It’s now six years since David Cameron’s statement of intent at the 2009 Conservative Conference in Cheltenham, where he said that a new Tory government would usher in “a new age of austerity.”1 “Over the next few years, we will have to take some incredibly tough decisions on taxation, spending and borrowing – things that really affect people’s lives,” said Cameron. Whenever anyone talks about “tough decisions” or “hard choices,” the first question to ask is “Tough for who?” As we shall see in the first part of this article, the choices made by the Conservatives – with the support of the LibDems (remember them?) and most often the Labour Party – have been tough for working class people across the UK.
After a brief overview of the economic reality of austerity, we will take a step back from the stats to think about what austerity actually is – or rather, how it is used as a tool to redistribute money and resources from the working class to the ruling class. We will then look at the “official” responses to austerity from the TUC, and groups like the People’s Assembly and the rest of the Left.
Finally, in an article that looks pretty thin on good cheer, we will look at how groups and communities are fighting back against austerity in ways both more imaginative and more fruitful than Saturday afternoons spent traipsing through central London with a speech by Jeremy Corbyn at the end. As we will see – and as you might expect – the way that you think about austerity has a big impact on how you fight it.
Austerity by numbers
According to The Financial Times (and they should know, right?), “austerity measures refer to official actions taken by the government, during a period of adverse economic conditions, to reduce its budget deficit using a combination of spending cuts or tax rises.”2 In other words, austerity does not necessarily equal cuts. In France, for example, the 2013 budget made most of its €30bn savings by taxing big companies and the wealthy, avoiding the severe cuts imposed in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the UK.
This should not come as a surprise when the Tories have always presented themselves as a tax-cutting party – at least when it comes to taxes on the rich. In the same speech as the one announcing an “age of austerity,” Cameron ridiculed the idea of proposals for a higher rate of income tax as “distraction burglary” from the then-Labour government.
So we would expect a Conservative regime to rely on spending cuts. And they certainly haven’t disappointed. We are now half way through a nine year austerity programme, and the amount of cuts has increased from an original plan of £120 billion to £210 billion. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), real per capita spending on public services will be cut by 23% between 2007/8 – 2018/19. This will reduce spending on public services and administration to its lowest share of GDP3 since at least 1948.4
However, it looks as though the Conservatives have learned a lesson from the Poll Tax in the 1980s. With the Poll Tax, it was clear who the bastards were – the Conservative government. In the spirit of outsourcing, they’ve now made local authorities – often Labour-led – bear the brunt of cutbacks.
Most government departments have had their budgets cut by about a quarter. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is being cut by over a half. So the “tough decisions” are pushed further down the line, and the government gets to score political points about what a mess of things local councils are making. According to a report published by the TUC at the end of last year, this means that “core areas of service delivery, including Adult Social Care, Children’s Services and Waste Management, will increasingly soak up the majority of resource. Other local services, including leisure and cultural facilities, school support services, road maintenance, building new homes and promoting economic growth will shrink by 46% by 2020.”5
But as we shall see, there’s a lot more to austerity than cuts.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste”
These words, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, sum up one of the ways that the government uses austerity to screw us over. This happens in big ways and small ways. Often the small ways are the sneakiest, seeking to create an atmosphere of fear and the perception that resources are scarce and under threat.
For example, earlier this year, the NHS started texting people to remind them about their hospital appointments. Nothing wrong with that. Except these texts tell you how much missing your appointment will cost the NHS. My partner had one of these texts (and an email, and a phonecall), and it talked about it costing the taxpayer £180 if she didn’t show up.
This innocent-looking measure (a “nudge”, as Cameron would no doubt call it) serves to shift responsibility for NHS funding shortfalls to the individual, rather than the government where it belongs. These small-scale gestures go hand-in-hand with what Noam Chomsky identifies as a “standard technique of privatisation: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”6 And sure enough, when she did turn up on time for her appointment, my partner waited for two hours before being seen. As someone else in the waiting room commented, “They never see you on time unless you kick off.” Clearly, he’d read some Chomsky. And meanwhile, the perception of scarcity allows the government to use a crisis of their own creation to repeatedly float the idea of charging for more and more NHS services, or allowing parts of the NHS to be run for profit.
