever that they won’t stand up for the poorest any more.  This disgusting move undermines democracy and the rule of law: if the government can simply retroactively change any legal decision it doesn’t like, what’s next?  Read more on the bill at http://mikesivier.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/is-labour-planning-to-betray-its-core-supporters-by-siding-with-iain-duncan-smith/ and http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/15/dwp-law-change-jobseekers-poundland and find resources and ways to challenge this abuse of the law, as well as ways to get involved in the workfare week of action, at the bottom of the article.

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In Cameron, Osborne and co’s campaign to restore class elites and polarise rich and poor still further, one of the most pernicious elements is the vaunted introduction of workfare.  (And it is a project to restore upper class power, make no mistake.  Even the head of the International Monetary Fund, a model free market institution and thus hardly a haven for reds (under the bed or elsewhere), has said that austerity measures are not working.  Yet still they go on cutting from those who have nothing while giving tax breaks to the rich).

Workfare is promoted in the usual discourse of fecklessness, benefit dependency, scroungers and workshy earning their right to benefits rather than living in decadent indolence at taxpayer expense.  The idea is to further extend the conditionality of benefits (JSA claimants already lose benefits if they turn down paid work, no matter how poorly paid, temporary or insecure) to include mandatory work in participating companies.  Of course, the “workshy layabout” narrative is somewhat undermined at the moment by the explosion in unemployment (caused by the banks, let’s remember, not benefit recipients) which means that for every job, however menial and lowly, there are tens or even hundreds of applicants.  The vast majority of unemployed people right now are desperately trying to find work to alleviate poverty and debt, belying the “can’t work, won’t work” stereotype used to demonise people on benefits, in order to justify the measures which will exacerbate their poverty still further.

Think about this idea in any detail at all and it’s not only the unfairness but the stupidity of workfare which becomes glaringly apparent.  Of course it is slave labour, working a thirty – forty hour week for JSA (currently at £71/week for over-25s, still lower for younger people).  But it’s also free or heavily subsidised labour for employers, as the state continues to pay the benefit.  What business is then going to advertise a real job, with a living wage and fair working conditions, when a supply of  “workfare” participants is available? ( It’s the same sort of disincentive as tax credits, which, while having a much more benign application (topping up the wages of low earners), means in practice employers know the exact threshold for tax credit payment and can thus continue to pay poverty wages).  So in light of this, how exactly is this helping tackle unemployment or economic recovery?  (Incidentally, there is wide consensus among academics that only spending can promote economic growth.  Fat chance when everyone’s skint, again begging the question: how exactly are austerity measures helping?)

To digress for a moment, as I mentioned adult JSA is currently paid at £71/w.  Housing Benefit is set too low to pay even the cheapest rents and is set to be cut still further.  So out of that £71/w, any JSA claimant has to top up the rent by 20, 30, 40, 50 pounds a month.  Council Tax Benefit is also set to be cut by ten per cent, with Cameron telling local councils to pursue the shortfall any way they see fit, which of course will mean bailiffs and debt collectors.  I take a moment to point all this out to show that the discourse of idle undeserving poor living in the lap of luxury laughing at the taxpayer and the government is bollocks.  But it’s useful bollocks to Cameron and co, because it justifies ever harsher and coercive measures.  Incidentally, workfare would not be optional, but to do voluntary work off your own back would not be allowed, because the time should be spent jobseeking – or, for sick and disabled claimants, would be used against you to find you fit for work, even though with voluntary work you can choose the number of hours you can manage, and can stop if your condition worsens.  The Big Society?  We’re all in this together?  Don’t make me laugh.  Cameron and his cronies are no longer even bothering to pretend they’re not throwing the poor to the wolves.  But just as Thatcher, in her boundless arrogance, came undone with the Poll Tax riots, Cameron’s days are numbered too.  Crush people for long enough, they will crush you.

