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Laurie Penny: The Chancellor’s an economic sadist – and we love it

There's something about punishment and hierarchy that holds a guilty appeal for the British public.

This is going to hurt. Perverts and politicians love a bit of dirty talk and for months the coalition government has been intimating exactly what it is going to do to us, oiling us up with simple, seductive moral offensives on the poor and vulnerable in anticipation of the economic violence to come.

This past week it was university funding; before that, it was child benefit. Now, Chancellor George Osborne's cuts have been revealed in all their glory and no government department has been saved from the coalition horsewhip.

Unsure where the first blow would fall, the country seemed to freeze into some kind of rigid inertia, refusing to acknowledge the totality of our barelyelected leaders' assault on social democracy, on the postwar Attlee settlement, on welfare and health care and everything that once made life on this rainy island bearable. The proper term for this approach is not "economic masochism", in the shadow chancellor's phrasing, but fiscal sadism.

Power games

Only politicians and perverts truly understand sadism. Amateurs think that sadism, fiscal or otherwise, is about hurting people. They are mistaken. Sadism is not about pain. It is about power. It is about the power to inflict pain at random, for no reason, with the most cartoonish and fetishistic of implements, just because you can.

Sadism is about having the power to decide when and if and how much to hurt people, because that kind of control makes you feel important, because that's how you get off.

This is precisely the sort of power play we are dealing with, on both a national and a global scale, as the oligarchies of the world react to the public humiliation of the recession with whiplash efficiency. The phenomenon of fiscal sadism is not unique to this government, although the wet-towel-whipping changing rooms of exclusive private schools do perhaps foster a specific fetish for kinky brutality.

The fiscal sadism of these cuts is part of an international war on social democracy whose agenda is mutating into a terrifying form of kamikaze capitalism. However this government wishes to dress up its decisions, whether in the language of economic pretext or a little rubber dress, there is still no pressing reason for these cuts to be made at such colossal speed, in so calculatedly regressive a fashion, besides the ugly Conservative conviction that poverty is a moral failing.

There are patently more efficient ways to make savings than slashing the heart out of the welfare state. For example, the money saved from George Osborne's crackdowns on benefit fraud could be recouped simply by persuading one man -- the government's efficiency tsar, Philip Green, to pay his taxes like the rest of us. This is not about saving money. This is about control. They plan to hurt us because they want to show us that they can.

The truly awful thing, though, is that we like it. There's a guilty appeal to the easy narrative of punishment and hierarchy, especially if it seems -- whisper it -- that only people worse off than us will really be taking the full whack of the Chancellor's changing-room economics. The French, who, as amply demonstrated this month, don't quite have our fetish for grumbling political obeisance, describe bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM)
as "the British perversion"; perhaps there is something in our national character that delights in ritualised deference, especially if it stings a bit.

Make it hurt

It can be grotesquely reassuring to know that someone else is taking charge, even if they're doing so cruelly. Just as sadism is about power, masochism is about the pleasurable surrender of power.

The right-wing press has squealed in gleeful horror every time a new cut was announced, their only real objections being to the relatively minor excisions from the defence budget. Unfortunately, nobody has yet questioned whether there will be anything left worth defending when the Tories have finished slashing the state into submission.

I have many dear friends who enjoy a little private torment, but the proper place for savage power play is not the theatre of politics. Those in power have co-opted us into a dangerous game of kamikaze capitalism and if we want to continue to live in a country with pretensions to freedom, tolerance and justice, we have to risk rearing up against our chains and ruining the game. We have to risk a bolder refusal to submit to this sick assault on social democracy.

We need to throw their filthy talk back in their faces, before it's too late.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder