The voices of austerity

A new project aims to give a voice to the people harmed by austerity. Mary O'Hara introduces it.

It is a question for our time and yet it’s one for which answers are depressingly elusive: how do we shift the national dialogue away from the deeply divisive and counterproductive "skivers versus strivers" debate and towards more constructive ground?

At an event hosted recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) attended by pollsters, PRs, journalists and anti-poverty experts where this question was posed many of those present – on the left, right and inbetween –mooted that conventional approaches to framing the poverty debate are simply not going to cut it in the current, austerity-fuelled hostile climate. People argued that challenging negative attitudes around poverty is not going to come about by laying out basic facts (no matter how strong these might be) such as how small a proportion of the total welfare budget is attributable to fraud (less than 1 per cent). Doing so is not going to change the minds of people convinced the system is being fleeced by hordes of claimants. And, some argued, don’t expect misery-laden stories in the press or on television of people’s struggles in the face of policies such as the Bedroom Tax to generate much sympathy either – no one is coming to the pity party.

Since October 2012 I’ve been travelling all over the UK interviewing people at the sharp end of austerity policies in all kinds of communities spanning suburbia, urban centres and villages. Commissioned by JRF, it’s been a kind of "social history as it unfolds" project tracking how people are coping with the implementation of austerity – though many of the people interviewed have been living in poverty or on or close to the breadline for much longer than this government has been around. One thing that is abundantly clear from the interviews (in excess of 100 were conducted in 18 locations across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England) is that people do not want sympathy or pity any more than they want ridicule.

The people I spoke to, whether they had just lost their job, were long term unemployed, disabled or at risk of becoming homeless, simply wanted to be treated with a semblance of dignity. Those interviewed were generally insulted and angered by the demonisation of poorer people in the press and by the pervasive and cruel rhetoric from politicians and pundits alike because it in no way reflected their reality – yet not one suggested that pity or sympathy was an acceptable alternative to public scorn.

In interview after interview people talked of their troubles and of how being in poverty or living in its shadow wore them down and of the hardship austerity has wrought – and is expected to continue to inflict as policy after policy comes to fruition. They talked of how benefits sanctions and fitness for work assessments were driving many to the verge of mental breakdown, of the humiliation of having to go to food banks in order to feed their children and of the "zero hour" contracts which mean that even when in work there is no guarantee of earning enough to subsist on.

I sat with a man of 47 in Luton – a single parent – as he cried in desperation at not being able to adequately provide for his daughters. I spoke with a young carer in Rhondda who has a learning disability as she told me of looking after her ill parents and how worried she was about possible cuts to the local transport services that helped them get around. I also sat with homeless teenagers in New Haven, East Sussex, desperate for work that isn’t there, with pensioners in Hull frightened by the prospect of loneliness and isolation if their local council pulls the rug from under them on funding that helps them meet weekly to socialise, and with scores of community workers and volunteers struggling to support individuals and communities in the midst of soaring demand for help and advice.

When I began the project I expected to encounter such stories, especially as people’s fears and anxieties escalated in the face of austerity policies such as the Bedroom Tax being coming into force and as it became clear that the jobs situation and wider economy weren’t going to dramatically improve any time soon. However what I also found – and what is rarely reported alongside the stories of so-called shirkers or indeed the tales of penury and despair – was an extraordinary resilience among individuals who were enduring desperate circumstances. I found remarkable efforts by grassroots organisations (themselves experiencing unprecedented strains on resources), volunteers – and even entire communities – to not completely buckle under the pressure. I found also the kind of constructive anger and frustration that can be seen channelled in the Bedroom Tax demonstrations and in the protests by disabled people challenging cuts that will rob them of essential entitlements – the kind of entitlements that mean fellow citizens can live with dignity.

Most of all though I found people keen not just to air their concerns but to have a say in how their situations might be made better – people indeed with some ideas for what would improve their lives. For a start, they said, jobs that pay a living wage and an end to savage and discredited austerity policies. The people I interviewed wanted recognition that the overwhelming majority of those who live with being (as one community worker in Luton puts it) “consigned to skintness”, are anything but skivers and deserve to have their voices heard. As one woman in Birmingham wondered as an interview was coming to a close: “Who is going to listen to what we have told you? Who will hear what we have been saying?”

