The whitewashing of austerity Britain

Women of colour are radical agents for social change but are too often erased from the public profile of anti-cuts activism, write Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel.

March 26, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Dave Mason

This article is featured in Red Pepper Issue 223: Feminist Futures.

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It has been ten years since the start of the economic crisis. And despite a decade of economic misery and punishing austerity measures, it seems neither politicians, the media nor social movement activists have learned one of the main lessons of austerity: that women of colour have been hit hardest by the cuts and they are the key constituency in building any serious movement for social and economic justice. Women of colour have been erased from the public understanding of austerity. The urgent task that confronts us is how to build not merely an ‘inclusive’ anti-austerity movement but a network of activists that has racial and gender justice, migrants’ rights and the abolition of class hierarchies at its core.

The crisis, it should always be remembered, was a predictable catastrophe hastened by free market economists and politicians on both the left and right. It was sparked after financial institutions gambled with sub-prime mortgages through complicated financial instruments such as collateralised debt obligations and plunged global capitalism into chaos after these supposedly ‘safe’ investments blew up in their faces.

In order to save capitalism from itself, states in which the crisis was concentrated, such as the UK, rescued these institutions through massive bailouts. This transfer of wealth from public to private hands is in stark contrast to the austerity measures still being directed at ordinary citizens.

White man-cession

When the crisis first hit, it was understood as a (white) ‘man‑cession’ as manufacturing and construction jobs dried up. However, after the bank bailouts and once the scale of the coalition and then Conservative governments’ austerity programmes were revealed, it became clear that austerity would have racial, gendered and class effects. When the welfare state is rolled back, it has uneven but entirely predictable effects on those in the most precarious social and economic circumstances. With the closure of community centres, libraries and after-school programmes, the introduction of the bedroom tax and universal credit, and the shedding of jobs in local government, these changes hit women of colour the hardest.

The economic crisis has been a calamity that they experience largely outside the public eye and with little public interest. As we documented in our book, Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain, women of colour are impacted by the crisis and austerity measures in two important and interconnected ways: their household incomes take a disproportionate hit and they are effectively erased from public understandings of austerity.

Both middle-class and working-class women of colour – but particularly Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black African women – have seen their household incomes decline dramatically since 2008. Generally speaking, they are more likely to be living in the poorest households and to be unemployed, under-employed or in low-skilled, low-paid work. A compounding issue is that women of colour are also more likely to be living in larger households with more dependants – older adults and children – requiring care.

When public spending is rolled back, these women lose a vital source of household income when benefits are frozen or restructured, as we have seen with employment, disability and housing benefits. Importantly, when controlling for class, women of colour in a more secure economic position also see greater falls in their income in comparison with their white counterparts. This is because these women are more likely to work for the state in the relatively low-paid caring professions of teaching, social work and nursing. Thus, when public spending is cut, this also destabilises employment – and income – for women of colour.

Women of colour struggle largely at the margins of the British imagination, however, because it is inconceivable that they could represent the foundational experience of the working class. That is reserved solely for white people. Further, if women of colour’s experiences were taken seriously, the key explanatory device for the rise of the far right in Brexit Britain – economic anxiety – would have to be reconsidered and this country’s long history of racism and xenophobia would have to confronted. There is too much at stake to allow women of colour to intrude and thus they are cast aside so that the tired narrative of a populist backlash against the elites can remain unchallenged.

Capacity to disrupt

But it is this capacity to disrupt that makes women of colour the key to any movement serious about social and economic justice. This is not a call to merely ‘add’ women of colour to anti-austerity movements. It is about what must be done to build action-oriented networks that have intersectional justice at their heart. Women we have talked to in our research already enact intersectional justice, as they build broad coalitions to challenge austerity.

One anti-austerity activist we interviewed in London argued: ‘We’re completely autonomous [as a collective] … But we have to look to where our points of reference have got the experience over many decades of how you work collectively, how you work in a way which does not undermine anybody else’s struggle, but in fact does everything possible to bring … struggles together in a principled way, and in a way that is not about personal ambition but about a complete ambition for all of us, a whole movement.’

Intersectional justice requires policy analysis, advocacy and activism that treats race, class, gender and legal status as integral, not superfluous, to re-imagining and re-building social citizenship and the social welfare state. An activist in London expressed her frustration with supposed allies in struggle who ‘are supposed to be people that are supposed to understand… what true equality means and what oppression is… but the reality is they don’t really understand it.’

The devaluing of women of colour’s everyday struggles for survival under austerity measures, border enforcement and carceral regimes will continue until there is a reckoning with how capitalism is always inflected by race and gender and how the current crisis has been reinforced by a moral panic about borders.

Thinking expansively

So what can we learn from women of colour’s anti-austerity activism – groups such as Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, Sisters Uncut, Sisters of Frida and Crossroads Women’s Centre?

Crucially, these struggles for survival make it possible for us to think expansively about what politics is, what it looks like and who gets to be a political agent. Those who are usually dismissed as ‘apolitical’ or ‘passive’ are transformed as radical agents for social change.

Women of colour’s activism stands as a challenge to the violence of visibility only as pathological, multiply-disadvantaged victims in policy studies and policy making that separate and obscure lived experience. As they build solidarity through lived experiences and survival strategies, women of colour challenge all of these forms of violence and reconfigure the horizons of social and economic justice.

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