The politics of austerity

Richard Seymour had a thoughtful and incisive analysis in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, released around the same time as his new book on austerity (see the video above). It addresses what I take to be the questions which the left has to address: how was it that a crisis of finance capital transmuted, as if by magic, into a crisis of sovereign debt? Furthermore, what strategies can be learnt from the sheer efficiency with which this (cultural) agenda was pursued?

How can it be that more than six years since the credit crunch, with austerity under way for more than three years, the left has barely showed signs of life, let alone scored a single significant victory? Particularly when capitalism has been in its deepest crisis in generations. We have been floored by austerity, and above all passive acceptance.

To understand how we got to this impasse, we need to radically rethink many of our core assumptions. The first is the engrained idea that a capitalist crisis necessarily leads to radicalisation. As political theorist Antonio Gramsci pointed out, it is the “traditional ruling class” rather than its opponents who are best positioned to take command of a crisis. Its control over the dominant institutions, its loyal cadres of supporters in thinktanks and the media, and its economic and political strength, all enable it to adapt and propose its own solutions. Proactively, it seeks to meet the crisis on every level on which it manifests itself by changing strategies, winning over popular layers with “demagogic promises”, and pre-empting and isolating opponents.

It’s really worth reading the article in full. I happened to stumble across it via his website a few hours after I’d been listening to yesterday’s Thinking Allowed at the gym*. It had two of my favourite political thinkers: David Harvey and Colin Crouch. I’ve interviewed Colin Crouch on two occasions: here and here. He remarked to Chris Mullin once that his current position as a critic from the left was a consequence of shifting political ground. As a student he had been on the right of the Labour party and he feels he’s stayed in the same place while party politics has shifted. Whatever truth there is to that, I think his critique of the institutional trajectory of representative democracy is an important one. Post-Democracy seems like a very prescient book in retrospect, one heralding changes which are really beginning to become apparent seven years on from the onset of the financial crisis. Here’s a video of him talking briefly about post-democracy:

*Does anyone else listen to podcasts at the gym or is it just me?

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