You can listen to, watch, and read about the people who contributed to this project on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website. It might not be much in the face of relentless media portrayals of people who are struggling as little more than leaches on society by many on the Right, or objects of pity by some on the Left – but it’s a start.

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Is love necessary? Laurie Penny in conversation with Moira Weigel

The author of radical Marxist feminist text Labor of Love on emotional labour, finding freedom in relationships, and love's connection to work.

Laurie Penny: So Moira, your book, Labor of Love, is a radical Marxist feminist tract disguised as a salmon-pink self-help book, and it’s doing incredibly well. Nice work. You must be knackered.

Moira Weigel:  I’ve been overwhelmed by the response – surprised, frankly, and also grateful and encouraged that there is this kind of appetite for history and theory. It affirms my sense that the world is more ready for radical Marxist feminism than it might have thought. As an academic and writer, I am used to spending much of my time alone – it’s electrifying to be able to have conversations with other humans about this topic I obsessed about for so long. But it's also tiring: these past few weeks I have written and talked so much that I have decided I need to get a dog as soon as this book tour is over. I just want to stare into the eyes of a wordless creature for a while, and I may be too insecure to love a cat.

LP: I endorse this attitude. If I want to live with something that will judge me all day, interrupt my deadlines and expect me to work for its affection, I’ll get a boyfriend.

So anyway, I love your book, but I’ll start with my one real nitpick. As a British reader, I found Labor of Love to be an extremely American text  more specifically, a New York text. This makes sense as so many of the world’s ideas about romance are leached from American culture, but I’ve always felt New York to be a particular arcane circle of dating hell whose rules and customs are quite opaque even to those of us who’ve seen Sex and The City. This is a general complaint, rather than a complaint about your book, but New York forgets that it isn't the whole world, which is a problem when the entire American literary world lives there. In Britain, you know, we don’t really even date. We do a little bit now, because of the internet, but it’s still largely a formalised version of “get hammered, get laid, and see if you have anything in common in the morning”.

MW: Yes, I hear this! I tried, in the book, to talk about other cities in America, but I did not get to talk about other countries - though I’ve written about Chinese dating elsewhere. I think that dating was invented in America because it is basically an expression of a particular form of consumer capitalist logic applied to love – and America invented that logic, and New York maybe its capital. Its rise also has a lot to do with mass immigration and the working class immigrant cultures in American cities, historically speaking.

LP: New York is the zenith of a particularly mercenary love culture that I found, and continue to find, utterly terrifying. Intimacy is negotiated with the formality of a merger. But at the same time New York lives in the global imagination as one of the most romantic places on earth. Which, in the classical sense, it is.

Anyway, question two. Your book deals brilliantly with the way that the burden of planning romance, marriage and fertility falls to women, and the real emotional and practical labour involved in that. The discourse of emotional labour is suddenly everywhere in contemporary feminist writing. Why do you think that is?

MW: Emotional labour does seem to be trending, doesn’t it? I have noticed that more and more folks seem to be using that term, specifically – “emotional labour,” coined by the brilliant feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild, instead of the Hardt/Negri terms “affective” or “immaterial labour,” which describe related phenomena and seemed to come up more often in left academic discourse until recently.

I have two interrelated ideas about why this might be. Firstly, I believe that there is a growing interest in emotional labour now because the permeation of every corner of our lives by the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, not to mention contemporary forms of economic precarity, mean that it's less and less clear what work is and is not  what production is and consumption and reproduction are. And in an age where we have to brand ourselves constantly for mobility, flexibility, etc, I think many people in developed countries are just doing MORE of it. 

Maybe it's that the kinds of folks who write and edit think pieces are finally having to do it, feeling exhausted. It seems to me that automation and globalisation were evjsceraring the American working class all through the 1970s and 1980s and the newspapers weren't that angry but now that the AIs are coming for the parallegals, financial analysts and journalists, we are seeing all these books and articles taking notice. 

