Years before moving towards explicit racial genocide, the Nazis developed the notion of ‘useless mouths’ or ‘life unworthy of life’ to justify its ‘involuntary euthanasia’ program. Theorists argued that certain categories of people were nothing but a burden on society and therefore had no ‘right’ to life. These ideas were a variant of nineteenth century ‘Social Darwinism’ and eugenicist theories, which adapted Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest to describe relationships within society or between nations and races as a perpetual evolutionary struggle in which the supposedly weaker or defective elements were weeded out by the strongest and the ‘fittest’ by natural selection.
Of course there was nothing ‘natural’ about these ideas, or the malignant ways that the Nazis made use of them. In Nazi ideology, the state killing of the disabled, the sick and the mentally-ill was the beginning of a conveyor belt that led to the wholesale extermination of the Jews and ‘inferior races’ Slavic races during World War II.
Nazism may have been a unique political evil, but the influence of Social Darwinism should remind us that not all of its ideas were entirely original, and that Nazi Germany was not the only country to categorize certain peoples according to strictly utilitarian notions of their perceived usefulness to society.
Consider our own government. This week it was revealed that nearly 4,000 people died within weeks of being declared fit for work by the DWP. This ought to be a cause of massive, sustained outrage and disgust, and should certainly be enough to bring down the minister responsible. Instead Iain Duncan Smith – the sneering face of Tory cruelty – has announced new plans to force disabled people into work. Why? Because he wants ‘to ensure everyone has the opportunity to transform their lives by getting into work’ – even if that transformation only applies to the few days or weeks before they die.
The fact that these deaths have caused very little outcry is a disturbing indication of how low UK society and its political class have sunk these last years. Quietly, effortlessly, and with very little opposition, Britain has become a society in which certain categories of people are regarded in practice if not in principle, as ‘useless mouths’ whose value to society is measured solely in terms of their perceived negative impact on ‘the taxpayer’.
The government, with the feeble cooperation of a supine opposition, with the help of its tabloid allies and the shameful depravity of TV companies engaging in poverty porn, has been able to characterize people receiving state benefits as ‘scroungers’ and parasites, rather than people who need the same help from the state that current taxpayers may one day need themselves.
This ideological assault has been so successful that even providing state assistance to the sick and the disabled is regarded as an unnecessary and unfair burden on the taxpayer, and the ability to work is treated as the sole benchmark of social usefulness. Once you begin to accept these parameters, it becomes very easy to force sick people to work, even though their deaths make it clear that they were are so ill that they should not be working at all.
Now some of you ought there might still be naive or sentimental enough to fell a little revulsion at the notion that sick and terminally-ill people should be put through the stress of having to look for work, or losing their state support in the last weeks of their lives. But you are not getting the point: in the view of this government only people who work have any social value and the state should not be obliged to support the ‘useless mouths’ who don’t work. Come on now, it’s not rocket science.
I’m not suggesting that we are ruled by Nazis. Our government doesn’t deliberately kill the people it regards as useless. Most of the time it merely torments them, even if its torments make death more likely. But its fanatical obsession with measuring usefulness solely in terms of the perceived benefits to ‘the taxpayer’ has created a society in which suffering and death can be regarded with complete indifference and produce nothing more than a collective shrug of the shoulders and a weary shake of the head.
The same ideology also applies to the scroungers who call themselves refugees or asylum seekers, who the government regards as nothing more than ‘health tourists’ and another unjustified burden on ‘the taxpayer’. This is a government that has just passed a law which will reduce ‘failed’ asylum seekers and their children to destitution and hunger even if they can’t return to their countries of origin. It’s a government that has declared Eritrea a safe country on the basis of a discredited report by the Danish government. It’s a government that has allowed less than 200 Syrian refugees into the country, compared with tiny Lebanon say, which has taken in more than a million.
If you enforce restrictions like these, there is always the possibility that people will die trying to evade them. Our government knew that last year, when it argued against search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean on the grounds that such operations would increase the ‘pull factors’ that brought migrants here. The unspoken corollary of this argument is an acceptance of death and suffering as a necessary consequence of border enforcement and immigration restrictions.
If you believe, as the government has again and again invited the public to believe, that the men, women and children who are coming to Europe have no other objective or motivation except to take advantage of our ‘generous’ benefits system – another burden on the taxpayer – then it becomes possible to accept any level of death, pain and injury with a sense of tragic equanimity, as though such deaths were the result of a natural disaster or force majeur.
Of course, the government doesn’t want migrants to die. But like the European Union and so many European governments, it has helped create a situation in which death is likely and almost certain to occur. In order to justify this, it has relentlessly dehumanized and caricatured stateless people to the point when they are regarded as ‘surplus people’ whose lives have less value or significance than ours and who somehow threaten us.
This summer we have seen enough unnecessary death to make us sick. In the last two months eighteen people have died in Calais trying to ‘break into Britain’. Only this week nearly 200 people drowned in the Mediterranean, some 50 of whom may have suffocated to death in the hold of the boat they were travelling on, and another 71 men, women and children have suffocated to death in the back of a lorry.
In the face of these horrors, the German government has called on European countries to accept quotas of refugees in response to the gravest refugee crisis since World War II. The British government has not budged, and there is very little possibility that it will budge without serious domestic pressure.
That requires a transformation in the way that migration is perceived. But for such a transformation to occur we need to reject the neo-liberal variant of Social Darwinism practiced by this government that is turning Britain into something cruel and monstrous, and remember that our society will be defined by the way we treat those who need our help, whether they come from inside our borders or beyond them.