Ethics of Austerity 3: Cynicism, Sincerity and Fear

“You ain’t never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start.”

-Titus Andronicus, “A Pot in Which to Piss

Police Vodafone protesters oxford street

Police protect Vodafone store from the threat of public exposure of truth.

And you have to wonder what it will take for serious people to realize that punishing the populace for the bankers’ sins is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.

Paul Krugman

Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness;

As I stand aloof and look there is to me something profoundly

affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those who

do not believe in men.

-Walt Whitman, “Thought”


The winter air has turned cold enough, has pressed in with its full weight, so that there is no more space for lies. The truth of crisis is that the powerful and the wealthy do not take responsibility, they assign it; they do not suffer their follies or their sins, they pay their penance in the currency of our lives.

We’ve spent the last few years living with the anxiety of impending doom, spurred on by hustlers of panic, addled prophets of economic Reformation, and Janus-faced managers of public interest.

Yet, despite the prolonged disaster-foreplay, the consummation of this crisis was always going to be “us against them” and never “we’re all in it together.”

The truth is a relief

In New Jersey, Governor Christopher Christie is waging a war on the very idea of “the public” – with predictable consequences.

new jersey governor christie spending cuts

From The Nation:

In Camden, the most dangerous city in the country, nearly half the police force will be fired if administrators cannot negotiate new contracts; in Trenton, another 111 officers are at risk for termination. Gang members in Newark roam the streets with T-shirts celebrating the date of scheduled police layoffs. In the interest of closing the budget gap, New Jersey’s cities may soon descend into chaos.

As he ponders his electoral prospects, the consequences of Christie’s budget will become tangible: class size will increase in schools, public employees will lose their jobs and infrastructure will continue to decay. Christie’s supporters argue that these immediate hardships are necessary for long-term fiscal solvency… But the pain for many in New Jersey is unlikely to subside. Instead, while millionaires enjoy fresh tax cuts, the most vulnerable will be asked for further sacrifice. Anything, of course, to close the deficit.

Ireland, the most dutiful pupil of all, kept to the catechism: public debt incurred to prevent private loses, nationalizing risk, sanctifying the cuts with nary a whisper against the paltry tithings of the anointed – all to appease Him, they were told, but to no end.

Strange to say, however, confidence is not improving. On the contrary: investors have noticed that all those austerity measures are depressing the Irish economy — and are fleeing Irish debt because of that economic weakness. (Krugman)

This is the crisis of every faith: the magic of the rituals has no effect on our misery, but we cannot face the world without magic. And there’s no magic that will square this circle: societies built upon inequality and the destruction of public goods will be thrown into conflict and crisis, and in times like these the powerful will shamelessly help themselves to even more.

What is being presented as a loan by the British government to the Irish government is, in fact, a loan by the British government to the remnants of Ireland’s commercial banks, which are melting down. And the reason the British government is lending to the Irish banking system is because British commercial banks lent so much money to Ireland in the boom years… It has been depressingly easy for the Cameron administration to hypnotise the British public into forgetting that our current economic plight is a result of reckless lending by the country’s banks rather than reckless Labour borrowing. (LRB)

The hollowness of market idols ring out, amplifying with each strike of the sounding hammer, and call us to attend to the political struggle. Even a modest welfare-state reformism requires a reclaiming of democratic control over policy and public discourse to shake us out of our belief in the myths of neo-liberal growth. If we want more than that, we’re going to have to take more – no one gives power away.

In the UK, the students are teaching the lesson to the rest of us. Protests, occupations, direct actions and campaigning are all ongoing, and out of this assemblage of opposition something seems to have come loose.

The proposed reforms to higher education won’t actually save money in the short term, or in the long term – unless the government can prevent universities from charging the highest allowable fees; the threat of private universities is already being mobilized to that end.

The point of the proposed reforms has become obscure, but the effect has been made clear. Vicious policies serving the interests of the powerful have been made visceral realities as police have trapped adolescents in outdoor holding pens on cold nights, charged protestors with horses, and beaten bodies with their truncheons. The absurdity of this violence is the clearest expression of the injustice perpetrated by the powerful and privileged exploiting the crisis, as well as the contempt with which they greet democratic opposition.

