Against Austerity, How We can Fix the Crisis They Made by Richard Seymour, (London, Pluto Press, 2014)
Some political and social constructs seem to come ready-made with an air of permanence about them – dropping into public and political discourse with a veneer of doughty solidity. Of course, it is the impression of solidity that reveals much about the terms on which the word is used – who by, and for what ends are also questions that can be elided if the term itself becomes part of the commonly held discursive landscape. Such a term is “austerity” which emerged (here in the UK at least) in the wake of the 2008 economic crash and the subsequent reframing of politics in a scrambled defence of the neo-liberal capitalism that precipitated the disaster in the first place. Political figures moved rapidly, firstly to stabilize and maintain behemoth financial institutions with a vast influx of public money and secondly to present the crisis as the result of combined profligacy by the state and entitlement from its citizenry. Austerity, so it is maintained, is the economic medicine that does not taste very nice but makes us better people, and therefore must be continued lest we slip into the moral vice of deigning to spend money.
By this point, with only a few short months to a general election this analysis has been accepted by the mainstream political opposition who have pledged to match and maintain the current economic “hair shirt” imposed upon the country. In this light, Richard Seymour’s book is not only timely but also desperately needed. Shot through with a bleak, cynical humour and a hefty dose of necessary profanity the text practically shakes with a righteous, nigh on prophetic anger that drives the work along with considerable verve. His analysis of austerity delineates the contours of something far deeper than a political buzzword. Rather, Seymour reads austerity as a multi-axial assault upon the state, which aims not to just rescue us from economic collapse but permanently reshape the political landscape. Drawing from the aphorism that capitalism never allows a good crisis to go to waste, austerity is reframed as a class level, state level and ideological level struggle all toward a specific aim. The final point that the book aims towards is offering an understanding of the aim of austerity – the hegemony of neo-liberalism. Heavily inspired from the Gramscian tradition of British socialist thought, Seymour serves to highlight the illusion of the moment of crisis. Austerity is not the solution to a moment, rather it is a concerted effort to safeguard the interests of the corporations, the political elites and the very wealthy and transfer as much accumulated capital as possible into their possession under the guise of political necessity.
If there is one criticism to offer here, it is in the book’s subtitle – ‘how we can fix the crisis they made.’ Commendably Seymour stays away from easy solutions – which after laying out the scope and scale of the problem for the majority of the book would have smacked of naivety and disingenuousness. Rather the “how” depends upon work, and much of it with an emphasis placed upon broad coalition building between movements and a generational effort to shift the grounds of political discourse and disrupt the dominant hegemony of the time. If solutions are what you seek there is no real fix to be found here but rather a spirit that echoes with Gramsci’s famous quote; I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. The final abiding message of the book seems to be that we should all share this divide – there is much to do and the problems may seem insurmountable but Seymour shows with intellect, anger, hope and even a splash of caustic wit optimism may not be entirely unjustified. If there is a new world to be built it may be that Seymour and his store of Gramsci inspired analysis will prove to be a useful tool in the analytical armoury to help us see what needs to be challenged, what needs to be resisted and what needs tearing down.