Conditions Of Struggle
Education reading series II

Understanding neoliberalism and austerity better to fight it

Anti-austerity is a pillar of Social Housing Alliance’s work. The economic forces of displacement, we say, are a real estate and resource extraction based economy that storms on Indigenous and working-class communities while austerity policies erode the ground on which we stand, making us more vulnerable to these winds. But what is austerity and how do we fight it?

For nearly three years Social Housing Alliance has battled austerity policies in British Columbia with a focus on cuts to social housing funding. We have seen policies shift away from tax-funded and government-run housing to market-based “innovative” non-solutions to homelessness. And we have seen many groups that used to see tax-funded social housing as basic to society in Canada begin to tolerate and even advocate for models that include and rely on market logics. Is austerity top-down primarily, a problem of government policy alone, or does it have social and cultural roots and resonance?

This, our second Conditions of Struggle class series, will focus on austerity and its contemporary political and ideological vehicle, neoliberalism. The classes will be organized in three parts:

Class 1: Lessons from Greece

Greece was (and is) in the midst of an economic crisis defined by its “debt crisis.” Despite having lower levels of debt than Germany after the Second World War (Germany was bailed out by those it owed money to), Greece is being squeezed by the European Union for every penny it owes. Germany and other powerful EU countries are force-feeding the Greece government violent austerity reforms that will tear its still-strong social safety net. This is despite the clear mandate given to the Greek government by its voting populace. 

In 2014 the Greek social democratic left party Syriza came to power on a strong anti-austerity platform. In early 2015 the Greeks maintained anti-austerity policies (despite sabre rattling by the big European banks) with a referendum that rejected austerity even more strongly than voters in the Lower Mainland rejected the transit referendum. Syriza then did an about-face and passed an austerity budget, barely satisfying their creditors in upper-Europe but enough to remain in the EU. Far from averting crisis, this reform package will devastate the lives of Greek workers, pensioners, youth, and the still-growing numbers of the unemployed. Just as people around the world looked to the Greek example as a way to fight austerity, bankers saw their struggle as a threat.

There is no question that Greece was a battleground that had international political dimensions. What, then, are the lessons from Greece? As you read through these essays and articles, consider the following questions for discussion:

  1. We have grown accustomed to thinking about our struggles in terms of neighbourhoods, communities, specific regions but the struggle in Greece was clearly directed not at the local government but against international banks and broader European and international governance structures. Why do international banks and organizations like the IMF, WTO, and G8 care about local government social service and austerity policies?
  2. The Greek experience seems to suggest it may be impossible to end austerity through capitalist state governments. Is social democracy over? What are the strengths and limits of uniting movements around “anti-austerity” politics?
  3. Perhaps the most important lesson from Greece is about how we fight austerity here in Canada. In the wake of Syriza’s failure to implement the austerity policies it promised, why vote NDP in the upcoming federal election?

Readings:

  • Michalis Spourdalakis interview, “#ThisIsACoup or This is the first democratic response to the austerity measures in Europe?” Democracy Now! (Links here: Audio / Text)
  • Michael Rozworski, “The political crisis in Greece.” Jacobin Magazine.
  • Alain Badiou, “Eleven melancholic points regarding the future of the Greek situation.” Verso blog. Can we convince the capitalist state to fight austerity?
  • Stuart Hall, “The State: Socialism’s old Caretaker.”
  • Cognard, “Is it possible to win a war after losing all the battles?” 


Download the reading package here
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Class 2: Origins of Austerity

For the purpose of this discussion we are going to consider austerity a state-policy feature of a broader political and economic trend of global capitalism: neoliberalism. In brief, neoliberalism is a capitalist revolt against welfare states established after WW2 in most powerful countries in Europe and the U.S. and Canada. As we discussed in the first class, “Keynesianism” was the main economic thought of the postwar welfare state, a mild form of redistributing wealth through tax policies and creating social programs that some working-class people in powerful countries could access. From a working-class point of view these programs were far from perfect but the capitalist revolt against them was not about making them better, it was about redistributing wealth upwards, from the mouths of the poor to the investment portfolios of the rich and corporations. That’s austerity.

The governing economic idea of neoliberalism is that the state should intervene to make “free” markets faster, stronger, to swallow up public resources, and extend further and deeper into every corner of society globally. This ideology has far reaching implications for the economic, gender, race, colonial, cultural, sexual organization of Canada and local places like Vancouver. These readings on the origins of neoliberalism are meant to give a glimpse of where neoliberalism (as a global political trend) got its initial impulse and what it does to our societies.

