. Austerity in the UK: The Ideology of ‘Public Opinion’ | Ceasefire Magazine

Austerity in the UK: The Ideology of ‘Public Opinion’ Ideas

Richard Seymour, author of the recently released 'Against Austerity', examines the ideological and political mechanisms through which a politics of austerity can gain the consent not just of the elites but of the majority of the public.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 12:59 - 4 Comments


Richard Seymour - Ceasefire Magazine - Extract

One of the themes explored in my new book, Against Austerity has been the question of how and why a politics of austerity obtains the consent of both the elites and the general population. This interest is justified. The attitude of elites is not a matter of indifference for the Left. Finding ways to exploit their shortcomings, inconsistencies and divisions, is crucial. However, the consent of ‘the general public’ is a far greater problem. It is of considerable significance for this discussion that the ‘emergency budget’ welcomed by businesses and bankers was also broadly supported by the majority of the public. Moreover, with some important exceptions, significant elements of the austerity agenda gained a degree of popular support overallIt is necessary to qualify this with two obvious points:

1) It doesn’t have to be popular. In the era of ‘There Is No Alternative’, policies with little public support can be, and are, successfully implemented, often with little friction. Consider New Labour’s wildly unpopular PFI schemes which, barring some very low-key trade union opposition and the odd localised campaign, were easily imposed. This is partially because the majority of those who would be in opposition have been excluded from effective political activity, and partially because governments are adept at directing subtle material incentives in order to help ease the passage of difficult measures. A refinement of the same point would be: it doesn’t have to be supported by a majority. A significant and sufficient popular base can be composed of a minority of the public, provided others acquiesce. Thatcherism, for example, never won the support of the majority of voters. And indeed, the experience of Thatcherism in government drove opinions to the left. But for the majority of Thatcher’s reign, she commanded a significant bulwark of popular support that was more cohesive and wielded more social power than did the opponents of Thatcherism.

2) There is no such thing as public opinion. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once wrote that public opinion is an ‘artifact, pure and simple, the function of which is to dissemble that the state of opinion at any given moment is a system of forces and tensions and that nothing is more inadequate for representing the state of opinion than a percentage’. Polls can offer snapshots of a certain balance of opinions at a given moment, or they can detect long-term trends, but nothing in the sleek simplicity of the numbers should be interpreted as ‘public opinion’. Polls cannot well reflect the fact that opinions are complex, ambivalent and layered, nor that large numbers of people simply don’t know what to think, having not thought about an issue, or being too cautious to be definite. One of the reasons why people give ‘thick’ answers to polling questions is that they feel pressured in the interview situation to give a quick answer to something they haven’t thought about recently. Polls also have trouble reflecting the fact that not all opinions are equal, or formed in the same way. Some are formed with little conviction or experience, some with a lot. Some are purely indicative of how effective an advertising campaign has been, others reflect life-long labour. Some opinions will shape individual and collective behaviour far more than others. And some people are better placed to act on their opinions than others. The term ‘public opinion’ tends to iron out these complexities.

With that said, if the polls can be taken as at least broadly indicative, what they show ought to give anyone on the Left pause. Certainly, there is questioning of the extent of the cuts and the fairness of their implementation. But quite often the cuts that are most popular are those which target the weakest – the recipients of unemployment, disability and housing benefits, for example. In the context of a crisis in which more people are dependent on the welfare state, popular support for it has weakened.

Underlying this is a long process of change in popular ideologies, which was partially registered in the 27th British Social Attitudes Survey (2009). It found that in 2009 public opinion was almost as right-wing as it was in 1979, stating in its summary of findings: ‘The public now appear less supportive of “big government” than at any time since the late 1970s.’ This is consistent with a series of polls indicating declining support for the welfare state and public spending.

