Saturday, 28 August 2010

100 Days: The Politics of Shock and Awe


Mark Featherstone

I recently watched Winterbottom and Whitecross’s film adaptation of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine and was immediately put in mind of recent news media marking the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s first 100 days in office. Despite the inescapable conclusion that their first 100 days in office had been marked by anxiety over public sector cuts and the onset of the so-called age of austerity, the coalition was keen was tell us that the new government was not simply about cutting back for its own sake. Instead, we were told that the future would be bright if we could take our medicine. We were told that we needed to be aware that cuts were essential in preparing for a bright new future. However, at the same time it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the suggested cuts were too severe, too much too soon, and likely to cause a double-dip recession, with even the Business Secretary Vince Cable able to be no more precise than saying that the chances of the economy slipping into another recession were ‘below 50/50’.

We do not need to be economists to understand why we may face a double dip recession. The problem with applying savage cuts to the public sector in order to reduce the budget deficit resides in the nature of the British economy which has been organised on the basis of neo-liberal theory, consumerism, and credit since the 1980s. On the surface it may appear that the best way to reduce the national deficit is to cut public sector spending, and simply weather the negative consequences of mass unemployment and social instability in the name of balancing the books, but the problem is that taking this short-cut in the context of a socio-economic system marked by neo-liberal ideology, consumerism, and the demand for credit is only likely to result in socio-economic disaster. We know that cuts in public sector spending will inevitably lead to increased levels of unemployment, primarily because the public sector became so bloated under New Labour, and that these increases in unemployment will hit particular areas of the country harder than others. Related to unemployment caused by the shrinking of the public sector, levels of youth unemployment are likely to increase steeply because of the reduction of university funding and the lack of entry level positions in areas of the labour market that had previously provided employment for new entrants to the world of work.

Of course increased levels of unemployment are not in themselves signs of socio-economic catastrophe, even though they may spell disaster for individuals and communities, because societies can cope with massive levels of worklessness, if they are sufficiently prepared to weather the storm and manage outbreaks of civil unrest. We know this much from the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was prepared to destroy the lives of so many people and so many communities in the name of socio-economic modernisation. We also know that the Thatcher governments were able to manage these transformations on the basis of an aggressive approach to law and order and policing, an approach that became necessary to cope with the fall out of the destruction of the industrial working class, and the creation of a new middle class able to drive the country into a future of consumption and credit that was, of course, expanded by the New Labour revolution that made us all into middle class consumers.

Unfortunately, the recent economic crash and related recession signaled the end of the New Labour revolution. But now that the party is over we need a new socio-economic direction. My view is that the age of austerity and cuts cannot be it because it is entirely negative in its approach to social engineering and will only result in the further decline of the Thatcher-Blair model of capitalism. It is totally unclear what Cameron-Clegg have in mind to lead us into the bright new future. It is not enough to dismantle the Thatcher-Blair socio-economic model because public sector cuts will only result in unemployment, the threat of unemployment, increases in precariousness, anxiety, and the collapse of consumer confidence, the motor of the neo-liberal economy. As soon as consumer confidence collapses, as has been seen in the housing market, production fails, and economic growth slows further, resulting in more unemployment and so on.

Whereas Thatcher, who oversaw the transformation of Britain from an industrial to a post-industrial society and replaced the destroyed working class with a new expanded middle class, Cameron-Clegg seem to have no sense of the need to replace the middle class they are about to destroy in the name of balancing the books. They cannot fall back on industry, since Britain has long since outsourced its industrial production, but equally seem to have no sense of the impending socio-economic catastrophe they are about to cause, because they have made no particular noises about policing or law and order, but rather jettisoned the New Labour security state in favour in a small state and big society.

This feature of the coalition approach is particularly difficult to understand since to my mind mass unemployment and a society of people who had been brought up on the ideology of social climbing, but now must face up to the painful reality of downsizing with no sense of a future direction, is a recipe for unrest and potential social disaster. How, then, can we explain this lack of foresight on the part of the coalition? Much has been made of the socio-economic make-up of the new government, people from old money who have no sense of the reality of the majority of people who must make it in life through social mobility, but I’m not sure this is everything. We must add to this the problem of the lack of social and political imagination that characterises our age, and has done since Thatcher’s declaration that there is no alternative, and it may be that we are close to understanding why Cameron-Clegg have no sense of the need to construct a new future for the majority, seem to lack an understanding of why it might be important to mitigate against the consequences of not providing people with any sense of a future, and probably could not provide any sense of a future social direction even if they were in a position to do so.

However, I do think that we find the glimmer of a recognition of the need to think about a better future in the declaration that there is more to the coalition than cuts, and that it is in this glimmer of a recognition that I think we can detect the roots of the kind of apocalyptic thinking that Winterbottom, Whitecross, and Klein explain in the theory of the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism. The apocalypticism of this mode of thinking resides primarily in the view that a bright future awaits after painful transformation, but centrally in the fact that there is no real causal relationship between the painful transformation and the production of a new situation. That is to say that similar to religious thinking surrounding the apocalypse the coalition’s idea of social transformation involves pain, cuts, and destruction, with no real sense of how this pain will produce an improved future situation. Instead we are asked to take it on faith that pain and cuts will transform the future, but how, and in what ways? What will the future look like?

I think that these are the questions that we should ask of Cameron-Clegg. We should ask them to explain their social theory, and move beyond their apocalyptic theory of purgatorial pain, because my sense is that the only way we can explain the haste with which the coalition has implemented its cuts agenda is in terms of Klein’s theory of the shock doctrine, which traces the history of the view that the best way to impose radical social and economic transformation upon a population is through shock, disorientation, and trauma. Given that is it difficult to believe that at least some members of the government would not be aware of the potential socio-economic effects of rapid and savage cuts to the public sector, my sense is that the coalition’s objective has always been to push radical socio-economic change through social shock and disorientation. As Klein shows in her book, and Winterbottom and Whitecross’s film illustrates so well, social shock, disorientation, and a destroyed landscape clear the way for the implementation of new social and economic models and limits the prospect of political resistance. If this is indeed the case, I think our role should be to oppose shock with thought, resist the notion of the catastrophic economy, and the idea that there is no other way but pain and cuts, and ask the coalition to explain their theory of socio-economic transformation. What kind of society do they think will emerge from the age of austerity and how exactly will the period of purgatorial pain produce it?