By Mute Editorial Collective and John Barker
The media ‘debate’ surrounding the long awaited and, talking heads would have us believe, imperative spending cuts has been conspicuously lacking in any real examination of its premises. As with financial assets, the fallacious claims on economic and political truth seem to appreciate through the simple act of circulation – and for want of anything more productive. Time, then, for a corrective write-down of these fictitious claims on truth. (Watch this page for further fallacy quashing)
1) The wasteful state sector must be cut back to make room for private investment, competition and efficient services
The idea of distinct public and private sectors has been nonsense internationally since the mid-20th century at the latest, with military and other subsidies supplementing ever-diminishing returns on invested capital. But the absurdity took on new dimensions in Britain over the last 20 years, and will only be amplified by the present cuts and ongoing bailouts. The give away is the talk about ‘making room’ for private efficiency, which is code for the state taking on the liability for activities which private business can profit from on that basis and no other. Witness the circular magic of PFI: the state keeps borrowing off the books by paying off a ‘private’ provider’s more expensive debt over decades, while the provider, freed from this liability, makes a profit on otherwise uneconomic street cleaning, hospital IT or deportations thanks to fees paid by…the state.
Many of the fastest-growing ‘private’ UK companies (Capita, Serco…) live exclusively from such sinecures, which account for much of the non-financial ‘private sector’ growth of the ‘boom’ years. Conversely, the supposed ‘state capture’ of the non-London economy under Labour was largely an expansion of this ‘private’ service racket into a productive void. Bank bailouts took this ‘socialising of liability and privatising of profit’ towards its logical conclusion, and fiscal ‘cuts’ will amount to more of the same; after all there’s been little pretence that the state commands much economic ‘room’ to withdraw from other than in sectors it must ultimately keep paying for itself. A particular growth area to watch out for will be the policing – in the broadest sense – of private (or rather social) life. In this respect the scope of the state (and its private ‘partners’) really was extended under Labour: 3,000+ new criminal offences, unlimited ad hoc ‘anti-social crimes’; databasing for the ‘at-risk’ and intervention for the ‘hard-to-reach’, etc. The trend is sure to continue unchecked by ‘libertarian’ coalition scruples because, as the concentration of monitoring and punishment on benefits and housing access shows, the discipline in question efficiently targets a particular social class.
2) Cutting benefits will get scroungers working hard like the rest of us
Workhouses were essentially benevolent places
– actor Simon Callow, Evening Standard, campaigning to save the ‘heritage’ represented by a Victorian labour prison
Even politicians and the consultants in charge of them can do enough basic arithmetic to see that individual employment status – when the jobless outnumber jobs advertised by 5 to 1 (or by much more including the sickness claimants about to be dumped on Job Seeker’s Allowance) – is as much a matter of ‘personal responsibility’ as winning or losing at online poker. The pretence to the contrary is itself a desperate gamble: as the improbability of ‘earning’ a living through labour becomes common knowledge, the ‘boom’-era psychology of personal success and failure is played one more time for all it’s worth.
The criminal and welfare enforcement systems, often run by the same private contractors, continue to converge: ‘community service’, paid informers, lie detectors, drug testing and cognitive therapy. Another push in this direction, the think-tankers seem to dream, might keep ‘hard grafters’ loathing ‘hopeless cases’, at least until they join them. More prosaically – though even less rationally – employers have complained since well before the crisis about a ‘basic skills’ shortage, by which they mean ‘work habits’ or spontaneous servility. Some of their political proxies may actually be ignorant enough of global conditions to believe that a renaissance of voluntary servitude (AKA ‘flexibility’) would make ‘national’ capital internationally ‘competitive’ again. In any case it must be hoped that the latest scheme to instil the desired ‘work ethic’ does what its backers say (though not what they intend). Compulsory voluntary labour for 30 hours a week is supposed to teach dole claimants ‘the meaning of work’, and by replacing any last delusion of ‘dignity’ with outright blackmail, that is exactly what it should do.
3) Housing benefit is an unfair subsidy
The amount of housing benefit currently paid out (increasing overall even as individual entitlement is squeezed) reflects the much larger subsidies pumped, as a matter of policy, into the private real estate market over the last three decades. Since waste was successfully laid to the former council housing system, this has been obvious in the transfer of benefits to private landlords charging rents appropriate to a wildly inflated property market. But state support for property wealth – and the latter’s equation with ‘national prosperity’ in a post-productive economy – has run much deeper for a long time.
Too little space to list every instance here, but early highlights included: ‘right to buy’ / new council building ban (1979); letting deregulation (1988); concentration of tax burden on labour and consumption rather than land and capital gains, e.g. (but by no means exclusively) replacement of residential rates with poll tax / council tax (1989-93); a planning system geared towards artificial scarcity and consequent high value of urban land. After 1997 all of the above was cheerfully maintained by Labour governments, whose property boosterism was if anything even more overt, under the heading of ‘urban regeneration’: tax breaks and direct subsidy to gentrification projects (Housing Market Renewal, Local Development Agencies etc.); state-market housing ‘convergence’ (stock transfer to private ‘social’ landlords; ‘affordable’ private ownership for incomes of £20,000+).
