“You ain’t never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start.”
-Titus Andronicus, “A Pot in Which to Piss“
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.