What price benefit cuts?
All politicians seem to be in love with hardworking workers who work hard at work. Indeed, just before this year’s election, Cameron stopped talking about hardworking workers and started talking about “people who do the right thing” (that is, work hard at work). This language has been picked up across the Tory front bench.
On the day I started writing this article, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock announced a government plan to send young unemployed people to “boot camps” to prepare them for work. Not as a form of punishment, obviously.7 And people who “do the right thing” have nothing to fear. Similarly, in the 2015 “emergency budget” (see? Another emergency!), there are plans to remove a whole range of benefits from younger workers – and if you can blame Europe, all the better.
There is a sense in which these clearly are cuts – it’s taking away money that people need to live on. But in another sense, they’re not cuts at all. First, these measures cost a fortune, and second, the private sector are coining it in off the back of them.
Take Iain Duncan Smith’s “flagship” policy, Universal Credit, which was designed to reduce the amount of benefits paid, and make it harder to claim without going on enforced “work experience.” In June this year, there were 65,000 people on Universal Credit. And it’s cost £15.8 billion so far – most of it on computer systems that will have to be replaced before it goes nationwide (if it ever does). That’s a cost of over £24,000 per claimant. I’d rather have the money, if it’s all the same.
It’s a similar story with the Work Programme, where people who don’t “do the right thing” are sent on a range of so-called training courses or work placements (which can involve sitting in a room with nothing to do all day). If you refuse your course or placement, benefits are cut. But meanwhile the private sector “providers” are paid up to £600 for everyone who walks through the door, and up to £3,500 if anyone actually finds a job. Nice workfare if you can get it.
As with the example of the NHS, we start to see austerity in a different light. Not simply as taking away money and services from people who need them – but also as a way of making massive investments in the private sector. And all in the name of cuts!
They say ‘cutback,’ we say… what?
In October 2011, half a million people took part in the TUC’s “March for the Alternative” in London.
In October 2012, thousands marched through London to hear Ed Miliband tell them a Labour government would have to make “hard choices” if elected, while Len McCluskey of Unite called for a general strike (but has yet to take any action to back it up).
In June 2014, about 50,000 people went on a march and Trafalgar Square rally with Russell Brand
In October 2014, tens of thousands went on a “Britain needs a payrise” march through London, organised by the TUC.
Most recently on 20 May 2015, 150,000 people went on an “End Austerity Now” march through London, organised by the People’s Assembly.
At the rally at the end of the most recent demo, John Rees of the People’s Assembly (and SWP split-off Counterfire, and the Stop the War Coalition) said, “This is a magnificent demonstration, but it’s only a beginning. We can’t win with only one demonstration.” Now, we’re not sure if John Rees has received a bump to the head, but not only has he not won with one demonstration, he hasn’t won with five. There may have been more big set-piece demos in London for all we know, it’s just hard to separate them out in a google search because they all look the same.
The tactics of the TUC and the Left are restricted to big demos and token one-day strikes. This lack of imagination is captured nicely by the Deterritorial Support Group in their Official Guidance for TUC “March For The Alternative” Demonstration:
Of course, Tony Benn is dead now, but his place has been taken by the outlandish figure of Russell Brand and more recently by veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn. The timing of so many of the demos in October is enough to make us think that they’re more to do with enabling Leftist groups to engage with new student recruits (“Take a leaflet! Build the demo!”) than they are to do with building meaningful resistance.
In fact, these big demos often seek to neutralise or silence meaningful resistance – sometimes literally. In January 2014, there was a march on London’s City Hall, organised and supported by local housing campaigns, trade unions and tenants groups. It was a small demo, maybe 5,000 people, but for once the march and rally afterwards was an opportunity to meet and make links with others fighting back against social cleansing. Even though it was freezing and pissing down.8
“We’ll have some of that,” thought the politicians, charities and housing associations, “there’s an election coming up and everything.” So two months later, there was a far more orderly “Homes for Britain” rally addressed by unlikely bedfellows Ken Loach and Nigel Farage.9 The Focus E15 housing campaign – who had taken part in organising the January demo – were invited to send their banner to the rally, no doubt to give things a veneer of authenticity, but not invited to speak.