This morning, the parents and teachers of Britain woke up angry, in the sure and certain knowledge that the administration they barely elected is quite prepared to hurt their children if they don’t do as they are told… I’m worried that today, those children feel like they’ve done something wrong, when they are, in fact, the only people in the country so far who’ve had the guts to stand up for what’s right. (Penny)

It seems the student protests have gotten ahead of everyone else. The young women and men involved have made use of social networking technology to coordinate an opposition that is proving to be reactive and innovative, independent of formal institutions, and embodying a solidarity that is beginning to reflect the complex interpenetrations of the current crisis – linking the fees hike and higher education cuts to welfare cuts, bank bailouts, corporate and individual tax avoidance/evasion and discredited neo-liberal growth strategies.

Cynicism, Sincerity and Fear

Is the neo-liberal retrenchment cynical? This is the presumption of the disaster capitalism thesis. While this is an insightful and appealing thesis, I worry that it misses important elements of our current moment. First, it assumes a cynical and manipulative power behind neo-liberal retrenchment, forward thinking and deviously smart individuals invoking crisis with plans for reform in hand. Second, it attributes a high degree of self-consciousness to the agents of disaster capitalism that seems questionable in many cases. Further, it raises the question of why “they” are so evil – when most are not. Appeals to the necessity of the cuts, persistent inequality, and pain for the masses are, as often as not, sincere.

The sincerity of the appeal to disaster comes in two forms. On one hand it taps into existing millennial fears of disaster and decay. In the face of this looming disaster, something must be done and those responsible must be stopped. We see this in the Tea Party’s antiquated Cold War psychodrama, and the Conservative’s attacks on “dangerous” immigrants, “viscous” youths, “lazy” benefit cheats, and “selfish” trade unionist. The objective necessity of retrenchment, for all its glittering ideological armor, actually rests on an emotional sensibility of fear and resentment.

Beck's Ongoing Psychodrama

On the other hand, the sincerity of the disaster appeal is a question of ideology – the international right’s policy push-back is not only, merely, or even necessarily a conscious effort to remake the world in their ideal image. Rather, for many, market ideology has been so successful that our current crisis raises the unspeakable fear that there is no response. The neo-liberal market ideology is revealed as just that, such that even if it is an unacceptable solution, it remains the only solution.

Here comes the fear. As police kettled protestors, leaving them no escape, so the neo-liberal ideology leaves its disciples no exit; they have no vision of a way out of an intolerable condition. This is important because it changes the terms on which we might respond. Not only is responding to the fearful different than responding to the malicious, it should lead us to realize we are stronger than we thought.

We have our own cynicism to worry about, those of us who reject the neo-liberal retrenchments in Britain, the US and elsewhere. We must watch out for the cynicism of existing political parties, as weak in power as in opposition when it comes to working towards a fair economy, towards extending democratic control over our lives, towards ensuring that the social and economic structures of this crisis are not maintained. They may not be as content as the conservative parties with the neo-liberal retrenchment, but they have given us little reason to think they’ll support democracy and equality without a strong push.

We must also be aware of the cynicism that goes along with our political performances. Initial reaction to the protests sought to denounce them from the start, even within the opposition it seemed impossible that marches, broken windows and campaigning could make a difference. We told ourselves the bastards never listen anyway; they told us we had no alternative, no demands, just senseless anger. We cannot allow our cynicism to obscure the possibility that change is possible, or to blind us to what victory might look like.

The workers have the power to break this government if they want to. The workers have the power to put an end to a system that rewards bankers and spivs, and punishes the people that keep this country going. (Leninology)

Sincerity is a fragile thing. We talk ourselves out of it, fearful of the judgments of others and the harshness with which the world handles our dearest impulses. Even writing of hope inspired by teenagers dodging the police on a snowy London afternoon seems foolish, willfully ignorant of “reality” – to say nothing of actually doing something: occupying universities, writing letters, staging flash mobs on the high street, marching and believing it’s possible to change government policy, these seem ridiculous. And that is exactly how power works upon us, encoding its imperatives into our habits, emotions and visceral registers, until sincerity can hardly begin to move us before we discipline ourselves.

The student protests are important because they are sincere. We should have the courage to follow their lead.

Despite the fragility of sincerity, it seems to have emerged in the coldest days of the late autumn; days promising winter seem to have revealed a new possibility.

A farewell to austerity

We can see clearly what neo-liberal entrenchment is about: more transfers of wealth, more inequality, destruction of the institutions and ideals of the public, undermining democratic control, and the misuse of public wealth on imperial wars, bank bailouts and corporate subsidies.

We might just be able to believe in the possibility of change: halting cuts, altering the accepted wisdom on reform, engaging popular democracy outside the isolation of the voting booth, fighting back against rising inequality and refusing to transfer the wealth of working people to the wealthy.

Paul Krugman has been an important voice in this ongoing and global debate, but he’s wrong to suggest that being wrong about the economics of austerity is worse than the crime of allowing the rich and the powerful to punish us for their sins.