The change since 1987, according to Ipsos-Mori’s results, is staggering: Whereas in the late 1980s between 50 and 60 per cent of people supported raising welfare spending, even if it increased taxes, the figure in the late 2000s fell well below 30 per cent, with as many as 40 per cent opposed. This coincided with another change, as more people are likely to see themselves as being on a medium rather than low income. The change was particularly marked among young people. In general, the positive view of the welfare state, as ‘one of Britain’s proudest achievements’ that predominates among older people is far less evident among the young. They are less likely to support the government bearing responsibility for the care of the elderly, and are among the most likely (apart from the pre-Second World War generation) to say that less generous benefits would force people ‘to stand on their own two feet’. If anything, the credit crunch and recession seem to have accelerated the reversal, driving people further to the right.

This was linked to another set of beliefs, also picked up by the British Social Attitudes Survey. While the majority of people were inclined to think the distribution of income unfair, and have tacitly redistributive attitudes, they increasingly entertained ‘meritocratic’ attitudes to success. That is, they more and more believed that hard work, ambition and a good education were the key to achievement. And they were much less inclined to think that other factors, such as race or economic background, were important. Meritocracy is, in general, a right-wing idea. A modern form of social Darwinism, it nonetheless seems vaguely synonymous with ‘fairness’ and ‘classlessness’, and gained wider acceptance when championed by New Labour as such. The acceptance of meritocratic ideas doesn’t automatically benefit the Right on every issue. The importance of education for meritocracy is one reason why soaring tuition fees were so unpopular. Likewise, extreme wealth inequality is also distrusted by those who believe success ought to derive from hard work, which means that there is a basis for some redistributive politics – the 50p higher income tax rate introduced by Gordon Brown’s government was very popular. But it is easy to see how, in the context of a meritocratic ideology that places all the emphasis on individual effort, the plight of the weak and poor (‘shiftless’, ‘feckless’, ‘layabouts’) would generate less sympathy.

Writing in The Guardian, John Harris wrote movingly about this state of affairs, bemoaning particularly the self-defeating attitude of working class kids who blame themselves for a failure of the system:

I met a 27-year-old man who had just managed to re-enter the world of work, though the only thing he could find was a temporary contract delivering sofas. Around us were shelves peppered with self-help books; the people in charge assured me that even if work seemed thin on the ground, the people they supervised could always look for ‘hidden jobs’. So I wondered: did he think that the fact he was unemployed was his fault?

His reply was just this side of heartbreaking. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I do. I think I should have applied for more. I should have picked myself up in the morning, got out, come to a place like this – tried more. When you’re feeling down, you start blaming the world for your mistakes – you feel the world owes you. And it doesn’t. You owe the world: you have to motivate yourself, and get out there, and try.’

There it was again: the up-by-the-bootstraps Conservatism of Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher, largely unchallenged during the New Labour years, and now built into millions of young lives as a simple matter of fact. Oh, Generation Y. Why?

In fairness, and as Harris acknowledged, this is far from the only discernible trend in opinion. Support for the NHS seemed to increase significantly among all age groups, and there were far more progressive views on sexuality and gender, as well as those issues known by the euphemism ‘integration’, among younger people.

And nor has popular support for austerity been uncomplicated. While it is widely accepted that there is a need for significant cuts in spending, the scale and speed of these was contested early on. Moreover, many of the measures included in George Osborne’s first austerity budget were populist feints such as a small windfall tax on banks, designed to give the impression that the government was cracking down on the parasites and helping the poor, despite the overall impact of the budget being the reverse. This sweetened the deal for many people who were resigned to the bitter pill of cutbacks. Other measures, such as increasing the rate of VAT, were unpopular. There is also a distinction to be made between those who reluctantly and without malice accept the need for austerity, those who accept it because they accept the scapegoating of ‘scroungers’, and those who avidly cheerlead it, agitate for it, and help demonise its victims. Nonetheless, the fact remains: overall, a government with weak democratic legitimacy managed to begin its term by introducing a programme of deep cuts that no one had voted for, and gained the support of a majority of people in doing so.