Maybe it's like that: Flight attendants and call center debt collectors, the subjects of Hochschild’s book first exploring this phenomenon, The Managed Heart, were dealing with this shit when she was doing her fieldwork in the early Eighties. But now that media folks and tech folks are having to win over everyone on Twitter, they're realizing that service with a smile is a grind.

Secondly, I think there's been a resurgence of socialist feminism since around the time of Occupy, thanks to the Internet and new social movements. It seems to me that more and more young people are discovering the tradition that talked about the unwaged labour of women and its centrality to the economy despite being neglected by both classical liberal and Marxist economics. I'm thinking of Silvia Federici, Mariarosa dalla Costa and the Italian autonomist feminists, of course, as well as great American feminists like Angela Davis and bell hooks. Thanks to little magazines like N plus One and the New Inquiry, that intellectual recovery is disseminating those ideas to a very broad audience. And they're receptive because it's true. I sometimes joke that every woman is a socialist feminist whether she realizes it or not. And that's rad. If I have l one ambition for this book, it's to stealth-radicalise mums who had no idea they had the joy of so much just rage in them.

LP: That expansion of work theory is the great taboo the idea that labour itself extends beyond what is measured by the wage relation. Romantic love can be work, and so can domestic work, childcare, all of it – and the fact that we call so much of it "love" makes the that work invisible. There’s a resurgence of anti-work theory on the left, but even so, it’s amazing how many leftist men get incredibly uncomfortable when you start to apply ideas of labour and exploitation to gender relations. Particularly if it requires them to take a look at their own relationships.

Relatedly, I’ve noticed that a lot of the articles and discussions around your book specifically mention the fact that you’re married, and happily so. That must be frustrating. A lot of big political books that are coming out by women right now follow a certain trajectory which weaves in the ‘happy ever after’ ending – even Kate Bolock’s recent book Spinster, which is supposed to be all about the power of singleness. On the other hand, since your books is partly personal and all about love, it would have felt dishonest not to mention it. Do you think that the focus would have been different if you were a man?

MW: I do often feel pressure to talk about my own relationship. Not that I mind talking about it, exactly. It’s just… I would hope that my having spent years researching and writing on the subject seems like a more interesting qualification to talk about dating than my happening to be a partnered person. I don't think that would happen to a man nearly as much.

Nobody has asked me about the section of my afterword that deals with intense and loving female friendship. In fact, one or two reviewers have criticised the book by saying that it has a “marriage plot” – because it happened that I fell in love with the person I'm now married to while I was working on it, and there are a few – four, I just counted – sentences on the final page where I mention that. Immediately before those sentences there's a longer paragraph where I talk about the deep love and gratitude I feel for my dear friend Mal Ahern. Labor of Love grew directly out of several essays she and I collaborated on together and was deeply shaped by our relationship. The book is dedicated to both of them.

I do believe disagreement among feminist writers is healthy, and I'm eager to have many folks come into conversation with this book, so I hope I don't sound petulant. Still, it felt a little discouraging to see other women write Mal out.

LP: It’s almost as if we’ve internalised the idea that platonic friendship can’t ever be as important as romantic partnership. In terms of your own marriage, though, you shouldn’t have to apologise for being happy! Everyone deserves what you have, if that’s what they want, but the fact is the odds are against everyone getting it. One of the things that romantic orthodoxy prevents us from talking about honestly is that there just aren't enough men out there who both see women as real human beings and  are actively committed to being in equal partnerships with one of them. We’re supposed to fight for the relationship model at all costs, or die alone. We're encouraged to see those who don’t have a partner as somehow abject, instead of working on other models of human and particularly female fulfilment.

MW: A point I’m very keen to make is that I think the emphasis placed on monogamous romantic relationships in our culture is destructive to happiness – even the happiness of the people in such partnerships. The tremendous emphasis placed on having "A Relationship" with a capital R -- and "Defining the Relationship" – sometimes seems to lead people to devalue all other kinds of intimate connection, and lovers to treat one another worse than necessary. I like to think that all human interactions put us into relations with one another. And all relationships end – even if they last until death. That does not make them “a waste."