Austerity and neo-liberal retrenchment is not just wrong as economic policy – which is bad enough. But this retrenchment is just the latest moral wrong in a long train of unacceptable and shocking wrongs to which we’ve become numb.  Even if there was a shred of truth to the clamor of necessity, emergency and impending disaster it wouldn’t make any difference: if those are the only options we have, then society must be changed.

First thing they teach us:
Not to give a fuck.
That type of thinking can’t get you nowhere.
Someone has to care.

-The Roots, “How I Got Over”

Let’s get to work.


On Democracy Now, Jacob Hacker discusses neo-liberal retrenchment in the US. Also, check out his book: Winner Take All Politics (or the academic paper version, here).

17 thoughts on “Ethics of Austerity 3: Cynicism, Sincerity and Fear

  1. I’m just going to make three points, all of them relatively simple – but probably more extensive than they need to be – because you put too much admirable effort into these posts for them to go ignored, even by someone who takes a different view.

    Banks caused the crisis: No they did not. It is an important article of faith for many people that banks caused the crisis, but the blame spreads far wider than that. Democracy means voting for certain parties over others, and if you collectively vote for a programme of change, then you must accept the consequences of that change. If a government wishes to raise public spending, but doesn’t want to raise taxes by the same amount, that is an act of political cowardice that can win elections. Public debt rose year on year from 2000 to 2009, while the economy was growing. Worse than this, private debt rose even more, vastly more. The banks certainly lent the money, harvested from international capital flows (a complete reversal of the traditional model of successful banking), but in a permissive context where no one could quite bring themselves to stop it. The general view was that house prices were rising, people were spending, GDP was going up, we were all getting richer, and Labour would be re-elected forever. The regulatory regime changed in 1997, but the key role of macro-prudential responsibility was left an orphan (see Howard Davies’ book, ‘The Financial Crisis: Who is to blame’. Mervyn King (now the target of a vendetta by the apostles of more debt and more spending) did warn that certain markets were becoming overheated, and that something should be done to stop it, but in making the Bank of England independent, Gordon Brown had narrowed its function to controlling one carefully chosen index of inflation by manipulating interest rates, and King’s advice went unheeded. GDP just really measures economic activity, so if people are spending money on anything, it is captured in the GDP figures, whereas increasing debt, is not. So a pattern of activity established itself in the country whereby people spent money they did not have on an unprecedented scale. House prices went up and up, and houses were remortgaged (more debt) to cash in on this mirage of great wealth. If you look at the figures for industrial productivity for this country you find that the UK in 2010 was producing about the same as it was in 1997, meaning that most of the great boom was an illusion of excess consumption fuelled by cheap credit from unregulated international capital flows. When the crisis struck, it was because of a growing realisation that alot of this debt would never be paid (the US subprime market in particular), and was therefore ‘bad debt’, which meant that the asset books of many banks were filled with rubbish that has yet to be cleared out. There are other associated problems, but the picture is the same. If one bank fails, that is a failure of bankers, if all the banks fail, something more serious is going on, and blaming the bankers – while fun and entertaining – misses the mark. Look at Ireland – one of your examples – they don’t just blame the bankers there, they blame the whole crooked mass of incompetent politicians. When the crisis broke, bailing out the banks was the preferred option – although I personally would have laid waste to shareholder value and protected the deposits (another thing for which I blame the former government) – for the simple reason that the entire economy would have ground to a halt without it, anyone with any deposits in the bank would not have been able to access them. A good context for revolution I suppose, but also starvation, social collapse and mass riots. When you quote Paul Krugman with approval, ask yourself first if he was against the bailout; no. he was not. This crisis didn’t begin in 2007, it began in the 1990’s when a bunch of economists imagined they had solved all the key problems, and a few politicians were prepared to believe them. To mix metaphors a little, it was like putting a large red flag over the open door of a china shop, just as a great herd of bulls was passing by (the bulls are the bankers, thick, single minded, destructive, but useful if you can put them in a set of adequate regulatory reins). This crisis is fundamentally one of regulation and political will, but it has left us with a huge overhang of debt, in both the public and the private sector, that we cannot simply wish away.