What explains this trend against welfarism? Why are younger people in particular, including many of the people who actually need welfare the most, turning against it?

Here, I think it would be useful to return to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. In the sense deployed here, hegemony refers to a particular mode of rule. In normal conditions, the ruling class of a society cannot simply rule by diktat. It must show moral and intellectual leadership. It must seem to rule, in a sense, for ‘the whole’ (‘the national interest’) rather than just its own particularist interests. Part of this involves exerting decisive strategy control over the main apparatuses in which ideology is produced – universities, church, media, think-tanks, parliament, and so on. But it also requires individuals, its ‘organic intellectuals’, who are able to explain, justify and offer direction to class domination. They must explain why the interests and perspectives of the dominant classes are universal. It must 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.

Yet, to stress again, people can’t simply be manipulated into having opinions which have nothing to say to them. A dominant ideology, for it to be effective, must incorporate some of the interests and perspectives of the dominated. It must provide answers that resonate with their own ambitions and experiences. It must somehow assemble broad coalitions of people with quite distinct, and sometimes antagonistic, identities and interests. This is obviously a constant process of negotiation and construction. Hegemony is never a finished state, but always one that is being aimed at. Thus, a political project can be deemed hegemonic in aspiration if it attempts to produce a new common sense as the basis for a new type of political rule, and hegemonic in practice to the extent that it has at least partial success in doing so.

This is not to reduce hegemony to consent. As Nicos Poulantzas put it:

Physical violence and consent do not exist side by side like two calculable homogeneous magnitudes, related in such a way that more consent corresponds to less violence. Violence-terror always occupies a determining place – and not merely because it remains in reserve, coming into the open only in critical situations. State-monopolized physical violence permanently underlies the techniques of power and mechanisms of consent: it is inscribed in the web of disciplinary and ideological devices: and even when it is not directly exercised it shapes the materiality of the social body upon which domination is brought to bear.

This is quite a significant insight. There is a tendency on the Left to think that when the system turns violent, that is a sign of weakness, of the fragility of its forms of consent. It may sometimes be. In Chapter 2 of Against Austerity, however, I identified the central role of political violence in securing the neoliberal social order. And here we see that it isn’t simply a matter of repressing the malcontents, banging up rioters, punishing the homeless and vagrant. It is about securing consent by changing the calculus of social behaviour. It is about creating and policing the social categories through which consent is constructed in the first instance.

Take an example. The British police, like no other police force, has embraced the tactic of ‘kettling’, in which police surround protesters and keep them confined in a small place, only allowing them out in small numbers after a period of hours. It works in three ways. First, it is managed violence: it creates mobile frontiers where a confrontation with angry crowds can happen within a predictable range of circumstances, with police able to concentrate their forces at certain points when necessary and according to the geographical terrain already incorporated into the kettling plan. Second, it is biopower: it acts on the fact that people have biological needs and tendencies, that they need to excrete, that they become cold and tired, that they have caloric requirements which, unsatisfied, leave them physically weak and vulnerable. This is part of their deterrent against future participation in demonstrations. Third, it is ideology. The very act of ‘kettling’ people communicates to observers that they are dangerous criminals, if not bestiary. If something is illegal, or treated as such, this is automatically a reason for people to suspect it is wrong. It also creates the scenario, the conflict, through which this point can be ‘proved’. Notwithstanding the problems it has had in the courts, this has been one of the most effective means of shutting down protest movements that are threatening to gain momentum.

In this tactic, coercion and consent, violence and ideology, are combined. The ‘rule of law’ is the dominant form of the dominant ideology, the main area in which consent is organised; and it is precisely through violence that it is materialised. Thus, it isn’t that the state turns to violence when consent has been exhausted, but rather that it must reorganise and re-deploy violence in the constitution of social categories (race, culture, nationality, citizenship, criminality, subversion, entitlement, rights, etc.) to found consent on a new basis. It is, therefore, a mistake to see violence as ‘making up for’ a lack of consent, as a factor merely held ‘in reserve’ for when consent erodes.

