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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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman