2012: A lesson in how to blame the victim

For the last post of 2012 we were asked to reflect on politics over the last year. In thinking on this for the last week I’ve drafted about ten first paragraphs. The writer’s block arises not from nothing to say, but from a place that wonders how many ways there are to describe how awful the Gillard government is.

How many ways there are to verbalise that the political crisis of the Australian elites is playing out in increasingly cruel ways: from the demonising of asylum seekers and placing them in harms way to the smearing of Indigenous communities and the implementation of policies that stigmatise. From cutting single parents benefits to forcing people living with disabilities onto Newstart, to the rollout of the Basics Card, to the poor who are supposedly incapable of managing their government benefits in Bankstown. All these are policies roundly condemned by non-government bodies and many international welfare agencies. Some, like the Basics Card, are even condemned by the government’s own research. At times I’ve felt there is little left to say other than to verbalise despair.

I’ve been reminded again and again of certain passages from William Ryan’s How to Blame the Victim, in particular the first chapter ‘The Art of Savage Discovery’. I read this work again recently, and this time was particularly struck by its criticism of public policy makers and politicians:

Victim-blaming is cloaked in kindness and concern, and bears all the trappings of statistical furbelows of scientism; it is obscured by a perfumed haze of humanitarianism.


The old-fashioned conservative could hold firmly to the belief that the oppressed and the victimised were born that way — “that way” being defective and inadequate in character or ability. The new ideology attributes defect and inadequacy to the malignant nature of poverty, injustice, slum life, and racial difficulties. The stigma that marks the victim and accounts or his victimisation is an acquired stigma, a stigma of social, rather than genetic origin. But the stigma, the defect, the fatal difference — though derived in the past from environmental forces — is still located within the victim, inside his (sic) skin.

[… ]

Discovering savages, then, is an essential component of, and prerequisite to, Blaming the Victim, and the art of Savage Discovery is a core skill that must be acquired by all aspiring Victim Blamers. They must learn how to demonstrate that the poor, the black, the ill, the jobless, the slum tenants, are different and strange. They must learn to conduct or interpret the research that shows how “these people” think in different forms, act in different patterns, cling to different values, seek different goals, and learn different truths. Which is to say that they are strangers, barbarians, savages.

In this way, those harmed by capitalist society are reconstituted into individuals within whom sits the cause of their distress and ‘predicament’. As if these predicaments were not entirely socially constructed by global and national distributions of power and wealth.

Calls from progressive groups and individuals to take action are often made to the state — in particular to politicians — asking that something be done. Yet it is these politicians and their parties who have constructed the latest regime of harmful public policy in Australia. It is no accident that Indigenous people are stigmatised through income management. It is no accident that thousands sit in refugee camps just off our borders. It is no accident that government benefits are so low people cannot pay rent and buy food (see this ACTU graph comparing averages wages, minimum wages and Newstart or this one comparing international equivalents of Newstart).

While Ryan is talking above about the US some decade ago, just as this sort of policy framework was emerging, we can see the same process here and elsewhere today. As Owen Jones says of the contemporary UK situation:

Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron’s Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the “tip of the iceberg”. The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

For me, 2012 will go down as a year of reasserting the dominance of the political-economic order of neoliberalism in the wake of the 2007–08 global economic crisis. Austerity, budget cuts, blaming individuals who can’t cope with their economic situation, and the vilification of those that should rightly rely on government assistance.

However, I don’t want to end on such a low note and there is no need to. There are things this year that have inspired me and will drive me to do more to bring a better world into being. Or as I heard Larissa Behrendt say a few months ago: we can strive to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

Being a victim in the sense I mean it, and in the way outlined above, is not to imply passivity. Omid Sorousheh, the 35-year-old Iranian hunger striker on Nauru, resisted by refusing to eat until he was close to death – part of a collective hunger strike inside the detention centre. Indigenous communities continue to oppose the Northern Territory Intervention, and refuse to accept the more than two centuries old occupation of their land. In Gaza, amid rockets falling and the killing of those severely repressed by the Israeli state, the voices of victims who resist are heard.

At times these voices are thunderous across the world, such as with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and the movement of the Indignados and Occupy protesters. While those events were 2011’s flash points, I can’t help but think there will be more of the unexpected in 2013. Capitalism, and the governments that protect the interests of the rich and powerful against the majority, have not settled accounts with their victims. Those they exploit, maim, harm and denigrate have always resisted. It is just the form it occurs in, and the direction it takes, that needs to reveal itself.

