Austerity, Brexit and Single Narratives

Here’s the thing. We have an in-built tendency to accept the judgement of others – well, many of us. This is a dangerous tendency in a democracy, because a well functioning democracy requires of us that we look for competing arguments and make a judgement among them. Each time we leave an important judgement to others – to politicians, for example – we erode our democracy.

In this day and age we are bombarded with what I and others have called ‘single narratives’ – single explanations of events which ask for no question or argument. Just accept the narrative. Austerity is one of these. Since the crash of 2008 all political parties for years told us that there was no alternative to cuts in public services and welfare states – to pay for the misdemeanours of…..oh – the banks, mostly. There are plenty of alternative arguments – some put forward by Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Look at Barry Kushner’s and my book, Who Needs the Cuts: Myths of Economic Crisis. In this book we lay out the need for argument and debate about austerity because after exhaustive research lasting more than a year we found no evidence of weakness in our economy, no pressing need to cut public expenditure, and no crisis of debt or deficit to speak of.

The problem was that from the BBC to the Guardian and the Daily Mail there was no encouragement to think differently – there was certainly no alternative data offered to feed into our own judgement. Barry and I provided that data (in attractive card-sets, at first, of which we sold almost 15,000 – mostly to trades unions). One showed that we were screaming “CRISIS!” as our national debt reached more than 55% of our national worth (GDP) and the current account deficit reached 3.5% – and we were told to believe that the country would follow Greece down the pan. And yet, immediately after the war our national debt stood at 250% of our GDP  – it stayed above 100% for 20 years. With that debt we rebuilt the country’s cities, built a motorway network, a new rail network, new universities, implemented free secondary education for all and, of course, created the National Health Service. In fact, while our Chancellor, George Osborne, was intimidating us with economic shock and awe with debt approaching 60% of GDP, we were living under an EU agreement brokered by Margaret Thatcher which allowed countries to raise their debt to….well, believe it or not, 60%. Staying with Margaret Thatcher for a moment, at the same time, Osborne was wringing our hands over a current account (monthly) deficit of 3.5%, the same deficit rose to more than 5% under her administration, and that was no cause for alarm. In fact, in recent history, the data shows that the only governments to have substantially repaid debt were labour governments. For the past 400 years UK governments have run national debts – it is part of the financial architecture of government.

Ah well – none of this had any impact, though it was not just us publishing this data. We waged a campaign against the BBC asking them to balance their relentless aggression against “deficit deniers” (Martha Kearney) with consistent reporting of alternatives to austerity narratives, and to balance the partisan reporting of cuts by such as Evan Davis (who published a book promoting privatisation of public services), Nick Robinson (a Conservative) and Aaron Hezelhurst who, along with Stephanie Flanders (now with JP Morgan), Sarah Montague and Kate Silverton, earn often substantial amounts from corporate business. We took our complaints right to the top, as it were – to the BBC Trust. If you have ever complained to the BBC you will predict the response – insouciance is the least of it!

The point of all this – and of our book, Who needs the Cuts – is that the British citizen was being systematically denied data which might inform our own judgements. It is perfectly possible to gather such data on your own, but people need public encouragement. When George Osborne started out on his path towards dismantling the UK welfare system he announced (on the BBC – to no challenge) that he wanted to spark a national debate about how to ‘cope with’ the deficit. But the theme of the debate was whether to increase taxes on the wealthy (80%) and cut welfare benefits (20%) or vice versa, to cut benefits (80%) and increase taxes (20%). There was no debate of any kind, and the net result was a reduction in taxes on the wealthy and 100% of the cost of austerity fell on public spending. No surprise there.

There is much to say about all this, and that’s what we do in Who Needs the Cuts. But the aim of this commentary is to point to the gross disservice done to us by the media in not convening public debate, but, rather, serving as a conduit for single narratives. There are, in my view, and in these Blogs, three principal casualties of this lack of argument: (i) austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state, which continues to proceed virtually unchallenged; (ii) man-induced climate change (I have another Blog on this); and (iii) school test achievement as a measure of the quality of education (again, I have a Blog). All of these have complex but accessible data underpinning them which feeds comfortably and constructively into contestation, but each one of them poses risks for s/he who chooses to enter into argument. You might be labelled a ‘denier’ (as though in a psychological state of ‘denial’ of a truth obvious) and as a wilful destabiliser of the status quo.

But think of it like this: this is the suppression of public education.

This is part of what some modern theorists of democracy call ‘the flight from pluralism’ –  a form of escapism from the inevitable uncertainties of life. Uncertainty in fragile times is too corrosive of confidence. Pluralism entails the recognition that we have many and often competing values, and that we have to get by through negotiating these differences. Some of us, for instance, care more about the economy than the vulnerable – others, vice versa – these are legitimate but sometimes opposing positions. Acknowledging pluralism, itself, makes political outcomes uncertain – dependent on whatever the result of discussion and negotiation. One of the leading left-wing democratic theorists of today is Chantal Mouffe (you can look at her book, for example, The Democratic Paradox). Democracy for her is ‘the unfinished revolution’ – unfinished, in the sense that it has no end point, no goal. In fact, what she says is that democracy is argument, and that consensus is the end (i.e. the closure) of democracy. Consensus inevitably means ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ – and it forecloses on possibilities. Mouffe distinguishes between antagonism and agonism: the former is one enemy pitted against another, intolerant of differences; the latter, agonism, is, as it were, ‘friendly enemies’, competing with each other for dominance, but tolerant of each other’s differences.

Agonism is the ideal state for democracy. It is this that we are denied when we are coerced into accepting single narratives, suppression of public argument over perfectly reasonable differences. To take one contemporary example, the Brexit referendum should have been the starting point for debate and exploration of differences that had been revealed, and ways of reconciling them. To accept the referendum result as the end of the argument, as an imposed consensus, is a violation of democratic principles. We know this, for we all feel its discomfort – even those Brexiteers who actively seek to close down further debate. With the population evenly split – and for diverse reasons – the need we naturally feel is to explore those differences. The government of the day suppresses debate, but nonetheless understands and erects defensive ramparts against its violation, aware of its planing against the grain.  But this is one attempted single narrative that refuses to float – its position is just too unreasonable and, unlike austerity, its consequences are felt by the rich as well as the poor and, most of all, by corporate business. We will have that argument one way or another.

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