In the last few years I’ve been struggling to make sense of optimism as a political factor. It struck me during the pre-refendum debate that the case being made by someone like Daniel Hannan, with his neo-mercantilist vision of a post-EU Britain, could be seen as considerably more optimistic than anything being offered by the remain camp. In their book Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton suggest the same was true of the left in the 2017 election. From loc 995:

On both left and right a deranged optimism prevailed, in which faith in the future was all that was needed to bring it into being. This wishful thinking, seemingly at odds with the cold reality of forthcoming political isolation and economic decline, was exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers convinced that Empire 2.0 was on the horizon, as well as the Corbynists who held in their man expectations apparently so high as to never be met.

I think there’s overstatement here and a considerable contraction of reality involved in their claim of a symmetry between Brexit-ism (for lack of a better word) and Corbynism. Both reflect in their view a triumph of the cultural over the economic, to use the terms Will Davies did when making a similar(ish) point, with their competing visions of taking back control. In this sense, Mayism was the earliest attempt to build a coalition on a new political landscape, albeit one that faltered due to the weakness of May herself as a campaigner. From loc 966-980:

The distinct brand of ‘Erdington Conservativism’ developed by her close advisor Nick Timothy seemed perfectly primed for the post-austerity, post-Brexit era. 49 Inspired by the 19th century Birmingham industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, Timothy’s vision was founded upon an interventionist economic programme of infrastructure investment, the rejection of ‘globalist’ free trade in favour of protectionist tariffs to secure British industry, fierce Euroscepticism, a radical reduction in immigration, selective state education, and a laser-like focus on the apparently communal concerns of the so-called ‘white working class’ –traditional values, self-responsibility, patriotism, and law and order. There was an obvious overlap with both the message of the Leave campaign, as well as the creed of ‘faith, flag and family’ which had long been touted by the ‘Blue Labour’ wing of the opposition party-indeed, Lord Glasman took tea with Timothy in the early months of May’s premiership. 50 As May walked into Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister it seemed that her programme of economic and cultural protectionism was destined for hegemonic status. On the steps of Number 10, she promised, in language clearly adopted from the anti-austerity wing of the Leave campaign, that her government would be ‘driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours’ –the millions of ‘ordinary people’ who were ‘just about managing’.

However Brexitism and Corbynism have come to thrive in this post-austerity climate. It is precisely because of the bleakness of the former that I’m so enthused about the latter, as the only way I can see to resist the creeping barbarism of the last few years. But Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that “the optimism Project Corbyn sells its adherents proposes a false resolution of contradictions contemporary conditions cannot effect” and call for “a politics of pessimism can best match present realities and work with them practically” (loc 527).

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book but thus far I remain unconvinced, as thought provoking as I’m finding it. The obvious response to that last quotation is why? Why does a politics of pessimism help us ‘work’ with them ‘practically’? I can see an analytical argument to be made for a politics of pessimism but from the perspective of a pre-analytical commitment to a left project, I see nothing practical or desirable about it. Perhaps it will become clearer to me as I get further into the book.

I thought this was an excellent account in Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton. From loc 627:

Austerity is often taken to have caused the contemporary rise of populism. In retrospect, however, it is abundantly clear that austerity itself was a populist project –both in Chantal Mouffe’s sense of the creation of a political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and Jan-Werner Müller’s notion of the hyper-moralisation of political discourse. How else to explain the singularly odd way that Britain responded to the financial crisis? The Cameron government was far from the only one to react to the crash and their ballooning deficits by insisting on the need for a programme of austerity. But in no other country did the public don hairshirts with such gusto. As Owen Hatherley has noted, Britain was convulsed by a fit of ‘austerity nostalgia’ in the wake of the crisis – unleashing dark political energies Tom Whyman captured well in the coinage ‘cupcake fascism’.