And if someone who has paid through the nose and gone thousands into debt for their education (because education, too, is now simply a commodity, with a rocketing price) and studied for years becomes unemployed, why should they be forced into factory work to keep their dole money?  (Which would also take up most of their time, which they could have spent looking for work in their own fields.  This is how people get trapped in demeaning, dead end jobs whilst barely keeping body and soul together.  This is how the country is deprived of great young minds who could do great things).  Cameron would never let that happen to his kids.  The truth is, workfare is punitive, it is degrading, it is designed to show people their low place and never let them forget it.  The sociologist Loic Wacquant also posits that it acts as a warning to those in working poverty, struggling in exploitative jobs with totally inadequate pay and conditions, that there is another level still to fall if you step out of line.  Wacquant’s searingly angry, disturbing book “Punishing the Poor: the Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity” – which I can’t recommend enough – details how the so called left and right hands of the state, the welfare system and the prison system, together form an apparatus for the regulation and surveillance of deviant populations, those who can’t or won’t be part of the brave new world of neoliberalism.  His analysis shows how neoliberal governments in the USA, UK and elsewhere increasingly criminalise poverty itself, calling benefit recipients “cultural similes of criminals”.  It’s very interesting that the appeals of the sick and disabled found fit to work by Atos are actually held in court.  (These appeals/trials are estimated to overturn between 40 – 70% of decisions, in one fell swoop resulting in months – sometimes over a year – of needless worry, distress and penury in the form of 40% benefit cuts pending appeal for victims, massive cost to the taxpayer of the appeal process belying the supposed purpose of the cuts, and proof to anyone without a hard right wing agenda or a midget brain that the benefit cuts are of no benefit whatsoever economically but are a purely ideological campaign). And we have already seen the increasing criminalisation of homelessness with the repeal of squatters’ rights, as well as new legislation against “shanty towns” such as the camps of the Occupy movement, a further indicator of the increasing criminalisation of dissent.  Look at the rabid tabloid discourse and we can see how benefit claimants are characterised in the most horrible, judgemental and dehumanising terms; and blaming the poor for their own poverty fulfils a useful function for government, obscuring the rotten mess of inequality and greed, conveniently ignoring the crimes of the powerful and justifying the dehumanising treatment of the “problem categories” chewed up and spat out by the market.  This “invisibilisation of social problems” (Wacquant) serves the dual function of removing any obligation to do anything about them, and literally cleaning up the streets of the poor and dispossessed who ruin it for everyone else – after all, who wants a visible reminder of the human cost of their own wealth?

Workfare in the UK is also symptomatic of the overwhelmingly pervasive attitude that paid work is the only thing of value a person can do.  To be out of work is to be nothing, to be less than human.  Again – bollocks.  No one can tell me that working in McDonald’s has more meaning than bringing up children, caring for incapacitated family members, volunteering your time for free to help others.  Of course, the demonisation of the unemployed is a big lie on another level too:  smoke and mirrors to conceal the fact that the last thing neoliberal governments and corporations want is full employment.  The very people they vilify and slander are the so called reserve army of capitalism: their existence keeps wages low, the spectre greedy bosses can invoke to keep their workers in line.

I’ll conclude with a heartbreaking story cited by Michael Moore in his sobering film “Bowling for Columbine”.  In Flint, Michigan, a six year old boy went into school one day with a gun he found in his uncle’s house, where he was staying because his mother was being evicted.  This tiny child shot dead another tiny child, six year old Kayla Rowland.  Flint, Michigan, Moore points out, is the grimy flipside of the American dream, with 87% of pupils at the school in question living below the official poverty line.  Tamala Owens, the young boy’s mother, to keep her entitlement to health care and food stamps, was on the workfare programme administrated by the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin (a company that can’t be expected to have respect for human life, as a producer of weapons of mass murder).  Ms Owens worked two jobs on the workfare programme, forced to take an 80 mile round trip with an hour and a half commute each way.  A single parent, her boys rarely saw their mother who went out early and didn’t come home till late (but work is God, right?  Never mind who was parenting these poor children).  The idea was that Ms Owens was “working off” the welfare payments she had taken from the state.  Despite working seventy hours a week at these two jobs in Auburn Hills, one of the wealthiest districts in America, for companies who were given special tax breaks for employing welfare recipients (another disincentive to offer jobs at a living wage and another proof that this policy thus does nothing to tackle unemployment) Ms Owens couldn’t afford her rent and so sent the boys to stay with their uncle while she tried to sort things out.  And so the stage was set for an eminently needless, preventable tragedy, the violent ending of one young life and the permanent blighting of countless more in the form of both Kayla’s family and the young perpetrator and his.  Incidentally, the sheriff of Flint, Robert Pickell, openly tells Moore in the film that workfare has no merit and only compounds social problems.  The District Attorney tells how the same right wingers who are the most enthusiastic proponents of workfare and the “blaming the poor” perspective wrote to him and demanded this six year old boy be hanged from the nearest tree.

Of course, in America policy is also highly racialised, much more so than here, but nonetheless workfare in Britain will hit the poorest and most vulnerable yet again.  The poorest pay for the sins of the richest.

To fight back against workfare and get involved in the week of action, see the campaign at http://www.boycottworkfare.org

To challenge workfare based on servitude laws, look at http://www.servitudecomplaint.org.uk/ (locally we’ll be presenting a copy of this letter to the police station on Saturday, if you would like to join us there at 11am).

Particularly egregiously, charities known to be still using workfare are The Salvation Army and the YMCA (charities which purport to help lift people out of poverty!).  Join the rolling pickets here: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=2262

You can find your MP and send a letter from this site: http://action.pcs.org.uk/page/speakout/ask-your-mp-to-stop-the-government-changing-the-law-on-workfare or you can use this template letter to send to both Tory and Labour MPs to protest the retroactive legislation.  It may also be worth contacting Michael Meacher MP as he has tirelessly championed the rights of poor and disabled people against the DWP and Atos, his email address is : michael.meacher.mp@parliament.uk

Dear _____

I am extremely disturbed by the information in this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/15/dwp-law-change-jobseekers-poundland?CMP=twt_gu&commentpage=2

As the article notes, this retrospective legislation undermines the rule of law.  My understanding is also that Ms Reilly was diverted away from her own voluntary work in a museum, to work at Poundland.  I cannot see how this benefited either her or society.

I believe workfare is unethical and of dubious legality, viz the human rights act article 4 prohibiting slavery, servitude and forced labour.  I believe it to be a punitive measure which will also not help people into work, there is strong evidence that companies are simply using placements to replace actual jobs with the accompanying minimum pay and conditions.  It is also inhumane to cut off the only income of some of the poorest in society.  I believe it to be a wrongheaded, vindictive measure on every level, and the government’s attempt to overrule the court’s judgement to be reprehensible and dangerous for democracy.  If the government can simply apply new legislation to overrule any decisions it does not like, what is next?  I am deeply concerned we are becoming a surveillance state and that the poor are being punished for the crisis created by the rich.  You the government are there to serve the people, not punish us whilst rewarding yourselves (I believe an MPs weekly allowance for groceries alone is £160, yet your government is taking the meagre £71 a week out of the pockets of the poorest people if they are unable or unwilling to work effectively almost full time hours for no extra money and with no chance of a job at the end of it).

I refer you to the DWP’s own report which states: A study by the DWP into workfare in the USA, Canada and Australia found that workfare ‘can even reduce  employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers’. The same study also found that workfare is particularly ineffective at leading to work during periods of high unemployment.[i]

Please oppose this bill which not only would prevent justice being done but would set a dangerous precedent.

Yours sincerely


[i] source: http://www.solfed.org.uk/myth-buster

FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE CON DEM NATION

By Michelle La Guilla

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Like poor Alice, we have tumbled into a looking glass world.  As the century embarks on its difficult teenage years, as the future looks bleaker than ever before for almost everyone, a coterie of dead eyed, grinning (and crucially, rich) sociopaths literally laugh in the faces of the poor as they rob them – a familiar hobby for their leader, a man who spent his formative years cruising around in Bentleys laughing at beggars whilst burning £50 notes in front of them as a member of notorious gang of (k)nobs the Bullingdon Club.  Our leaders strike me as the sort of men – and they are overwhelmingly men (overwhelmingly white male millionaires in fact, something I find so outrageous I am astonished daily people are not out in the streets going “Wait a minute!”) who enjoy pulling the wings off flies.  Against this dystopian background, policies and press alike become more and more poisonous, bad and mad – one gem among multitudes came from the Daily Mail, hysterically accusing a man who was so afraid of being found fit for work he cut off his own foot and cooked it so it couldn’t be reattached, of being ‘workshy’, followed by some egregious crowing that the man in question had STILL gone on to be found fit for work. (This was cheered on by such luminously intelligent comments as ‘This shows how easy it is to get benefits’, leading one to believe the commenter had not really understood the article).  Not ‘clearly desperately mentally ill’. Workshy. Such are the depths we have sunk to in our populist disgust, abjection and total lack of empathy for the poor, sick, disabled and vulnerable.

