State violence hides and thrives, harms and disarms, because we’re told it’s for ‘our own good’. The violent bureaucracy, assessments, waiting, being made to feel like you’re undeserving, being told the problem is you and not the system – wears camouflage in the name of welfare. It passes under the radar for apprehending violence. But not for everyone. Not for those who experience it firsthand, full-on, everyday, stitched onto skin and bone.
This piece is about how the violence of the welfare state connects to wider forms of state violence; that much of this violence is covered up by framing those impacted as ‘burdens’ and ‘scroungers’, and that these frames are connecting threads in the violence against differently oppressed groups, especially racialised, disabled, and poor folks. While some see the problem as flaws in a system that needs reform, others see this violence as a feature not a bug, and work to imagine beyond the state towards life-affirming infrastructures grounded in our non-negotiable dignity and collective care.
The cover story
We have all grown up within a powerful story – a story about paid work as the measure of human worth, where those who claim welfare, and welfare itself, are the baddies (powerfully discussed by Rick Burgess in our Deaths by Welfare podcast episode 4). Governments call this ‘dependency’ (as if we’re not all interdependent), and ‘undeservingness’ (as if we don’t all deserve support, love, life, as if anyone can decide who counts). You know they think it’s bad from what they call the people whose lives are (or should be) sustained by welfare – “drains on the state”, “burdens”, “scroungers”, “bogus”. Sometimes I dream of chopping up, letter by letter, these dehumanising words that make up the headlines – sticking them back together to make something new – something true, that says:
No one is a burden.
No one should be defined by their relationship to work.
Your dignity and worth are non-negotiable.
This story is also a cover story to justify dismantling social safety nets and diverting public resources away from poor people, especially racialised and disabled people (as Jina B Kim argues in the brilliant essay Cripping the Welfare Queen). It’s a story that obscures the reasons that people are poor in the first place, a story of global capitalism so embedded it somehow feels true. This story makes state violence seem necessary, legitimate, not like violence at all. This story also connects different forms of state violence, stitching together the violence of welfare, the criminal legal system, border control and immigration. Different people know this violence in different but interconnected ways: kids taken away by the state; assessments of your fitness for work; having no recourse to public funds. Oppression operates through these connections. So, what would it mean to understand these connected experiences together as ‘welfare state violence’? Maybe giving it this name can be a connecting thread for cross-movement solidarity, a tapestry that grows and solidifies our ecosystems of resistance?
Since 2021, the Deaths by Welfare project has focused (so far) on creating a timeline documenting the links between ‘welfare reform’ (punitive austerity policies introduced post 2008) and disabled people’s deaths. But in doing this work, we have learned that we also need to look further back, before 2008, to the ideas and policies that laid the foundations for harm – sowing the seeds for state abandonment and premature death. Over a decade before formal “welfare reform”, politicians were talking about “closing down the something for nothing society” and tightening up on “scroungers” and “bogus asylum seekers”. This means that for some groups, the violence of state austerity was familiar. For example, “well before the 2008 crisis, women of colour on the whole were already living in an almost permanent state of austerity” (Emejullu and Bassel, 2017, p.118). Conversations with disabled activists and trips to the archive, have shown me how the public crafting, and subsequent punitive policy, of so-called benefit fraud was first mobilised against asylum seekers, only to later be reproduced with disabled people.
State violence-a feature of the welfare system, not a bug
Anti-welfare rhetoric and policy against asylum-seekers then goes on to impact racialised people in the UK more widely. In their brilliant work ‘A Heavy Nonpresence’, Derica Shields shows ‘the welfare state as a means of shaming and silencing Black people’ – the ‘gaslighting, surveillance, and dehumanisation that accompany the “care” of the state’. Over two decades before the financial crisis, in their 1985 book Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (a book that reads like a prophecy of the further harm to come – a prophecy born of deep insight and lived experience of decades of historical harm), Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe show that Black women have long questioned the power of the welfare state because:
‘there is no single area of our lives which better exposes our experience of institutionalised racism than our relationship with the various welfare services. Here we deal regularly with people who are vested with the power to control, disrupt and intervene in our lives on behalf of the State’ (1985, p.109).
Arguing that “welfare is designed to make us believe in the myth that we are living in a society that is fundamentally humane” (p.111), Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe (1985) say that Black feminist activism “cannot be confined to campaigns against cuts” (p.110). If we only mobilise around “cuts” to welfare services, we might overlook how harmful those services can also be. Many of us know that our lives can be saved by something that harms us. Yet here too is tension – I hold my breath as I point out problems with a welfare system that the government is already destroying.
This offers a different analysis of, and born of a violent relationship with, the welfare state. It shows us that while rights-based models assume a protective relationship with the nation-state, and appeal to that protection, this can overlook the experiences of groups who are regularly subject to state violence (see Dean Spade – founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project).
By centring the experiences of those long deemed a “burden” on the state, we open up a longer history of welfare state violence, built with the finances of colonial extraction, and designed for a tightly defined group of British citizens (Bhambra and Holmwood, 2018). This does important things for our analysis and for our movement organising and activism, namely understanding how harm and premature death is baked into systems – not an unfortunate by-product of largely benevolent welfare policy (see Kavian Kulasabanathan and Sali Mudawi for analysis of the NHS as a site of structural violence https://shado-mag.com/do/the-nhs-as-a-site-of-structural-violence/). State violence is a feature of the welfare system, not a bug.
