Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Violence of Sanctions

This is a section from a longer essay, written in 2012, on State attempts to enforce behaviours on the unemployed.

Every week claimants are subjected to violence, but this violence is not the ‘typical’ physical violence we associate with the word violence, —although physical attacks on claimants, spurred on by right-wing media campaigns ( see the Sun’s declaration of war on benefit scroungers: ) have been on the increase, and with tragic consequences— it’s a violence based on power.

If you claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), which will be replaced by Universal Credit in 2013, you can be ‘sanctioned’, meaning you lose your JSA for a week to 26 weeks depending on why the sanction was applied in the first place. A sanction is financial, but it has a social element to it as well: it is meant to regulate your behaviour. By threatening you with loss of allowance, benefit, or support, sanctions are supposed to modify you and your relationship to work; by threatening those who are in poverty, with poverty, the State expects you to comply or perish -what use are you, economically, if you cannot or, maybe, will not to work? It is through these ‘sanctions’ that the State wields power over the unemployed (& employed), and it is through this power that violence against the claimant is committed.

The World Health Organization (WTO) defines violence as:

The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.[1]

Power is a form of violence that can cause, according to the WTO, injury, death, psychological harm or deprivation. Whether a sanction is actually applied or not, the intention is to threaten you with the possibility of not being able to pay the electricity bill, or buy food, or make up the difference in your rent; the intention is to put you in a position that causes significant trauma (threatened or actual), so that you don’t resist the terms of the agreement you signed in order to receive your benefit. It is to deprive you of the necessities of life so you prefer to be put to work and have your labour exploited.

In the quarter ending November 2011 there were 309 thousand referrals for JSA sanctions where a decision was made, of which 153 thousand were adverse (i.e. a sanction or disallowance was applied).[2]

In just 4 months, ending in Nov 2011, 153,000 sanctions were applied to claimants, resulting in a loss of Job Seeker’s Allowance.

In 2011, over 10,000 sanctions were applied to claimants of Employment Support Allowance (ESA), an allowance that can be claimed if you have an “illness or disability”.[3]

On the 21st May 2012, 124,000 single parents were forced from Income Support onto JSA, where they face the threat and application of sanctions.[4]

This is the extent of regulation of the unemployed on JSA; this is the extent of regulation of sick & disabled people on ESA; this is the extent of modification of behaviour by the State; and the extent to which violence is used against the poor and vulnerable.

And this violence can have tragic consequences:

In June 2010, Scottish Writer Paul Reekie was found dead in his home surrounded by “letters informing him that his welfare benefits were to be halted”.[5]

In February 2011, Elaine Christian committed suicide over her disability benefits being cut.[6]

In November 2011, Helen & Mark Mullins were driven to suicide, unable to live on the £57.50 a week Mark was collecting in JSA. Helen had been refused JSA because she was unfit for work, but could not claim Incapacity Benefit (IB) because she had not been officially diagnosed with a condition. Although Helen wasn’t sanctioned, the refusal of benefits, no doubt, precipitated a fatal act of violence by the State.

In January 2012, a claimant died of pneumonia six weeks after his Incapacity Benefit was stopped[7]

In May 2012, a claimant walked into Birkenhead Jobcentre, Wirral, and slashed his wrists.[8]

These are just a few reported cases of what could be described as poverty-related deaths or suicides (in one case attempted) invoked by the threat or actual application of increased poverty by financial sanctions or adverse benefit decisions. Although most of the cases relate to benefits being stopped, as opposed to benefits being sanctioned, they highlight the actions of a state that perpetuates violence and its preparedness for the consequences of that violence, as evidenced in a six-point plan sent to Jobcentres, by the Department for Work & Pensions, warning staff of potential increases in suicides:

 "Some customers may say they intend to self-harm or kill themselves as a threat or a tactic to 'persuade', others will mean it. It is very hard to distinguish between the two … For this reason, all declarations must be taken seriously."[9]

When violence is mentioned in this text, in relation to power, it is not an abstract. When you go to sign on at the Jobcentre and end up being threatened with sanctions, it’s a very real situation; when you are mandated to perform unpaid work as part of the Work Programme, for instance, or you lose your benefit, it’s a very real situation; when you’re a single parent with a young child being forced to look for work or face sanctions, it’s a very real situation; and it’s important to recognise these situations as attacks, as acts of violence, perpetrated by the State against you and your behaviour.

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