Michael Sayeau – The new austerity
Michael Sayeau challenges the recent discourses in the media of ordinary citizens discovering the benefits of personal austerity under the shadow of the economic crisis. Bringing to our attention that ‘austerity’ until late was a codeword for the supposed structural necessity of the starvation of the state sector under a time of booming profits and tax returns, Sayeau suggests that rather than endorse such fantasies of austere living, we would be better off with a more useful re-evaluation of cultural priorities. Given that capitalism is both a dynamic generator of goods for consumption, and of the vicious maldistribution of those products, one possible beginning is recognizing that immeseration and austerity is an effect of capitalism and not the solution to it.
One of the things that culture loves to forget during moments of crisis is the fact that many of the things that seem new about the current situation aren’t really new at all. Newspapers run articles about rising unemployment, as if it were easy to get and keep a good job before the banks started to fall. People are thrown out of their homes, and the media is there to capture it for the evening news, but it systematically forgets how hard it has been to afford a home in the first place.
The newspapers and the television news search for stories that emblematize this ostensibly new and unforeseen state of affairs. Whatever they find, they bracket away from precedent – for the crisis to simply be a manifestation of the status quo simply doesn’t make a good news story. And who knows where we would place the blame if we were to understand what is happening as something other than a so-called black swan – as something other than the continuation of the same cycles of creative destruction that serve as the baseline temporality of the capitalist world-system.
One of the more interesting of these tropes to emerge lately in the media is that of ordinary citizens discovering (or re-discovering) the benefits of personal austerity under the shadow of the economic crisis. Obviously there are people who have lost their jobs or pensions who have been forced into perilous situations, without homes or transportation or the money to send their children to the schools where they had previously been enrolled. But even more revealing is the presentation of the behavior of those who have not yet been directly affected by the downturn – stories about those who voluntarily change their behavior in anticipation of trouble or simply because the socio-economic atmospherics of their world have changed.
The Guardian reported recently, for instance, that there is a rising demand for garden allotments reflects a new popular emphasis on cost-savings and self-reliance on the part of the British citizenry:
The trust’s director general, Fiona Reynolds, said the scheme tapped into a mood in which, as a result of the recession, people’s priorities were changing from materialism towards “real” things such as spending time with family, and homegrown food.
Reynolds said: “There’s something in the air. More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour. By creating new growing spaces the National Trust can help people to start growing for the ﬁrst time.”
The same week, the New York Times ran a front page article about a new trend in Japan toward simple living and financial circumspection.
Younger people are feeling the brunt of that shift. Some 48 percent of workers age 24 or younger are temps. These workers, who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.
They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.
Young Japanese women even seem to be losing their once- insatiable thirst for foreign fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, reported a 10 percent drop in its sales in Japan in 2008.
“I’m not interested in big spending,” says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. “I just want a humble life.”
The newspapers love this sort of story, which ﬁts all sorts of long-established storylines. Among many other reasons, anxious self-imposed austerity is a more comforting emplotment of demand destruction than other contenders. Not having much choice in the matter, a large fraction of humanity already eats the food that they grow themselves everyday without ever being considered newsworthy, and people fail to purchase fancy clothes and cars all the time without this failure turning into a narrativizable matter.
But now the weekend style sections are full of columns and spreads devoted to how to do more with less when it comes to decorating one’s house, feeding one’s family, or shopping for a birthday gift. The real-estate porn of the previous years that came to take up significant sectors of the US and UK TV airspace – featuring ordinary people torn between the summerhouse on the Suffolk coast or an apartment in Spain, or speculators flipping houses in a quest to make a million dollars in a single year – has given way to escapist fantasies in the cinemas and increasingly bleak special reports about bank failures and rising unemployment on the television.
Of course, it’s not as if some cynically devious governmental agency is pressuring the media to run these stories. I’m sure that to a certain extent the stories are printed because they appeal to the papers’ readership, and they appeal because they are true and true in a more than literal way. It’s not hard to imagine that there’s a deep seated tendency in human beings to feast when the harvest is bountiful and to fast when next year’s food supply is in doubt. Whether the “wiring” actually happens on a neuro-psychological level or on the level of cultural precedent and morés, it doesn’t really matter. It seems sensible that we’re programmed to eat a bit less faced with a bad harvest because a drought has dried up all the crops – and this programming might well carry through to muffle the demands of the reptile mind when we read that Citibank might be nationalized or the like.
But it’s not all that useful an impulse, when repeatedly captured and characterized according to the plotlines on display above. And further it’s one that is perversely synchronized with many of the most pernicious developments in the realms of politics and economics of the past few decades. After all, this isn’t the first time in recent memory that we have been hearing the word “austerity,” which until late was a codeword for the supposed structural necessity of the starvation of the state-sector under the shadow of global competition. Despite booming profits and tax returns, welfare benefits shrank or disappeared altogether, pension provisions were reduced, and most of all nationalized services and industries were privatized all under the warrant of a supposedly mandatory “austerity.” But moments like the present, in which we can see very clearly the way that mass culture is all too willing to adjust itself to the overarching narratives of capitalist creative destruction, expose the secret affinities between personal austerity and the starvation of the state sector under the direction of the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal apotheosis of the invisible hand of the market.
What it would be useful to do, if we were to invest ourselves in modestly ambitious counter-ideological projects, would be to attempt to turn the representation of these issues away from the endorsement of some sort of self-hating, self-lacerating fantasy of austere living (we should eat cabbage stew because we’ve been bad consumers!) toward a useful reevaluation of cultural priorities that might lead to a more useful long term result than a return to sensible decision-making in individual households, at the grocery store, and in the garden plot. If the citizenry feels nauseously hung-over from the mode and speed and pitch of life during the bubble and its aftermath, it would be better encouraged to contemplate better, wider answers to such a malaise than neo-Christian martyrdom by cut-price purchases and thinner dinner menus.
The point is to see capitalism for what it is, and its fruits and its faults for what they truly are. We should never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of accepting the meanness of austere living as a political end. As Henri Lefebvre wrote back in 1947 in his Critique of Everyday Life (p. 154),
Wealth is neither an evil nor a curse. Wealth, like power, is part of man’s greatness and of the beauty of life. The solution to man’s problems is to be found not by sharing out weakness, poverty and mediocrity – but by seeking power and wealth; they alone have permitted and conditioned everything magnificent and brilliant that has ever been done in culture, in civilization, in life [… T]he aim is not to combat wealth with a view to achieving a general mediocrity, an ‘equality’ of mediocrity. The aim is still wealth: wealth that has becomes progressively universalized, socialized wealth.
Capitalism is a dynamic generator of both goods for consumption and of the vicious maldistribution of those products. If the global left is to build a new, wider constituency for itself at this propitious moment, it had better do two things. First, it must explain the fact that immiseration and even austerity is an effect of capitalism and not the solution to it. And second, it must begin providing better solutions to the worldwide economic crisis – a crisis that isn’t new, that cyclically returns just as winter follows summer – than urban gardens and the deferral of the purchase of a new Volkswagen.
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