A review of Richard Seymour, Against Austerity
For those of us whose recent experience of the left is of the splintering of organisations and the breaking up of certain kinds of authority with the result that we are having to learn how to do politics anew, this is an important and necessary book.
Let me start where Seymour is sharpest. Across the political left, from the reformists to revolutionaries, we face a crisis of ambition. A large part of the reason that the governing Lib Dem coalition has remained in office, despite having but a tiny majority, is that are not winning a battle of ideas, and an ideological project which is all about reordering society in the interests of the rich has done better at connecting with millions of voters than any message our side has produced.
In a democracy, parties which repeatedly lose elections, even if they are not elections to Parliament, go into crisis. This is happening to the Liberal Democrats right now. But the Conservatives who dominate the Coalition sense that the momentum is with them, not Labour, and they are probably right.
We are used to a style of political argument where every failure of the trade unions and the Labour Party can be ascribed to a vanishingly small group of leaders, or (on those occasions when these positions are captured temporarily by people from the far left) to the dynamic of leadership itself (the “bureaucracy”).
But reformism is not primarily the product of the 125-year-old decision that the unions should constitute themselves as permanent organisations, and therefore required regional structures, fees, full-timers and, after a twenty year pause, seats in Parliament. In Britain, it is true, the unions came before the Labour Party and their leaders were the original vanguard of Labourism. But this pattern was not repeated in most other countries, where left parties came first and unions second. And their reformists are no more, or less, venal than ours.
Rather, reformism is primarily a product of a wager made intuitively by millions of workers that electing people to Parliament is more likely to result in an improvement in their lives and their friends’ lives than any alternative on offer. It results, in the last resort, not on any class fraction but on the ideas within people’s minds.
Ending the present marginalisation of the left, it follows, requires persuading lots more people that left-wing politics are a credible alternative, credible in these sense of “being held by other people like you” or “being shown to help activists win”.
The failure of the left is not just a failure of its reformist leadership; it is a failure right across the board. No party, no current, no-one publication is doing a good enough job of “making socialists” (as William Morris once put it) in the numbers we need.
Part of the reason the left is not doing better is that far too many of us are trapped in a historical mindset in which we are constantly looking for old symbols to deliver new people, and failing to miss the historic potential of the new.
In a key passage, Seymour criticises the nostalgia of looking back to 1945 for our models, “The Forties were fucking grim. No one but no one wants them back … what is actually involved in any attempt to summon the spirit of 1945 is an attempt to somehow defend the welfare state and social democracy by recreating an era whose chief characteristic is terrifying want, squalor, crushing injustice and early death … It is the symptom of an exhausted Left, unable to relate to the cultural and political sources of radicalism today, where is it the indignado movement, the feminist insurgency, student rebellion or flash-mobbing tax protesters. We need more Occupy Wall Street than Occupy Dresden.”
He is right about 1945, just as he is right by extension about the other traditions on the left which seek to rally us all around different nostalgias, whether for 1900-era Kaustyism, for the unofficial strikes of 1972, or for the 47 Liverpool Labour councillors.
Against Austerity is short book of three chapters. The first chapter, “class”, insists that austerity is not simply revitalised liberal economics, but a conscious strategy for cutting the social wage and assisting the super-rich. It is about re-organising society, through challenging the common sense consensus as to how things can be.
The second chapter, “state”, challenges the common, if naive, assumption that under conditions of neo-liberal ascendancy is being rolled back. Not at all, Seymour insists, rather the state is being used for different things.
The third chapter, “Ideology”, explains how austerity works in terms of securing consent through creating the categories in which consent is constructed. Seymour gives two detailed examples of this process at work. One is the Metropolitan police’s increased use of kettling, which is not so much about managing and containing violence as communicating to onlookers that protest is a dangerous and criminal activity, and making protest itself something with which few outsiders would wish to be associated. The second is the case of Shanene Thorpe, interviewed by Newsnight in May 2012, and challenged over her decision to live alone from her parents, on housing benefit, with a small child. Thorpe felt she had been ambushed and deprived of the chance to explain that she was working full time and her income too low to live without state assistance in London. Seymour presents the episode as a skirmish in the war of the rich to cut both wages and the social wage.
There are times when the book is only an equivocal pleasure. There are one or two passages in which Seymour adopts the persona of an intelligent person who has been given an untrammeled jurisdiction to insult his readers. Yes it is a joke, but it is an annoying one, out of kilter with the project to which he has dedicated two decades of his life.
A focus on how ideas work is necessary only to the extent that it guides people to creative activism. We, on the left, are not too few, nor are we too isolated, to change how millions of people think. We did change the idea, for example, once assiduously pushed by the Daily Star, that “the EDL are a nice bunch of working class people rightly standing up to Islamist excess, even if sometimes they go too far”. And, at the right places, we can have a similar impact on how people think about education policy or the future of health care. If we don’t try, we are in no position to criticise Ed Miliband’s failure to do better.
The strongest political influences on it are the writings of Poulantzas and Althusser. But I am different sort of Marxist, more impressed by people than by ideas. The working class I believe in is a class of people I have met and people I have lived with. Deep in the structuralist Marxist DNA is a notion of life in which ideas are treated to a greater extent as the constituents of reality, than they actually are.
Because the book is, ultimately, more about how ideology works rather than what is happening in politics, it doesn’t make best use of some of its ideas. For example, there is a passage in which Seymour tackles the austerity myths that cuts are needed because national finances had been, for some time, unbalanced. No, he replies, there was no crisis prior to the bailing out of the banks. And he also debunks the idea that excessive national expenditure is directly comparable to excessive expenditure in a single household. No, if a person or a family spend less they have more money to spare, but when an economy is cut, output is also reduced, further reducing the available income. These are good points which would have been memorable if they had been made at page 3 or 23 rather than page 123 of 189.
Seymour leaves his alternative vision to a thirty-page coda at the end of the book. He talks about the way in which campaigns by precarious workers can take them from the margins of working class experience to the core. He describes the need for institutional forms to hold a consciousness of the 99%. He suggests that these may take the form of neither a party nor a union but a social movement. He eulogises the potential of the Occupy movements and of the Quebec protests, neither of which agreed to stay within the limits of parliamentary politics. He calls for a fusion of Social Movement and Community trade unionism. I like many of these ideas in principle, but the proposals come too late in his book, are too broadly sketched, and are inadequately integrated into the critiques of the left and the analysis of ideology that form the book’s bulk.
Yet these criticisms are minor compared to the strengths of the book as a whole. There are very few writers on the far left who try to write engagingly, who try to explain complicated ideas from the academic literature, and who dare to acknowledge the most important political challenges facing the left.
A phrase I hear often among friends is “we need more theory”. Well, if you think you can do better than Seymour, here and now is the time to start.