Resisting Austerity: Don't (Just) Show Me the Money

By Scott Neigh

We hear a lot these days about the need for cuts to public spending, for saving money. The use of this rhetoric to cover massive changes in how our lives and societies are organized has a long history, but in the current "age of austerity" -- ushered in by unprecedented giveaways of ordinary people's money to rich people and powerful institutions and the Toronto G20 meeting's commitment to make up for that by further attacks on ordinary people -- mean that we're hearing it rather a lot at the moment.

In this post, I'm going to argue that when we engage with this rhetoric -- when we talk about the elite hunger for cuts, cuts, cuts -- we need to push against the powerful pressures exerted by pragmatism, media gatekeeping, and plausibility to much of the public that we oppose the call for cuts in savings only in terms of cuts and savings. When we fail to push against that way of organizing the conversation, even if we win skirmishes, we continue to fall behind in the larger struggle. As I've observed in another context, "For them it is about money; for us it is about our lives."

Not Against Cuts Per Se

To start with, this does not come from a position that any and all reductions to state spending are bad. I'm not sure if anyone actually takes that position. Perhaps a handful of ungrounded centre-left types might, but I think it mostly exists as a right-wing smear.

So, for instance, I know that complex hierarchical organizational forms have a tendency towards using a portion of their resources in ways that respond to institutional pressures but don't actually accomplish anything useful. Neoliberals would harp on about efficiency or waste or some other codeword, while I'd see it as a missed opportunity to be more responsive to the realities of ordinary people, but we agree that it happens. (Where we would disagree is that neoliberals pretend it is a problem unique to the public sector and often propose privatization as a solution, whereas it seems pretty obvious to me that it is a feature of that organizational form whether public or private. Figures that emerged during the toxic debates on health care in the U.S. showed quite clearly how even in neoliberal terms the public sector is much more efficient than the private sector in that industry, it just doesn't contribute as directly to profit. I think a better answer than privatization, again regardless of whether the institution in question starts off public or private, is participatory democratization.) I have no objection to dealing with this sort of foolish use of resources.

As well, the state does some awful, horrible, violent, oppressive things, and I'd be overjoyed to cut the funding to those. Axing the money that supports the colonial occupation of Afghanistan would fill me with glee, as would military cuts far more broadly. In contrast with NDP vote pandering that will add muscle to organizations that are on the front edge of attacks on poor people, racialized people, gender non-conforming people, and people with dissenting politics, I would be happy to cut police budgets with a large and sharp knife. The welfare state is woven through with punitive features and I'd be happy to get rid of them, too. Even with all of these things, I think it makes more sense to get to them by starting from questions about what we want our lives and and our world to be rather than from a focus on money, but I'd still be quite happy to start the process with cuts to state spending in these areas.

In any case, my objection isn't to cuts per se.

The Local Context

To illustrate what I do mean, let me talk about the example that got me thinking about this. It is a piece of political theatre at the local level in Sudbury, Ontario, but I think the lessons I'm drawing from it are quite broadly applicable.

In last fall's municipal elections, a neoliberal named Marianne Matichuk won the mayor's chair by defeating an uninspiring but pro-worker and moderately social democratic incumbent. The new mayor is not the sort of right-neoliberal thug that Toronto elected in the person of Rob Ford, but even so she was elected largely on a camapaign of neoliberal codewords about cost cutting, a certain frostiness towards workers, and the complete absence of any attention to issues like social justice, poverty, or homelessness.

The current municipal political drama involves the budget process. After the usual long and gruelling discussions, this process was approaching its conclusion, for better or worse. Then, the mayor pulled out a list of almost $5 million in cuts that she had not previously discussed with anyone in this long series of conversations -- a stunt meant, I'm sure, to build a particular kind of political reputation (though likely those not averse to neoliberalism could easily frame it as her delivering on her campaign promises about fiscal responsibility). The linked version doesn't include this, but I'm pretty sure the print version of the article I scanned at the newsstand included skeptical reactions from senior staff and other members of council that it could be done without cutting services, though Mayor Matichuk claims it somehow could be. A list of general areas where these cuts would be made has been released but details have not, in a standard anti-democratic neoliberal move. So there is no way to know if the savings in energy costs for transit were supposed to be about making the buses more efficient or about cutting routes, and no way to know if the proposed cuts to the Housing Authority were about retrofitting buildings, say, or if it would be cuts that would trickle down to poorer service for people living in poverty.

Notwithstanding the real tendency towards silly uses of resources inherent to complex, hierarchical organizational forms, this tendency has largely been used deceptively by the right and by neoliberals as a screen for attacking public services. The assertion that at this point there are lots of easy cuts waiting to be made that involve eliminating "waste" but not attacking workers or eroding services is simply not credible. Municipalities in Ontario have been under intense budgetary pressures since at least 1995, and the idea that there are these easy fixes that just haven't been made for the lack of a resolute, sensible figure in the mayor's chair, and that nothing being (secretively) proposed will hurt services or workers, is simply not credible. Maybe some are harmless. Maybe some are about introducing green efficiencies. But it simply does not pass the smell test that nothing being proposed will hurt workers or residents. Even ostensibly neutral cuts that seem initially to be about "managerial efficiency" or some such often throw a department or organization into a kind of crisis mode that will ultimately, as the organization shifts to absorb the shock, end up hurting frontline workers and already-marginalized service recipients.

