Austerity and the redefinition of citizenship

The imposition of austerity economics – often in conflict with democratic mandates – has obviously had profound economic effects; but it has also at heart a democratic issue.  Austerity has in many cases been imposed in the face of democratic mandates or by the installation of “technocratic” governments; but I believe that at heart it is redefining the way we think about citizenship and the status of the individual in a market society.

Thanks to a recent tweet from David Graeber, I’ve just become aware of this article by G M Tamas, published in 2000 in the Boston Review.  Tamas writes with reference to nationality and citizenship, responding specifically to the rise of Jorg Haider in Austria; but it seems to me that his arguments are profoundly relevant to the way in which, quietly but surely, austerity economics – and in particular the way in which benefits have been cut – have redefined concepts of what it is to be a citizen; and in turn that has profound implications for democracy.

Tamas and post-Fascism

In summary, Tamas writes about how a resurgence of nationalism and a deep hostility to immigration has been reflected in policies that lead to the exclusion of citizen rights and the creation of classes of citizenship.  Tamas – writing at a time when the End of History was being widely touted – writes about how the triumph of capitalism has led to a breakdown of narratives about class and economic power, with the left focussing instead on issues of civil rights; and Tamas, quoting Lipset, describes a “fascism of the centre” in which hostility to the state combines with a belief that rights are not universal, but are the preserve of a particular group, usually based around national or ethnic identity. For the first time in history, popular ire about unfairness in society is being directed not at those wielding wealth and power, but at the dispossessed.

For me, what makes this article so fertile and important is the way in which it points to how Western market societies increasingly treat those who are unable to work – whether through unemployment or disability.  It seems to me that part of the process of austerity is to deny the citizen rights of those who cannot support themselves through paid work, through processes similar or identical to those pointed out by Tamas.  And I believe that this process has a fundamental effect on our conceptions of citizenship and democracy.

Universal benefits: the Beveridge legacy

I’ve written elsewhere about the case for universal benefits – as well as the costs advantages, pioneers like Beveridge saw universality as a means of social cohesion – a recognition that all had a stake in society, whether rich or poor.  Writing in the aftermath of European Fascism and the struggle of total war (a war in which victory was intimately bound-up with the mobilisation of state power) Beveridge was keen to see benefits as a route to stability and an expression of citizenship; all were to have rights, including the right to a basic minimum standard of living.

Citizenship and austerity

It is obvious to anyone who follows politics that in the UK, as in the rest of Europe, Beveridge’s vision is being abandoned – we are being told, in an age of austerity, that we simply cannot afford it (there’s an obvious point to be made about the difference between level and scope of benefits, but both are under attack).  Drawing on some of the issues Tamas raises, it’s possible to define some important themes in the way that the austerity consensus – in Britain at least – is seeking to redefine the concept of citizenship in, I’d argue, destructive and dangerous ways.

It is obvious that the debate around benefits in the UK has moved to a place where austerity is being used to justify a change in the conception of citizenship.  At a time when living standards continue to fall across the piece for all apart from the wealthy, those who rely on the support of the state have been recast into the role of the oppressor – an unproductive burden, a charge on the productive.  Citizenship increasingly appears to be contingent on conformity to a capitalist model of monetized income (so for example a carer, whose daily unpaid work not only brings real and tangible benefit to the person who they care for, but is also – potentially – saving the state money, falls on the wrong side of the citizen divide, because their contribution is not monetized and does not generate profit).  We are in a society in which your citizenship is increasingly defined by your ability to obtain and hold down paid work, and to consume accordingly.  The Big Society, to the extent to which it means anything at all, replaces entitlement with largesse doled out on a whim; it means that the privileged retain the right to decide whether those in need receive the essentials of life or not.  It’s the antithesis of citizenship.

This is made all the clearer by aspects of the debate around how benefits are received.  Market economics places choice at the heart of its rhetoric; increasingly, approaches to benefits assume that choice should be taken away – through workfare or through the growing advocacy of (expensive and insecure) payment cards for those receiving benefits. This has nothing to do with efficiency, or the operation of the market.  If you are receiving benefits, your participation in one of the defining rituals of market capitalism is to be denied; you do not deserve the benefits of citizenship.

