The response to austerity can't be on the terms which led us into it

The only effective response must be to repudiate the debt, writes Molly Scott Cato

It is disappointing that the response from the Left in Britain to the politics of austerity has been so limp. The brilliant coup from the interests of capital to paint the economic crisis as a crisis of government debt and public spending—and therefore the basis for an attack on the ideology of the left—has seen little in the way of aggressive intellectual response.

The simple explanation for this is that the left is divided. The line taken by the socialist and labour left has largely been one of denial. This is not a high level of debt, they argue. By historical standards, we have survived much higher levels of debt. Why, after the last war we faced debts on a far greater scale and yet that is when we established the health service.

I think this is a mistaken approach to the politics of austerity. For one thing, it will not wash. Citizens have a sense of there having been a vast amount of cash floating around during the Labour years. They also know that consumption, individual and national, was based on untrammelled credit. This is their sense of how life was, and they are not wrong.

Secondly, the parallel between our economy now and in the 1950s does not hold up to scrutiny. At that time we were an imperial nation and the workshop of the world, if a somewhat scruffy one making rather unfashionable products. We could use our empire as a vast ‘internal’ market, sucking in resources and finding compliant customers for our products. We could repay our debts through hard, productive labour—and we did. Now what do we have to offer the world as justification for the debts we have incurred? Our favourite offering of financial services is finding considerably less favour than five years ago.

But most importantly we should reject this line of argument because it is morally wrong. We should not have to live through the 1950s again, working hard to return interest to those who loaned us money. Back then it was US and Canadian capitalists who, through lend-lease, had ensured that the value created by British workers would flow back to them. We would not have won the war without US productive capacity, but we would not have lost the peace as spectacularly as we did had they not insisted that we continue to pay for it right up to 2006, just two years before the credit crisis.

Rather than arguing about how we should pay it back we should be repudiating the debt.

This is what has been happening in other European countries, where Citizens’ Audit have been established, inspired by the examples of the Latin American countries who refused to pay their debts during the last decade. Why should we pay back money loaned to us by financial institutions who have the power to create money by electronic fiat, they asked. And we should be asking the same question. By the time we had paid our wartime debts—the debts we incurred for defeating Hitler and protecting European democracy—we had paid our ‘allies’ the US and Canada, or rather US and Canadian capitalists and financiers, twice what we had borrowed. This iniquitous use of the power of money to extract value should be the real target of the left.

Earlier this week Portugal’s citizens’ audit campaign published a preliminary technical report: ‘Understand the debt to get out of the trap’; the Spanish campaign is called ‘Who owes whom?’ and is part of the work of the indignados. The Irish citizens audit, supported by UNITE as well as debt campaign groups, challenged circular nature of Irish debt-holding, with the government guaranteeing banks which, in turn, hold its debt. It found that Irish debt had been transformed from a safe and boring investment to a vehicle of speculative interest. Its authors used Kissinger’s term of “constructive ambiguity” to describe the deliberate use of recondite language to undermine the citizen’s power to understand the actions of their politicians.

The real purpose of a citizens’ audit is precisely to challenge this “constructive ambiguity”. Most people never question whether it is right that they should pay interest to a bank for the privilege of buying their home, although they will pay around twice the cost of the house by the term of the mortgage. Whether this is just depends on how the bank acquired the money and in these days when the corrupt dealings of banks are becoming revealed in more egregious detail every day, an audit into how our debt was acquired, who owns it, and who will receive the money that we are paying in return for our borrowings is urgently overdue.

Photograph: Getty Images

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war