What we are living through today is, in part, the fruits of a long-term attempt to transform the popular ‘common sense’ which initially went by the name of Thatcherism. Thatcherism was a particularly British mediation of a neoliberal transformative project that had global reach and ambition. The transformations wrought cannot be reduced to neoliberalism but, instead, articulate many distinctive and heterogeneous elements drawn from embedded English traditions to its neoliberal core.

The ultimate success of Thatcherism in changing the popular ‘common sense’ cannot be reduced to ideology. In order to win, the Thatcherites had to exploit a grave crisis in the post-war institutions, a crisis of governability, and propose a set of solutions that were amenable to the interests of capital. They had to politically defeat their opponents – not just the militant Left, and not just the Labour Party, but also the old Tory establishment and sectors of the state bureaucracy. They had to win influence and power in apparatuses, from think-tanks and the popular press to business and parliament. They had to use political violence against strikers, rioters and protesters. And they had to deploy a set of material incentives, restructuring the calculus of loss and reward so as to make it harder to pursue collectivist solutions to social problems.

Nonetheless, it is worth briefly anatomising the specifically ideological and cultural moments in the Thatcherite project. It is often assumed that at its core is the assertion of moral individualism against collectivism, from which flows the language of Thatcherite ‘liberty’ and all of the chains of meaning that follow. However, I think Philip Mirowski is closer to the truth when he insists that the capitalist enterprise, not the bourgeois individual, is the model of behaviour that neoliberalism extols. When Mrs Thatcher said ‘there is no such thing as society’, only individuals and families, it was precisely the idea of the individual or the family as a unit of production, as an enterprise like a small corner shop, that she enjoined people to embrace. In this sense, the rationally self-interested, self-maximising individual is nothing more than a unit of capital. And the competitive struggle between enterprises is what alone guarantees that the good will thrive and the bad fall – monopolistic behaviour such as trade union action, and state intervention for the spurious purposes of defending an incalculable and obscure ‘common good’, only tend to pervert this evolutionary process and keep losers afloat.

From this perspective, one can begin to understand other aspects of the Thatcherite diagnosis of the crisis of Britain in the 1970s, and the remedies they began to implement in the 1980s. For example, Mrs Thatcher took power amid a recession, with a superficially plausible explanation for it and a set of policies designed to overcome it. Britain was uncompetitive and unproductive, she said. Strikes and militancy were chasing away investment, and overpricing labour. She offered the example of the car industry – demand for vehicles was not falling, but increasingly the demand was for imports rather than British-made products. It had failed because decades of corporatism had failed. The state’s insistence on picking winners had produced a series of lame-duck projects. The unions had failed the workers, by encouraging them to strike, raising the price of their labour power, and by enforcing over-manning, making production inefficient and costly.

The simple solution was to let the discipline of the market do its work; let bad companies fail, and good companies thrive; let the industrious and innovative prosper. In saying this, Mrs Thatcher operated on existing ‘common sense’ values, above all the relationship between hard work and just deserts. She also exploited what she knew to be a reality in the trade union movement, which was that most strikes were losing their militant edge and solidarity actions were on the decline. Thus, it was easier to say convincingly that striking workers were merely harming other workers.

In this way, Mrs Thatcher acted on a crisis, both of capitalism and of the Left and labour movements, exploiting the opportunity to pose difficult questions. You want welfare? We all want that, but the money has to come from hard-working taxpayers at a time when finances are tight. You want public services? By all means, but they are badly run and overly costly because of union power, and this will undermine them in the long run – if we are to save them we need to make them more cost-efficient, and this means exposing them to the whip of the market as well. You want to save jobs? The state can only promote failure and drive up inflation. And so on.

