Misunderstanding Austerity

No austerity and no cuts means no capitailsm
Does the Left misunderstand austerity’s origins?

There is a lot of talk about austerity, about having less austerity, more or even none. For those on the right this is a legitimate activity, but for those on the left who continually use the rhetoric of austerity, that they want less or even no austerity, they are making a serious category error, particularly because they do not question why we have austerity in the first place: capitalism. There are many on the left who only talk of less austerity, it must be assumed that they are not questioning the supreme place that neo-liberal capitalist economy holds in contemporary Western culture. For those on the left who want to see the end of austerity and do not question austerity’s origin in capitalism, it appears that they are misunderstanding austerity.

Capitalism Is The Ideology Not Austerity

A fundamental misunderstanding of austerity is in thinking that it is an ideology. It isn’t the ideology, it is capitalism, and in these times, neo-liberal capitalism that is the ideology. Those on the right and those who are economic libertarians, have capitalist economy as their own particular ideology and (specifically as it rarely affects them) they accept austerity as a positive within this economy that requires its downturns. Capitalist economy accords with their world view, a view that sees no value in the human being in anything other than monetary and as a piece of equipment for use in the workplace.

That certain sections of the left, if not most, collude in this ideology is unfortunate. It is also self-defeating. One aspect of austerity that leads to this misunderstanding is the way austerity is used by those on the right, as evidenced by the 2010-15 government and the current Conservative administration. Austerity is used as a tool by these administrations in order to effect a particular ideology, that of decimating the State’s provisions for its citizens. So, currently, every council in England are making massive cuts to its operational budgets leaving vital services for the disabled, sport and leisure, environment, education and many other unseen provisions, being cut or got rid of completely. Or being privatised which is death by a thousand cuts (pun intended). Nationally we are seeing this happen by the proposed £12billion cuts to welfare and the perilous situation the NHS finds itself in. Witnessing all of this the confused left have concluded that austerity is ideological instead of a tool of ideology. This misunderstanding is further compounded by its rhetorical use by all parties of the left, because in arguing for less austerity or even no austerity they fail to comprehend that they should be arguing for an end to neo-liberal capitalist economy if they want to end austerity. The Chancellor, George Osborne, knows this and is making hay with this knowledge. How? Because no one is seriously disagreeing with him on the need for austerity, only on the minutia, offering sticking plasters thinking this will revive a corpse.

Neo-Liberal Capitalism, Debt And Globalisation

At the time of the latest financial collapse in 2008 the combined debt of advanced capitalist economies went into trillions of dollars. As money is the foundation of all economies, and as debt is the machination used by fiscal economy to fund said economy, it is no surprise that the downturns in capital occur frequently. The severity of the 2008 crash has been exacerbated by three factors: 1. The criminality of the banking sector, particularly in the UK but also generally; 2. The neo-liberal version of capitalism that is in vogue today which requires lax control of the financial markets, a dismantling of government laws and services along with a bigger emphasis on debt as a tool to finance the activities of business and governments. The third, and most pernicious, of the factors that is integral to this latest crash of capital markets is globalisation which is a particularly neo-liberal phenomenon. But the phenomenon of globalisation, as William Greider presciently foretold in One World, Ready Or Not, published in 1997, would swing back at the main players (or those they govern) of globalisation, those who deal in the ‘abstract’ of trading in finance and resources. The logic of globalisation will inevitably lead to reduced living standards of all but the top-tier of society by discarding “old political commitments to social equity and reduce benefit systems for pensions, health care, income support and various forms of ameliorative aid.” (Page, 285) We are clearly in the midst of this scenario now.

