The Ethics of Austerity

20 Oct

Today, the Con-Lib Coalition announces their full plan for spending cuts. Although many bits have been leaked, this will be the first chance we have to take the full measure of what is to come. Much has been and will be written about how these cuts are necessary, and even that they don’t go far enough.

And while much has been said about the economic arguments for and against the cuts proposed by Mr. Osborne, what is not talked about enough, or with sufficient care, is the ethics of austerity. By this I mean the ethical claims that have been made to prepare the ground for the austerity measures announced today. To borrow a phrase from the political theorist Bonnie Honig, we are seeing the culmination of a discourse of emergency politics.

Emergency Politics

While Honig uses the idea of emergency politics to get at how the threat of emergency is deployed to reassert the sovereignty of the state over the democratic sovereignty of the people as the source of law and legitimate political power, I want to suggest that the financial crises has resulted in a similar discourse, which claims we are in a state of emergency economics.

What the claim of emergency economics does, by framing our current experience in terms of emergency, is reaffirm the sovereignty of the capitalist markets over democratic society by presenting us with a catastrophic choice. We must accept the radical restructuring of public life out of necessity; there is no alternative but catastrophe. To discuss solutions is to waste time; to insist on the imperative of democratic values is to court disaster; to oppose the hasty reform of fundamental elements of the social order is to be a dangerous ideologue. Emergency economics are hardly unique to the UK, but today we are witnessing a clear expression of its consequences.

It is hardly surprising that global capitalism needs to be forcefully reaffirmed. Not so long ago talk of the “end of capitalism as we knew it” was surprisingly mainstream – as was seen when Newsweek ran a cover story claiming, “we were all socialists.”

we are all socialists nowthe nation forumAnd progressive media were proudly proclaiming their socialist sympathies, as when The Nation issued a call for re-imagining socialism in the face of capitalism’s failure.

Yet the fortunes of capitalism seem to have improved rapidly. Nick and Roberto have already examined the paradox that worsening inequality has led to a retrenchment of the policies that caused it and highlighted the political reassertion of neo-liberalism. And we’ve collectively endorsed the power of Mark “K-Punk” Fisher’s Capitalism Realism in diagnosing the seeming impossibility of a world beyond our dysfunctional present.

But the truth, I think, is that neo-liberal capitalism is more vulnerable than many critics suspect. This is what we gain by thinking in terms of emergency economics, by paying attention to the ethical appeal in the calls for austerity. We risk misunderstanding the present if we think of today’s announcement solely as an expression of the power of capitalism as an ideology, or the capitalist class as political actors. The emergency economics argument is actually an expression of the weakness of moral bankruptcy.

Those voices calling most loudly for cuts tremble with fear of economic collapse, with a desperate sense that the masses are confused and angry, willing to pull the world in around themselves if they cannot make clear the emergency we are in. What they struggle to make clear to the public is that the markets have to be free to do their work, whatever the consequences, or we face even worse catastrophe. This is why David Cameron and his party lack the hard-edged moralism of their earlier counterparts.

Cameron and Osborne

It also explains the desperate efforts at exerting discipline over the public discourse. If you don’t support the government’s cuts you don’t understand the danger all around you, or you’re engaged in a nostalgic class politics.

Capitalist Power

The cowboy capitalism that William Connolly diagnosis in Capitalism and Christianity American Style, once standing proud in the bright glow of its own magnificence and insensible to its violence, is rendered paranoid, fearful and cruel – much like the half-mad and lame Daniel Plainview at the end of There Will Be Blood.

angry capitalist

The moral case for capitalism has been fatally undercut. We all know the bank bailouts were unfair, that the lack of financial regulation is a scandal. The moral bankruptcy of a system that allows the primary agents of this social suffering to reward themselves without shame or limit, while those with the least face unemployment, uncertainty and deprivation, is obvious. Only the wilfully blind deny that the financial crisis was precipitated in part by outright criminal behaviour. And, increasingly, the true extent of social and material inequality is clear to anyone bothering to look.

These consequences and the social relationships that produce them aren’t new, but the post-crisis world is a changed world. The extent and depth of the recession and its spectacular causes have reminded the relatively comfortable (both materially and ideologically) of their vulnerability. Moralizations of wealth and poverty ring hollow – despite the vigour with which the criers ring their bells – the poor don’t necessarily deserve their poverty and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the deserving rich. Deprived of its moral grounding capitalism as a social system faces a profound challenge from the moral indignation of citizens – or even worse the “masses.”

So the case for capitalism becomes the case against any possible alternative. This requires not only presenting the present as a state of emergency, which forces us to put aside our moral qualms about inflicting suffering on the undeserving and the vulnerable. The arguments are too complex and the appeal dependent upon the same trust of experts that characterized the pre-crisis ideology of endless growth for all. Hence the displacement of fear and anger toward more obvious targets (some deserving, some not) – Gordon Brown and the rest of the New Labour cretins, immigrants and foreigners, benefit-cheats, selfish and confrontational trade unionists, Barack Hussein Obama, corrupt politicians… and on it goes. This is not a conspiracy theory – as the anxiety builds among the public, that energy resonates and builds, finding diffuse outlets.

(just for fun, some global resonance machine!)

What we must realise is that this moral energy is a resource that actually provides an opportunity for real economic change. Critically engaging this moral energy, however, requires broader responses. Anger at bankers and their obscene bonuses is justified but insufficient. Frustration with corrupt and unrepresentative governments is only rational but must find a productive purpose. The anger and uncertainty brought on by today’s announcement is real and understandable but the question we face is what to do with the energy that our emotional and moral responses provide us. Protests, strikes and marches are great but we also need to claim the moral discourse and, in doing so, reaffirm the sovereignty of democracy over the market.

Make no mistake, we face a crisis – emergency economics would be impotent without the reality of the risks and challenges we face. We need to make the moral case along with the economic and political case – not only do we not face an emergency, in which we must act now or face complete catastrophe, the crisis we face provides an opportunity to reaffirm democratic values over those of the market. This is key; it’s not just a question of one set of economic policies versus another, we face an assault on our shared right to control, as far as is possible, our own lives.

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3 Responses to “The Ethics of Austerity”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The University, Limited. « The Disorder Of Things - October 22, 2010

    [...] fees are hardly the only thing at stake.  What of research and teaching? Details remain vague, but if the social sciences are to be [...]

  2. Ethics of Austerity 2: Interlude of Broken Glass « The Disorder Of Things - November 12, 2010

    [...] to fully grasp that it wasn’t just a sunny afternoon of political play acting. I’ve already written about the global calls for austerity as a threat to democracy and explored the fear that underlies [...]

  3. The Meaning of David Willetts: The Future University Between State & Market « The Disorder Of Things - March 27, 2011

    [...] cuts might strike some as the most realistic of choices. But Willetts and Cable have shown the ethics of austerity (or what we might call here ‘disaster pedagogy’) involve something rather [...]

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