To me, one of the nastiest and most insidious pieces of contemporary political rhetoric is the cult of the “hard working family” – used across the mainstream political spectrum in the UK but particularly associated with New Labour.  It’s not just that for this reader it conjures up images of a sort of Betjeman-esque domestic nightmare of white-shirted middle-manager paterfamilias, company car in drive, with wife and children in consuming subservience; it’s the way the phrase, consciously or not, is designed to exclude.  In defining whose side we are on, we also – inevitably – identify those who fall outside the scope of our politics. Like so much ideological rhetoric, it defines as much as it describes – and I for one find it both profoundly obnoxious but deeply revealing of the assumptions of our increasingly homogenised political class.

One can only conclude that underlying all this is a new definition of citizenship – one that is dependent on a property qualification.  If you have a job, or private wealth, and have the power to consume, you are a full citizen.  If you are unemployed, or disabled, or ill, you are not.  You have forfeited your citizen rights in favour of the largesse of the comfortable, and the whim of those who bear far more responsibility for the current economic crisis than you do, but for which you are being called on to pay a disproportionate price.  Your citizen status is not defined by your humanity, but by the casual Poujadist thuggery of the tabloid press and a political class – increasingly drawn from those enjoying extreme privilege – that is happy to ride that thuggery.

And we need to place this in a wider European context: there is a big movement – encompassing the imposition of “technocratic” governments in Greece and Italy, to the creation of a new treaty in the EU to entrench austerity in European law, to the increasingly frequent pronouncements by senior bankers and officials that economic policy should be taken out of political hands – to take economic policy out of politics and away from democratic scrutiny.  As David Harvey has argued eloquently in his book Neoliberalism,  this remains the ultimate neoliberal dream; to claim the kudos of being a democratic state while ensuring that the distribution of wealth is a matter over which electors have no real control.  It depends, of course, on economics being seen as an objective science and its practitioners being seen as expert manipulators, rather than – more realistically – being seen as a set of more-or-less empirically-derived  generalisations based on largely subjective psychological assumptions.

Extremism of the centre

Following Lipset, Tamas uses the phrase “extremism of the centre”, and it’s a formulation I find extremely compelling. In the absence of the big narratives about class conflict and economic power, it offers an understanding of how political and economic elites can rationalise and legitimise prejudice against the poor, vulnerable and especially the disabled into something that they appear to have little difficulty in reconciling with liberal democracy.  The way in which the collective view of disability in particular appears to have swung away from a belief in support (even if only to bring disabled people into the workforce) to outright hostility is, in my view, one of the defining phenomena of modern Britain.  We are a society that apparently provides a willing audience for Government press officers who see their work as the spreading of unattributable lies about the benefits enjoyed by disabled people; that apparently cannot understand that a 20% cut in benefits “justified” by a less than one percent rate of fraud is an act of collective punishment that moves our political class firmly into moral equivalence with those who, seventy years ago, were decrying disabled people as “useless eaters”.

In conclusion, Tamas’ piece seems to me to offer a way into understanding the mindset that underpins the kind of society we are becoming.  We neglect issues of citizenship and democracy at our peril – and we need to understand that the implications of austerity go well beyond economics, leading to fundamental questions of what society is and how we relate to one another.


4 thoughts on “Austerity and the redefinition of citizenship

  1. One particularly pernicious example of the drift towards conditional citizenship in the UK is the push for increases in the personal tax allowance. This ostensibly progressive policy, much loved of LibDems, increases the number of people who do not have “skin in the game” as regards fiscal responsibility and thus feeds the “no representation without taxation” belief that is ever-lurking on the right.

    In his essay, Tamas notes the related role that the introduction of tax credits has played in increasingly reserving public assistance for the “hard working”, or at least working. We can now see the fruition of this policy. Not only are cuts disproportionate and discriminatory, affecting those on non-work benefits more than those dependent on in-work benefits, but we even see Labour focusing on the plight of the latter, presumably calculating that this is more voter-friendly.

  2. Pingback: Revisiting the poor law: The Coalition, Liam Byrne and the language of sanction | Notes from a Broken Society

  3. Pingback: Welfare and vouchers: the Right’s denial of citizenship attack | Notes from a Broken Society

  4. Pingback: Thatcher: mythologies and legacies | Notes from a Broken Society

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