Those in the higher echelons of society should feel no comfort by their seeming detachment from the problems the rest of society now faces. By accepting, if not participating in the laissez-faire nature of trading in capital, they have unwittingly set in train the demise of the traditional tools of trade: industrialisation and manufacturing. So there is a trade deficit between exports (the real value of a country’s GDP) and imports (which is usually paid for though debt). Added to this are the mass unemployment caused by jobs moving to cheaper locations and the rise of technology that takes jobs away from humans. As if this was not bad enough the next catastrophe, due to the increasing toll on the planet by burning fossil fuels and by an unsustainable acquisition of resources, is climate change leading to drought, a collapse of vital resources, mass population movements, and, ultimately, unending wars. This ‘perfect storm’ of events will ensure that the elite will become engulfed just like the rest of us, though maybe not as quickly.

The Left Failure To Tackle Capitalism As The Real Cause

The left understands all of this, they have many organisations that deal with each issue above independently. The problem is that taking any issue in society, political or cultural, individually usually means missing the bigger picture. Austerity, as the left have dealt with it, is a case in point. Yes the left would like to see no cuts to vital services, especially for the weak, poor and sick; yes they would like to see no austerity; yes to real employment with good employment rights; yes for the environment to be protected and for an investment in renewable energy technology. The one thing that causes austerity, that causes societal collapse of vital services, that causes environmental degradation, is the capitalist economy. And now, due to the economic orthodoxy of neo-liberalism, contemporary capitalism is refusing to invest in the new manufacturing of renewable energy which could help ameliorate the effects of climate change and unemployment. Capitalism is eating itself and us with it.

None of the left questions the establishment of capital economy, and yet they protest against the effects of this capitalism. Labour said before the 2015 election that they agree with the Tory’s economic plan and when it comes to austerity they would cut only slightly less than the coalition government. The Greens, while being more radical than Labour, do not question the legitimacy of the capitalist economy though they do question the growth principle that is so hard to shake from contemporary economics. Other left groups, like the TUSC and Left Unity, while being specific about having full public ownership of the major utilities, transport infrastructure and vital societal services, fail to mention capitalism and certainly fail to say outright that it is the capitalist economy which is causing all of the problems mentioned above.

Maybe it’s because the left fear how the populace would respond to such a stark message, that it would be electoral suicide. Yet, in Labour’s case, sitting on the same spectrum as the Conservatives, is also electoral suicide. The Tories know this and use it to their advantage knowing that Labour have already agreed with their economic policy. But worse than that is what this acquiescence to the capitalist economy and the subsequent misunderstanding of austerity will lead to. Globalisation is the end game of neo-liberal capitalism and, soon, irrespective of State boundaries, there will be no impediment to the flow of capital and people, all for the benefit of society’s top-tier and their wish to reduce civil society. Added to this is the spectre of the trade deal, TTIP, that will end a government’s right to govern over its own people because it is in complete hock to the Company. Private wealth kills social autonomy. This is the ideology of the right, it should not be an ideology that the left accepts. Can the left find the courage of its convictions to say no to capitalism and, thereby, say no to austerity authentically and with promise? To understand austerity and its fundamental role within capitalism, one has to question capitalism itself.


One World, Ready Or Not: The Manic Logic Of Global Capitalism, William Greider, Penguin Books, 1997

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Blockbuster Exhibitions: Bad for Art

