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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.