Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Austerity challenges sanity

Edited by Jill Wright,

As the Abbott government promises savage cuts in spending and increased charges next week with the introduction of what seems certain to be A Great Big Austerity Budget, the British Psychological Society's journal, The Psychologist provides us with a picture of the likely impact on Australians' health and well-being.

Many economists have challenged the supposed benefits of austerity programs, and the academic theorising that supposedly supported it has been exposed as the result of a spreadsheet error and questionable statistical procedures.

The UK economy has already suffered as its leaders embraced the theory with some enthusiasm. According to labour market statistics released last June by the UK Office for National Statistics, 2.51 million people were unemployed in the UK, representing five unemployed people competing for every vacancy.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was asking "Why has it become acceptable for many people to choose a life on benefits?’"

Former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard economics professor Lawrence Summers informed readers of the Financial Times last week that far from being a model for the rest of the world, the British austerity drive "refutes austerity advocates and confirms [the late economist] J.M. Keynes’ warning about the dangers of indiscriminate budget cutting in the middle of a downturn".

The series of articles in The Psychologist, prepared by the Midlands Psychology Group, warns that it is disturbingly easy to bring about conditions "in which the victims of mistreatment are blamed for their own persecution and suffering attributed to their supposed lack of morals and of internal resolve".

And the pitting of so-called "scroungers" against "strivers" in the UK is being echoed  in Australia with the mass media constantly spinning stories that frame the situation as "bludgers" vs "battlers".

The Psychologist articles suggest that neo-liberal orthodoxy that "in everything from health care to education", small government and free markets will always and everywhere achieve better results than the state, serves the interests of politicians, their allies and sponsors, "who seek to gain from the attack upon the state and from the privatisation of health and welfare services (Davis & Tallis, 2013, Perelman, 2006)".

They point out that countries which resisted the ruthless urge to punish the poor and instead stgrenghtned public health and social safety net programs - Sweden in the early 90s, Iceland between 2007 and 2009, Canada Norway and Japan - have emerged without the level of distress, suicides or alcohol-related deaths in those that chose austerity measures, and in the case of Iceland, grew the economy by 3 per cent.

The series suggests that the quality of research in psychology and its practice are being shaped by the neo-liberal agenda and challenges psychologists to ask questions "about their own complicity, in what is in effect a war being waged by the powerful against those with
the least means".

While I don't necessarily agree with all the assumptions in this series, I'd like to see these issues being debated in Australia. The profession would benefit from a wide public exploration of the sort of issues raised by the BPS, including the increasing feminisation of psychology and whether, without being aware of it, practitioners are serving a particular political interest.

As the Midlands Psychology Group puts it: "The analyses presented here suggest that psychologists – drawing upon their scientific and clinical knowledge and experience – are in a good position to chart ‘the mind and body economic’: to show how our day-to-day emotional wellbeing can all too often reflect the fiscal policies that govern our lives.

"More fundamentally, these analyses challenge the single underlying premise upon which so many of the recent austerity programs rest; namely, that people are impoverished because of their psychological deficits – their lifestyles, their worklessness, family breakdown, bad parenting, drink and drug addiction, irresponsible debt, criminality and lack of motivation or positive thinking – when, in truth, they are poor because they lack money."

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.