In the local case, our neoliberal Mayor's theatrics seem to have been exposed for what they are: A marathon meeting of the city's finance committee yesterday did manage to find a few additional minor areas to cut, but of the Mayor's proposed $4.8 million dollars in slashing and burning, the committee approved just under $40,000. Even so, there are still some useful things to think about in terms of how we respond to the many ways that austerity gets implemented -- big or little, assertively ideological or ostensibly technocratic, across the board or piecemeal.

Talking About Money

As we respond to austerity initiatives, whether it is out-and-out anti-worker, anti-poor assaults like Rob Ford or more piecemeal neoliberal opportunism like Marianne Matichuk attempted here, it is easy to fall into challenging details but accepting the larger imperative. After all, from our own experiences in our everyday lives, saving money makes sense as a positive goal. The frequently heard but deeply flawed comparison between household budgets and government budgets constantly reinforces that (inappropriate) connection. The real phenomenon of occasional foolish use of resources by complex, hierarchical organizational forms plus the decades of deceptive use and deliberate inflation of this phenomenon by those hostile to public services makes it feel all the more plausible. Relentless business-sponsored messaging over decades has created lots of space for cuts-based posturing and action and severely constrained spaces to talk about other approaches. And the fact is, there is crisis in the air -- that is not made up, even if where it comes from, what it means, and our options for responding are almost totally obscured in the limited space to talk about it in the dominant media. For all of these reasons, it is understandable to begin our responses by saying, "Yes, we need to save money, but...." It makes sense to, say, focus on questions of transparency and participation and to try to get details out so specific cuts can be supported or opposed. It is also understandable to nudge the existing momentum towards thrift in the direction of technologies and practices that are better for the environment, whether that is greener buses or less greenfield development.

All of those are good things. We need to push for them. But as we do so, we can't concede the bigger picture. We can't let "savings" or "cuts" organize how we ask questions about what we want our city (or our world) to be. We can't leave the focus on "cuts" and "efficiencies" and "savings" unchallenged.

When we accept the frame of "savings" or "cuts," we are accepting that the most important thing in the discussion is money. We are accepting that whatever pressures exert themselves on and through money are the most important to consider. We are accepting that the pressures on ordinary people's lives, which may point in quite different directions from those pressures that are primarily about money expended by the state, just aren't as important. We are allowing our vision to be narrowed. We are allowing the fight to be about whether a specific increase in other people's pain is or is not an acceptable way to save money. Not only is that an awful thing to have to argue about, it precludes making the fight about a much broader vision for our lives and our communities.

For instance, when someone proposes cuts to social housing, we can't just be asking what that cut will do and whether it will hurt people and whether it is acceptable to hurt people to save that amount of money (hint: it never is). Doing so implicitly accepts the frame of social housing as being primarily about its expense and the supposed burden on "taxpayers." What we need to do, even as we engage with the details we have to engage with in the political fight of the moment, is not lose sight of the bigger picture. We need to ask how we want people to be housed in our communities. We need to put the experiences of people living in poverty, people living in social housing, at the centre of our questioning. When we do that, it leads to all the reasons that our lives and our communities are not as we would wish, and that conversation is the start of changing things. Because the truth is that social housing is inadequate in amount, often punitive in its treatment of residents, lacking in quality, and lacking in local collective control by residents. Spending for spending's sake is not the goal, but if we want to address those issues in meaningful ways, we are going to end up spending more money.

Accepting the shackles of a conversation organized around money makes it harder to point to larger issues, too. But how on earth can we be having a conversation about a municipal budget without talking about the larger context which has socially produced the supposed need to make choices between raising regressive property taxes and cutting services that ordinary people depend on? We can have that conversation by insisting that the centre of the conversation not be money but people's lives. From there, we can talk about the foolishness of funding any part of social housing on a property tax base. We can talk about the ways in which ongoing budgetary crises for municipalities are intimately related to the ongoing neoliberal transformation of higher levels of the Canadian state. We can talk about the fact that our city is cash-strapped in the context of an extremely wealthy society in which the province and the federal government have decided over the last twenty years to give more and more money to people and organizations that are already extremely wealthy. We can show that this enriching of the rich is bought with the blood, pain, and suffering of ordinary people.

Every time we engage with some nickel-and-dime austerity measure without connecting it to this broader context, even if we stop the specific cut, the neoliberals win a little bit more. We can't fail to challenge a political culture in which invoking "cuts" is seen as a winner by politicians, because even if one batch of cuts brought forward under such a banner doesn't hurt ordinary people, most will.

And perhaps the least obvious but most important part about centring our lives in the discussion rather than money is that it allows us to defend the welfare state without glorifying it. I think the longer term future requires ongoing, ever-growing experimentation with non-market, non-state collective alternatives to meeting human needs. But right now, such experiments in North America are mostly miniscule and often have significant political problems. In the meantime, then, we need to defend the welfare state as a crucial way to meet human needs. But we can't ignore the fact that the welfare state regulates people's lives in awful ways, that it is intimately bound up with gender oppression and racial oppression (e.g. 1, 2). Making the discussion about people's lives and not about money will help us to see and talk about that, and to bridge the apparent contradiction between defending and criticizing the welfare state.

So when a neoliberal like Marianne Matichuk pulls a stunt like this, definitely challenge the details. Definitely insist on all the facts and on distinguishing between cuts which will hurt (which many inevitably will) from cuts which won't. Definitely show that a long-term green trajectory will conserve resources in multiple senses. But in all of this, even if political pragmatism feels like a good reason not to do so, always push against the frame that tells us spending is bad and cuts are good and that insists that every conversation about public life must boil down to questions of money.

(Thanks to Pete of Green Sudbury for the post on FaceBook which got me started thinking about this.)

This article originally appeared on Scott Neigh's blog A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land.


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