In fact, the only time the press apply the lexicon of mental illness soothingly and with concern is to the market.  The market is ‘depressed’, it is ‘in crisis’, it is ‘in need of reassurance’, it is ‘crashing’.  Corporations are classed as ‘people’.  And actual breathing, mentally ill people are left to rot in penury and be treated as scum – increasingly, to the point of being physically attacked. In this shameful context, a new conversation – a political conversation – about mental health urgently needs to be had.

Mad and bad policy, bad and mad media, a total vertiginous reversal of what matters most – the appeasement of the equally worshipped and feared market with endless sacrifices, as if it is some vengeful, never sated pagan god, whilst enacting policies which directly affect and in one way or another impoverish, oppress, discriminate against, demonise or otherwise harm nearly all actual HUMANS – is it any wonder actual humans go mad?  Or is our distress a completely natural and understandable response to a world and a polity which is becoming inexplicable, psychotic, monstrous; openly evil and obscenely, avidly greedy; beyond our comprehension if we are compassionate thinking beings?  Any close examination of what is happening to millions in our country right now makes it almost self evident that mental distress is inevitable; it would be stranger if we were not depressed.  And thus, any diagnosis of ‘mental illness’ and individualised treatment – usually in the form of medication – runs the risk of medicalising inequality.

This idea that mental distress is not a personal tragedy or a sign that the sufferer is defective and in need of ‘fixing’, but is conversely rooted in social conditions, form the core of the social model of mental health.  In fact I would posit that the biomedical model of mental health goes further than the biomedical model of disability – mental health conditions are viewed and treated not just as a personal tragedy but a personal deficiency and bear a deep stigma. Full disclosure here – the social model literally saved my life.  During my last period of depression, the worst I had suffered in years, I was suicidal.  Yet I also started to get very angry.  I was in the process of appealing a decision resulting from the despised Work Capability Assessments administered by French company Atos (who have since contacted me to call me in for another WCA, despite the fact that my last one is still under appeal).  My partner and I were spending hours on the phone every day trying to sort out mistakes made in the administration of our benefits – mistakes in the amount, or the fact that it had never been paid at all on several occasions.  The Employment Support Allowance benefit seems administered deliberately to intimidate, harass and grind down recipients, and this seemed to me confirmed when, acting on advice from Welfare Rights, I refused further ESA and my partner claimed Income Support for both of us – it came through within a week, simple as that.  I felt that the world was full of horror and injustice, and it seemed very clear to me that there was nothing wrong with me, but rather that my problems were external, beyond my control and resulting from the ideological austerity programme being imposed by government.  My psychiatrist asked me why I found it so scary?  Yes, the cuts were unfair, he argued.  But why so scared?  I couldn’t articulate it then, maybe because he, a nurse and two medical students were all looking expectantly at me, but I can now – cuts, poverty, propaganda against the poor, the sick, against by extension me and others like me, environmental destruction and my own smallness and impotence in the face of all these things – who wouldn’t be frightened?  I grew up in a left wing household and hated Thatcher, but was shielded from the vagaries of her policies by virtue of being a child and protected by my parents; jubilated when Labour got in but soon became disillusioned when Blair sold us all down the river; but this government’s cuts seem to me almost unprecedented in that they affect so many, almost everyone except the very rich.  This time it’s personal, thought I.  So instead of killing myself, I started reading about radical mental health groups and firing off emails.

But I am far from alone in my close call – so far there have been over ten thousand deaths recorded, many of them suicides, in the wake of the desperately flawed WCAs and the associated hounding by Atos.  When any successful appeal against Atos’s myriad lunatic decisions (40% of claimants win their appeals, and this rises to 70% when represented by advice agencies such as welfare rights and CAB.  Although you have to go to court to fight it, just so you really feel like a criminal) is followed almost immediately by another medical, and the whole sorry circus starts up again, is it any wonder people feel they will be hounded to their graves?  Never mind how frightening it is for those suffering acute anxiety or even agoraphobia to go to court and fight.  Couple this with a public already hostile to benefit claimants (and spurred on by the disgusting defamation in the press), and the fact that mental health conditions are invisible and thus dismissed as non existent by many (I’ve had conversations with people online where they have put quotes round the words depression, agoraphobia, anxiety; as though they are obviously fictitious ruses dreamed up to facilitate the sufferer living the life of riley at the taxpayer’s expense) and you have the conditions for a perfect storm for the nation’s mental health.

