Notes From the Margins…

Useless Mouths

  • August 29, 2015
  • by

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.


You may also Like

The Last Post

The Last Post

September 05, 2021
Of Cats and Dogs

Of Cats and Dogs

August 31, 2021
Epstein’s Monsters

Epstein’s Monsters

May 30, 2020


  1. Daniel Margrain

    29th Aug 2015 - 8:05 pm

    “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.”

    This is another brilliant piece. But I do take exception to the above. It rather reminds me of the arguments of those who Israeli supporters who disingenuously claim that the rogue terrorist state do not intentionally target civilians in Gaza because they give advanced warning of their intention to target Hamas – the implication being that bombs dropped from a great height in one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, can discriminate between the terrorist and the non-terrorist. In other words, it’s somewhat of a false argument.

    • Matt

      30th Aug 2015 - 11:35 am

      Hmm. I feel that this is an interesting but misleading comparison Daniel, between the ‘deliberate’ and ‘non-deliberate’ killing of civilians in war and the deaths of migrants as death-by-policy. The IDF, as you say, often used this defense in a dishonest way. But contrary to its claims, Israel really DOES want civilians to die and suffer injury, because this kind of warfare is essential to its ‘psychological’ war strategy of trying to turn Palestinian/Lebanese civilians against their governments or the organizations they support. I accept that the EU’s immigration policies can be broadly described as a ‘war’, in the broadest and most metaphorical use of the term. But I insist that European governments don’t actively want to kill migrants. Indeed some governments have saved thousands of migrants from death. It’s just that European ‘hard’ enforcement policies – like the US on the US-Mexico border – have contributed to a situation in which migratory journeys are more dangerous than they would otherwise be. That’s very different from dropping bombs on Gaza and then saying it’s not our fault if they kill people. That said, the passivity and inaction with which so many governments – particularly ours – have reacted to the ongoing carnage in the Mediterranean suggests that they do regard such deaths as a form of ‘collateral damage’ in a policy of deterrence aimed at reducing the ‘pull factors’. So you’re looking at two forms of horror, for sure, but I don’t see how that makes the sentence you quote a ‘false argument.’

  2. Mike

    30th Aug 2015 - 2:06 pm

    Dear Matt, Somewhat surprisingly the Economist has a leading article on the plight of refugees entering the sacred European space and the response by “our” governments. It os worth taking a look at for counter arguments to the populist right in NW Europe from one of the bastions of liberalism. I don’t know if this link will work, but you can follow up anyway:
    By the way, it was good to read that you got plenty of material for writing about the Pyrénées. Mike

    • Matt

      31st Aug 2015 - 2:47 pm

      Thanks Mike. And thanks for this piece. I agree that the economic/demographic/free market argument can be useful in combating anti-immigrant prejudice, and Economist makes it well. Of course these arguments also have their limitations, because some people simply will never accept them and don’t care how ‘useful’ migrants are to us – they just don’t want them period. Also the economic argument can’t be divorced from moral and political arguments about the right to free movement and the human rights of refugees, since some governments will say ‘we want ONLY migrants who can be useful to us’ and use this perceived usefulness as another form of exclusion of those who aren’t useful eg. poor refugees. But anything that helps counter the general fear and loathing helps…

  3. Daniel Margrain

    30th Aug 2015 - 11:43 pm

    Matt, let’s look at the Eritrean situation that you touched on in your piece:

    A recent UN report outlined systematic human rights violations in Eritrea including torture, imprisonment and forced labour. Many Eritreans come to the UK seeking asylum but there has been a drastic decline in those given refugee status because of a recent change in government guidelines.

    Government statistics show that between January and March 2015, 743 Eritrean applications for asylum were made of which 543 were granted. That’s an approval rate of 73%. However, since government guidelines changed in March, the approval rate had dropped to just 34%.

    Eritrean’s are the only group, apart from Syrian’s, eligible for re-location from the EU’s bordering states’ because, according to The European Commission, they are deemed “persons in a clear need of international protection.”

    So why does the British government appear to be paving the way to send them back to an almost certain death?

    It would seem that the government has revised its guidelines on Eritrea based on a report commissioned by the Danish government which suggests that the Eritrean government is reforming. But in June the UN accused Eritrea of crimes against humanity.

    So if this isn’t deliberate then I don’t know what is.

    • Matt

      31st Aug 2015 - 7:41 am

      Of course the Home Office is completely and deliberately ignoring the human rights situation in Eritrea for its own purposes, but that doesn’t mean that the British government is deliberately killing Eritreans, or colluding to ensure that they are killed. For one thing, Amnesty reports on Eritrea that I’ve read – for example regarding the deportations of Etritreans by Malta – suggest that those who have been returned are likely to be imprisoned and possibly tortured, but not sent back to ‘an almost certain death.’ The fact that European governments cynically go along with this is of course completely unacceptable, but it still falls far short of the point that you appear to be trying to make – namely that the UK and other European governments are in effect ‘deliberately’ killing refugees. The situation – and the moral failing of the governments concerned – is bad enough as it is, as I’ve tried to suggest many times.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  • No events

Recent Comments