The Politics of Austerity: Fighting for the World

Public Lecture at the Main Gate of the University of Glasgow, 27 February 2018, 11:00am

Written in a couple of hours! So, apologies for any typos, missing citations, errors

Ian Shaw @ianshawz

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A decade has eclipsed since the global financial crisis—the worst of its kind since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The damage inflicted by a cabal of bankers still festers in the world. Many individuals, families, and communities, simply never recovered. Part of the reason for this is the UK government’s policy of austerity.

The term austerity crested in popularity after the financial crises of 2007-2008. Public monies were used to buy private banking debt, leading to soaring national deficits. Soon after, this form of disaster capitalism (Klein 2007[1]) was translated into political currency for a Conservative party keen to slash and burn the welfare state.

Yet the case for austerity was always ideological. Even Paul Krugman, a Nobel-winning economist, argued that “Harsh austerity in depressed economies isn’t necessary, and does major damage when it is imposed” (Krugman 2015[2]). Austerity in the Eurozone between 2008 and 2012 typically had a negative effect on economic growth.

The reality that we were sold was different. The problem was not bankers and fat cats. It was the poor and the precarious. And so began the great robbery of the twenty-first century.

Like neoliberalism, austerity was thus a class project (Harvey 2005[3]). Selling public assets, slashing benefits, and shrinking the state, not only redistributed capital to elites— it also accumulated their political power. Lest we forget, austerity was nearly always accompanied by corporate and capital tax reductions.

So-called “quantitative easing” transferred wealth upwards while pushing downwards the burdens of austerity—leading to asset inflation and wage deflation. Austerity was a case of regressive redistribution.

And young people feel this most acutely. EU youth unemployment (below 25) is 18 %. In Greece it’s 40.8 %, Spain 36.8 %, and Italy 32.2 % (Eurostat 2018[4]).

Moreover, in 2017, “vulnerable employment,” represented 42 percent of all work in the world—or 1.4 billion people (International Labour Organization, 2017[5]). Those are jobs marked by precarity with no guarantees of your next paycheck.

The class war is very real. And most of us are losing.

Financialization plays a key role in this class war. The real wealth in this world is difficult to see. It’s not always located in fat-cat salaries. No no. It’s in stocks and shares, offshore accounts, and empty houses. But its effects are easy to see. Unemployment. Homelessness. Social unrest. Riot. And death.

The net result: obscene wealth accumulation and poverty now sit together. Globally, eight billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population (Oxfam 2017[6]). The richest 10% of UK households hold 45% of all wealth (The Equality Trust 2018[7]). The poorest 50%, by contrast, just 8.7%.  One in three British children now live in poverty (Butler 2017[8]).

In 2017, one study claimed that 30,000 excess deaths in the UK during 2015 were a result of austerity-driven cuts to the NHS and social care (Siddique 2017a[9]). Put simply: the age of austerity has shortened people’s lives and their life chances.

Too many of us are falling into a category that should have been left in the Victorian Era: surplus populations. People whose lives are made redundant.

Austerity is structural violence. It is felt in our bodies and also our minds.

The World Health Organization anticipates that depression will be the largest global health problem by 2030. One in four people are affected by a mental illness, according to the NHS. (Siddique 2017b[10])

Austerity makes us sick. It alienates us from our world and our brothers and sisters.

In 1972, here at the University of Glasgow, Jimmy Reid, a trade unionist from Govan, became Rector. In his address, he talked about alienation:

“Alienation is [a] major social problem in Britain today.. Let me define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of [people] who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control… The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies…

As he continues,

“…anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else”

“It is my earnest desire that this great University of Glasgow should be in the vanguard: initiating changes and setting the example for others to follow”

Clearly the bite of austerity is raw. More surplus populations. More mental health problems. More inequality. More frustration. You don’t have to travel long here in Glasgow to see social apartheid written on the streets.

So how do we change a system of structural violence that seems everywhere and nowhere?

—-

Here’s the big problem: despite these wretched conditions, worlds beyond austerity are struggling to breathe.

More dangerously: galvanized white supremacists, and fascists, are exploiting the toxic collision of austerity, nationalism, and racism. Some sit in the White House.

But as more of us find ourselves surplus to the economy, there is an opportunity to reimagine what constitutes a “good life.”

For the obstacle we face is big. Our streets, jobs, bodies, and minds are so colonized by what Mark Fisher (2009[11]) terms “capitalist realism” that its suffocating power can be difficult to see. For even in the direst of circumstances we still cling to the world we have, rather than the world we want.

