Friday, 22 October 2010

Of "austerity hypocrites" and strawmen

Writing for the First Post, Brendan O'Neill has branded "liberal, left-wing and green-leaning commentators" who oppose the measures in the Comprehensive Spending Review as "hypocrites." This smacks of a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the real issue. At best, it is callous idiocy.

O'Neill makes his case thus;
So don't be fooled by their crocodile tears today - they laid the cultural foundation stones for this age of hardship.

These austerity hypocrites have short memories. This week, the Guardian's George Monbiot wrote an angry piece about the Tory-led cuts agenda, claiming that it will help the rich and hurt the rest.

"When we stagger out of our shelters to assess the damage, we'll discover that we have emerged into a different world, run for their benefit, not ours", he said.

This is the same Monbiot who wrote a piece in 2007 titled 'Bring on the recession'.

"I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises", he said, because only a recession could give us "the time we need to prevent runaway climate change".

A recession would hurt poor people, he acknowledged - but that was a price worth paying to halt out-of-control economic growth.

Inspired by Monbiot, in 2008 some deep greens kick-started a campaign called Riot 4 Austerity - which says it all.

Their reactionary demand, dolled up in radical garb, was for a 90 per cent cut in carbon emissions - a move which would have a far more devastating impact on people's daily lives than any of the slashes Osborne has come up with.
This is just one example of how, apparently, "the cultural zeitgeist today says that wealth is bad, frugality is good; abundance is destructive, austerity is eco-friendly; wanting stuff warps us, giving things up is pure." Thus  these "liberal prejudices, propagated by the well-off" are as responsible for the current situation as Osborne.

Firstly, I must point out that I am neither a liberal, nor a member of any "intelligentsia." I am certainly not "well-off." Nor are many of the others worried about the cuts, such as those who blog at Where's the Benefit.

We're ordinary people, and we're worried by and opposed to the austerity measures of the present government. Go figure. Some of the worried are even disproportionately affected by the measures as disabled people, women, or single parents. How weird is that?

Being kind to O'Neill, we might assume that he's not referring to us, but only to the media commentators, the Labour party opposition, and/or various champagne socialists. I don't - I think he's an insincere arse looking for a stick to beat everyone who opposes the cuts with - but others may. Even on that basis, he's arguing on the basis of a cheap, over-flogged strawman.

I don't doubt that Monbiot said what he did. There are two strains of the green movement, alas dominant, which I dislike: the primitivists and the privileged. Both have a tendency to anti-humanism and the latter especially to pretend that class has no bearing on things whatsoever.

But Monbiot is not the left. He's not even the green movement. He's a single individual, paid to write for the Guardian, who many on the left - including MediaLens and anarchist Climate Campers - are critical of. And yes, that includes his "emphasis on guilt as a precursor for individualistic lifestyle change." If he demands austerity, there are many more on the left who challenge that.

But others attacked in the piece deserve no such criticism. Johann Hari, who O'Neill says "called on the government to enforce wartime-style rationing in order to save the planet from almost certain fiery doom" did nothing of the sort.

O'Neill presents Hari as believing that the government "must "force us all" to live more frugally and sensibly." When, in fact, his article stated that "green consumerism is at best a draining distraction, and at worst a con." Yes, he's advocating state action of a sort that I disagree with, but he wants the state to "force us all" to live greener, not "more frugally."

Hari, though I have disagreements with him on a variety of issues, at least aims for consistency in what he says and has certainly not called for the kind of brutal austerity that we're seeing now.

The other point to be made is that, more broadly, anti-capitalism doesn't equate to saying that "we must learn to live with less "stuff"." This is an idiotic strawman. The vast majority of anti-capitalists are not primitivists, and we don't yearn for everyone to go back to living in mud huts any more than we want a brutal, totalitarian state in the model of the Soviet Union.

What we do want is an end to a specific socio-economic order, wherein ownership is divorced from labour and intertwined state and corporate power conspire to maintain the power and privilege of a minority on the back of everyone else's labour and at our expense. In fact, we believe that replacing that with worker and community self-management would increase prosperity more broadly and end much injustice. And what George Osborne is implementing is the opposite of everything we stand for.

The "new age of austerity" is not the result of any "cultural Zeitgeist," and the blame can not justifiably be lumped with those who oppose it and those who suffer from it. But we will need to keep restating this point in the face of propaganda by the ideologues and the wilfully ignorant.