    The way out of the problem: This is not really indicated in your piece, but whatever political change results from this crisis will not eliminate the debt. The only way to pay off the debt is to be more productive and more frugal as a whole economy. This is – fortunately – happening in small measures despite large cuts in public spending. We’ll see how successful the coalition is in the end, but there is an enormous hole to climb out of, and it will necessarily take some time. The one thing you can say for them, is that they do understand the gravity of the situation, and believe that the fate of Ireland would be worth avoiding. For all Krugman’s talk, QE and fiscal stimulus measures will not alter the underlying dynamics of the problems we face, although they may help keep the economic wheels turning when necessary. And even if we made a radical change of political organisation, the debt levels would remain.

    Student funding: The debate on Newsnight last night was interesting in one small respect. The Cambridge student who was organising the occupation was asked how education should be funded and she said … General Taxation (bankers in particular). This is where the funding debate should go I think. A long time ago the government asked universities to do much more, for less. And the universities have never stopped complaining about this. So some time ago, the Labour government took the important step of reviewing how education should be paid for, and concluded (once again, some time ago) that higher education should not be paid for out of general taxation. There continues to be an argument that higher education should be paid for through general taxation, but most people are reconciled to one of two formulae, fees, or graduate tax. It is a shame that this debate is being conducted against a background of public sector spending cuts, but that’s where we are. Those who are protesting against fees might also protest against a graduate tax I think, but the key problem that people seem to be articulating is that they don’t want to be in debt. That’s a fair enough aspiration, and it is shared by the coalition government who are doing a great deal to ensure that we collectively reduce the amount of debt that we are already in.

    So when it comes to your opening comment about children being f***** before they were born, I happen to agree with you, I just happen to think you’re mistaken about who did the f*****g.


  2. There are a couple of things I think worth pointing out in this question of ‘politicians, bankers, or both?’. One is about the ways in which the banking industry AND the politicians (and I certainly think blame is due to both, and incidentally I think Joe does too) collectively sanctioned excessive deregulation, through pushing from the industry, misrepresentation of the risks involved and a flimsy and irresponsible political attitude to managing this, not least because there was political capital gained from colluding. On this I think we (all!) agree – there is nothing in the post or anywhere else in this blog to suggest that the Labour government did not play a large hand in this clustererror. But yes, bankers were also largely to blame through wilful collective lobbying against more transparency and oversight.

    But this still doesn’t really get us to the question of ‘who pays, and how and why, and with what’? What the students, and others protesting against cuts around the country, are saying is that they should not pay for the errors of either of these groups with the things that will substantially affect the basics of their future lives – education, housing, jobs, health services. If it is now time to tax much harder those whose asset values (including funds, bonds, share portfolios and houses) exponentially exploded and faciliated the credit boom, then that is the appropriate response to this particular issue. Instead there seems to be, as all along, a collectivisation and distribution of risk and austerity without a distribution of the benefits or wealth.


    • There is a clear argument for a wealth tax, or even a windfall tax, given the situation that we are in. But these are deeply problematic, and once again, very few politicians are advocating one. Furthermore, I don’t think it would resolve the long term funding question over higher education. Although maybe that problem would look different if there wasn’t a vast overhang of debt clouding our collective vision.


  3. 1. Claiming that I misunderstand the situation by attributing the causes of the crisis solely to the “bankers” is clearly incorrect. I’ve been a steadfast opponent of the sorts of policies inacted by New Labour, Clinton Democrats, Tories and Repbublicans since I was at least 14 – I’ve stated as much publically many times. Even in this post, I am quite clear that the causes are wider, systemic and historical.

    2. We have to be honest about where the debt in the economy actually is, which the Tories have not been. The increase in government debt since 2000 has been modest relative to increases in the private sector and is hardly at historical peaks. The majority of debt is private sector debt, but even here the details matter, there’s been a modest increase in consumer debt in the UK since 1987, but lion’s share has been in commerical sector – and again the issue telescopes, the vast majority of private corporate debt is in the financial sector, who experience a 400% increase over the 1987 to 2009 period, the majority of which came in the last ten years. This is a problem, I don’t know anyone who denies it, but it’s not a problem that will be solved simply through reducing government spending (whatever other arguments there may be about the government deficit. It clearly requires a more subtle approach that doesn’t (a) use alarmist rhetoric to put through policies without debate, (b) attends to the systematic problems within Western economies relying on unequal rather than widespread growth, and (c) rebalances economies away from finaicial services that create instability (and fabulous wealth for some) rather than encouraging a more balaned economy.

    3. It’s easy and convenient to assume that those in opposition, especially the students, don’t understand that this is about more than fees, cuts and bankers – everyone I know does and it increasingly seems that the student protests do as well.

    4. If you agree that there is space for more debate about university funding, tax structures and the like – come join us on Thursday for the protest – the only way to actually encourage political debate/change on these fundamental issues is to refuse the automatic logic of the austerity politics.

