Against Austerity: A Crucial Reference Point for the Left

Against Austerity: A Crucial Reference Point for the Left

The onset of the global slump in 2008 seemed to signal a real shift in the political climate after close to 30 years of neoliberal dominance. In the immediate aftermath of the initial financial meltdown, employers and state policy-makers were scrambling, horribly afraid that economic chaos was imminent and that political crisis could easily follow.

The curtain was drawn back on a whole range of hyper-profiteering business and investment practices, as the immediate trigger for the financial meltdown was a set of business strategies that were recklessly oriented to extracting every drop of potential profit regardless of the ecological or human costs. You didn’t need to be a radical to see that capitalism was pretty flawed.

As the slump hit, many on the radical left saw some potential for our politics to come back from the margins and gain some social weight as we organized to challenge employers and state policy-makers who were wobbling from the crisis. Yet, that is not the way it played out, at least in North America and Northern Europe.

The ruling classes found their footing again. First they gained some leverage on the immediate meltdown through a massive government bail-out of trillions of dollars to buy out corporate bad debt. Then they began implementing an austerity strategy to slash educational, health and social programs while attacking the security of employment, wages, working conditions and trade union rights.

That austerity agenda should be extremely unpopular. It is certainly hurting lots of people while contributing to the ever-growing wealth of the rich. Yet it currently faces only marginal opposition. The entire official political spectrum, from conservative to nominally social democratic, has fully signed on to austerity, while unions and social movements are generally resigned to its effects. The radical left in North America and Northern Europe has, with a few important exceptions, become more marginal and fragmented since 2008.

Anti-capitalists are negotiating the gaping canyon between the potential militant opposition we know is possible and the reality of mass acquiescence to austerity. It is this difficult terrain that Richard Seymour explores in his book Against Austerity. The great contribution of this book is that he is brutally honest about the challenges we are currently facing.

Too often, anti-capitalists have responded to the challenge of the austerity agenda by re-asserting faith, arguing that we need to be doing what we have always been doing, only more so. They bolster their resolve for this doubling down by seeking out indicators that mass mobilization is returning on a historic scale. In contrast, Seymour tries to figure out how the anti-capitalist left has fallen out of time in order to understand how we might find our way back to relevance in the present.

How do they get away with it?

Advocates for the austerity strategy generally present it as a necessary reduction in expenditures to address the problem of government debt in a situation of economic uncertainty. Seymour makes it clear that austerity is not simply about saving money.  “What we are witnessing under the auspices of austerity is not simply spending cuts.  It is a shift to the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism.”

Austerity, then, is a major transformative project, designed to accelerate the major thrust of the neoliberal restructuring process underway since the 1970s. Yet this project is being presented as the necessary response to dire circumstances that is in the interests of everyone, a bit of misery all-round in hard times to lay the ground for a rosier future. The core project of Seymour’s book is to help us understand how the advocates for austerity get away with it, given that the unequal impact of their agenda is quite obvious.

People do not accept austerity because they are convinced that this agenda will actually make things better, but because they do not feel that there is any realistic basis for resistance. There is, as Seymour says, “a paucity of plausible alternatives.”  Years of neoliberal restructuring have also changed people’s ideas of what politics can achieve.

Nonetheless, when effective opposition does emerge, as it did during the Quebec student strike or the Wisconsin mobilization against Scott Walker’s agenda, it has tended to attract very strong support. But it has also proved very hard to sustain the sense of possibility once the immediate struggle ends.

The great contribution of Seymour’s book is to clearly demonstrate the ways thirty years of neoliberalism have eroded both the sense that a better world is possible and the associated practices of meaningful collective resistance. The resistance capacities of those getting hammered by the austerity agenda are not simply lying there asleep ready to be awoken by the sound of a sharp alarm. Rather, these capacities have been seriously undermined.

Indeed, the changes are so broad and deep that we do not even know what forms effective mass mobilization will take in the current circumstances. This puts a real premium on the kind of audacious and rigorous rethinking that Seymour does in this book.

The neoliberal restructuring process worked at many different levels to undercut previously existing forms of solidarity and to recast the horizons of political possibility.  It refocused mainstream politics on one single question, that of the bottom line for businesses.

It made business executives and economists the “real” experts on social and political questions, as if they alone supposedly understood what really matters. It changed the role of government through widespread privatization, deregulation and cuts in social programs combined with increased criminalization of sections of the population (particularly racialized groups) and greater militarization of the state. 