The idea that social conditions generally and capitalism specifically affect mental health adversely is not new.  Marx wrote about the alienating and exploitative properties of capital a hundred and fifty years ago; the advent of factory work, he posited, and the consequent breaking up of production into many thousands of highly specialised, individual tasks, meant that wage labourers no longer had the chance to create and make products themselves, from start to finish; this alienated the worker from the product of his labours, a tragic condition for human beings, who Marx believed are both creative and social.  Emile Durkheim, though occupying diametrically opposing ontological and epistemological ground, concurred insofar as believing the causes of mental distress were social, rather than rooted in individual psychology.  In his famous study of suicides, all his data was drawn from statistics; Durkheim had noted that the number of suicides in any given society stayed remarkably stable over years, and only spiked during periods of great social upheaval; what he called ‘anomie’.  This led him to conclude that the causes must be social in nature, and that looking into individual reasons for suicide was futile; even if it were possible to question the individuals involved, he considered, the true reasons would be unknown to them.  Durkheim also wrote of the cult of the individual, words that seem prophetic in our isolated, atomised lives today.  The idea that the rights, hopes and fulfilments of individuals are paramount seems a positive one, until we consider that this necessarily entails a falling away of social bonds and obligations, since under these lights – these neoliberal lights – our only obligations are to ourselves; to hell with those who fall by the wayside.

Let’s return to the market again, that sensitive flower that needs constant ‘incentives’ and ‘reassurance’ lest it fall into catastrophic depression.  Back in 1944, in his extraordinarily prescient book ‘The Great Transformation’, Karl Polanyi warned of the dangers of ‘disembedding’ the market from society. He argued that historically, the market had always been embedded, and was administered via principles of redistribution and/or reciprocity.  With the rise of laissez faire capitalism feted by Friedman, Hayek et al, the market became a god like entity, supported by a paradoxically stronger and more authoritarian state because the holy trinity of free market economics – privatisation, deregulation, deep slashing of social spending – caused untold human misery for all but the richest and had to be imposed by force (the examples, too numerous to list, include Chile under Pinochet, ‘structural adjustment’ programmes attached to aid for assorted third world countries in the eighties, and – less spectacular but no less valid – the whirlwind we are reaping from rabid neoliberalism under Thatcher in our own country today, which is coupled with harsh enforcement and the increasing criminalisation of dissent).  This gave the lie to the familiar neoliberal diatribe about the evils of ‘planning’ – on the contrary, as we can see, such brutal policies require repression, often including ‘disappearings’ and torture to head off revolution by the poor and angry majority.  Polanyi’s words about what he called ‘fictitious commodities’ similarly seem almost prophetic now.  He was referring to land, labour and money, and how problematic it becomes to commodify such items – for example, if labour is a commodity, necessarily human beings are only of value economically, to be bought and sold and hired at the cheapest price that yields the greatest profits.  Contemporaneously, I think we can add financial products such as hedge funds to that list – funds which essentially make high stakes bets on what will be happening in the markets.  Such funds operate via smoke and mirrors, conjuring cash seemingly out of thin air, untouched and unsullied by labour which I have no doubt they see as being the province of us lower orders.  A world where our leaders argue vociferously against the capping of the obscene bonuses paid to bankers who caused the crisis with their reckless, heedless gambling, funded by huge sums of essentially imaginary money, whilst capping benefits which will make the already poor – working and unemployed both – progressively poorer in real terms, is a world which perhaps unsurprisingly is rife with depression, worry and despair.

