Austerity Watch, Cut to Death.


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.

B.T 27/8/15.

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,

Protecting the vulnerable

toad in pond. with string of toad spawn.

Contented Toad – in our local pond. with a necklace of spawn.

Our world is warming up again.  Milder evenings are waking toads from their hibernation.  So, once again, we potter up the hill with torches, buckets, smaller pots for the occasional frog -who wouldn’t want the company of toads- and yogurt pots for palmate newts.  What better way to mark the arrival of spring!

The lane through the wood tucks into the hill, so its often warmer there, protected from the chilly westerly wind.  On clear nights the tree branches above us are lit by sparkling stars. Sometimes the silence of the night is punctuated by Tawny Owl conversation.  The small ragged wood is thick with memories.  In summer we’ve often gone there to watch bats, and I’ve had several very close encounters with foxes.

This week we’ve been finding male toads (which are smaller), sitting upright in the lane, sniffing the air.  Last night one perky individual was squatting on a stone.  They’re probably hoping that a female (they’re much bigger, and scarcer) will come along, so they can hitch a ride, or failing that, perhaps some friendly hominid with a bucket and torch?  Their migration, along the lane, and either up through the steep wood, or across two fields, to their ancestral pond, is an impressive feat.  I sometimes worry that our assistance might be interfering with their navigational ability.  Are they adapting to our participation in their annual rite?  Some may have had several rides in our buckets by now.

I also wonder whether we’re simply saving them from the danger of being crushed beneath a vehicle’s tyres, or under a human foot, only to serve them up as fox or badger snacks?  But the latter have to eat, and last night we found half a dozen freshly killed individuals on the road, so I think its better to intervene.  When we put the rescued toads down most of them strode off purposefully, as though they knew where they needed to go.

Over the years my partner has researched some ten migration routes locally, and found volunteers to look after them.  If you’re in the U.K and would like to help out, go to Frog Life to find your nearest toad rescue site.

A newt in the hand.

A (palmate) newt in the hand.

We’re fortunate to live in a small town in the North of England where quite a lot of people get  involved in these kinds of activities.  But even here there are many who, are at best, oblivious.

These are, no doubt, the same people who are unable to empathise with vulnerable fellow humans, and who succumb to the relentless propaganda against benefit claimants.  Most of my past involvements were in community action and community development work (supporting self-advocacy), rather than conservation or ecological activism.  Although this blog has focused mainly on relations with the ‘natural’ world, animism makes no sense to me unless it also engages with social justice issues.  I’m no longer able to be politically active, but I’ve been incensed by the ever increasing inequality (over the the past 35 years), and by cuts to essential public services and welfare benefits.

Images from Community Action, Manchester, 1972.

Memories from Community Action, Manchester, 1972. Inequality is now far worse.

Today’s news includes a report from Oxfam -who now run anti-poverty projects in the U.K- showing that five super-rich families have more personal wealth than the poorest 20 per cent of the population.  A long term psychiatric patient at our nearest hospital, who recently had a heart attack after her treatment had been stopped, and was still being harassed by the Department for Work and Pensions after she had gone into a coma, is one example of how government cuts are targeting extremely vulnerable people.  Its now beyond reasonable doubt that people are taking their own lives due to benefit ‘reforms’. (some testimony can be found here).

Although the issues are, of course, rather more complex than rescuing toads, there’s an urgent need to raise awareness of what is happening, to resist cuts to essential public services and welfare benefits, to propose alternatives, and to ensure that vulnerable people in our society are respected and protected.  There’s also a need to stay sane, perhaps, with the help of some small amphibian friends.

B.T 17/3/14.

Comment by e-mail: “What a great toad photo! I like the way you linked it with vulnerable people too.” J.P.