That’s an example of how authorised, respectable protest can literally deny a voice to those fighting back. But it happens all the time in a number of ways – especially around election time. “Oh, your housing group wants to have a conference to talk about resisting social cleansing? We’ll organise one for you, but you only get one speaker – and by the way, there’ll be a top table of speakers, with questions from the floor at the end.” “We can support that, we’ll even get leaflets printed for you, but we can’t really do direct action, it’s divisive.” “Of course we need to involve the Labour Party, we need to build maximum unity on this issue.”
These are all things we have personally encountered from the Left in one city in the past few months. And if you complain, you’re accused of…
Sectarianism: bro, do you even Marx?
Leftists – Marxist or otherwise – love to accuse anarchists of sectarianism, or of being “divisive.” But we’re all about working class unity, we just don’t think that unity should extend as far as groups and individuals who pursue an anti-working class agenda. Inviting Ed Miliband to an anti-austerity rally to talk about the “hard choices” that a pro-austerity Labour Party would have to make, for example.
The accusation of sectarianism is so frequent, it’s worth dusting off The Communist Manifesto to see what Marx actually says:
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
So the next time someone calls you a sectarian for refusing to buy their party’s paper, you can quote that at them.
We also don’t like the way that appeals to “unity” (which often mean “Shut up and do as you’re told”) can serve to silence people who experience different kinds of oppression – whether based on race, gender or disability. One of the things that a repertoire of protest restricted to big demonstrations does is exclude people who – for whatever reason – cannot take part, as the many people who took to Twitter using the hashtag #wecantmarch were keen to point out.
Austerity and the social wage
As we’ve seen, austerity is about more than cuts. It’s an attempt to adjust the economy even further in favour of the ruling class – by driving down wages, by creating new opportunities for private profit, by taking away everything that we need to do anything other than simply survive and be hardworking workers who work hard at work, by making it harder to fight back.
The official account of austerity – shared by both left and right – would have us believe that governments give things to the working class because the government is nice. Like housing. Or libraries. Or decent childcare. And then another government is elected who are mean and horrible, so they take it away. The name of the game then becomes to get rid the mean government and elect another nice one. Or make the government sorry for being horrid by marching through Central London on a Saturday. Or something.
In reality, what we have is a result of class struggle – concessions are granted by the ruling class because of the relationship of class forces, and the willingness of the working class to fight in its own interest. To quote the Anarchist Federation’s Introduction to Anarchist Communism:
When we talk about a social wage we’re talking about all the different ways that working class people receive services from the state and the ruling class that are in effect part of their share of the profits of industry. Healthcare, subsidised and social housing, transport and utilities like water and electricity, libraries and social services, benefits and many other things can be seen as part of the social wage. Like wage increases and shorter working days these services are often the result of previous rounds of struggle, victories won by the working class in the past. They are also, just like the benefits we receive at work, often used to control us.10
When we see housing as part of the social wage, we can see that the post-war Labour government did not embark on a programme of social house-building because they were nice people. They did it because of a wave of mass squatting after the Second World War and a fear of civil unrest. On a single day in 1946, 1,500 people squatted flats in Kensington, Pimlico and St.Johns Wood in what was called “The Great Sunday Squat.”11
As the Anarchist Federation put it in the run-up to the 2011 “March for the Alternative,” “Everything we’ve won, they want it back.” In 2015, we can say “everything they want to take, we’ll fight them for it.” The tactics and spirit of the 1946 squatters are still alive across the UK. You won’t find them on the big demos – or if you do, the paper-sellers, placard hander-outers and vacuous “maximum unity” enthusiasts will be doing their best to drown them out.
We’ll give the last word to one of them, who wrote on Facebook the day after this year’s election result:
We have been creating our own power at Sweets Way and it is not a power that was phased, one way or the other by the election results. It is a power that has emerged in spite of politicians, and which will continue to grow without them.12
3 Gross Domestic Product defined as the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.
5 See note 4.
11 Webber, H. ‘A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946′ in Ex Historia (2012) 4 pp125-146.