The cultural script that says that life, particularly female life, is still defined by a search for "The One" encourages us to devalue relationships that are crucial to our thriving – friendships and other forms of intimate connection. You see this in romantic movies and all kinds of pop culture representations – where, for example, your friends are a focus group you can dissolve once you have a mate. I'm encouraged that shows like Girls and Broad City and Orange Is The New Black  whatever their flaws  or Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan novels show a growing appetite for alternative narrative configurations. Where the end point is not always, only monogamous coupledom.

LP: In my last book, and in the one I’m working on now, I’ve felt pressure to provide that sort of story when talking about the labour of love – to offer a trajectory that tells readers that actually, the world of heterosexuality is still fraught and frustrating, but it’s still possible to find liveable partnership. In the end, the Love chapter of Unspeakable Things came out of two painful breakups, and was informed by a growing sense that alternative narratives to the standard fairytale had to be permissible. There was a lot of outrage in there that the women I knew seemed to be suffering so much in and out of relationships  and that got a huge response. In the years since, there have been more and more feminist writers opening up about the fact that, you know, maybe it’s okay to be skeptical about monogamous partnership and the bourgeois family, and that’s a brilliant thing in my view - that’s why your book is so important, and so radical. That skepticism has been missing from public feminism for so long, as the focus has been drawn back to helping middle-class white women achieve "work-life balance"  essentially ceding the ground to a politics that sees endless emotional and domestic labour as women’s lot, forever.

MW: On the other hand, if we go down the road of believing that capitalism is so fundamentally and profoundly corrupting that there is no way to have a relationship within it… I don't know that I believe that. I want to believe sexual desire and love offer lines of flight. Sometimes I have even felt embarrassed by my optimism, my faith that ultimately our sexualities and our desires are a source of tremendous freedom. I believe it is more than fine not to be an optimist about love – if by that we mean finding one partner to settle down with forever and have babies with. But if someone wants to give up on the enormous power that each of us gets at birth, free of charge by being desiring beings drawn to each other in infinite ways, I think I’d try to convince her not to.

LP: Agreed. I try to set my own cynicism against the fact that I want to fall in love again and again. I just don’t want to get married, or settle down. I want to fall in love with friends, partners, housemates, strangers. At the moment I’m getting to live a version of that dream, as I’ve been polyamorous for years and live in a functioning collective. Part of me always suspected, in my early twenties, that this was a phase I was going through, that eventually I’d settle down and couple up, because that was what it meant to be an adult  but as I approach my thirties I’ve come to realise that no, this is what I’m committed to, and it’s going to be a long-term thing for me. I’m very interested in the notion of "casual love" – love and intimacy that gets to be as free and easy as casual sex, without necessarily obviating commitment... Romance, unlike human labour, is an infinitely renewable resource.

MW: That's interesting. It's the one actual infinite resource. Unlike nature, unlike women's labour which we treat that way.

LP: They say we’re an important natural resource. You know what they do to natural resources these days? All of this is, on a fundamental level, about social reproduction. We have to remember that the work that is done within love and family scenarios, mainly by women, is work that has real, measurable value, work without which capitalism could not continue to exist. And the historical marginalisation of women has been about managing and ensuring the unstinting supply of that work, for free, for a long time. Changing the labour of love will involve changing those conditions – and it will take a lot of imaginative work.

MW: Yes, and work best done among more than two people – among friends and communities as well as individual lovers. Transforming those conditions requires expanding the idea of love beyond the narrow couple form,where it's a prize you get for following The Rules successfully. Not to be too reductive, but the ways that the labour of love has manifested have often been shitty – but they don't have to be. I am ultimately an optimist.

LP: On that note, the world needs to know, by which I mean I want to know, about this puppy you’re going to get.

MW: I am so glad you asked, because this is a matter about which I would like to seek some self-help. The puppy is a source of conflict for me and within my relationship. I won’t name names but one of us thinks it’s basically unconscionable to do anything other than adopt a dog. The other accepts the self-evident truth of that claim, but feels a deep and passionate attraction to purebred French bulldogs. The heart wants what it wants. If anyone in the world would like to give up a French bulldog for adoption please get in touch @moiragweigel.

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