By Tapani Lausti
Richard Seymour, Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made. Pluto Press 2014.
Modern industrial societies are fantastically wealthy. Yet we are constantly told that we must not live beyond our means. Wealthy looking experts visiting television studios explain solemnly that there isn’t enough money to finance the simplest human needs. Even people with meagrer resources are much of the time convinced that this is true. However, the recent occupy movements have thrown into public debate the question whether what has been seen as common sense is actually propaganda serving the monied classes.
To get one’s head around the the claims of the corporate media one has to turn to critical literature. One recent guide is this book by Richard Seymour. He explains that as the current economic and financial upheaval is shaking the world, the social system faces “a crisis of authority, of the dominant political and cultural institutions, of the forms of consent and coercion.” (pp. 4-5) Seymour describes austerity as “an attempt to shift the material foundations of society in a fashion which partially addresses the causes of crisis, but which does so on terms compatible with the interests of ‘the traditional ruling class’. (p. 6)
The recent popular understanding of the true nature of capitalism has not created a revolutionary upsurge, nor has the new deep crisis of the system brought it near collapse. This is a paradox which Seymour spends much time analysing. He emphasises the need to think long term. The disappointments which often follow temporary victories sometimes lead to despair or make-believe radicalism. Capitalism cannot be defeated in one mass attack and austerity policies cannot be stopped in one go. Instead, as Seymour puts it, “it is eminently feasible to stop the worst of it, and in doing so to build up the forms of organisation, the political nous, the ideological strategies and the theoretical resources to start turning the tide over a longer duration.”
Seymour thinks that what is needed is a process of socialist reconstruction: “The Left’s efforts need to be geared toward reconstituting at the micro-level the forms of social organisation, mutual solidarity and collectivism that can be resilient against the tidal wave of neoliberal experience.” (p. 152)
Seymour analyses what he sees as the weaknesses of the Occupy movements, such as the lack of ideological and political cohesion. However, he notes that the Occupy movement was a learning process which had a radicalising effect. It brought at least momentary life into the space which had been vacated by failed Left strategies like social democratic movements with connections to bureaucratic trade union connections.
As part of his long term strategy Seymour writes about ‘new unionism’ that could be constructed through a fusion of Social Movement Unionism and Community Unionism. This is how he sees it: “Rather than starting building branches in a multitude of small dispersed workplaces, where the bargaining power of workers is relatively weak, one can start to reconstitute a trade union presence and political identity by setting up shop in town centres and communities, offering people free assistance and the opportunity to be members of a union that they might otherwise never be in contact with.” (p. 174)
Seymour discusses at length the ins and outs of austerity policies. He goes through all the arguments about whether austerity enhances growth or stunts it. Most evidence points to the latter conclusion. In the end behind austerity lies a class strategy designed to secure the power of the ruling class. Its social goals are set to weaken opposition to capitalism. Neoliberal intellectuals must help to create “a common sense – a set of ideas and dispositions that are gradually sedimented into everyday life and conversation, and which are taken for granted.” (p. 132)
This propaganda has been quite successful. The ruling class values are widely seen to be universal. Especially in England the elite has managed to convince a lot of people that there are “non-deserving” people, i.e. scroungers who live voluntarily on benefits and don’t contribute to society’s well-being. Seymour writes; “Somehow the Right has successfully transformed a crisis of capitalism, triggered in this case by the activities of the richest, into a crisis of state overspending caused by the fiduciary incompetence and stupidity of the poorest.” (p. 113)
However, pockets of resistance keep appearing in various countries with varying grievances but there is one uniting observation: something is seriously wrong in our societies. Seymour’s contribution to alternative thinking is welcome.