Low-income housing in Britain was partially subsidised through most of the 20th century for fear of the social consequences of the market’s inability to provide for the propertyless population. More recent has been the strain on the surviving part of the subsidy (housing benefit) as its complement (council housing) atrophied and the (subsidised) property bubble bulged, and (as seen in ‘scandals’ like temporary homeless accommodation in Canary Wharf penthouses), the channelling of the public housing subsidy directly into the subsidy for property wealth. The ‘Highland Clearances’ relished in London by clear-sighted Tories merely represent the next stage of the process, a fresh round of primitive property accumulation and a golden opportunity (or last illusion?) for those still sitting on a hoard.
[NB. Certain supporters of housing benefit demolition have suddenly discovered the existence of large numbers of low-income non-claimants paying exorbitant private rents. Needless to say, this real and intolerable phenomenon is another product of the policy-driven property steroid system described above. What does need to be said is that, far from alleviating working tenants’ plight (except in behavioural economists’ terms of ‘fairness’, or equal punishment for all), the Clearances will worsen it by increasing congestion and competition at the bottom end of the private rental market. Unsubsidised tenants not legally bound to the 30th percentile will be forced to ‘upgrade’ into further impoverishment, while the solvent young professionals currently submitting sealed bids for gap-decade garrets will simply have more of central London to choose from.]
4) The cuts are a response to a crisis inherited from New Labour and its mismanagement of the economy
The present cuts are an effort to renew previous British governments’ modest but exemplary contribution to the global crisis. The 1997 Labour administration inherited the job of promoting Britain’s (or the City of London’s) niche role in the global inflation of financial claims on finite, real wealth and the labour producing it. The relative success of Brown et al at this task guaranteed British capital plenty of what markets call ‘exposure’ to the inevitable (and unfinished) global implosion of inflated asset ‘values’, i.e. claims.
The ‘Tory’ cuts continue Labour’s service to the crisis-system by putting a price on the desperate attempt to reflate assets, i.e. to preserve the mechanism if not the magnitude of the delusive ‘boom’ (see: bank recapitalisation, zero interest rates/QE, and the unshakeable conviction that real estate prices must be revived). This has proved the only palatable institutional ‘response’ to crisis anywhere large capital claims are at stake, but it feels even more like visceral necessity to the state stewards of an economy whose role in the global division of labour is so tightly bound to administration of asset prices and recirculation of the spoils as ‘services’.
On the abstract plane projected by a few Marxists and bond market ‘bears’, profitability for capital ‘in general’ could only be revived through total social write-down, a spasm of destruction reducing the world to a ‘growth opportunity’ like 18th-century Bengal or post-WW2 Europe. But self-conscious existence ‘in general’ is not in the nature of capital: the logic of ‘competitiveness’ requires that every business, sector and nation-state squirm to the death against cancellation of its own particular claims, without a thought for exploitation’s greater glory. So ‘sacrifice’ must be devolved downward instead, the price of labour squeezed and competitive fever reheated between ‘labour units’ at individual, corporate and national level. What remains to be seen is how much those at the sharp end of this transitive sacrifice* are willing to suffer in order to grant the capitals claiming their loyalty a transient reprieve.
*Transitive as in: ‘the priest sacrificed the captive enemy’, rather than reflexive as in: ‘the soldier’s heroic [self-]sacrifice’ (although in common usage the second is nothing but a self-serving version of the first, stated from the point of view of military priests).
5) Quantitative Easing will lead to a revival of production, consumption and growth
Quantitative Easing(QE) is a method of increasing the money supply by which central banks increase the liquid assets of capitalist-run banks. It has been used, when interest rates are already at historically unprecedentedly low levels, in the UK, USA and to a lesser extent, and despite internal opposition, by the European Central Bank. Its stated aim is to increase ‘economic activity’ and employment. But it cannot direct where this cheap money should be lent because that would be ‘socialism’. (In the USA, however, such direct subsidy of chosen production has of course occurred through the Defense Department’s massive budget for contracts and R&D). The direct creation of federal jobs in the US would also be too ‘socialist’ a form of Keynesianism, while in Europe public job cutting is the order of the day. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that QE has instead been used to prop up banks’ capital base as well as creating cheap funds for financial speculation and the purchase of real assets at knock-down prices.
The USA’s position is special because of the unique and self-perpetuating role of the dollar as global reserve currency. This recently allowed for a further $600 billion of QE the results of which have been: yet another commercial real estate ‘boom’; a bout of non-profit-making company IPOs and leveraged deals; the Russell Stock Exchange rising by 21 percent since September; stock markets reaching a 30 month high in emerging markets; and the Thai currency (the starting point of the 1997-8 East Asian bubble-and-crash) reaching a 13-year high. For most people in the world, the result is likely to be higher food prices as a result of agricultural commodity speculation and the acquisition of real asset components in the food production chain, from land to seeds and grain silos.
This latest round of QE brought serious criticism from China on the grounds that it was a de facto devaluation of the US dollar, and from Germany on the same grounds and, rightly enough, because it would create a new financial bubble. Ironically, German insistence on financial ‘discipline’ and a belief in the fantasy of the independence of money (materialised as balanced budgets written into its constitution), allied with the self-interested pessimism of the bond market, has led to yields on various European sovereign debts matching those looked for in ‘emerging market’ speculation, This makes the enforcement of policies with the stated aim of achieving close-to balanced budgets in other countries not pointless masochism, but a pointed capitalist class offensive.
Taken from Mute