Published 19 December 201220 December 2012 · Politics / Culture 2012: A lesson in how to blame the victim Elizabeth Humphrys 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 › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 21 June 20234 July 2023 · Politics The ‘bludger’ myth masks the cruel reality: welfare programs are bludgeoning the poor Jeremy Poxon In recent weeks, the right-wing press has been trying to revive the spectre of the ‘dole bludger’. 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