I want to end with a song and video I first heard and saw this year, around the time of Invasion Day/Australia Day. I can get a little obsessive about music. I don’t play it a lot and I don’t collect it very much, yet when an album or song makes my heart sing it sits on repeat. First up for high rotation in 2012 was ‘Invasion Day’ by Little G. It is a good place to end the year as well as a reminder of the enormous courage, determination and political focus of Indigenous activists whose fight, over many generations, is justly inspiring and moving.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

More by Elizabeth Humphrys ›

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  1. I can think of no sadder case of blaming the victim than the Mainstream Media/New world Order portrayal of the al Houla Massacre – World War Three is all about the US wanting to build Nabucco’s gas Pipeline and General Wesley Clark admits that it has been planned at least since before September 11, 2001

  2. That’s very interesting. The passage about how victim blaming always comes cloaked in humanitarianism makes me think again about the role of people like Hitchens. At the time, he — and the rest of the pro-war liberals — seemed like weird anomalies, with their strange mix of leftish rhetoric and hard-right politics. But given the prevalence of victim blaming, and the importance of faux humanitarianism to it, there’s a sense in which people like that are more exemplary of the right today than traditional conservatives.

    1. Perhaps ‘humanitarian’ policy makers and politicians are just the flip side of people like Hitchens. People claim that ALP politicians are just spouting a particular line for electoral ends, but I wonder if there is not much more victim blaming going on than meets the eye. For example, the comparisons made between working class people who did it tough in the past (the ‘good’ kind of poor person) compared today to individuals who won’t even look for work (individuals who don’t want to work and don’t understand how good they have it) are implied just not in today tonight but in the mainstream. I wonder if victim blaming is not increasingly seen within the Left proper.

  3. Extremely important things that you say Eliszabeth.And I agree. But I’m troubled that you don’t address the issue of those indigenous groups who do support the intervention and who support basic neo-liberal policies. While I read your piece the movie Bran Nue Day was on ABC TV – a feel good, retro movie if ever there was one. Then there was the series Redfern Now,looking through rose coloured glasses. I don’t think Marcia Langton is right about mining being a saviour for aboriginal people, and her support of the Northen Territory intervention, but I’d hate to try to argue the case with her. I think she’s wrong about the role of the environment movement. But it seems to me we have to be able to address this.

  4. You raise an important point, and it is also relevant on the question of refugees. Migrants of previous generations now condemning boat arrivals etc. But perhaps this simply supports the argument of neoliberalism being a period of fragmentation and the victory of the individual over collective resistance (to a large extent). The lack of ‘community’ and faith in collective demands replaced by ideologies built around individualism and success through that. Regarding support within certain indigenous communities for the intervention, I wonder whether there is not an element of desperation for any assistance regarding long term problems. And there is the fact that some elements of bad public policy always include ‘wanted’ things. Although it is hard to tell how much real suport there is given the paucity of coverage on the issue in the media. I have heard a couple of interesting academic papers however, looking at resistance to the intervention and regressive public policy more generally (within indigenous communities).

  5. “migrants of previous generations condemning boat arrivals etc” where is the evidence of this? I have heard it but rarely seen it in action. Coming from a Greek background and veen actively wngaged with that communitythe worst I know is the Greek community has kept silent though many have had left views (including indigenous support, Third World solidarity).
    For every Sinodinos there was a Petro Georgiou. My point is that migrants of previous generations are often harnessed by conservative ideology to fortify it though if u look at it closely that is hardly the case.

    1. Sorry for the late reply. I see this in action particularly around the Tampa election over specifically boat arrivals and ‘queue jumpers’, when I was handling out at polling booths and in the lead up. Yes, ‘migrants of previous generations are often harnessed by conservative ideology’ – put point was more to point out that being a victim of oppression or racism is not in itself enough to have those people become progressive itself. Nor is the fact that some indigenous people support the NT intervention sufficient for us to abdicate a critique of it.

  6. Maybe you could sprinkle some magic pixie dust. You know the type where real world problems can be solved magically with a strongly worded letter. Written by middle class idealist who never want their ideas tested by the electorate.

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