I see us free to return to some of the more sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable…We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin. But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair, for foul is useful,and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight. [John Maynard Keynes]
Did you see or do you remember the animated Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine? Well, the main theme is that a land of colour and music is overrun by a tribe of ‘Blue Meanies’ who turn the landscape grey and silent. It is a time of dread and austere sentiment. But rescue comes with a resurgence of music and colour (the ‘Fab 4’), though the blue-meanie threat is ever-present. We have to keep playing music – “all together now”.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of post-Beatles sentimentalism – all you need is love…war is over…I’ll get by with a little help from my friends – and this fairy tale falls into that frame. Even so, whenever I come to write about the ‘austerity revolution’ I can’t help The Yellow Submarine insinuating its way into my mind. For all its reductionism and simplicity it seems to crystallise a key aspect of economic austerity that is too easily overlooked – just a moment.
Economic (fiscal) austerity is controversial – which is to say, it can (and should) be argued over. My view (see my book with Barry Kushner, Who Needs the Cuts: Myths of Economic Crisis – Hesperus) is that austerity is a strategy for restoring a Victorian-age balance between deserved poverty and deserved wealth. No longer in need of a fit and healthy army of infantrymen – Ukraine notwithstanding, warfare today is expected to be high-tech and labour non-intensive – the aristocratic and business elite are following a policy of redistributing wealth back to the wealthy and dismantling the Welfare State. Much of the Welfare State was built to guarantee a working class fit and healthy to fight wars.
Well, I’ve said what I am able to say about economic myths underpinning austerity in that book. But here’s the thing, here’s that crystallisation. Economic austerity seems to spawn an austerity of imagination and of humanism, and this is where The Yellow Submarine hits the spot. John Maynard Keynes’ spiritual lament, above, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ speaks of the universe of imagination in which we live – a much-depleted universe. We are persuaded by our most greedy and self-serving politicians to set aside a vision for society and to concentrate on economic necessity. What is “useful” in Keynes’ terms, is what is ‘good’. We must delay our appreciation of life and love, our shared investment in our common-wealth, our creative reaching, our humanistic concerns for nurturing individualism. The land of austerity is, indeed, a land of Blue Meanies.
John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger was written at the cusp of the last major period of austerity that faced the UK in the immediate post-WW2 period, and what was to come in the 1960s boom and expansionism. This was the theme of the play – that family life and citizenship had yielded to austerity, abandoned its strivings, its questioning, its search for spiritual meaning. The older generation had given up on change, resigned to the reality of persistent sacrifice. Jimmy is the man who sees beyond, who represents the pent-up creativity and imagination that is breaking out of its constraints. His love for Alison, his girlfriend, is both the straitjacket that is his fate, and the spiritual nourishment he so desires. He abuses and soothes her as his mood swings – we hear the violent splintering of the egg as the new generation struggles to emerge. Jimmy can’t wait. At one point, his girlfriend, Alison, retorts to her complaining father: “You think things are changing too fast; Jimmy thinks they’re changing too slowly!” Such is fragmented life on a cusp – life in the darkness of the ‘tunnel of necessity’.
What do you think of Jimmy? Me? I’m right with him. I’m sick and tired of the continual spinning of the lie that ‘the country can’t afford this-and-that’, that we are bound to austerity like a forced bride to an abusive husband, that so many of my peers swallow this debt-nonsense. Say what you will about Google, but it was all Barry and I needed to research and write that book, to pull apart the filthy threads of argument waged by greedy Conservatives, aristocrats and corporate figures. The information is abundant and accessible – all but to blinkered journalists
Maynard Keynes looked ahead to where we could put ‘ends’ above (useful economic) ‘means’. Think back to recent Conservative budgets. Where is the vision of the society they seek to create, the end to which economic means are to be bent? There has been none – none. Or, rather, we have to read the vision and the values between the lines to see it with the clarity of a Jimmy. It is there. It is a society implied by Keynes, a society which embraces “avarice”, “usury” and “the love of money”. But the dread message underpinning his lament is that this society is based on consent – that we are ready to endure.
‘Foul is fair and fair is foul’. When will we have the moral strength to look back in anger at what these Conservative governments have been doing to us – the cruelties of austerity they have so cynically wielded against us, and the countless dead and maimed in this war with no arms – a war of government against people? Will we recover sufficient imagination to acknowledge and express our frustrations and to shake off our acceptance of alleged ‘necessity’? Will we shout through the veil of economic falsehood and finally draw it aside to see in sharp outline the choices we truly have?