As important as the discourse, however, were the techniques of neoliberal governmentality. By changing the balance of risks and rewards; making it more difficult to pursue collective solutions to social problems; defeating the Left and trade unions; offering material incentives to pursue entrepreneurial solutions (buy your home and treat it as an asset; borrow money to gamble on various prospects; dabble in shares); and changing the molecular experience of everyday life with the commodification of more areas of experience – by all these means the administration began the task of subtly altering how people evaluated the social choices before them. Over time, the competitive, entrepreneurial spirit entered popular culture, manifested for instance in property porn and a wide range of programming based on social sadism.

However, Mrs Thatcher herself could only ever win over a minority to her view. Crucially, the greatest successes of Thatcherism in shaping popular ideology only became clear after Mrs Thatcher’s time in office, and owe a great deal to New Labour’s acquiescence. Had Mrs Thatcher not succeeded in defeating the sources of militancy in society, and in eroding the material bases for trade unionism, the emergence of New Labour would have been unlikely. And what New Labour represented was a form of politics known more generally on the continent as ‘social liberalism’. In this mix, two strands are combined: a dominant neoliberal politics, and a subordinate social democracy. The latter is continually being assimilated to the former through a process Gramsci described as ‘transformism’ – the absorption of elements of popular-radical goals and ideologies into the strategy and language of the power bloc, the neutralisation of their oppositional content, and their rearticulation as part of a pro-capitalist politics.

What the Labour Party chooses to articulate is crucial, as it is the main author and defender of the welfare state, while its constituents are the major beneficiaries and supporters of welfare. In so far as the Labour Party adopts neoliberalism, it must seek to win support for these ideas by communicating them in a language acceptable to the working class. Thus, New Labour did not merely grudgingly accept the involvement of private capital in the public sector; it avidly sought to build capital, and market-like structures, and pricing for services, into the fabric of the public sector. It did not simply acquiesce in demonising welfare recipients. It started by cutting benefits for single mothers not to woo the Murdoch press, but as part of a consistent outlook that saw the benefit as one that fostered dependency. It was under a Labour government that state advertising campaigns escalated the ideological war against welfare recipients, highlighting fraud. It was New Labour that popularised the concept of the ‘underclass’ as a feral, anti-social lot that needed extra policing – curfews and ASBOs concretised this category and gave it a cutting edge. It was Tony Blair who won plaudits for his ‘feminist’ stance in trying to ‘empower’ women by coercing them to join the labour market. It was a New Labour government that first embraced the idea of ‘workfare’ in the UK, on the assumption that, far from accessing their rights, claimants of welfare were becoming dependent on freebies they should be forced to earn.

Seymour T02680 (1)All of this it did in a language linked to traditional Labour aspirations of growth, employment and expanded public services. The end result was that ‘public opinion’ shifted markedly to the right – including, most importantly, among supporters of the Labour Party itself.

This is an edited extract from Richard Seymour’s latest book, Against Austerity: How we Can Fix the Crisis they Made, published by Pluto Press in March 2014.

Against Austerity: How we Can Fix the Crisis they Made
Richard Seymour
Extent: 208pp
Release Date: 19 Mar 2014
Format: Paperback

Richard Seymour

Richard Seymour is the author of Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012), American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism (2012), The Meaning of David Cameron (2010) and The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008). His writes regularly for the Guardian and runs the popular blog Lenin’s Tomb.


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Apr 23, 2014 7:54

“Thatcher was a particularly British mediation ….”, and three lines below “….drawn from embedded English traditions ….”. Could you just unpack the British/English distinction there? Or is this a lazy England = Britain inflationary slip?

Apr 23, 2014 7:58

That’s “conflationary” not “inflationary”, sorry … spellchecker issues.

Apr 23, 2014 8:01

That should be `conflationary`, not “inflationary”. Thank you spellchecker!

Apr 23, 2014 11:23

Great piece, thanks. Though I wonder if the (concentrated) ownership of media, and the ability of varied agencies of the press to reiterate the same messages consistently, thereby generating a hazy ‘common sense’ on certain issues and setting the boundaries of debate, is perhaps more persuasive than the content of these messages themselves.

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