Austerity and the Need for Nightmares

April 24, 2012

Supporters of austerity measures often carp that you “can’t have your cake and eat it too” meaning that renewed economic growth and rising employment has to be supported by cuts in government expenditure and short-term job losses as the economy is restructured. Austerity itself is described in medicinal terms, as if the nation is a patient, and a dose of self-denial and yes, a little pain too, will bring her back to health. Workers opposing cuts are therefore either greedy whelps, clamouring for more coddling and standing in the way of necessary corrective reforms, or they are part of the sickness ailing the economy, and merit strident surgical intervention (cut out their jobs from reality) or the drip, drip of mind addling drugs (confuse and neutralise with propaganda and concessions).

But this framing of the issue is deeply disingenuous, even if it appeals to common sense, conventional wisdom. For the organ within the body economic which really gorged on cake, was the financial sector and the investor class, which fattened itself mightily during the 1980s and 90s, and is now having all of our cake in the form of quantitative easing, bail-outs and cuts. Yet you will have to search dilligently to find any person in power or near it who has suggested that the financial sector receive the austerity treatment. We seem to have forgotten, at least amongst our betters, that the sector was ever even a patient. So bonuses blossom ever and again, the tentative reforms suggested by Sir John Vickers enjoy the shade of the long grass, and share prices hold up nicely while wages and jobs nosedive for the rest of us.


But this is partly our fault. What have critics of austerity really achieved? How many editorials does it take to change a deeply unfair and economically counter-productive economic policy? (answer – infinity). Are those in power actually in any way worried that their decisions could spark popular anger? Do they worry for their safety? Well, that might be taking things too far, but there will be no change in policy until policy makers fear the people and the street. Unfortunately, the British public remain anaesthatised – held static by media manipulation, the stultifying effects of three-party consensus on the “crisis” and a general (and merited) cynicism regarding political agency. Most people you speak to agree that, yes, austerity is unfair and the rich must pay but no, we have no idea how to turn such a sentiment into a movement, into a demand, and into action.

Action. It’s a hard word to swallow right now. If you feel that things are wrong – and so many people do, where do you turn for an outlet? What does it mean to be “active” as a truly effective force for democratic, socially just reforms? Well, despite their naivety and utter lack of organisational nous, the student movement showed the power of passion and numbers at the nerve centre of power. Lacking any discipline, desecrating symbols known to be fetishised by the right-wing press, speaking without articulacy, but with rage, fighting with police, yet without a discernable media strategy to contain the fall-out – all of this militated against the student uprising either a) continuing (it’s now dead) or b) attracting other sections of the population to add their causes to a general movement against austerity.

There were times when you could have looked to the unions for a hand. And, it has to be admitted that the trade unions organised the largest demonstration against austerity measures last year. Yet this is something that they quite openly promise to limit to days of action once or twice a year. There are more budget statements every year than this. The TUC are widely reviled amongst the left for their incompetence and sloth in opposing right-wing economic strategies. They themselves have no strategy. We might applaud a maverick union leader like Len McCluskey for having the imagination to link the hideously expensive and smug London Olympics to the descent of millions into joblessness and poverty. But how much help did he get from other union leaders when the media launched upon him like hyenas? Nothing.

The truth is that we cannot look to the union hierarchy for our salvation. The students hinted at a solution. In their formlessness, student protests held a form of unpredictable power. Puerile perhaps it was, but leading thousands of wheezing police around the centre of London exposed their lack of preparation and arrogance (as well as their poor diets and fitness levels). And who would feel sympathy for George Osbourne if his car ran into a hail of eggs and paintballs? The student protests were also regular, at their peak, and coincided with occupations of university buildings. Occupations like that fed into the Occupy movement at St Pauls, which has been easily brushed away, yet pointed eloquently towards the power of laying claim to public space and using it as a means of articulating democratic demands.

Opponents of austerity would be better served by forging links with Occupy groups and campaigners like UK Uncut, than attending union protests, but even better would be a conjunction between the numbers within the unions and the energies of direct action campaigns. And this should focus on creating spaces for dissent, not just outside sacred spaces like St Pauls, but in the face of powerful people, in council offices, at Westminster, the offices of crooks like A4E and Capita.

The rich (and the powerful) do not fear democracy. At the moment, they rather enjoy tracing the poll numbers of Labour and the Tories, and – the odd scandal aside – their deals are done behind the scenes, and comfortably. But if we are to have “rich” members of society, then they should not be allowed to harbour the certitude that their wealth is secure. Without the fear of their dispossession, they will continue to stitch us all up into body bags, loading us onto the good-Chinook “austerity” and drop us off into a churning ocean of hopelessness. We need to make them tremble, while now we quiver with fear of the next day, for our jobs, our homes and families. While people feel such fears, no rich person should sleep soundly, but we need to raise the roofs above their snoring heads. We need, to become their nightmares.


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