Sharing the pain?

Why the coalition's cuts agenda draws on a masochistic streak in English culture.

"Keep Calm and Carry On." The appeal of this particular piece of credit crunch kitsch may now be on the wane, as protestors take to the streets, but since the first announcement of the coalition's austerity programme, we have been repeatedly subject to a similar kind of official rhetoric.

The exhortation that we "share the pain" of the cuts, recognising that "we are all in this together" has promoted a strange kind of collective masochism. That tells us a great deal about the assumptions which inform the coalition's agenda and that of the constituencies whose interests it represents.

A powerful strain of English sentiment assumes that pain is the only thing that can really be shared. It holds that just as the only real joys in life are private, personal, domestic and commodifiable, the only thing that society is good for is shielding us against the threat posed by other people. This is an ideology whose lineage goes back at least to the work of the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who pioneered the now widely-held assumption that the natural inclination of human beings was to kill and steal from each other, and that the only role of the state was to minimise the violence with which they did so.

This way of looking at the world informs both the joyless puritanism of Victorian culture and the manic narcissism of contemporary consumerism. What they all exclude from our range of possible experiences is any notion of collective joy, of human togetherness as a site of creativity and mutual empowerment. From the perspective of this tradition, all sharing is a little bit painful, and pain is the only thing that can really be shared.

Another 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, tells us that pain always involves a diminution of our capacity to act, a reduction in power which is at once physical and emotional, just as pleasure and joy always involve an extension of our collective or individual capacities. This illuminates the current situation perfectly. What are we being asked to share in, if not a significant reduction in our collective capacity to act?

The coalition enjoins us to embrace impotence in the face of a historic assault on the remaining institutions of British social democracy. It asks us to accept the inevitability of a world in which Philip Green doesn't pay his taxes and half a million public sector workers lose their jobs. Much of the rhetoric of the Big Society is similarly concerned with reconciling us to the loss of public goods, at our own expense (as satirised brilliantly here).

At the same time, the government's proposed "happiness" index, like most of the happiness industry (from self-help literature to cognitive behavioural therapy) will doubtless assume that to be happy is to be safe at home with a few friends and a nice glass of wine in the evening. The idea that joy and fulfilment might depend on a collective, public and open-ended capacity to collaborate with others is deliberately overlooked.

It's this, perhaps, that is the most insidious dimension of the proposed "reforms" of universities which we are fighting this week. For these reforms seek to individualise and commodify the relationships which make up the process of higher education; despite the fact that education is a process which in truth can only ever be joyful as long as it is creative and can only be creative as long as it is collaborative.

Here at the University of East London, many of us have decided not to keep calm or carry on. Despite our vice-chancellor's welcome and articulate opposition to the government's cuts, the university has begun to roll out a programme of (so far voluntary) redundancies without any consultation with staff unions. At the same time, voided elections to the students' union - declared illegitimate last Spring - have still not been re-run, leaving students without any elected representation.

In response to the local and national crisis, occupying students have called an Emergency General Assembly for Wednesday 8 December. On the same day the Centre for Cultural Studies Research is holding a public seminar on "the politics of pain" with presentations from Kate Pickett, Michael Rustin and myself.

UEL is arguably a test case for the next wave of anti-democratic managerialism across the public sector. What's more, with one of the least wealthy and least white student populations in Europe, it's one of relatively few Higher Education institutions in Britain which even vaguely resembles the rest of the country in its social mix. What happens to the protest movement here will be crucial.

Everyday life and culture - from the busy streets to Glastonbury festival, from the dancefloor to the seminar room, from Facebook to the Women's Institute - is full of instances of collective invention and self-organisation. The new anti-capitalist politics which is re-emerging in the university occupations and on our high streets has many sources to draw on for inspiration and enrichment.

But if we want to find social and institutional models which can express the radical potential of all these phenomena, then it will not be enough, even in the universities, simply to defend the status quo, clinging to the faded relics of 20th century social democracy. Rather, we will have to initiate a new wave of institutional experiments which aim to de-commodify knowledge in new ways and enable new forms of democratic collaboration between students and teachers, and in the governance of the institutions themselves.

Jeremy Gilbert is a reader in cultural studies at the University of East London. A recording of the "Politics of Pain" seminar and a longer version of this paper will be posted soon at http://culturalstudiesresearch.org/

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.