    5. I’d never suggest that the bankers are the only one’s fucking the kids – the politicians have played their part, as has the satisfied public perception of endless growth that affected the popular narrative here and in the US. It was always a lie. I throw my lot in with Cornel West and want a society that shows love for poor and working people, and I oppose those policies that disproporionately put the burden and pain of crisis on those precious sisters and brothers least responsible.


  4. Awesome stuff Joe. I don’t have anything to say except just a comment, and i’m not sure what it means. None of this is a shock to me, I’m talking about the visceral polarisation of the struggle under the torys. I remember the 80s, and militant, and bnp, and the miners etc etc. To me, this is what the torys were always after, going way back to the magnates who did the first, most succesful and largest enclosures of properties and coypholds. the birth of the middle class? wasn’t the birth of class or capitalism. You know that book, “Why did the heavens not darken”?: the generational thing and living memory is very important. It is the young students who are acting on the reality with clarity. But i remember all this and how it felt back in the 80s. At the risk of sounding stupid, it’s not new – its the fundamentals of England which is basically visceral warfare. So I don’t know what this all means to your argument, maybe nothing.. hmm. or maybe its that your analysis reminds me of lord of the rings in its implied narrative – an even greater and even greater apocalyptic battle. but it’s business as usual to me, and i’m not talking about the specific sociological or political-economic conjuncture we are in, i’m talking about how it feels. So ok, i think i know what my point is. i feel comfortable in this environment, not in a nihlistic or sadistic way, but just, it’s something i know. The youth are leading the way in the struggle, esp re universities: can they sustain their efforts in the long term if they feel this to be a unique apocalyptic battle?


    • Hey Robbie – thanks for that. I appreciate the comment. I think the narrative arc that emerges here (and in the previous posts) is partly a feature of writing polemically and in response to a recurring theme of “there’s no politics in these protests, it’s all just theatre before the inevitable.”

      As a foreigner, I share that freshness of feeling with the school and university students because the past struggles in the UK weren’t mine. And the past fights I was involved with in the US (anti-war prior to Iraq, health care reform) kept the class element hidden and in a deeply republican/christian part of the country those on the left were always on the defensive.

      So, I think the revelation themes reflect (or should reflect) awakening as opposed to apocalypse – for the young, the cynical, the numb and the disengaged. And I’ve been impressed by the cross-generational elements within the protests thus far, I do think the living memory is being shared, from what I’ve seen – but, you’re right, it’s vital, to recognise the ongoing antagonism… That may have to be where I go next with this line of thinking.

      Let us know if you fancy writing anything on this point, we’d be happy to include it on the blog.


  5. “We have to be honest about where the debt in the economy actually is, which the Tories have not been. The increase in government debt since 2000 has been modest relative to increases in the private sector and is hardly at historical peaks.”

    The tories have been exactly honest about where the debt is. Government debt is not at absolute historic highs, that’s right, but the only time it has really been higher has been in the aftermath of a massive war, not at the end of a ‘long boom’, and it is going up very fast. This is partly because the government will always have to stand behind bad debts unless they wish to end up in default, which has never happened in UK history, yet. The debt is not in the commercial sector, except if you include banks and financial services companies, and their debt is just the flip side of all that mortgage debt. They borrow money from the international capital markets, then lend it on to finance mortgages. So UK mortgages and household debt are owed to a UK bank, where the mortgage and debts appear as assets offset against borrowings from overseas. They appear on the asset books of banks, and they have to be written down when they go bad, but the liability of the original loan remains on the books of the bank and can’t be written off so easily. So the different figures are just not independent of each other.

    And although I realise that you do indeed spread blame more widely than the banks, you don’t do much of that in the above piece, and you include a couple of specific exonerations of Labour party economic policies. I, however, blame them principally, and am all caught up with the ‘neo-liberal retrenchment’ that you clearly despise. That is because I believe there is a sound way to run an economy without debasing either it, or the people who comprise it.

    And I’m all in favour of rebalancing the economy away from financial services, but I don’t remember you being supportive of the progressive corporation tax cuts that have that precise aim in mind. I also think universities can contribute to this rebalancing, but only by charging the right fees and delivering decent services. So I see at least one advantage in removing the fees cap, even if I would also like to see an extensive series of scholarships emerging to encourage UK students to student crucial subjects – like the whole spread of the humanities. As opposed to the tens of thousands who study law, business studies and accountancy. They can pay. When I trained as an accountant, I (or rather my employer) paid alot of money for me to go to night-school for 4 years, the taxpayer had nothing to do with it.