The book was published in 2018 and presumably written in 2017. But it’s hard not to link this to Brexit when reading it in April 2019. If they are correct about austerity populism then did Cameron and Osborne sow the seeds of their own destruction in their strategic embrace of the austerity narrative? From loc 640:

It was as if the public actively welcomed the collapse of the economy, regarding it as an event which finally gave some meaning to a life waylaid by the cheap thrills of credit-fuelled consumerism and reality TV, a form of existence that suddenly felt as toxic as the junk bonds clogging up the balance sheets of banks around the world. The austerity narrative was founded on an opposition between a national community of ‘hardworking people’ and a feckless underclass who had brought Britain to its knees –namely the ‘scroungers’, the benefit cheats, those too lazy to work and choosing to live off the largesse of the state. In this telling, the financial crisis itself was essentially caused by the Labour government’s reckless decision to rack up monstrous debts in order to fund the lavish lifestyles of their shiftless clientele. In contrast to this rotten coalition of bloated state, corrupt liberal-left political elite, and workshy scroungers, the Tories would instead take the side of the ‘hardworkers’, those willing to take responsibility for their own lives and roll up their sleeves to ‘sort out Labour’s mess’. ‘We’re all in it together’ was the cry, deliberately evoking the Churchillian spirit of wartime. The ‘deficit’ –and those responsible for it –was turned into a national enemy

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.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/28/right-only-economic-solution-austerity

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?

There’s no money left in the kitty! We’ve maxed out the nation’s credit card! By this point, I find it hard to be reasonable when confronted with these inane metaphors*. But there’s been another response, recurrently voiced by the Tory right over the last few years, which is less effective for them as a rhetorical strategy but  also more difficult to straight forwardly repudiate: there are no real cuts. I’ve been trying to find a good video of this case being made (“what austerity? there’s no austerity! the state is still growing”) but instead all I could find was this hilarious video of John Redwood slipping into an Alan Partridge persona (of sorts) because he is doing a ‘webcast’:

But Flip Chart Fairytales has posted an incisive analysis of this claim, arguing that while the “state-shrinkage seems fairly modest, taking us back to somewhere between the early and mid-2000s” this is a misleading picture for a number of reasons:

Firstly, the population isn’t the same as it was in the mid 2000s. It contains a lot more old people who receive state pensions and associated benefits. Furthermore, this ageing population makes greater demands on public services like health and social care.

Secondly, the labour market is weak. Average wages are set to remain low for the next few years. People in low pay, zero hours contracts and precarious self-employment don’t deliver much tax revenue and a lot of them rely on benefits. Over the next few years, despite modest economic growth, in-work benefits and pensions will keep up the pressure on welfare spending.

The result of this increased pressure on public finances is a shift in state spending away from public services and towards welfare and debt repayments.

http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/is-the-state-shrinking/

It’s really worth reading the whole thing in full. The takeaway point is that “while overall public spending reduces by 3.9 percent between 2010-11 and 2018-19, per capita day-to-day spending on public services falls by around 28 percent over the same period”. Furthermore, the likelihood that budgets will be protected for certain departments amplifies the weight with which the axe will fall on others:

As you look into the detail of public service spending, what starts off looking like a fairly small cut gets much bigger. If these spending plans are carried through to 2019, some parts of the state will not so much shrink as disappear completely.

It will need someone with more time than me to dig out the data and work out when a government last spent as little as £3,899 per head, at today’s prices, on day-to-day public services. My guess, just looking at the IFS graphs, is that it must have been some time in the 1990s, when we had a much younger society placing less demand on services like health and social care.

Of course, these are only plans. It may be that economic growth delivers higher revenues, or the next government increases borrowing and taxes. It may be that the spending cuts won’t be as severe. That said, taxes would have to rise significantly to prevent any further cuts after 2015.

Whatever the headline figures might say, though, state provision is shrinking and is set to continue to do so until 2019. Fiscal, economic and demographic factors magnify what looks like a modest spending cut to a point where the squeeze on some parts of the public sector becomes severe. According to the government’s published plans, a 3.9 percent overall spending cut will become a 28 percent public service cut. This is the brutal arithmetic of public spending.

http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/is-the-state-shrinking/

*I used to love arguing about politics. Now I find it tiring and depressing. It means I sometimes get really pissy if someone infers from my presence on a demonstration that I wish to ‘sell’ my views to them. I’m not really sure what that transition is about.

George Eaton really hit the nail on the head with this. The difficulty is how to make this case, that contra TINA there is an alternative, without it sliding into an unintended attack on the flood relief action itself:

Britain today is a country in which more than half a million people have turned to food banks since April 2013, in which homelessness has risen by 34 per cent since 2010, and in which, for the first time ever, there are more people from working families living in poverty (6.7 million) than from workless and retired ones (6.3 million). But Cameron has been able to justify all of this pain by presenting it as the tough medicine required to clear the country’s debts. As yesterday’s YouGov poll showed, 54 per cent of voters believe the cuts are “necessary”, compared to just 30 per cent who believe they are unnecessary, a gap that has remained consistent throughout this parliament.