Blockbuster Exhibitions ruin art
Blockbuster Exhibitions ruin art

At last its finally over. The latest blockbuster exhibition (containing the grand total of six paintings) at the National Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, has ended. It is with us no more, deceased, kaput, and I, for one, am glad. I am sure that my feelings over this event are not shared by the curators, the critics and many of those who went to see it (are they really ‘art lovers’ or ‘scene’ lovers?), people with a vested interest in these things, but I don’t care (or, I care negatively) because I felt the disruption to the National Gallery as a whole was too much. I spent a week in London in early January, went to the NG on a Wednesday and was lucky to get my small bag into the cloakroom, what with there being a large queue of dusty and shifty people snaking from outside the Sainsbury’s wing entrance to the ticket desk. OK, this is fine, I thought, I’ll soon be upstairs enjoying the delights of the Renaissance rooms. Except that not all of the rooms were open and not for the reason of maintaining the collection but because there weren’t enough room monitors available to secure every room. The staff who monitor the rooms have been in dispute with the gallery management because their numbers are to be cut leaving each monitor to keep watch over two rooms at a time. They naturally point out the problems this would cause, endangering the collection: they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, after all. Not being able to see the Florence and Netherlandish rooms was upsetting for me so I asked a monitor in another room about this. I was told that the Leonardo exhibition had taken resources away from the main collection. Thankfully I was staying until the Saturday and was able to go back to the NG late on the Friday when the gallery stays open later and has enough staff on hand so all the rooms were open. I could feast my eyes on Piero Della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ and Hans Memling’s The Donne Triptych. When an exhibition, by a master, I’ll admit – but who I don’t appreciate, I’m a Michelangelo fan – containing a pitiful amount of paintings, disrupts the overall running of the whole gallery, then something is not right.

The last blockbuster exhibition I went to at the National Gallery was the Velázquez event back in 2007/8, it was great, it was a show with many, many paintings and well worth it. But the space that they were shown in is just not right. The NG show these exhibitions in their basement galleries, they are small, dark and increasingly cramped rooms, and when with a crowd the viewing of paintings becomes ridiculous (for what its worth, what I did in that situation was to move to the later rooms in the exhibition and work backwards, that way I saw much of the art without having to shove aside some old person!). The National Gallery is not up to showing blockbuster exhibitions, that’s obvious, but are any places suitable or are such events just bad for art?

Tate Modern is based in an old industrial power generating building, it has large, bright rooms within which to showcase the modernist art of the early 20th Century, a great place for blockbuster exhibitions, surely? As it happens, no. Its perfectly suited to showing its themed gallery artworks based around Flux, Energy, and Poetry and Dreams, but any blockbuster exhibition, like the Gauguin one they did in early 2011, is mobbed out with the hoards making the viewing almost impossible. It was the same with this winter’s Gerhard Richter exhibition, though to a lesser extent; just too many people (like me, yes) crowding the place. We all know about the difficulties people had at the Gauguin exhibition, so with that in mind I proclaim that blockbuster exhibitions are not for art lovers but for the ‘cool people’, those out to show themselves as though they were the exhibition. Art is cool now and Damien Hirst is to blame, its because of him that everyone is interested in the old masters, because of him (and her, though I like her, she is, at least, authentic) that people want to be seen to be seeing traditional oil paintings. Again. End these blockbuster exhibitions, they’re bad for art.

What must our democracy look like to other people?

What must our democracy look like to other people? You know, the others who hold no responsibility for our democracy but yet are affected by our democracy, through wars and the parasitical invasion of their own land, and the emotional, financial and military support of despotic rulers for the control of the resources that belong to the people under such despotic rule – or for that most abused notion: ‘security’.

Strength, Power and the Mind

Panathenaic prize amphora showing three runners. Athens, 333-332 BC
Panathenaic prize amphora showing three runners. Athens, 333-332 BC

We know today’s analogy: Obsession with the body results in a small mind (and other things!). Based on this assumption it explains the phenomenon of “stupid sports people”. It is also a bastardisation of the original ideal at the origin of Western civilisation: healthy body and mind: the ancient Greeks believed passionately about this and many of their first philosophers were fit and active in body as well as in mind. But this process didn’t arrive at once, the faculties of the mind and body have to be nurtured and developed, body first, as that supports the brain, then, with sufficient physical development, the mind. Many of the ancient philosophers lived to old age, which, considering the times they were in and the equivalent state of technology they had, was a great testament to their ‘healthy body and mind’ lifestyles. Of course, the philosophy we know of theirs today was mostly recorded in their older years, and this is due to the natural progression of life, not by premeditation on their behalf.

