What comes after austerity?

The famous cartoon of Philip Zec published at the end of WW2 reminds us just who carries the burden of peace and victory over adversity:

The working person.

The cartoon was published again on the day of the General Election of 1945 which saw the stunning fall of Churchill and the ascendance of a Labour Party into dominant parliamentary power (Labour, 392 seats; Conservative, 210). What followed immediately was a sweeping programme of nationalisation of industry to co-ordinate post-war planning, the implementation of the National Health Service, the universalisation of National Insurance and a determination to raise the school leaving age to 16 (only accomplished 25 years later).

The Labour Party manifesto made clear that the election was about the economic rights of working people, and their denial by the wealthy and industrial classes. Here is an extract from that manifesto which is introduced with the words referring to peace after the First World War:

“The people lost that peace…In the years that followed [WW1], the “hard-faced men” and their political friends kept control of the Government. They controlled the banks, the mines, the big industries, largely the press and the cinema. They controlled the means by which the people got their living. They controlled the ways by which most of the people learned about the world outside. This happened in all the big industrialised countries.

Great economic blizzards swept the world in those years. The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men [sic]. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own bureaucratically-run private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.”

Fast-forward to 2008, and a similar analysis holds. Privatisation has dismantled the whole infrastructure for co-ordinated, national planning. Indeed, national planning reinforced by political control of industrial development is now regarded as anathema – in spite of its success at forging a robust manufacturing economy and welfare state. The enforced austerity imposed on working people to pay, not just for the second war, but for the recovery of the ‘oligarchs’, is mirrored today by the same austerity designed to pay for the errors of the ‘hard-faced’ banking oligarchs. Labour insisted that national planning was essential for reconstruction and to protect the economic rights of British people:

“They accuse the Labour Party of wishing to impose controls for the sake of control. That is not true, and they know it. What is true is that the anti-controllers and anti-planners desire to sweep away public controls, simply in order to give the profiteering interests and the privileged rich an entirely free hand to plunder the rest of the nation as shamelessly as they did in the nineteen-twenties.”

Such a statement would sit comfortably in a 2018 Labour Party manifesto. Deregulation allows for profiteering in the Utilities industry (the private water companies are statutorily allowed to factor in an inflation element of 5% to their pricing, whereas inflation since privatisation has rarely exceeded 2%); the banking industry (where our savings and investments provide a free-use fund for money speculation – and where interest rates charged to the  citizen far outstrip interest rates paid by the banks themselves); the pensions industry (one-third of company pension schemes withdrawn and deregulation – ‘pensions freedom’ – has seen investment in pension annuities decimated leaving pensioners highly vulnerable to financial predators); telecommunications (where ‘household’ bills have been proliferated into individual bills through the extension of mobile networks); and so on.

The lesson of the past 100 years has been that there is a correlation between levels of austerity visited on the citizenry, and levels of autonomy and privilege visited on the wealthy.


…what comes after austerity? When the project finally comes to an end the destruction of the public sphere and the distorted relationships with the ‘hard-faced’ will have to be reversed. At best, we will enter into a period of reconstruction. The Labour Party is already shaping up plans for re-nationalisation and a reconfiguration of public services. There will need to be a revitalisation of belief in the role of the State and ‘big government’. State planning is a sine qua non.

But what about us? What do we need to do to play our part in a reconstruction of public values? Here are three possible pathways to be explored:

  1. Identities: We have been persuaded to buy-in to economic identities in ways that serve the corporate and banking sectors well, but less so ourselves as citizens. We are ‘stakeholders’, ‘clients’, ‘consumers’, ‘human resources’, ‘service users’ – essentially parts of an economic algorithm, elements in a commercial contract. We will need to rediscover ways of identifying that assert our economic and wellbeing rights: ‘citizen’, ‘neighbour’, ‘resident’, ‘partner’, ‘associate’. From being seen as ‘service users’ we need to think of ourselves as ‘rights-holders’. Along with these monickers come more symmetrical relationships, greater agency, more accountability. If we are rights-holders, State and organisation become ‘duty-bearers’.
  2. Relationships: The source of these economic identities are relationships forced upon us that have economic rather than ethical underpinning, that echo competition rather than collegiality. Phillip Hammond in Brexit negotiations refers to European negotiators as “the enemy”. This was a classic ‘Freudian slip’, revealing deeply-held beliefs about society and ourselves. Chantal Mouffe (The Democratic Paradox, 2000) distinguishes between antagonism (the violent clash of differences with little mutual tolerance) and agonism, (transactions across differences which are challenged but accepted. People in public sectors should not be seen to be competing with each other, but negotiating, collaborating, sharing, seeking symmetry rather than opposition.
  3. Vocabulary: Identities and vocabularies are mediated through language. The ‘new sociology’ is busy developing new vocabularies to define the way we relate to each other, to organisations and to the State. Words are as powerful as identities. We need to rediscover the functional meaning of ‘respect’, ‘trust’, ‘spirit’, ‘appreciation’, ‘commitment’, ‘mutuality’ as we rediscover moral obligations to each other. The new vocabulary will need to be written into job descriptions, service contracts and reports – all those means by which we construe each other and ourselves.

As we climb out of the trenches of this cruel period of austerity we need to be more savvy than merely to hand over the olive branch to those who govern, with a plea to be more responsible in the future. They will not be. Rather, we need to deny the means by which the ‘hard men’ and women coerce us into dysfunctional moral and ethical relationships.


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