But yesterday, during his Downing Street press conference on the floods, Cameron suddenly abandoned this austere message. “Money,” he declared, “is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed, we will spend it.” Many voters, not least those who have lost their homes to the floods, will appreciate the sentiment, but it prompts the question: if money is no object in the case of flooding, why is it an object in the case of homelessness, unemployment and poverty? Indeed, had he adopted such a generous stance from the start, and not cut real-terms spending on flood defences (what a false economy that has proved to be), Britain would have been far better prepared for the deluge than it was.

During the same press conference, after being challenged to divert money from the foreign aid budget to flood relief schemes, he replied: “I don’t think it’s needed to go for the aid budget because we will make available the money that’s needed here in Britain. We are a wealthy country, we have a growing economy. If money is needed for clean-up, money will be made available.”

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/02/camerons-declaration-money-no-object-has-destroyed-his-austerity-message

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS

Social and Political Critique in the Age of Austerity

A one day workshop at Keele University

10.30am-6pm, Wednesday 12th February, 2014

This one day workshop is devoted to the discussion of critical politics in the contemporary age of austerity.  Following the 2007 global economic crash, which led to a raft of government bank bail outs and nationalisations across America and Europe, a cunning ideological reversal took place – the crash was no longer the result of the hubris of the neoliberal financial sector, which had developed the idea of ‘riskless risk’ where reckless stock market speculation and the creation of value ex nihilo could produce endless profit, but rather the immoral wastefulness of the people and society.  According to this ideological position, which was advanced by governments across Europe, the welfare state, and in many respects society itself, was transformed into an ‘exorbitant privilege’ that was simply unaffordable.  In fact, in order to pay for their wastefulness the people were not only expected to give up their public services, but also required to accept ever lower wages, and a general state of social and economic precariousness.

This is the current state of play across America and Europe, where the neoliberal state has exploited the crash in order to retrofit society for violent competition with Asian capitalism.  In the face of this race to the bottom, key thinkers such as David Graeber, Antonio Negri, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Costas Douzinas have spoken out against the new form Naomi Klein calls neoliberal disaster capitalism and given voice to the protest, rebellion, and revolt taking place across the world.

The objective of this workshop is to build upon the works of these key thinkers and explore the possibility for resistance in the age of austerity.  We invite contributions from a range of disciplines focused on diverse social and political contexts and a variety of theoretical perspectives.  Contributors may choose to focus on austerity and resistance across Europe, including the UK, Greece, Spain, and Italy; the Occupy movement; the media construction of austerity, including the idea of the undeserving poor who are seen to be living off public funds; methods for the organisation of resistance; the concept of the multitude and the digital commons; anti-capitalist thought; or transformative social and political theory and practice more generally.  Most importantly, we are keen to emphasise that this list is not exhaustive – the key principle behind the workshop is that debate should open up a space for social and political creativity. In this way we are keen to encourage potential contributors to be creative and explore new possibilities for political change in a historical period where change seems absolutely necessary, but also impossible to envisage. In this respect, we encourage contributions from a variety of participants – academics, post-graduate students, activists, and others engaged in thinking through the possibilities of change under conditions of crisis and austerity.

The workshop will close with a lecture from Professor Costas Douzinas (Birkbeck), author of Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe.

In order to take part in the event please send a 250 word abstract to Emma Head (e.l.head@keele.ac.uk), by Monday 6 January 2014.  This event is being organised jointly by Mark Featherstone (Keele Sociology) and Emma Head (Keele Sociology and the BSA Digital Sociology study group).   Registration will open in early January.

Social and Political Critique in the Age of Austerity
A one day workshop at Keele University
10.30am-6pm, Wednesday 12th February, 2014

This one day workshop is devoted to the discussion of critical politics in the contemporary age of austerity.  Following the 2007 global economic crash, which led to a raft of government bank bail outs and nationalisations across America and Europe, a cunning ideological reversal took place – the crash was no longer the result of the hubris of the neoliberal financial sector, which had developed the idea of ‘riskless risk’ where reckless stock market speculation and the creation of value ex nihilo could produce endless profit, but rather the immoral wastefulness of the people and society.  According to this ideological position, which was advanced by governments across Europe, the welfare state, and in many respects society itself, was transformed into an ‘exorbitant privilege’ that was simply unaffordable.  In fact, in order to pay for their wastefulness the people were not only expected to give up their public services, but also required to accept ever lower wages, and a general state of social and economic precariousness.

