Austerity: Creating more harmful societies?

In today’s guest blog post author and academic Simon Pemberton shares his insights on the true cost of austerity measures having compared the rates of social harms across 31 OECD countries for his recently published book Harmful Societies.

Simon Pemberton

Simon Pemberton

Collectively we tend to worry about things that are unlikely to happen to us, or those events that are least likely to impact our long term health or prosperity. Our perception of risk is distorted.

Many of us might worry about crime and threats posed by strangers to ourselves and loved ones, but we probably concern ourselves less with the air that we breathe, the everyday act of crossing the road, the dangers our workplaces pose and so on.

Yet the numbers are staggering. If we take the example of homicide rates, the UK has a thankfully low murder rate, there are around 500-1,000 a year. Contrasting homicide to a range of social harms puts this into some perspective: 18,000 (England and Wales) people who die due to the effects of winter, while 29,000 (UK) lives are ended prematurely from air pollution and 13,000 (Great Britain) lives are lost from lung disease or cancers contracted via the workplace.

Lottery of life?

Is this a fair comparison? Homicide is the most unnatural end to one’s life imaginable; the other examples might most commonly be considered part of the ‘lottery of life’ due to the fairly diffuse and ambiguous causal chains. Indeed many of us would struggle to view these harms to be ‘preventable’. This said we might be more willing to accept that these harms are preventable if we feel that it is in our collective capacity to intervene within its production.

Comparing death rates across similarly-placed capitalist societies quickly demonstrates that there is no ‘natural’ rate of death from suicide, homicide, road traffic injuries or obesity, nor are there ‘natural’ rates of poverty, overwork, unemployment, financial insecurity or social isolation.

In fact some societies appear to be better placed to protect their populations than others. In relation to all but one of these harm indicators the Social Democratic regime (Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway) proves to be the least harmful; whereas the Neo-Liberal regime (Chile, Mexico, Turkey and Russia) and Liberal regime including the UK, US and Australia, are among the most harmful.

“we get the levels of harm that politically we are willing to tolerate”

Far from being inevitable events then, these social harms are the result of the way we choose to organise our societies. In other words we get the levels of harm that politically we are willing to tolerate.

There are a number of features of societies that make them more or less harmful. Societies that exhibit high levels of trust and low levels of inequality better protect populations in relation to many harm indicators, whereas highly individualised competitive societies seem to generate greater levels of harm.

Additionally societies characterised by high expenditure on welfare benefits, services, education and healthcare appear to reduce the likelihood of autonomy harms (such as poverty, financial insecurity) as one might expect, yet they also provide contexts that reduce the likelihood of specific physical harms (such as homicide, infant mortality deaths).

Finally, societies that place restrictions on market activities through high levels of trade union representation and/or state regulation demonstrate lower rates of autonomy harms (such as poverty, youth unemployment, long working hours).

Under siege

Many of the societal features that appear to protect populations from harm are currently under siege in many nation states. Austerity programmes in countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and the UK are eroding and in some instances actively dismantling many of the features that protect populations from social harm.

If one wants to understand the collateral harms that might result as a consequence of the UK coalition government’s austerity agenda and the harms our society might generate then we only need to look to the US – where levels of harm are similar to those of middle income countries in the Neo Liberal regime.

With the UK’s social expenditure anticipated to fall below that of the US by 2016 the erosion of the social state through cuts to benefits, services and regulatory bodies are likely to directly impact the experience of harm. In the process the UK will undoubtedly become a more harmful society.

“Other nation states have responded very differently to the pressures of the public spending deficit, acting to protect populations”

Quite simply it does not need to be this way. This harm is entirely foreseeable – given the weight of empirical evidence that documents the deleterious impact of austerity on harms such as suicide, infant mortality rates, depression and so on.

Moreover there are alternative courses of action available. Other nation states, such as Iceland, who arguably faced more desperate situations than the UK have responded very differently to the pressures of the public spending deficit, acting to protect populations. This is a matter of political will – do we have the politicians with the fortitude required to reverse the harmful legacy of austerity?

Harmful societies [FC]Harmful Societies by Simon Pemberton is available for purchase and you can buy your copy from our website here (RRP £70.00). Don’t forget Policy Press newsletter subscribers get a 35% discount when ordering through our website. If you’re not a subscriber yet why not sign up here today and join our Policy Press community?

You can also follow @socialharm for more on Studies in Social harm.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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