    I don’t think I’ll make it to the debate thanks, but more because the only thing I suspect that will be debated will be just how evil the tories are. If anyone makes such an eloquent case that education should be funded through general taxation that my plumber or local shopkeeper would agree with them, then I might be impressed. As it is though, I think it is students who don’t acknowledge that plenty of other people have something to say about how higher education is funded.


  6. I agree with Douglas. We’ve spent far too long in this country funding the butter mountains of higher education through our shopkeeper-and-plumber tax.

    I do, however, have to wonder what possible area of spending could meet such a rational ‘would-my-local-prole-agree’ threshold. After all, shopkeepers and plumbers are notorious for their desire to hoard their gains, and certainly would have no truck with the kinds of arguments about social mobility, public good, or a critical, informed citizenry which work so well when we discourse with accountants and businessmen. Different standards apply.

    But even if we could win round such stubborn and retrograde minds on the question of education, how would other sectors fare? Find me a plumber who thinks that he should have to pay for the education of 5-18 year olds! Or for the politically correct migrants who ‘clean’ our hospitals! Or the doctors and nurses who spend their days tending to the welfare scabs and self-harmers of inner city slums!

    But then, these are probably the same people who caused the crisis through their voting for parties explicitly committed to the innovation of complex financial instruments, the removal of restrictions on capital adequacy ratios and mergers, and so on. The so-called villains of the piece, those ‘bankers’, although we can admit that they were the ones ‘at the coal face’, so to speak, are epiphenomenal. Yes, granted, they were the ones actually making the decisions, holding the relevant information about their own balance sheets, making projections as to how all was fine and dandy, lobbying for further deregulation, and so on., but this was really the decision of the electorate. Check your old pledge cards and faded news reports. These matters were absolutely central to UK elections since the early 1990s, as any reasonable person will concede.

    But if you pay monkeys, you get peanuts. That is why we must wrap up this debate by Thursday at the very latest (surely enough time to consider all possible alternatives, transform them into legislative form and put them before the house) and then allow our representatives to do what we pay them to do. Suck it up.


  7. Well, shopkeepers and plumbers are just kulaks aren’t they.

    Neither major party, not even the Lib Dems fought the last election on the principle that higher education should continue to be funded from general taxation, and I would suggest this has something to do with the various parties making an assessment of the general public mood on this issue.

    And it is of course easy to forget that there were plenty of people explicitly warning about raised levels of public and private debt in the late 90s and 2000s, but as most of them were tories, I suppose it probably got just buried under all the bilious abuse that passes for a fashionable political disposition these, and those, days. Robbie’s right that the eighties were indeed visceral, I remember them well. But it wasn’t good versus evil, so much as the disillusioned pitched against the discredited. And the invocation of those times – and the 1960s – as a way of interpreting the present protests – the turn to nostalgia? – strikes me as revealing how bereft the protesters are of a coherent political narrative around which to organise themselves. Or at least one that could stand a chance or resonating with the wider public. Back to those shopkeepers and plumbers…


  8. The idea that parties fight elections on a pledge to continue funding things in the same way is laughable. To interpret not mentioning that you’re in favour of general taxation as an electoral position against it, and therefore take votes for Party X as an electoral mandate for a non-existent non-policy is ludicrous. To neglect to mention that one party in particular ran very prominently on a pledge not to increase tuition fees *at all* in trumping up a case for these proposals as somehow the will-o’-the-people is too embarrassing to even be called duplicitous.

    I was clearly too busy being a vogue-ish leftist to hear all those Tories loudly arguing for more regulation of the financial sector. I seem to remember that the rhetoric was actually about the incredible unwiseness of intervening in any way at all in the process of ‘wealth generation’ centred around the City of London. Of course, there have always been arguments against deficits, but since you refuse to accept that the collapse of the banking sector has anything to do with current policies of retrenchment and cuts to public services, I’m not convinced that there’s anything that can be said which would meet your requirements of ‘coherence’.


  9. But the Lib Dems campaigned on a graduate tax, meaning that they had already conceded the argument about whether higher education should be funded through general taxation or a specific tax on graduates (or rather, those that remain in the UK – incidentally ensuring that we continue the practice of subsidising the higher education of EU students who won’t probably won’t pay the graduate tax at all). So a coherent way of criticising the Lib Dems would to oppose the removal of the cap on tuition fees while simultaneously calling for a graduate tax. Otherwise you are just being selective, and the hypocrisy tag comes back like a boomerang.