The psychologist Wilhelm Reich put it as follows:

“what has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike.”

I think our task as intellectuals, and as students of the world, is to research, teach, and support practices that re-enchant our imaginations with alternative worlds.

This requires decolonizing our minds of the entrenched common-sense of what is meaningful work, and its connection to happiness, identity, and self-worth. It asks: what the hell are we doing?

Education is liberation. Liberation of our minds from a system of structural violence that lets thousands die, millions suffer, and keeps us trapped in cycles of precarious work and unemployment.

Emancipatory politics must address the imagination. It is love, dreams, passion, and the desire for alternative-worlds that opposes the bitterness of austerity. This struggle must expand beyond the exploitative, alienating, and oppressive conception that work can only be waged labor.

More than ever, in age of austerity, cutbacks, and the slow march of the coming robots, we must think through practical supplements, and alternatives, to wage-labor: to bold worlds with decommodified economic exchanges, social configurations, ecologies, and subjects.

For example, a universal basic income (UBI) is generating renewed interest. The premise of UBI is that the state should provide a certain amount of financial support to each citizen, regardless of employment.

But what about political autonomy? Even existential autonomy?

Many strands of the autonomous Marxist tradition (see Henri Lefebvre on autogestion), anarchism (see the work of Simon Springer), and diverse economies literature (e.g. the work of Gibson-Graham) detail important political alternatives. Temporary and permanent autonomous zones, worker’s councils, cooperatives, community gardens, free schools, pirate radio stations, squats, collectives, communes (see especially Invisible Committee 2009[12]), LETs, diverse economies, and other parallel institutions are vital spaces of refuge. Consider the pioneering success of the Black Panthers’ successful survival programs in the 1960s.

What I want to a stress, and perhaps this is unsurprising as I am a geographer, is the importance of working for the world. Not working-for-a boss, or just ourselves, but working-for-the world. Working for a good life, a dignified world. Most of us sell our labor to survive. I know I do. But work spans beyond this capitalist definition to encompass a care for the space that surround us (on this see Hannah Arendt).

This kind of work spirals outwards: from the individual, to the street, to the neighbourhood, extending to new social formations. Local communities become spaces for budding new worlds: spaces that “protect individuals from becoming isolated, lonely and withdrawn (Gorz 1989: 159[13]).

Working for better housing, better parks, better infrastructure, better transport, better oceans, better rivers, better cities. We must see in the world the very fabric of our own existence. We are not separate from the world: physically, mentally, or emotionally. We are one.

There is so much sadness, loneliness, and anger that swells from having so little invested in the world. Austerity poisons our minds and our landscapes. Ruining social housing. Taking away life opportunities. And slashing our healthcare.

But we can undermine austerity by building new worlds. And the first step is education—an emancipatory practice that is always under threat. It is not separate from the class war. It is just another battleground.  It’s why we are assembled on this picket.

So, to finish: wherever we find ourselves, our task is to unite and work for a different world.

These worlds are always bubbling into being. They are here in Glasgow. They are community centres. They are acts of kindness. And these blueprints for alternative worlds require us—whether students, academics, activists, artists, or teachers—to build them with our minds, bodies, and spirit.

Thank you.

[1] Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2] Krugman, P. (2015). The austerity delusion. https://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion

[3] Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Eurostat (2018). http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Unemployment_statisticsv

[5] ILO (2017). World Employment Social Outlook. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_541211.pdf

[6] Oxfam (2017). https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world

[7] Equality Trust (2018). https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk

[8] Butler, P. (2018). https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/15/levels-of-child-hunger-and-deprivation-in-uk-among-highest-of-rich-nations

[9] Siddique, H. (2017a). https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/17/health-cuts-most-likely-cause-major-rise-mortality-study-claims

[10] Siddique, H. (2017b).  https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/26/thriving-work-report-uk-mental-health-problems-forcing-thousands-out

[11] Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: O Books.

[12] The Invisible Committee. (2009). The Invisible Committee: The Coming Insurrection. Milton Keynes: Lightning Source.

[13] Gorz, A. (1989). Critique of Economic Reason. (G. Handyside & C. Turner, Trans.). London: Verso.

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3 Responses to The Politics of Austerity: Fighting for the World

  1. bartonferry says:

    Thank you for this Ian, truly inspiring 🙂

  2. bartonferry says:

    Reblogged this on Our stories and commented:
    This is one of the best speeches I have heard during this strike – well worth reading.

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