Of course, not all sports people are stupid, that would be ridiculous, but is it the case that all politicians at the higher echelons of power are stupid? Let’s face it, the real reason for a state’s success or failure depends on the amount of power it has through its ‘physical’ attributes: this ability to ‘take things’ (or give things) is economic too. So it seems that the closer you get to this kind of power the more stupid you become – in a way similar to how difficult it is to think clearly while recovering from a vigorous bout of exercise, (well that’s my experience), today’s ‘leaders’ are increasingly showing this mental exhaustion as power approaches. I’m sure it’s always been the case in political (and business) circles – it was just easier to hide the delusion of competence back then.

Internet Eyes All Over The Place: We’re watching you

Fed up with all those CCTV devices around the place doing no good? Well the idea of this website is to make use of these unmanned rectangular boxes, useless at preventing crime, by streaming them live over the internet for bored and time-abundant narks to spy on shop fronts and businesses for crime. People have to register with the website hosting this ‘service’ and can earn back some cash for earning points for honest reporting of a crime. Oh dear, I can see many problems with this scheme, but two of them stem from a bored enui:

1. Wasting time: dishonest reporting and ignoring actual incidents, yeah you gain no points and will soon be barred from the service (if that’s the right word) but never underestimate the deviousness of the bored and indirect mind.
2. Cheating to earn points, and money: this would depend on location and the number of ‘alerts’ you are allowed but multiplied by x amount of people it could be an amusing problem, but, could it be possible to get some accomplices to go round to whatever your watching, masked-up and spray graffiti, they run away never to be seen again, except on some ‘comedy’ TV, and you ‘honestly’ report it and gain points and get to compete in a shoot-out for best nark and win money. Yea, I think so, and it would make TV fodder, to.

Finally though I’m left with the dystopian picture of a disenfranchised people autonomously clicking ALERT all day every day, alone in their box-like cells while all around them society disintegrates. Oh well, what’s the saying? “We’re all in this together”!

My Visions of Irma Vep

Maggie Cheung as Irma Vep

The other night I watched Irma Vep by French auteur Olivier Assayas starring Maggie Cheung. It is a film about the making of a film. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a director having a nervous breakdown while remaking a silent French classic Les Vampires, he wants Maggie Cheung to play Irma Vep (Vampire) and she stars in this film as herself.

This is the second time I have seen this film, having first watched it on original release in 1996, and I was interested to note it being described as a satire on ‘intellectual’ French film-making. I cannot recall that I knew that it was a satire when I originally saw it, but then I was a very serious film goer, I had given up mainstream films and was deeply into World Cinema and art-house films. It could be said that I was the intellectual navel-gazing snob that the interviewer in this film claims French cinema tried to attract.

When I got the opportunity to see this film again (on Sky Arts – surprisingly they show films as they are meant to be seen: without adverts) I was interested to see how I appreciated it now as to when I first saw it. Firstly I can see that it is a study of film-making, as I did originally, with most scenes set in the making of the film. Secondly I can see the satire in it that I missed the first time: the critique of the film-making process in France. But, thirdly, the way it is shot, which is very good, I now understand was the element of the film that prevented me from seeing it as a satire first time around: the fluid movements, the narrative structure which is like an essay on film-making, but in the end it is a film taking itself seriously about a film satirising films taking themselves seriously. Seriously! No wonder my young self couldn’t see the satire.

Finally though is Maggie Cheung: my vision of her remains faithful to her original incarnation back in 1996: beautiful, graceful and sublime. It is her presence in the film that questions who or what is really being satirised? She is a vision for the old and discredited auteur Rene Vidal, he sees her in a martial arts movie and wants her for his film on that basis alone: no need to audition, there is no script, he sees in her a natural Irma Vep.

He was right, Cheung is perfectly cast as a cat burglar in a cat suit, no need for words, movements and the pure image suffice. But he breaks down and is replaced by a new director who seems only to care that Irma Vep is played by a Chinese star and not a French star, the affront of it! Ultimately, for me, it is cynicism that is being satirised, the cynical who mock intelligent aspirations, and their cousins the stick-in-the-muds who only respect tradition and reject the visionaries.