Austerity is a vast Milgram experiment and those engaged in administering it are complicit in social carnage
There is no longer any hiding place, no longer any justification or acceptable reason (not that there ever was) why nine years into war being waged by the Tory establishment against the poor and most vulnerable in society, millions of workers up and down the UK continue to acquiesce in the social carnage wrought by austerity.
In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a televised experiment to explore the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He was motivated to do so by what had come to be know as the Nuremberg Defence, used by those complicit in Nazi war crimes to justify their actions on the basis that they were obeying orders and thus had no choice.
In an article on the Milgram experiment, tutor and researcher Saul McLeod writes,
Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person [and] how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII.
The main conclusion Milgram drew from his experiment was that
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.
This conclusion is consistent with the sentiments of US radical historian Howard Zinn, when he opined, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.”
In Britain today we have to confront the salient and uncomfortable truth that the ravages of austerity — the systematic, planned and wilful forcing of millions of people into poverty, destitution and immiseration — would not be possible without the active collusion of those people who are charged with administering and implementing it. I speak here of those who work at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), those who conduct the medical examinations on the disabled and the sick to determine their fitness to work, along with those who staff the various other government agencies involved.
Such people are products of dominant cultural values which emphasise obedience to authority over personal conscience as the primary determinant of human behaviour. It is why so many are willing to acquiesce in the conscious cruelty and brutality of Tory austerity, impervious to the brutal consequences.
Critical theorist Erich Fromm has mined this phenomenon deeper than most. In his landmark work, To Have Or To Be, he writes,
Once the living human being is reduced to a number, the true bureaucrats can commit acts of utter cruelty, not because they are driven by cruelty of a magnitude commensurate to their deeds, but because they feel no human bond to their subjects. While less vile than the sadists, the bureaucrats are more dangerous, because in them there is not even a conflict between conscience and duty: their conscience is doing their duty; human beings as objects of empathy and compassion do not exist for them.
Fromm here nails the key human link in the chain of oppression, presented as government policy, that is austerity. Without this link millions of its victims — men, women, children, the able and disabled — would have been spared the abject misery and destitution visited on them for no conceivable reason other than the ideological zeal of a Tory establishment which exists to purify the poor and vulnerable with economic pain.
There are of course exceptions to the rule, individuals with the moral courage and will to say “no I won’t” when instructed to collude in injustice on the basis of duty.
Former jobscentre special advisor Angela Neville is a case in point. “We were given lists of customers to call immediately and get them on to the Work Programme,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sorry this can’t happen, this man is in hospital.’ I was told [by my boss]: ‘No, you’ve got to phone him and you’ve got to put this to him and he may be sanctioned.’ I said I’m not doing it.”
That many of those involved in dishing out this conscious cruelty belong to a trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), led by an avowed socialist, only confirms that in this instance rather than urging workers to join the union, the call should be for the union to join the workers.
Ken Loach’s 2016 film about the administration and human impact of benefit sanctions in jobcentres up and down the country, I Daniel Blake, was dismissed as fiction by the likes of Tory MP James Cleverly after being broadcast on the BBC recently. Cleverly was justifiably and roundly attacked in response. However as I wrote in an article around the time of the film’s cinematic release, unless we are all ‘I Daniel Blake’ nothing will change.
In the last analysis, if we don’t hang together we will hang separately. Those whose ‘duty’ involves delivering people whose only crime is to be poor and vulnerable into the hell of destitution in Tory Britain in the second half of the 21st century, such people are currently part of the problem.
Only when they decide to become part of the solution will they beging to rediscover their own humanity, making the shift from machine men and machine women with machine hearts to people with the red blood of human compassion and solidarity running through their veins.
Angela Neville is proof that such a shift is possible.