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Scandalous Blaming of the Poor: UK austerity politics

by Daniela Tepe-Belfrage on March 23, 2016

ScandalAs outlined in this series of blogs, Scandalous Economics is a collection of essays that explores “how scandals – and scandalous uses of and/or neglect of gender – have helped narrate the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) into political oblivion”, as Aida Hozić and Jacqui True outline in their introduction. Principally, there is the scandalous neglect of feminist insights on inequality in all major books on the crisis – whether by Mark Blyth, Daniel Drezner or Thomas Piketty.

Johnna Montgomerie and I argue that this is a critical missed-opportunity to challenge the root causes of the crisis: the very structure of finance-led growth that intensifies along established inequalities of gender, class, race, ethnicity and/or sexuality.  Scandalous Economics is a corrective to the scandalous neglects in the GFC scholarship that brings together scholars whose work retells the story of the causes and consequences of the crisis paying particular attention to its gendered and racialised nature.

Our contribution in the volume highlights how historical memories of austerity as ‘difficult but necessary’ are evoked to rebuild silences around the deeply unequal process through which austerity is made possible. Key silences resonate around how ‘the household’ sector (more so than ‘private’ sector) has borne the majority of costs for bailing out the banks as well as absorbing most spending cuts to public services. Indeed, why the bank bailout policies were not a scandal perplexed even the then Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in his testimony before MPs in 2011:

The price of this financial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it…Now is the period when the cost is being paid, I’m surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has.

Feminist political economy provides the only relevant set of conceptual tools to understand how public welfare for corporations is justified and yet public welfare to households vilified.  The non-scandal of public subsidies to the Financial Services Sector is in effect the ‘strategic forgetting’ in the political economy of welfare reform in Austerity Britain. This reform program in the UK has been designed and justified using the discourse of scandal and unsustainable costs to taxpayers. Our contribution challenges such forgetting by looking at how poor women with children were made targets of scandal in post-crisis Britain, depicted as burdens to the public finances. These women became objects and subjects of reform to fix ‘Broken Britain’ in the process. Austerity is a new form of ‘governance by lifestyle’ that has put a sharp focus on ‘families’ as subject/objects of reform. This is pivotal to the gendering of the process of welfare reform. We demonstrate the significance of these reforms showing how they evidence a fundamental shift in the role of social policy from addressing the causes of poverty to managing (or governing) the effects of poverty.

‘Governing by Lifestyle’ allows policy-making to design new ways of governing using crass stereotypes rather than actual evidence.  In practice, this means policy makers are able to cast their bureaucratic gaze on the lifestyles of ‘private’ households. The ‘strivers’, the ‘skivers’, the ‘Troubled Families’ are not actually in receipt of substantial amounts of public money but they are at the forefront of the State-led moral reform initiatives. Bankers, by contrast, are in receipt of trillions in public subsidies and tax-payer guarantees; however, ‘Banker Bashing’ is strictly forbidden by policy makers because criticising professionals for their ‘coke and whores’ lifestyle is supposedly an anathema to rational, liberal policy making. However, the post-crash UK economy has seen a worrying shift in which a state-led (or the party political elite) initiative to morally reform the life choices of the underclass is causing harm to wider society. Indeed, this political norm took a dangerous turn with the rhetoric of ‘Broken Britain’ (although the rhetoric has now changed, the practices remain the same) seeking to legitimise the Austerity narrative through actual social policy. As a result, the ‘skivers’ and ‘generations of workless’ that actually do not exist in any empirically observable reality must now be found, identified and reformed with minimal democratic oversight and even less evidence of the rationale for such reforms.

Austerity in Great Britain shapes government and media discourses about the poor as being a burden on tight public finances, justifying cuts to welfare and design of new interventions targeted at disciplining the poor.  These policies and cuts demonstrate how scandalous economics can be a classic bait and switch so infamous in the mortgage finance market before the 2008 crash; while it is the City of London and the failure of austerity-led growth that actually cause high public debt levels it is “troubled families” and the like, that require government intervention in order to bring public finances into the black. State policies here displace the real causes of financial crisis and obfuscate structural inequalities. They remake “society” by casting economic problems, which could be addressed through economic policy, as social problems, individual problems, and problems of troubled families, which to the anathema of Hayekian neoliberals can be addressed through social (engineering) policy.

Daniela Tepe-Belfrage
Daniela Tepe-Belfrage is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield. She currently holds a Faculty of Social Science Research Fellowship. Her research is concerned with Feminist Political Economy, Critical Theory, Austerity, British Politics, Politics of Caring and Parenting. Her research has been published as a monograph with Palgrave Macmillan and in journals that include International Politics, Public Administration, Review of International Political Economy and Capital & Class. She is the co-editor of a forthcoming Special Issue on Inequality and Insecurity in British Household in British Politics and the forthcoming Handbook on Gender in World Politics with Edward Elgar.

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