The terrain of austerity

Rebecca Bramall is the Guest Editor of New Formations 87: Austerity

Across the park, at the southern end of the road where I live in south-east London, Barratt Developments PLC are building 588 flats on the site of the old Catford greyhound track. One hundred and thirteen homes on the site are available for an ‘affordable rent’ (that is, 80 per cent of market rent), and the value of the remainder is also indexed to soaring house prices across London. In the year to April 2016 house prices in Lewisham rose 19.9 per cent, faster than anywhere else in the capital. As Aditya Chakrabortty recently argued, the consequence of this overheated market is that London is increasingly a city of renters: the Tory dream of extending property ownership to all has crashed and burned.

At the north end, a street art injunction to ‘Live Well/Love Well’ adorns new hoarding, put up to hide a derelict plot of land filled with burnt debris. Two people, asleep in disused garages, died in the fire last summer. An offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands owns the site.

To the west, a Carnegie library, opened in 1905, has operated for the last five years as a ‘community library’, run by a social enterprise. Lewisham council is currently seeking ‘partner organisations’ to deliver ‘community library services’ in another four libraries.

And to the east? As I write, junior doctors are holding a bake sale on the picket line outside Lewisham hospital, under a gazebo festooned with Lewisham’s homegrown answer to the ‘pin-up of our age’: ‘Don’t Keep Calm/Get Angry’.

In every direction – because this is population-dense Lewisham – there is a primary school that has in the last couple of years increased its capacity, turning buildings designed for one or two form entry into much bigger schools. In those schools, teachers and parents await the impact of Educational Excellence Everywhere, the government’s white paper on academization.

This is the terrain of austerity: a housing catastrophe fuelled by property speculation by overseas and offshore investors, the imposition of new contracts and the deregulation of pay and conditions for workers in the public sector, the privatization of the NHS and of education, and the harnessing of new realms of the social for profit. These are phenomena that are observable throughout London and England, but we see them and feel them most acutely at a local level – in Lewisham, Newham, Middlesbrough, and Hastings. Forms of localism are central to austerity’s structure of feeling, not least because two fifths of spending cuts to government departments have been left to borough councils to implement and defend.

Austerity has been implemented at a local level, and it has also been contested there. Familiarity with other struggles nearby has enabled doctors, librarians, and children’s centre workers to reference and articulate each others’ campaigns. But these articulations are often tentative and short-lived. It’s difficult to connect disparate campaigns that are required to address different authorities and state actors, and have distinct opportunities to challenge decision-making.

Increasingly, the policy tools that are being used to implement ‘austerity’ don’t have much to do with cutting spending. It’s almost impossible to make the case that the forced academization of schools will save money, even if the idea of a bloated and wasteful state is lurking somewhere in the background. What unifies these policy tools are the impulses of privatization, deregulation, and marketization. Allan Cochrane points out that ‘austerity can be translated into practice in many forms’, and those many forms are invariably neoliberal in character.

The argument that permanent austerity has superseded the ‘necessary evil’ of spending cuts raises the question as to whether it continues to offer a meaningful and effective conception against which radical democratic politics can organise. What alternative ways of conceptualizing resistance to neoliberalism might lie beyond austerity? How can distinct locations in the terrain of austerity be connected and articulated – the offshore property investment with the plan for a seven-day NHS, the price of a two-bed flat in Catford Green with ‘community’-provided services? One answer to this challenge comes in the form of an emergent imaginary that seeks to track public/private flows of capital. Chakrabortty’s recent and brilliant analysis of Boots, in which he illuminates the devices through which public money is transferred to the public sector, offers one example of such an approach.

The frame of austerity also seems to place too narrow a time span on the policies and ideology that we need to contest. The temporalities of failed privatization mean that the disasters wrought by PFI can take a decade to emerge, engineered as structural defects into the walls of Edinburgh schools. The housing crisis is not born of recent policy decisions alone, but of the decades-long privatization of council housing stock. Tom Hunter’s photograph of a young woman reading an eviction letter – which appears on the front cover of New Formations 87 – could easily pass for a victim of the bedroom tax. It was actually taken in the late nineties in the wake of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which introduced new laws to suppress squatting. These ghosts from earlier moments remind us of the longer histories of neoliberalism and of the transformation of the social contract between citizen and state.

Yet the concept of austerity does seem to capture the strong sense of loss that the ‘rolling back’ of the state generates. These losses are multiple and overlapping, and take many forms, but they invariably relate to the diminishing role of the state and the public sector in people’s everyday lives. In this sense, austerity can be understood as a moment in which these losses exert considerable pull on people’s social and economic imaginaries, while at the same time they significantly reconfigure their expectations for the future.

New Formations 87 explores some of the ways in which austerity can be construed as capturing, shaping, and (dis)organizing the future. It addresses the futures that austerity has begun to assign to certain subjects and to embed in the societies they live in. It attends to the promises for the future that have unravelled in the austerity conjuncture, and the new modes of expectation that have been offered and embraced in their place. These are the prospects that are brought into being on the terrain of austerity.