It has pushed people to think of themselves as competitive entrepreneurs, at the very least peddling their own labouring bodies. At the same time, governments and employers clamped down heavily on existing forms of collectivity, restricting trade union rights, rights to public space and indigenous rights.

Austerity since 2008 has built on the foundation of this neoliberal restructuring. The working class was already weakened and the political horizons of possibility deeply transformed. Many on the left have been reluctant to face up to these changes, claiming it is a concession to even admit that neoliberalism has successfully transformed the political terrain. Seymour gives us the real picture, even though it is not a pretty one.

This sober focus on the real challenges of the times provides valuable tools for mapping the current political situation and developing appropriate strategies to fight back. It is not as if austerity has won a permanent victory.  As Seymour argues, “there is hardly an enthusiastic consensus behind austerity, and millions do hate it.” The challenge is to develop effective strategies for resistance and transformation that suit these conditions; these cannot simply be strategies that worked in the past.

Part of the challenge is that the changes wrought by neoliberalism have marginalized the anti-capitalist left.  Seymour uses the elegant term “subculturalized” to describe an anti-capitalist left that has lost touch with the mainstream.

Part of the project of this book is to provide plain language explanations, aimed at an audience of those not already within the Left, for key Marxist concepts, particularly ideas of “class.”  He rejects the nostalgia of the “exhausted Left” seeking “a more vital, modern Left.”  He argues that this Left will emerge more at the level of strategy than at the level of big ideas not grounded in an honest analysis of the real situation.

Grounds for a new resistance

I think it is to Seymour’s credit that he is very creative in the toolkit he uses to analyze the austerity agenda and grounds for a new resistance. His thinking is not bound within the parameters of a single orthodoxy. The set of conceptual tools he uses cast a very sharp light on the ideological project of austerity, the reframing of the thinkable that is associated with changes in people’s expectations for their lives and livelihoods.

This is important, and it is particularly valuable that he devotes a great deal of attention to the actual attractions that elements of the austerity ideology can have for sections of the working class. The criticism of government bureaucracies, the apparent respect for living by a hard day’s work and the idea of resilient self-reliance all have a certain appeal that we cannot simply ignore.

Seymour puts this beautifully in a discussion of the project of austerity advocates in New York: “They didn’t simply deceive or ‘brainwash’ people… They acted on elements of lived experience, and used their considerable resources to frame the discussion around that experience.”

The left needs to pay attention to this, and there is no doubt that a huge part of political struggle is an engagement around lived experience. Too often, the “subculturalized” left turns its back on the mainstream struggle of ideas, which is admittedly very hard to enter in a period like this because of the narrow range of official politics and the hostility of the mainstream media to ideas that challenge neoliberalism.

This book reminds us of how important it is to engage with the people getting hammered by austerity, to genuinely listen and learn how to talk in terms that actually make sense to potential allies.

At the same time, I think Seymour has a somewhat too narrow conception of this ideological struggle. For example, he argues that part of the Thatcherite neoliberal project in Britain was to “kill notions of class.” This was true at the level of ideas: there was a serious attempt to attack any notion of collective, social responsibility for people’s well-being rather than seeing getting by as the responsibility of individuals and families.

But we need to be clear how much of this was accomplished through the reorganization of society at every level, from changes in the global division of labour (what was produced where, within and between countries) to more restrictive immigration laws, from the adoption of lean production methods inside workplaces to cuts in social programs. This very much changed the lived experience of class, as, for example, working-class communities with long histories of solidarity were dissolved by the closure of plants, warehouses, offices and mines.

I raise this because I fear that Seymour’s way of approaching these questions could lead to an overemphasis on ideological struggle, which can turn into a rather clever chess game against the ruling powers, in which we try to match their rhetorical spin with our own. 

Ideas are grounded in experience, and one of the best ways to shift ways of thinking is to change the way things happen. The austerity agenda combines a specific political ideology with transformative practices aimed at restructuring work and reorganizing our everyday lives. Higher tuition fees, for example, force students to seek more part-time employment and take out more loans. This  changes campus life by sharply reducing the time available for formal or informal organizing and by affecting students’ decisions about what they study.

I fear that the book is not attentive enough to the changes in work and life that have undercut practices of collectivity through the neoliberal era and the age of austerity. The project of the radical left in this period is not simply finding the right ways in to the new ideological terrain created by neoliberalism and austerity, but also figuring out ways to organize in the workplaces, schools and communities that have been produced by restructuring.

This book is a powerful beginning, a crucial reference point for any left analysis of the anti-austerity struggle.

Alan Sears is a member of Toronto New Socialists and the author of the just-published The Next New Left.