THAT ISN’T WHAT ‘AUSTERITY’ MEANS
by Richard Seymour
The issue is the claim that working-class consumers in the ‘global North’ may have less of certain commodities under ecosocialism than under capitalism. What is rational to produce and transport half way round the world under capitalism might not be so rational under ecosocialism. Bananas are actually a bad example. Their carbon footprint isn’t very big and could be reduced. Meat reared in the ruins of Brazilian rainforests, or palm oil produced in monoculture plantations in Indonesia, would be better examples.
By far the best answer to this debate is Arun Gupta’s Dissent column, which suggests that we can do better than choosing between more or less of the current run of poor-quality foods. It is a poor Prometheanism indeed that thinks socialism consists of offering workers more of what capitalism already delivers. It sidesteps the question of desire, to which all privation and abundance is relative.
But the suggestion that workers need have less of anything is profoundly triggering to a certain kind of socialist. And like Pavlov’s bell to a hungry dog, it has caused drooling utterance of the word ‘austerity’ on more than one occasion. The debate is coarsened by these boorish tics, which I think probably originated with Leigh Phillips of the Breakthrough Institute.
Austerity cannot be accurately summed up as a “politics of less,” especially where “less” means less of certain products like air travel or beef. It is not austerity if we collectively agree, in a democratically planned economy, that it would make sense to do with less of this or that product. To read austerity in that way is to give it a curiously depoliticized inflection, stripped of class analysis.
The purpose of austerity, crudely put, is to make workers pay for capitalist crisis, to insulate the system from democratic challenges produced by that crisis, and by these means to enable capital accumulation to resume on a more profitable basis. It is very much on the side of ‘growth’ in that sense. It is also counter-democratic. Austerity begins with the logic of emergency, usually occasioned by a public debt crisis, overriding normal democratic procedures.
It almost invariably entails the temporary closure of space for debate in the national media, the creation of special ‘independent’ apparatuses to oversee fiscal cuts, and the investment of special authority in unaccountable international financial institutions. As a ferociously moralizing discourse is directed at prior laxity in state spending, rights and entitlements, the only debate permitted is how to effectively free the state from these entanglements.
Does it need to be spelled out that restricting ‘growth’ in a democratically planned economy, even if that were misguided, even if it were based on some spurious reasoning, in no way resembles a capitalist austerity regime?
Why, then, does this ideologeme keep coming up?
Is it because of the innate difficulty in imagining a planned economy that isn’t directed by a reformed and expanded version of the current capitalist state, such that any such constraints would have to be ‘imposed’?
Is it because of the difficulty in envisioning a utopian desire that doesn’t simply augment and inflame the desires already elicited by the capitalist world-market?
Is it because of a doctrinaire interpretation of ‘what Marx says,’ in which socialism is tendentiously interpreted as the unleashing of capital’s already prodigious productive powers?
Is it because of a lurking suspicion that people just aren’t ready to give up their toys for some will-o-the-wisp degrowth socialism?
Whatever the reason, growthers no less than degrowthers are fixated on quantitative thinking, on the idea that everything hinges on the expansion or contraction of the net amount of product, as though the change we seek is not fundamentally a qualitative one. As though the point were to amass more ‘stuff,’ rather than to fundamentally improve the quality of life for everyone. And from that point of view, even a drastic improvement in the circumstances of the majority of workers’ lives could, through the camera obscura, look like ‘austerity’ if it also means ‘less’ of some things.
Richard Seymour’s most recent book is The Twittering Machine: How Capitalism Stole Our Social Life. This article was first published September 12 on his reader-supporter blog: he has kindly given C&C permission to repost it. (If you haven’t already subscribed to his excellent Patreon blog, check it out right away.)