    And your understanding of deregulation is that of a caricature. There is, and always has been, a difference between regulation and good regulation. The regulatory framework before 1997 obliged the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England to take a broad view about the economy, including levels of indebtedness, growth rates, inflation etc. The regulatory framework set up by Gordon Brown in 1997, divided these roles such that the macro-prudential function fell between the cracks, and when debt levels exploded, nobody felt it was their job to do anything about it. So I think bankers could be held partly responsible for the problems, but I don’t credit them with any greater capacity for understanding crucial macro-economic principles than anybody else was able demonstrate throughout this period. I’m certainly not trying to defend them, but they acted like a herd and charged off a cliff.

    Equally, I don’t say that the collapse of the banking sector has nothing to do with the current policies of ‘retrenchment and cuts to public services’, of course it does. My point is simply that the collapse of the banking sector was the fault of poor regulation, affects us all, and has left us with a legacy of debt that we can’t ignore just because we don’t like bankers. Nationalising the banks, stringing up the whole class of bankers from lampposts will do nothing to get us out of the hole that we are in. In fact it would deepen it, for reasons that I can’t be bothered to explain.


    • I don’t really see how my (or Joe’s) position on this could be described as hypocritical. And my agenda isn’t to criticise the Lib Dems. It is to point out that your attempt to paint the *actual* proposals to be voted on in less than a week as somehow democratically mandated and/or the product of a long-running debate simply won’t wash.

      The point about regulation is a fair one, but my caricature was still, I would say, a bit better than your conflation of ‘people voting for parties that increased public spending’ with ‘people voted for the policies that created the conditions of the crisis’ with ‘bankers can’t really be blamed for the crisis’ with ‘cutting education like this is basically the public will (at least insofar as public = plumbers and shopkeepers)’.

      In either case, I don’t see that it changes my point, which is that the fact that Tories have long been opposed to deficit spending (despite not historically having the record in decreasing the size of state spending that we might expect) is not equivalent to saying that Tories warned of a coming crisis and were ignored by posturing political fashionista ignoramuses (ignorami?). ‘Good regulation’ *in terms of the financial sector* has been synonymous with ‘light to no regulation’ in mainstream politics (of left and right) in this country for more than a decade. Which implicates Labour as much as the Conservatives in a neoliberal discourse around wealth and equality, which is exactly what Joe is criticising. Which only brings us back to where we started, despite a few irrelevant detours along the way.


  10. Correction: I just went back to the Lib Dem manifesto and found that they did not – contrary to my understanding – make their commitment to a ‘graduate tax’ explicit in their 2010 manifesto, although it has been an important aspect of their internal party discussions for quite a long time. Chris Huhne had it as part of his appeal for the leadership. But also, and more interestingly, the NUS produced a report on student funding that recommends what is essentially a graduate tax – a rather complex formula, but a graduate tax nonetheless – with almost identical safeguards to the ones the Lib Dems imagine they have inserted into the coalition proposals for repayment of fees (maximum period of repayment, no repayment for low earners, no upfront contributions, higher repayments from high earners etc.) So the debate really is, graduate tax or loans, or at least has been for some time. I suspect the coalition went for an end to the fees cap in the end because it is what the top universities want in order to ensure international competitiveness, and because they are a source of export earnings (which are a vital priority at the moment), and because they will now be able actually to earn some revenue from all the EU students who attend UK universities, (who are currently subsidised by the UK taxpayer (not just shopkeepers and plumbers either) and otherwise would not pay the Graduate Tax unless they lived and worked here for their whole lives). Did any of this come up in the debate, or was it all about how disgraceful the Lib Dems are for selling out, and how the Tory scum are all just salivating at the chance to grind the faces of the poor again?


  11. ‘Good regulation’ *in terms of the financial sector* has been synonymous with ‘light to no regulation’ in mainstream politics (of left and right) in this country for more than a decade.

    This isn’t true. It is a caricature. Peter Mandelson tried this line in the aftermath of the crisis in order to discredit the tories as the ‘apostles of deregulation’, as if it was somehow their fault. But this is to conflate a rhetorical strategy with the actuality of political and regulatory proposals. Financial innovation is fine if it creates new markets and new revenue flows. Deregulation in London in the 1980s meant establishing electronic trading platforms and reducing transaction costs, letting financial institutions establish offices in London more easily, relying more on the market to regulate itself. But the broad supervisory function for the economy as a whole remained with the Treasury, who used a variety of instruments to control inflation, promote investment, and keep asset booms in check. It didn’t always work, as we saw with the housing crash of the early 1990s. And although this could be characterised as ‘light touch’ regulation, it was regulation by powers held always in reserve. This is radically different to ‘no regulation’ which you seem to suggest is only one step away from ‘light touch’ regulation.