There are all sorts of dispiriting and sinister connotations which can be extrapolated when we start to think about mental health in terms of free market policies.  One of the most disturbing is the controversial way ‘disorders’ are recognised in the first place.  The proliferation of new labels to attach to vulnerable people is constantly growing – ADHD, the hugely contentious childhood bipolar, and personality disorder whose vague definition posits that it can be applied to anyone whose behaviour markedly and consistently differs from cultural norms.  The sinister implication there is that anyone who is different, who resists, who suggests there may be something wrong with the prevailing culture or who stubbornly refuses to fit in the normalcy box, could be classified as severely mentally ill.  Nor is this a new phenomenon.  Let’s not forget that homosexuality, hysteria (deriving from the Latin for womb, as it was a ‘disorder’ diagnosed only in women, a tendency to fainting, irrationality, senseless rages which with a more enlightened and modern lens can be easily attributed to the mind numbing tedium of the ascribed female role in Victorian times).  Similarly, ‘drapetomania’ and ‘dysaethesia Aethiopica’ – respectively, a ‘mental illness’ found only in slaves and distinguished by a single symptom, that of wanting to run away from their master (cure: heavy beating); and a ‘mental illness’ again found only in black people, which resulted in laziness and ‘rascalry’ (cure: heavy beating, again).  And so going against the cultural grain at the time – considering slavery and the oppression of women morally wrong – would be grounds for the diagnosis of a personality disorder by today’s definition, showing how cultural normativity at all costs can be simply a convenient way for those abusing positions of power to silence their detractors by labelling them mad.  Obviously these last four have been totally discredited, repressive notions of ‘morality’ masquerading as medical diagnoses (although the idea of the hysterical female, whilst no longer valid medically, retains a curious cultural persistence, as does the idea of the deviant, depraved homosexual), but perhaps the most risible modern ‘disorder’ is ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ – main symptom, disliking authority, and perhaps particularly disagreeing with your psychiatrist.  For a ‘disorder’ to be identified and listed in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, only three psychiatrists have to agree it is a valid new diagnosis.  This process of guesswork is not evidence based, and its distinctions between ‘healthy’ and ‘mentally ill’ have been criticised for being totally arbitrary.  It’s also based not on knowledge of the brain but on outward signs and symptoms, which are subtle, subjective and nuanced and thus not necessarily amenable to this kind of rigid categorising and compartmentalisation.  And of course, the more ‘disorders’ there are, the more new drugs can make money for the big pharmaceutical companies.  If we are simply deeply unhappy, for any or all of the myriad totally understandable reasons we might be, the drug companies can’t make their millions.  So they profit from our misery by pathologising and stigmatising us.  It’s perhaps unsurprising that many psychiatrists have been found to have vested interests in the form of financial relationships with the big pharmas.  For me personally, antidepressants and mood stabilisers have proved invaluable, and the consequences of discontinuing their use are too great – I know, because I have tried several times.  However, it is morally repugnant that medication is presented as the only option, often coercively (if you refuse meds you are uncooperative and refusing to help yourself).  Medication is not appropriate in all cases, and if it is not wanted, people should be supported in finding other ways to manage their distress.

And yet herein lies the rub.  Mental health services are desperately underfunded, that is indisputable.  However, in their present form, the potential of talking therapies to transform our mental health is limited.  The approach is heavily individualised and doesn’t address the social causes of mental distress.  A book I read when severely depressed advocated a ‘positive psychology’ approach of gratitude and vitality, among other things.  And I understand why that could be beneficial, for some.  But gratitude is hard when people have nothing – a person facing losing their home due to the upcoming ‘bedroom tax’ for example, who has to choose between heating and eating, who goes hungry to feed their children – I feel this hypothetical person, who nonetheless has thousands if not millions of real life counterparts, is entitled to feel they have very little to be grateful for.  Similarly vitality – we all know it is good for our bodies and minds to exercise and eat our five a day.  But gyms are the province of those on more than minimal income, and even fruit and veg are increasingly beyond the reach of the poorest due to that toxic combination of wage stagnation, capping of already inadequate benefits, and rocketing prices.  The economy ranges, meanwhile, feature bleached white bread and meat so indeterminate it actually contains bits of other animals, viz the recent horsemeat scandal.  Talking to each other might help more, but so many still find it hard to talk openly about mental health; and who can blame them, mired as it is in a miasma of shame and misunderstanding?

Let’s finish by taking a tour round all those affected by this government’s austerity measures; let’s illuminate why so many are unhappy, frightened, despairing.  The sick and disabled are being quite literally hounded.  The despised Work Capability Assessments, administered by the reviled Atos, are based on tickboxes and targets.  They have been condemned by doctors.  They are based on assumptions, guesses and lies.  They are humiliating; they deny all dignity and humanity – for example, a depressed person can be found fit to work because they turned up clean.  To prevent the loss of our income, to prevent being forced to look for work that we are not able to do and which is brutally scarce anyway, they will take their pound of flesh; we must demean ourselves by turning up filthy, stinking and babbling.  The Whitehall mandarin reputed to have said, ‘If we want them to tap dance, they’ll tap dance’ may or may not have been apocryphal, but the sentiment is all too real.  Atos call people in for reassessment whilst the last one is under appeal, and declare people fit for work in absentia if they haven’t returned fictitious documents that were never sent; their dirty tricks know no bounds or shame.  This seemingly endless treadmill of medical, appeal, medical has understandably led many to believe there is no escape from being hounded to their graves; the death toll of this bullying, discriminatory, unjust and cruel policy is now over ten thousand; some were suicides, some died of existing conditions which were undoubtedly aggravated by the unbearable stress and worry of this horrible process.  Moreover, this policy is not only utterly inhumane, it is utterly counterproductive; it is exacerbating existing mental health problems and perhaps even creating new ones in those who were previously physically sick and/or disabled; the horror and terror of the DWP and Atos’s torture has made them depressed to boot.