This is the current state of play across America and Europe, where the neoliberal state has exploited the crash in order to retrofit society for violent competition with Asian capitalism.  In the face of this race to the bottom, key thinkers such as David Graeber, Antonio Negri, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Costas Douzinas have spoken out against the new form Naomi Klein calls neoliberal disaster capitalism and given voice to the protest, rebellion, and revolt taking place across the world.

The objective of this workshop is to build upon the works of these key thinkers and explore the possibility for resistance in the age of austerity.  We invite contributions from a range of disciplines focused on diverse social and political contexts and a variety of theoretical perspectives.  Contributors may choose to focus on austerity and resistance across Europe, including the UK, Greece, Spain, and Italy; the Occupy movement; the media construction of austerity, including the idea of the undeserving poor who are seen to be living off public funds; methods for the organisation of resistance; the concept of the multitude and the digital commons; anti-capitalist thought; or transformative social and political theory and practice more generally.  Most importantly, we are keen to emphasise that this list is not exhaustive – the key principle behind the workshop is that debate should open up a space for social and political creativity. In this way we are keen to encourage potential contributors to be creative and explore new possibilities for political change in a historical period where change seems absolutely necessary, but also impossible to envisage. In this respect, we encourage contributions from a variety of participants – academics, post-graduate students, activists, and others engaged in thinking through the possibilities of change under conditions of crisis and austerity.

The workshop will close with a lecture from Professor Costas Douzinas (Birkbeck), author of Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe.

In order to take part in the event please send a 250 word abstract to Emma Head (e.l.head@keele.ac.uk), by Monday 23rd December.  This event is being organised jointly by Mark Featherstone (Keele Sociology) and Emma Head (Keele Sociology and the BSA Digital Sociology study group).   Registration will open in early January.  Confirmed speakers will be notified by 7th January.

Social and Political Critique in the Age of Austerity
A one day workshop at Keele University
10.30am-6pm, Wednesday 12th February, 2014

This one day workshop is devoted to the discussion of critical politics in the contemporary age of austerity.  Following the 2007 global economic crash, which led to a raft of government bank bail outs and nationalisations across America and Europe, a cunning ideological reversal took place – the crash was no longer the result of the hubris of the neoliberal financial sector, which had developed the idea of ‘riskless risk’ where reckless stock market speculation and the creation of value ex nihilo could produce endless profit, but rather the immoral wastefulness of the people and society.  According to this ideological position, which was advanced by governments across Europe, the welfare state, and in many respects society itself, was transformed into an ‘exorbitant privilege’ that was simply unaffordable.  In fact, in order to pay for their wastefulness the people were not only expected to give up their public services, but also required to accept ever lower wages, and a general state of social and economic precariousness.

This is the current state of play across America and Europe, where the neoliberal state has exploited the crash in order to retrofit society for violent competition with Asian capitalism.  In the face of this race to the bottom, key thinkers such as David Graeber, Antonio Negri, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Costas Douzinas have spoken out against the new form Naomi Klein calls neoliberal disaster capitalism and given voice to the protest, rebellion, and revolt taking place across the world.

The objective of this workshop is to build upon the works of these key thinkers and explore the possibility for resistance in the age of austerity.  We invite contributions from a range of disciplines focused on diverse social and political contexts and a variety of theoretical perspectives.  Contributors may choose to focus on austerity and resistance across Europe, including the UK, Greece, Spain, and Italy; the Occupy movement; the media construction of austerity, including the idea of the undeserving poor who are seen to be living off public funds; methods for the organisation of resistance; the concept of the multitude and the digital commons; anti-capitalist thought; or transformative social and political theory and practice more generally.  Most importantly, we are keen to emphasise that this list is not exhaustive – the key principle behind the workshop is that debate should open up a space for social and political creativity. In this way we are keen to encourage potential contributors to be creative and explore new possibilities for political change in a historical period where change seems absolutely necessary, but also impossible to envisage. In this respect, we encourage contributions from a variety of participants – academics, post-graduate students, activists, and others engaged in thinking through the possibilities of change under conditions of crisis and austerity.

The workshop will close with a lecture from Professor Costas Douzinas (Birkbeck), author of Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe.

In order to take part in the event please send a 250 word abstract to Emma Head (e.l.head@keele.ac.uk), by Monday 23rd December.  This event is being organised jointly by Mark Featherstone (Keele Sociology) and Emma Head (Keele Sociology and the BSA Digital Sociology study group).   Registration will open in early January.  Confirmed speakers will be notified by 7th January.