George Osborne carries the Budget box, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan on why Austerity isn't working -- but no-one in the government is listening

There's nothing wrong with saying "I told you so".

Yesterday I returned to London from a family holiday in the United States - where a small stimulus has led to a growing economy and 25 consecutive months of job growth - to discover that the British economy has now re-entered recession, after shrinking a further 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2012. Or, as the Tory-supporting Sun put it on its front page today:

Official: Dip's a double

Don't say we didn't warn you. In fact, don't say I didn't warn you.

If any further evidence was needed that austerity isn't working, that cuts don't work, that George Osborne is a "kamikaze chancellor", this is it. Critics of the New Statesman's economics editor, David Blanchflower, must feel rather foolish right now. Once again, Blanchflower and the Keynesians are vindicated while Osborne and the Austerians are humiliated.

Surveying the empirical evidence from across the continent, Yahoo finance blogger Henry Blodget put it best:

IT'S OFFICIAL: Keynes Was Right

Blodget explained:

Now, this is not to say that the global debt-and-deficit situation is not a huge problem. It is. It is merely to say that, of the two painful ways to work our way out of the problem – "austerity now" or "stimulus now and cuts later" – the second one seems more effective.

In other words, based on the experience of the last five years, it seems that Keynes was right and the Austerians are wrong.

As I said, none of this should really come as a surprise to anyone as all of this was predictable - and predicted. As Paul Krugman has noted:

It’s important to understand that what we’re seeing isn’t a failure of orthodox economics. Standard economics in this case – that is, economics based on what the profession has learned these past three generations, and for that matter on most textbooks – was the Keynesian position. The austerity thing was just invented out of thin air and a few dubious historical examples to serve the prejudices of the elite.

And now the results are in: Keynesians have been completely right, Austerians utterly wrong – at vast human cost.

But the Austerians won't give up without a fight. They seem to have two tactics. The first is to blame the lack of growth on anything other than the cuts - be it the euro crisis, the weather, health-and-safety regulations, the family dog, etc, etc. Yesterday I tweeted this quote from City AM editor Allister Heath, from June 2010:

The years ahead will be very tough - but there will be no double-dip recession made in Downing Street.

Heath responded with this tweet:

Unfortunately, I underestimated this government's competence and commitment to supply-side reforms. They haven't delivered.

Good of him to say so. But "supply-side reforms"? Er, the UK economy, like the global economy, is suffering from an epic lack of demand. Households aren't spending, banks aren't lending, companies aren't investing. "Red tape" isn't what's behind the record rate of unemployment or the absence of growth and confidence. The main reason why the UK economy contracted in the first quarter of this year is because there was a 3 per cent decline in the construction sector - driven, of course, by the Chancellor's crazy decision to slash capital spending.  

Even Heath's fellow Austerian, the Telegraph's Jeremy Warner, grudgingly acknowledges this point today at the end of a desperate if heavily caveated defence of Osbornomics and "consolidation":

When companies won’t borrow to invest, there’s a strong case for governments to do so in their place. And yet when you look at where the axe is falling hardest, it is on government investment – spending on schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, affordable housing, and so on. This is the easiest thing to chop, so that’s where the coalition has acted first.

In fact, this form of state spending should be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. . .

Hear, hear!

The second tactic is to pretend that those of us who draw attention to the political and economic significance of this double-dip recession are somehow "enjoying" or taking "pleasure" from the catastrophic (lack of) growth figures. I've had lots of tweets from Tory trolls using this line of attack. This isn't just nonsensical and offensive but a brazen and desperate attempt to try and divert attention away from those damning figures, which deserve highlighting, and away from the Austerians in Westminster and Fleet Street, who deserve criticising.

We're also told by the cuts-defending Austerians that it is "irresponsible" to talk down the UK economy. But I, for one, won't take lessons in "responsibility" from those who happily, shamelessly and opportunistically talked down the economy when they were in opposition, going so far as to claim that the UK was on the verge of defaulting on its debts and making ludicrous comparisons between the British and Greek economies.

One of the presenters on ITV1's Daybreak programme tried this "You're far too pleased about the recession" tactic this morning, in an interview with Ed Balls. The shadow chancellor's response, however, was spot on:
 

Interviewer:  Well let’s talk about that then, talk about the recession, we are in a double dip recession, I guess you’re sitting there saying: ‘I told you so’?

Balls: Well I sat here on this sofa, one and two years ago and said if the government tries to cut spending and raise taxes too quickly, faster then other countries it will backfire. And the thing which makes me angry is that George Osborne and David Cameron were so personally just dismissive, they just said it was rubbish and now we are back in recession. Their plan has categorically failed, families and businesses are now really paying the price. That self-defeating austerity has put us through such pain and we need an alternative plan. We’ve got to get jobs and growth moving, they should’ve done this much earlier.


Showing anger at the coalition's arrogance, incompetence and failure to listen or respond is the right response to such questions. Now is the time for the Labour leadership to sit on the fence or split the difference or triangulate; now is the moment to channel the public's anger and discontent. It seems to be working for President Obama.

Remember: we are not all in this together. And the argument over the cuts isn't just about politics or economics; it's about real people's lives and livelihoods. Britons are suffering. According to new figures from the Trussell Trust charity, for example, the number of people visiting foodbanks for emergency food in the UK has doubled in the last year, to over 128,000 people.

So let's be clear: Ed Miliband is doing a fine job on phone-hacking, the Murdochs and Huntgate but these aren't the issues that will win him the next general election. The economy was, is and will continue to be the defining issue of this parliament - and, as yesterday's GDP figures conclusively demonstrate, the coalition government has made a mess of it. If the Labour leader is able to stand before voters in May 2015 and pull a Reagan, Cameron and Clegg will be in big trouble. And Osborne's much-hyped reputation as a master strategist will be buried for good.


 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times