A nasty climate of suspicion, fear and abjection is being quite deliberately cultivated.  Debts and poverty are out of control, but the payday lenders who prey on the most vulnerable cannot be regulated; they may impose interest rates of up to 4200%, but they’re also Tory Party donors.  Cuts to housing and council tax benefit, including the hated ‘bedroom tax’ will eat into budgets already stripped to the bone; many will go hungry, many more will face bailiffs at the door and ultimately, homelessness.  There is no longer even a pretence of support for the vulnerable, no longer any attempt to disguise the fact they are throwing the poor to the wolves whilst gleefully demonising us at every opportunity.  No wonder there has been a steep rise in hate crime against the disabled.  And yet David Cameron, who claimed DLA for his disabled son despite being a millionaire and the son of a millionaire, wants to take it away from millions.  MPs expenses claims in general beggar belief; they can claim for their home, its furnishings, transport; their groceries allowance alone is £160 a week, and yet on their ‘basic’ income alone they could afford all these things.  The people slandered as ‘skivers’ for receiving a paltry, pathetic £71 a week have to cover all of this out of that one miserable sum.  Mad and bad policy in action.

The unemployed, meanwhile, must endure indignity and slur ad infinitum, despite there being so few jobs that a recent vacancy at Costa Coffee attracted 1700 applicants.  Real jobs, such as they are, are also being replaced with the spiteful, quite possibly unlawful and economically nonsensical ‘workfare’ placements whereby the benefit recipient is forced to labour under threat of loss of benefit for up to three years for no more than that £71 a week JSA.  Companies offering workfare, meanwhile, get a fat cash incentive just for offering the placement, and free labour; is it any wonder that they then choose to use this to replace real jobs, with the accompanying minimum pay and conditions?  Thus, rich boy vindictiveness begets an even more strangled and stillborn jobs market.  In our neoliberal society, paid work is god; there is no space for those who don’t fit, no acceptance that mothers, fathers, carers, volunteers, loved friends and family members have just as much value, that everyone is important. The DWP’s database Universal Jobmatch meanwhile becomes the technological arm of the surveillance state, logging a claimant’s jobseeking activities and flagging up sanctions if they are deemed not to be doing enough, never mind that the pitiful amount of vacancies could never fill 35 hours mandatory ‘jobseeking’ a week.  Alec Shelbrooke, a minor Tory MP undoubtedly currying favour with the hard right, even proposed a welfare cash card so that claimants would not be trusted with money at all; such cards, he argued, would prevent benefits being spent on ‘unnecessary items’ such as cigarettes and alcohol, a charming way to stigmatise and infantilise claimants.  The motion was defeated, thank God, but was ominously popular in certain predictable quarters who begrudge the poor even the tiniest of luxuries that make hard lives more bearable.  Furthermore, the workfare programme has resulted in the ludicrous situation whereby voluntary work – essential, laudable, altruistic voluntary work which Cameron’s Big Society rhetoric supposedly applauds – can be used against the volunteer to find them ‘fit for work’ (never mind that with volunteering, unlike with paid work, you can choose your own hours and stop if you need to), or even more ridiculous, forcibly replaced with shelf stacking placements.  Never mind that the charitable sector is already stretched to breaking point because of the cuts and relies on volunteers; never mind that volunteering has tangible benefits both for society and the volunteer, particularly for the self esteem and sense of purpose it can give to those who are unable to engage in paid work.  No, we must hide and lie about the good we do if we don’t want to be packed off to Poundland.  Again, who is really mad here?

What about the working poor, those diligent souls nominally feted by the Government and the media as ‘strivers’?  Here we find a depressing tale of ‘zero hours’ contracts, casualisation, people trapped in stultifyingly tedious dead end jobs and still unable to make ends meet; ever longer hours, ever fewer rights; boredom, exploitation, alienation and desperation, more human beings sacrificed to the market’s bottom line.  The justifications for cuts to housing and council tax benefit conveniently obfuscate the fact that these benefits also support a population in work, those downtrodden rather than uplifted by its supposedly magical properties; working all the hours god sends, passing children and partners like ships in the night, but still not making enough to survive.  The cuts to housing benefit may well lead to a rise in homelessness among workers; Barbara Ehrenreich documents just such a chilling phenomenon in her excellent book ‘Nickel and Dimed’, an ethnography of working poverty in America; with no equivalent of housing benefit, and unregulated, rocketing rents, she describes how many of her co-workers had no secure accommodation, and slept in their vehicles or homeless hostels.

The cuts are also disastrous for women; it is proven that benefit cuts will hit women hardest, as we shoulder most of the caring responsibilities and make up most of the underprotected part time workforce.  Women’s refuges are shutting almost daily, even as the incidence of domestic violence shoots up, in response no doubt to poverty and frustration.  Changes to legal aid and benefits mean abused women and children will be unable to afford to escape, or to prosecute their abusers.  Some commentators have stated, and I concur, that the cuts amount to state sponsored discrimination against half the population.  The mooted repeal of the Human Rights Act also has terrifying connotations, protecting as it does our freedom of assembly (so bye bye trade unions), our right to privacy (so the government can read our personal texts and emails), our right to a fair trial (hello secret courts, where the defendant is not allowed to even hear the evidence against them); its repeal would also remove the government’s responsibility to refrain from unlawful killing, investigate suspicious deaths, and prevent foreseeable loss of life.  This is clearly a responsibility the government has spurned for a long time now with regards to its treatment of disabled people (let’s remember again: ten thousand dead and counting), but repealing this act would give them carte blanche to commit wholesale murder, whether by omission or commission.  Additionally, its edict against forced labour is politically inconvenient for the government’s workfare policy.

As students, we are not immune to this phenomenon either.  An average undergraduate degree now costs in the region of £26 000 and rents for shoddy, damp, often unsafe student houses are rocketing; our education is increasingly run along neoliberal lines, meaning research modules are cut and business and management degrees proliferate.  The old idea of university as a time to enjoy learning for its own sake is dead and gone; now we are exhorted to run for office, to not just join societies but hold positions of responsibility within them, to work in our holidays, to make every spare moment productive, all in the service of that magical and elusive quality, ‘employability’.  This high pressure, uncertain environment can be deeply deleterious to mental health; as can the worry that no matter how many bells and whistles festoon our CVs, there may well be no job for us at the end of all our hard work. In our turn, we may well be demonised as feckless and workshy for being unable to find employment. We are reaping the whirlwind of a market gone mad, and the harvest is bitter indeed.

At Lancaster, there have been some notable successes in mental health provision for students.  A long term campaign to improve the counselling service both in terms of availability and context of sessions (some sessions were being held in open spaces where people could see in) has resulted so far in 25 more sessions a week being added, with a report on longer term solutions by the Head of Student Wellbeing promised.  And this year, a new student run group, LU Open Eyes, Open Mind, has started up.  Becky Sophie, the founder and president, told me: “I started Open Eyes, Open Mind because of the strife of a member of my family. I watched as they struggled through university thinking that it was sad but not truly understanding the terrific strain of mental illness. I then developed depression and felt the full force of the stigma of GP’s, peers and most painfully friends. It is a necessary cause because the stigmatisation of mental illness at university is shocking and universities appear to do little to educate the student body on the immorality of this. I fully support the counselling services but whilst their funding is cut, fewer voices are being heard and the people whose voices these are are in real danger of being left by the wayside. I just want there to be a method of communication both to teach and to learn and to hopefully watch others do so.”

This development, as a sufferer of chronic depression and anxiety myself, fills me with hope.  On early showings there is great enthusiasm for Open Eyes, Open Mind and a feeling that this is something that’s needed.  But I believe we need to go even further.  We need to stop medicalising inequality.  We need to refute the idea that mental illness is some kind of personal defect, something in us that needs to be fixed.  We need to say, there is nothing wrong with us, that what is so glaringly wrong is outside of us, deeply embedded in the vagaries and cruelties of modern industrial capitalism, a wounded beast more dangerous than ever in its desperate death throes.  We need to say, is it any wonder we are mad, when our incomes, our prospects, our very souls are being attacked from all sides; when to dissent risks incurring police brutality or at the very least a criminal record; when our characters are assassinated in the media daily?

Depressives, agoraphobics, schizophrenics of the world unite!  We have nothing to lose but our demons!