We sometimes talk about the “flaws” in the welfare system – like the 28 flaws found to have led Philippa Day to take her own life in 2019, and which it took a coroner two hours to read out during a nine day inquest. Exhaustive campaigning from Philippa’s family and many disabled activists, exposed these flaws, locating them as part of wider systemic neglect. When this violence is named only as a “flaw”, it risks implying the system is broken, rather than functioning as it was designed. “Flaws” channel our energy into correcting and reforming a violent system.
Cross movement solidarities and non-reformist reforms
Loads can be learned here from folks working on connected areas of state violence – especially police and prison abolition – who show us time and time again that reforms don’t work (see the brilliant work of Mariame Kaba, 2021). This is because they make it harder in the longterm to dismantle state violence – and all of its interconnecting tributaries.
One of these connecting streams is the criminal legal system, policing and prisons. In the UK and US, disabled people are disproportionately brutalised and killed by police and are over-represented in the prison system because disabled people have always been a target of the carceral machine. Talila Lewis teaches us that because ableism is written deep into the anatomy of carcerality (surveillance, punishment, incarceration), it means that disability justice is an essential part of abolition.
I’ve spoken to so many disabled people who want to see architects of welfare reform (the politicians whose effigies are burned the most at protests) do prison time. The policies they cooked up have killed so many people, caused so much fear – the punitive urge is strong in me too.
But we know the criminal legal system is also state violence. Saying politicians should do prison time implies that I think the prison system (part of the same system that criminalises and racialises poverty, and the same logic that sanctions disabled people) is just. And I know its not. I’m starting to understand that justice and healing will only partly, if at all, come from the systems that produce harm. Many folks hold this complexity. Recently, for the Deaths by Welfare podcast, I spoke to Imogen Day, whose sister Philippa (Pip) took her own life in 2019 after her disability benefits were stopped. Imogen spoke of how the inquest brought some healing, while also holding the need for abolition of the DWP through the creation of something different – co-developed with disabled people. Disability Justice is a wonderful teacher here – I’m learning that rights do not (always) mean justice, because (in the words of Talila Lewis) justice means radically transforming social conditions ‘to affirm and support all people’s inherent right to live and thrive’.
Putting lived experiences of state violence at the centre, and tracing connections between all those people who the state tells us are burdens, is powerful. It shifts our analysis, opening up space to rethink or refine our demands through the threads of cross-movement solidarity. It opens up the potential for us to do ‘“progressive transformative coalition work” among the groups most antagonised by anti-welfare policy: racialized, low-income, and disabled populations’ (Kim, 2021, p.80).
Disabled asylum seekers are one group doing this work – resisting the immigration system as a form of disablement (for example, see Disability Murals). In a recent blog, Rebecca Yeo shows how the social model of disability can be applied to understand the disabling impact of immigration policy, acting as a way to build solidarity and collective resistance between Disabled people’s movements and people subject to immigration controls.
Using the tools crafted by activists and educators of disability justice, transformational justice and abolition, such as Mia Mingus, we might think together about what ‘non-reformist reforms’ look like in relation to welfare state violence – the small incremental changes that are consistent with collective transformational demands. This offers us ideas for collectively creating a long-term vision for life-affirming infrastructures built on interdependence and the inherent value of all of our body-minds – the bones of the societies we want to thrive in.
Stories and counter-histories that centre lived experience are essential to exposing and countering the “cover story” of welfare dependency and undeservingness. Stories rooted in the knowledge of those we are told are a “burden”. Stories that start from the knowledge that no-one is a burden.
Gurminder K. Bhambra and John Holmwood (2018). Colonialism, Postcolonialism and the Liberal Welfare State. New Political Economy, 23, Pages 574-587 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13563467.2017.1417369
Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe (1985) / 2018). Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. Verso Books.
Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel (2017). Women of colour’s anti-austerity activism. In Cooper, V. and Whyte, D. (Eds). The Violence of Austerity. London: Pluto Press. Pp. 117-122.
Jina B. Kim (2021).Cripping the Welfare Queen: The Radical Potential of Disability Politics Social Text 148, 39, 3.
Mariame Kaba (2021). We do this ‘til we free us: Abolitionist organizing and transforming justice. Haymarket books.
Kavian Kulasabanathan and Sali Mudawi (2023). The NHS as a site of structural violence. Divided: In conversation with Annabel Sowemimo, https://shado-mag.com/do/the-nhs-as-a-site-of-structural-violence/
Mia Mingus (2019). Transformative Justice: A brief description. https://transformharm.org/tj_resource/transformative-justice-a-brief-description/
Shields, Derica (2021). A Heavy Nonpresence https://canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/a-heavy-nonpresence
Dean Spade (2011). Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Cambridge, MA: South End.
Rebecca Yeo (2023). Disablement and resistance in the British immigration system. Migration Mobilities Bristol, https://migration.bristol.ac.uk/2023/05/23/disablement-and-resistance-in-the-british-immigration-system/