    I don’t think I suggested that the proposals to be voted on in a week were specifically mandated at the election, I just think they are not that surprising in the scheme of things, and the difficulties that the Lib Dems are experiencing are unusual, largely because of the unusual context of coalition politics. My point is really that the student protests have yet to organise around an alternative proposal that I think the wider electorate would support (neither of the main parties agreed to sign the NUS pledge, only the Lib Dems, which itself speaks volumes). The proposals themselves fit within the broader coalition programme of deficit reduction, that still – I think – carries broad electoral support, and the alternative of ‘general taxation’ or just ‘stay the same’ does not. This is a problem, I think. If the students organised around support for a ‘graduate tax’, then I think they would eventually lose the argument, but nevertheless do rather better out of it.

    And you are right to say that the tories did not clearly predict the crisis. But those that did (not just tories) were not listened to because so much politics at that time was about the management of a message (part of which was ‘the tories are scum’) and winning the argument by whatever means, rather than ensuring that problems were actually addressed. This is obviously a wider critique, but generally speaking people like to be told comforting stories, and the Labour party proved expert at it. But after three election victories, I think those that elected Tony Blair and Gordon Brown cannot wholly absolve themselves of blame for the direct consequences of their mistakes. After all, if a three year old believes in Father Christmas, we think it is sweet, but if they still believe at six, this is a problem.

    I was not suggesting that it was ‘posturing political fashionista ignoramae/i/uses’ that stopped the tories being heard. Rather that much of the appeal of the Labour party (and indeed the Lib Dems for God’s sake) was built on a cultivated hostility to the conservative party itself, rather than their politics (some of which they adopted) and I think that led to a destructive suspension of critical judgement, and a kind of tribal politics that permitted no criticism to stand, was constructed on a synthetic moral high ground, and always sought to defer difficult decisions, until such time as they could be deferred no longer. And yet still people imagine that the problems we face – despite all evidence to the contrary – have been deliberately exaggerated, or serve some ulterior motive of the ‘evil tory scum’.

    And it is this synthetic moral high ground that I think is most dangerous, for as the Catholic Church have demonstrated – and to return all the way to the beginning of Joe’s post – a moral high ground is the perfect place from which to f*** the kids.


  12. As for the shared ground and suspension of critical thought involved in the adoption of said ‘middle ground’, despite rhetorical claims by Labour to the contrary, I think you’ll find everyone here agrees with you.

    As for this: “I think those that elected Tony Blair and Gordon Brown cannot wholly absolve themselves of blame for the direct consequences of their mistakes”. I repeat again that we agree. I know everyone who posts here agrees. We happen to think this points to an analysis of things which skews to ‘the left’. You think it points to an analysis of things which skews to ‘the right’. What isn’t sustainable is to keep claiming, again and again, despite repeated corrections, that this somehow represents ‘Tories’ vs. ‘Labour’. It doesn’t now and it never did. End of.

    As for the rest, I’m also ‘not surprised’. But then I think there’s quite a difference between that and thinking things are OK. I don’t think things are OK. I don’t think the right people are being punished. I don’t think that austerity is as desperately needed as we are led to think. Whatever reasonable conversations might be hypothetically be had about how to fund higher education, I also don’t think that this policy either represents that ‘debate’ or even possibly could, given the mode of its implementation. Those are some of the reasons why I, and I would wager others, kind of think it’s worth spending some time on these issues and doing what we can about it. The dismissal of this stuff as unrealistic, naive, blah, blah, blah is exactly what Joe skewers so well above.


  13. And just to add another thing, academics have been woeful in their interventions. It is entirely understandable that from the student perspective the most immediate catalytic issue is fees, debt, jobs. Apart from the Campaign for the Public University, academics have not been able to integrate the other aspect into these issues, that is, of the absolvement of govt responsibility to provide a public space of critical thought in arts, humanities, soc sci, and as some established people are saying also – even the natural sciences. Mirrored, of course, with the whole basterdization of “community” and “local” going on hardcore with the tories now, but evident under labour too – the absolvement of govt responsibility in provision of public services and welfare. the moat-bridges are being drawn up and the upper-middle classes are chilling out in their castles and fuk the rest of the population. THAT IS AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN – except for the conjuncture that produced the welfare state – THE PURPOSE OF UK GOVERNING CLASS.


  14. Pingback: The Meaning of David Willetts: The Future University Between State & Market « The Disorder Of Things

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