Austerity is Over by Nina Power

In advance of Phil Collins’ Ceremony, MIF has asked several leading British writers for a personal take on Friedrich Engels and his legacy. Today, Nina Power asks what Engels’ assessment of 19th-century workers can tell us about austerity in 21st-century Britain.

The condition of the working-class is the condition of the vast majority of the English people. The question: What is to become of those destitute millions, who consume today what they earned yesterday; who have created the greatness of England by their inventions and their toil; who become with every passing day more conscious of their might, and demand, with daily increasing urgency, their share of the advantages of society?

Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845

Austerity is both a lie and the truth of life in contemporary Britain. It cannot possibly be sustained, and yet it is the sole reality presented by the immoral few to the badly treated many. When things are unfair between equals there is negotiation, mutual blame-sharing, compromise, coming together. On the other hand, when injustice is so extreme, it becomes bewildering, too shocking to comprehend. If you raise the price of something by a small amount, everyone notices. If you make things that were formerly free – education, natural resources, culture – unaffordable, out-of-bounds, it starts to look like a conspiracy. Austerity cannot hold and it cannot work, because it is premised on the idea that the more you take from those who have nothing, the more you can boss them around and get them to work for peanuts, even when they are too ill or hungry to do so. But when people remember once again that they are not just equal with their oppressors and exploiters, but better, because they are not oppressors and exploiters, revolt begins to begin.

After the economic crash of 2007/8, and the destruction of the public sector and public sector jobs, the UK ‘recovery’ was predicated on the construction of extremely low-paid and under-paid jobs, many of which were zero-hours contracts. The UK demonstrated that it is possible to have economic growth alongside wage contraction. This means a shift towards lower-paid jobs with low productivity, which results in economic growth, but at the expense of workers’ wages. The work is worse, the pay is worse, but the economy, anthropomorphized over and above the actual people who partake in it, is ‘happy’. All hail the blessed growth-sun! The Tories who presided over this living shame pretend they know better than everyone else: but this arrogance has been pricked by the recent shock election result. Hang your heads in shame! Those who acted superior have been revealed to be exactly the kind of worthless individuals who should never have been in charge of anything. Now more than ever, people know exactly what it means to be human, to be compassionate, to know they have the power, not just in the shape of numbers, but by dint of a sense of decency – the kind that would never be asking kids to go without food, or for sick people to work when they kind, or for disabled people to suffer so that a couple of quid can be saved.

A moral reversal is taking place – the old media empire, the scaremongering, anti-immigrant, anti-other press that deals in low- and high-level fear, has lost its footing. Young people born in the 1990s and 2000s don’t read these papers, and if you tell them they should be ‘afraid’ of Britain returning to the 1970s, they say it sounds great, what’s the problem? Indebted, badly-paid with zero hope of getting a house or having any kind of future that contains within it any sort of positive horizon, why would young people vote for the executioners of hope, the very people who had it easy telling them they just need to work hard and they too will succeed? Except they’re not even being told that any longer, more just keep your head down, get a rubbish job if you can, stop complaining. So what if it’s a rich country? You’re still poor!

When the lives of people are cut short by state violence – by ‘social murder’, as Engels put it, whether it’s at the hands of the police, or at the hard end of economic savings that lead to the deaths of many because of cheap, flammable cladding – it is clear that some lives do not count as much as others. Whatever justice people can eke out of the state is paltry, insulting, if it ever comes at all. You have to try, but you cannot get justice from the state, because the state itself is unjust. It does not count all lives equally. It does not share wealth. It does not offer equal opportunities for rich and poor, because it does not try to eliminate the difference between rich and poor – in fact, it thrives on this very difference, exacerbating it at every turn.

How do the rich think of death, of the dead? Do they understand that in death all will be equal, and that even they themselves cannot escape it, no matter how much money they stockpile and how much power they wield in the land of the living? Can they conceive of the grief and anger felt by those who survive state and economic violence, only to face indifference and further pain? Austerity is violence, and it makes clear that some people’s lives are expendable. Whether you are working or not working, your life and your time is not your own, because all the means of supporting yourself and others have been stolen in grand historical acts of theft on so large a scale that we can barely see them – nick something piddling like a bottle of water, though, as someone did in the riots, and you’ll get six months. As Brecht could have said, what is the robbing of a bottle of water compared to the full-scale privatisation of natural resources that should belong to everyone?

What are the ‘values’ of austerity? Hurting poor people in order to pretend to ‘fix’ the economy. Getting rid of all public and social aspects of life, from free education, to libraries, to land, to housing. Making everyone feel depressed and stupid for not wanting to be selfish. Forcing people to compete for scarce resources. Pretending those resources are scarce in the first place when there is more than enough to go round, if only a few bastards hadn’t grabbed it all for themselves. But the rich are looking weaker and weaker, their suspect ‘values’ more and more opposed to those of the vast majority. Most people do not want to sacrifice the happiness and prosperity of the many in order to make life extra-nice for the few. There is an anger predicated on compassion and different values that threatens to engulf the ruling class. It cannot go on. Austerity is a scam and a racket, and the people who forced it down everyone’s throats are gangsters pretending to be our superiors. They won’t last because they can’t. Engels was right. There will be a war, or rather, the war that has been being waged for centuries will once again become manifest:

… the deep wrath of the whole working-class, from Glasgow to London, against the rich, by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate, a wrath which before too long a time goes by, a time almost within the power of man to predict, must break out into a revolution in comparison with which the French Revolution, and the year 1794, will prove to have been child's play.

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009). This piece is part of a short series of personal blog entries commissioned by MIF to mark Phil Collins’ Ceremony, which closes MIF17 on Sunday 16 July 2017.

MIF17: Engels' Legacy