We have heard a lot of talk in the wake of Brexit of ‘the people’ vs. ‘the establishment,’ often without much discussion of what exactly constitutes these two categories. In the realm of policy, populism often translates into a pseudo-Nietzschean rhetoric of unmediated collective voluntarism, with the nation-state as some sort of Übermensch in the making. Policy is to be based on the ‘will of the people,’ conceived of as an organic unity; or, to express this in negative terms, “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
In some ways, this rhetoric is the inverse of that which brought the Conservatives to power back in 2011. Labour crashed the economy, we were told; the economy should be placed in the hands of those who know what they’re doing, who know how to run it. And even though the failings of the British economy were part of a global economic crash, this rhetoric won the Conservatives the election. This was part of the wider technocratic tendencies of the ‘Third Way’-ism that has dominated our politics since the mid-nineties. Today, it is precisely this managerial approach that is being rejected, in favour of what is supposedly the will of ‘the ordinary man on the street.’
And yet there is a line of continuity between the rhetoric of austerity and the common characterisation of those who oppose the rising anti-immigration tendencies as naively sentimental. It is argued that it is merely pragmatic to ‘look out for our own,’ rather than allowing so many new arrivals to strain our already precarious economy. The idea that we can sustain mass migration is just unrealistic, it is said, and only a liberal elite, unaffected by this strain, would argue otherwise.
An important element of the Conservative’s electoral strategy after the crash was to present Labour as idealists, playing games with your hard-earned taxes in a hopeless utopianism. The idea that New Labour were overly idealistic is frankly ridiculous, as if they had ever intended anything more than the mildest of reforms. But any project that presents itself as ‘left wing’ in however weak a sense – even the chirpy neoliberalism of the Blairite years – is likely to be labelled as unrealistic at some point along the line.
The obvious alternative to such pipe dreams was a more austere attitude to our public finances – hence, ‘austerity’. It is not difficult to make the case for decreased public spending. The nation’s finances are, so it goes, akin to those of a household. When a household has more money going out than it does coming in, you need to make cut backs. Labour overspent, as lefties do, but now we need to put our affairs in order. That’s just common sense.
And yet for the past half-decade, our economy has in fact been worsening. The economic theory underpinning austerity is remarkably reductive, neglecting that unlike a household, a national economy must account for supply and demand. An individual household’s spending will not have a strong effect outside of itself; government spending, by contrast, makes a huge difference to the economy as a whole. By removing state funding from the economy, austerity effectively eliminates demand. As such, even if one accepts capitalism as a basic premise of political discourse, the economic argument for austerity is deeply flawed.
The widespread acceptance of austerity then lies entirely in the appeal to ‘common sense,’ which function to depoliticise the discussion, such that we are asked to ignore the consequences of our politics. The global economic crisis is rhetorically located in the household unit, in a realm supposedly accessible to the ‘ordinary man on the street’. Ironically, this actually draws attention away from the real hardship experienced by those effected by austerity, as well as their powerlessness to change this situation.
This is also the discursive space in which one can argue that migration strains the economy – after all, there is no substantial economic case for this argument either. The economic demand provided by migration creates jobs, and over time, the contribution of migrants to the economy is far greater than any negative effect. And yet the anti-migrant argument does work within the framework of the household established by austerity; as one example, the more people you have making use of goods and services, the less there is for everybody else, especially if cuts to these services are such an urgent necessity. Very quickly, this descends into the language of white supremacy, the self-assertion of those with power over minorities. ‘Common sense’ is in fact just the logic of a long and cruel history of British racism, embodied in the dead empire our current government so longs for.
As markets are allowed to absorb almost all forms of social life without restraint, more and more people feel unable to control the forces that tear their lives apart, and politics becomes merely bureaucratic, totally opaque to the general public. In this context, ‘common sense’ arguments like those for austerity or resurgent nationalism claim to lay bare the mysterious workings of a world that is stripping people of their livelihoods and their rights. But such right-wing populism, contrary to its claims, does not open up power to the disempowered, but on the contrary, it only strengthens the forces of their disempowerment. We cannot solve this crisis with a return to the technocracy that created that; the times demand a more radical alternative.
Photograph: badsci via flickr.