Respectful relationship is widely recognised as a core principle of contemporary animism, but most recent writings on animism, including my own, have tended to focus on relations between humans and other-than-human beings in the context of mounting global ecocide, rather than dealing with the politics of human communities in crisis. This omission worries me.
In the early sixties, Gary Snyder set out a vision of Buddhist anarchism. More recently the anthropologist Brian Morris described the social relations of hunter gatherer peoples as a form of anarchy. “The key idea expressed by the Malaipantaran is one of mutual aid, which includes sharing, reciprocity, and an ethic of generosity”.(1) Ecofeminsm has tackled what Val Plumwood called ‘human self-enclosure’ (2), as well as the politics of gender relations, and social and environmental equity.
As someone who went through four kafkaesque Incapacity Benefit tribunals while negotiating the challenges of M.E, and previously worked in the ‘mental health’ field promoting self-advocacy, I’m outraged by the ever worsening treatment of people who find themselves reliant on disablity or unemployment benefits, and by the relentless dismantling of the welfare state, and public services (here in the U.K). There is a pressing need to defend and democratise provision of care and support for vulnerable people.
A recent article in the Sunday Herald revealed that benefits staff in Glasgow have been issued with new guidance on dealing with unsuccessful applicants for Universal Credit who are suicidal. Call centre workers have been told to wave a pink card above their head. A manager will then rush over and listen in while the untrained worker makes an assessment of the situation, asking questions in order to find out ‘specifically what is planned, when it is planned for’ and whether the ‘customer’ has ‘the means to hand’. The dangers of such an approach should be obvious! The new guidance also warns staff that they “may have thoughts and feelings about the situation” afterwards, and that this is ‘normal’. Members of staff should, in other words, get over it.
A friend who was a psychotherapist worked for a while with Benefits Agency staff who, several years ago, were already being stressed and sometimes traumatised by constant pressure to ‘agitate the customers’, and by a competitive culture that sets targets for punitive ‘sanctions’ that deprive people of the money they need to survive.
In March, a parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee reported that forty people had taken their own lives since 2012 because of problems with welfare payments. The disability campaign group Black Triangle then estimated that as many as eighty suicide cases were directly to benefit cuts,(3) and as I write the Guardian has reported new figures from the DWP showing that 2,380 people died between 2011 and 2014 shortly after a Work Capability Assessment found them fit for work, and about to lose their benefit. Since the cause of death was not recorded these figures need to be interpreted with caution, but at nearly 800 deaths a year, it looks as though either the DWP criteria of fitness for work are woefully unrealistic, or Black Triangle have underestimated the number of deaths attributable to the effects of losing benefits.
Amongst the tragic stories reported by Black Triangle are those of:
“Mark Wood, a ‘sweet and gentle’ man, aged 44, who was found fit for work by Atos against his Doctors advice that he had complex mental health problems. He starved to death after his benefits were stopped, weighing only 5st 8lb when he died.
Paul Reekie, a 48 year old poet and author who suffered from severe depression and took his own life after the DWP stopped his benefits due to an Atos ‘fit for work’ decision.
Leanne Chambers, aged 30, who suffered from depression for many years, and committed suicide soon after being called in for a Work Capacity Assessment”.
The DWP, however, does not regard claimants with mental health difficulties as ‘vulnerable’ (see here). The new guidelines have been issued ahead of another tranche of welfare ‘reforms‘ spun as saving people from ‘welfare dependency’. Such rhetoric is, of course, designed to maintain public support for the Tory government’s £12bn programme of cuts to the welfare budget by 2109-20.
This is the Black Triangle Campaign‘s rationale for the symbol they use:
“The Nazis forced people with mental and other disabilities to wear black triangles in the extermination camps during the Holocaust. The generic classification they used was “Arbeitsscheu” – literally “Workshy”. This term is also the one most favoured in our right-wing tabloid press to described incapacity and disability benefit claimants today.
This group of people could also include the homeless, alcoholics, prostitutes, draft dodgers, pacifists and travellers (Roma).
It is salutary to use the black triangle as the symbol of the UK Disabled People’s Protest Movement because British society is at present seeing an increasing number of violent and deadly attacks on people of disability in the community, and the tormenting of disabled people leading to tragic suicides and an official policy on the part of the State to infer that disabled people are just “workshy” and must be reclassified as “fit for work.”
It has become socially acceptable to ridicule, demonise and denigrate the disabled, both in public and in the mass media.
This hatred and ridicule derives from the same source as all the other evil in the world that leads to murder and genocide.”
We urgently need a politics of honesty, compassion, and respect, capable of fostering and supporting a culture of sharing, reciprocity, and generosity.
If you’re being affected by these issues now, you can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, or via their website, here.
(1) Brian Morris, Anarchism, Individualism and South Indian foragers: memories and reflections, Radical Anthropology 37.
(2) Val Plumwood Environmental Culture, The Ecological Crisis of Reason, 2002.
(3) Jon Stone, DWP Staff Given Suicide Guidance ahead of Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Reforms, The Independent 27/8/15.
On Austerity in the U.K see, Fraces Ryan’s excellent articles in the New Statesman, http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/frances_ryan