Reading Guide:

  1. Two views on origins of neoliberalism & austerity David Harvey, “The Construction of Consent.” Chapter 2 of A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005)

    David Harvey argues that neoliberal activists (nestled in government and other elitist nests) took careful lessons from the first experiments with austerity roll backs: the military example given by General Pinochet in his U.S. and U.K. backed coup against Chile’s elected socialist president Allende, and the policy and brutal governance example given by Margaret Thatcher in England. His article deals with the political, economic, and policy angles of neoliberalism as a feature of capitalism.

  2. Lisa Duggan, “Downsizing Democracy.” Chapter 1 of Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics & the Attack on Democracy (2003)

    Lisa Duggan argues that neoliberalism as it rolled out in the U.S. was fought out on a cultural battleground that included people’s most intimate identities. The ideas and identities that galvanized communities in struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Black Power and Gay and Lesbian liberation were absorbed into liberal-individual notions by the consumer-power offered by neoliberalism.

  3. The arrival of neoliberalism & austerity in British Columbia James Rowe, “New Dems Poised to Inherit a BC Shaped by Neoliberalism.” Tyee, April 3, 2013.

    Finally, the short article on BC after ten years of neoliberal rule by the BC Liberal government gives us a concrete local example of the political trends that Harvey and Duggan have discussed. 

Download the reading package here.

Class 3: There is no society

“There is no society” and “There is no alternative” were the mantras of the Thatcherite neoliberal movement of the early 1980s in England. With these slogans, Margaret Thatcher explained the dismantling of England’s social safety net, the shifting of tax burdens from the rich to the working class, the sell-off of public housing, and her attacks on union power throughout the UK. But our resistance ever since has shown otherwise: only through uniting and combining our energies together in stubborn societies have we survived (and sometimes driven back) these attacks on our communities.

This third class will focus on these community experiences with resisting neoliberalism, through battles against austerity and gentrification – two forces of neoliberal capitalism. This discussion will follow the lead of the analysis we developed in the second class, that economics/politics and culture cannot be considered separately. These readings and our discussion will look at how thirty years of neoliberal policy, economics, and culture and ideology have affected our resistance and liberation movements. How have we responded to these forces? What successes and failures have we experienced? And how have these experiences affected us?

Readings and Questions 

1) Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind (20 pages but a quick read, mostly telling a story) The first reading is the introduction to Sarah Shulman’s book The Gentrification of the Mind, a political memoir and history of the transformation of the U.S. gay liberation movement into what Lisa Duggan calls “homonormativity.” Although Schulman focuses on the gay liberation movement, her lessons and reflections resonate across the spectrum of the liberation and resistance movements that flared up in the 1970s and have dipped and changed since.

Question: What is the meaning of consciousness of one’s social oppressions in Schulman’s story of the gentrification of gay identity? What is the role of radical grassroots organizing in developing and nurturing that consciousness? Why does she characterize homonormative (or post-liberation movement) gayness as gentrified? (Unfortunately this scan of the Schulman chapter is missing pages 12-13, but you can still follow what’s going on)

2) David Camfield, “Neoliberalism and Working-Class Resistance in British Columbia: The Hospital Employees Union Struggle, 2002-2004” (40 pages and not such a quick read. Read the beginning and end and skim the middle if you don’t have time for all of it) The second reading is a (rather too-long) essay about the Hospital Employee’s Union strike against BC Liberal attack on public sector unions in the early days of their long reign in British Columbia’s legislature. This essay by David Camfield, a professor at the University of Manitoba and longtime labour activist, looks at the race and gender dynamics of this class-based attack on a public sector union, the bottom-up driven resistance from the members, and the betrayal of the union bureaucracy that contributed to the loss of the strike and the near-crushing of the Hospital Employees Union.

Question: Why did the BC Liberals attack the HEU? I mean, beyond the dollars and cents of pushing back the wages and benefits. What did public sector unionism symbolize in BC? I remember how the HEU fightback electrified working people throughout BC. Workers shut down the entire town of Quesnel in a wildcat solidarity strike. How did the defeat of HEU in this strike affect this consciousness? Should we blame the union bureaucracy? What are the shortcomings of such an analysis?

Download the reading package here.