Saturday, 16 November 2013

Permanent Austerity.

Bound in white tie, but not gagged, merely primed for performance as always, the Prime Minister finally admitted what some of us had suspected from before the beginning. In his speech David Cameron came out with the rhetoric of small government, that we have to do more with less and shrink the state to a more effective role. So the point of the austerity measures is not to reduce the deficit necessarily, it is to slim down the size of the state. Of course, it is worth saying that the ideological mission of a shrunken state is one and the same with the claims to 'necessity'. It is no coincidence that the claim that the spending cuts are 'necessary' comes with added promises of greater 'productivity', 'innovation' and 'efficiency'. In fact, a government euphemism for cuts is 'efficiency savings'. This is the lexicon of neoliberal managerialism.

If we are to take David Cameron on his word then we might say that the austerity is meant to be perpetual and never ending. The key part being when he said "We are sticking to the task. But that doesn't just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound, it means building a leaner, more efficient state.  We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently." The sight of the Prime Minister in his white little frock at the throne dripping gold and these words coming out of his mouth was something to be seen. Unfortunately the irony of the Head of Her Majesty's Government proselytising on the virtues of 'small government' is lost on conservative opinion. Meanwhile the handful of liberal and leftish rags immediately seized on the words of the Prime Minister. But no one should be so surprised really.
Just observe the fact that the original proposals by George Osborne were meant to reduce the deficit to naught by 2015 and now the plans to wipe the deficit have been extended to 2020. To this picture we may add the claims that the NHS is facing a shortfall of £10 billion, that was back in 2010, it was Andrew Lansley, who used the figure to justify the cuts he was making at the time. Now there is talk of a coming shortfall by the end of the decade of £30 billion. One wonders if Cameron's lot will ever feel they have lowered the rate of spending far enough. Every problem of the public services and welfare state are seized on by these vultures as proof of the need for deep cuts. The various scandals to be endured by the NHS of late fit the example perfectly. Hunt will make a statement on the problem at hand (which is no doubt real) to buttress his position as a competent Health Secretary coming up with the prescription for a better health service. Cuts and more cuts.

The examples the Prime Minister reaches for are quite interesting for this reason. He singled out for praise the accomplishments of Michael Gove, the 40% cuts to administrative staff at the Education Department to be specific. Then there are the 3,000 'free schools' and academies set up under the watch of Gove. He lumps in the shrinkage of the department with the use of public assets and money to ensure education for the children of sharp-elbowed middle-class parents. 'Free schools' are established at the expense of the tax-payer and even at a cost to comprehensive and other state schools in terms of resources. This is the same ministry to rearrange the pensions system for teachers with the hopes of devaluing their retirement funds by 15% and raising their payments by 50%. Over the same timeline you'll find tuition fees introduced and raised almost at every university to £9,000, apparently to reduce the deficit when HE funding accounts for 0.7% of GDP.

This is the manifest reality of what Cameron means when he speaks of a "leaner, more efficient state". The idealised slim-line state of libertarian imaginations is not to be taken seriously as a realistic prospect. Really we're looking at the possibility of living in a society where the social safety-nets is non-existent while the state intervenes to create markets, boost supply and ensure vast profits. There will be plenty of bailouts to come. In some respects the neoliberal period seems much more like a state of flux than a rigidly set social order. It is partly identifiable by its oscillations, the sudden shift in gears from taking a chainsaw to financial regulations to diving into the public purse to save the lemmings before they go over the cliff. Though it is a very narrow and restricted spectrum with serious limitations. There is only so many regulations to burn and so far the taxes can be cut.

Jumping each hurdle might become much more difficult as we go long. Crises will offer opportunities to reconstitute the economic formations as they were prior to them. Schumpeter called it 'creative destruction': the field of competitors is wiped clear for old forces to go from strength to strength. A better diagnosis from Naomi Klein would be economic 'shock therapy' whereby the crisis provides a cover for a series of assaults to be launched on the living standards of working-class people. It's worth bearing in mind that the current order took shape in the way that the Thatcherites circumvented the crisis of social democracy: 1) cutting public expenditure, 2) privatising state industries, 3) smashing the unions and 4) deregulation of finance. Incidentally the average rate of growth in the 70s was 2.5% and it remained the same in the Thatcher decade. So those who think the austerity is about high rates of growth are sadly mistaken, at best.

Not surprisingly then 0.8% of growth is enough for George Osborne to declare a great victory, a strange position given that there has been no opposition in Parliament to his agenda. Only a brat as expensively educated as the Chancellor could perceive competition in a game rigged in his favour. The Cameron lot want to patch up this sorry set-up, not to fundamentally alter its trajectory. The failures of the past are accentuated, and framed in a certain way, by the abstract principles of today. A high-rate of public expenditure is measured by a criterion not of the social democratic era. The 1970s was a terrible time in British history not because it necessarily was so awful, but because the conditions differ so greatly to today. To be specific, the scope of the state - particularly in the ways that helped poor people - in those days is what outrages conservative-minded people.

The standard of a high level of government debt was changed by the Thatcher-Major era. Suddenly it was set at a benchmark of 40% when this country has seen rates as high as 250% in the wake of World War Two. And that was a well managed economic situation. The Labour government of 1945 established a social democracy complete with the trimmings of a welfare state and universal health-care. The story of how the social democratic post-war consensus developed systemic problems and crises is a long one and a subject for a different article. What may be said is that the failures of that epoch have been accentuated in the years since. The abstract principles of today are applied to those yesteryears with the self-serving results one would expect. The rightward trend of discourse leaves the state-led settlement of the 50s and 60s looking almost Soviet to too many people today. This is the death of social democracy.

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