On austerity in the 1980s - Modern Times

Cover of Modern Times 1988

The concluding article from a one-off magazine produced in 1988, dealing with the Thatcherite austerities of the time and their consequences for radical movements in the UK.


Any map of the world drawn today should have the word 'austerity' printed in large letters across it. Everywhere the message is cutbacks, however this may be justified in each separate state.

But austerity doesn't only mean tightening our belts, it has meant, especially in the 'West', the creation of a whole new atmosphere more conducive to the reproduction of capital, an atmosphere of fragmentation, isolation, fear, impotence and of simply lying low.

'There will be no possibility of working class political activity, so long as the concrete problems which present themselves to each worker have to be resolved individually and privately, as is the case today. He has to preserve his job, his pay, his house and his family. The union and the party can not help in any way, indeed the reverse is true. A little peace can only be won if one makes oneself as small as possible, if one scatters. One can only increase one's pay a bit by working a lot or looking for supplementary jobs, competing with other workers etc.' - Piero Sraffa on the apparent situation in Italy under fascism, 1924

Thatcher's basic 'monetarist' policy of restricting the money supply has only ever been carried out with regard to the money supply that we have to some extent gained collective access to (with strings attached, of course), in the areas of services, welfare benefits etc. The message has been simple - the money is there, but access to it is to be determined individually; benefits are to be redirected to the 'deserving poor'; services are privatised 'to give us more choice' - if we have the money; the mass of unemployed youth is carved up into small teams on training schemes, to which the way out and up is individual and competitive; workers' bastions like the mines and car factories are fragmented by capital - intensive production techniques (either in the factory, or in competition, such as nuclear power against coal) increasing job competition; despite being anachronistic, Tebbit's 'get on your bike' was symbolically individualist (you leave on your bike and return in a Rolls Royce to laugh/cry at those who have remained in capital's ghost towns)......

Restriction of resources has made those groups still existing for particular struggles, battle for priority, which further isolates them - in the artificially created housing and job shortages, black/gay/women's groups find themselves forced back onto complaining of their specific oppression to gain better access for themselves, and finding 'friends' in power to take up their cause, so enforcing divisions (not all black, gay or women's groups have accepted this isolation and redefinition of their struggle, nor have all the white, male, straight proletariat accepted the lie that homelessness/unemployment are caused by the 'preferential treatment' of 'loony left causes').

And the gains made in the struggle for autonomy from the family are being withered away by economic/legal restrictions - YTS [Youth Training Scheme] rates require parental subsidies, student grants are being reorganised (slashed) so that parents will have to contribute far more, unemployed youth can only stay in B&B [Bed & Breakfast, ie small boarding houses/hotels used by those without permanent housing] temporarily; squatting, which was used to immediately and collectively escape the domination or the family has become far harder, women have been particularly hit by job losses, while the increased stress of living in this world adds to the reproductive labour expected from women......

This situation is both cause and effect of the decomposition of the social-political movement against capital, of our inability to coherently develop our struggles together, to base our particular struggles on a critique of the totality, to use our victories as starting points for greater struggle, to develop a continuity of struggle so that a laid-off worker, or a black person who succeeded in fighting the racist allocation of jobs, does not find her, himself on totally alien terrain.

The movement (whose existence can only be denied because we have failed to recognise each other in it) in the totality of its practice (as opposed to its fragmented theory) has posed the collective appropriation of resources, through struggle, against the privatised appropriation (and its hierarchy that excludes the unemployed, 'housewives' etc) through the mediation of money, which hides the theft on which capitalist accumulation is based. The two are not totally exclusive - a collective struggle can win gains which are individually appropriated, like a pay rise. Austerity is the backlash of capital to restore its order. It is meeting resistance everywhere, but on an increasingly fragment level, and all too often with the aim of turning the clock back - trying to return to the terrain where we have won previous battles - which is always impossible. Capital has transformed the terrain we are fighting on, and individual bosses, as much as us, have to change tactics accordingly.

It was hoped that our analysis would help to pinpoint areas where this transformation is likely to create new forces, to take up the struggle on this new terrain, unifying 'objectively - by its direct and immediate action against capitalism - all the revolts of the other popular strata, - amorphous and directionless' (Gramsci). It would seem at the moment that this 'new force' will come from a convergence of old forces, from the points where struggles overlap. It is the black section of the working class that has been consistently combative on a mass scale. Their struggle against discrimination has overlapped with the struggles of gays and women, while their struggle with the force of 'law'n'order' has spread to white youth and strikers. But the struggle against exclusion (from jobs, housing, 'Britishness'...) must develop a critique of what we are excluded from, to reach to the heart of the system. It is when those who are not excluded from the meagre benefits of this world (a job, a home and a white face) see that they are excluded from their own creativity, from their production and their lives, that the fun really starts. The alternative would be the further development of the black middle class as the false antithesis of exclusion, as something to individually aspire to. Austerity and its laws mean that the joining of forces, while more difficult, is also immediately political, posing the questions of class, power and legality in the forefront.

This magazine is only one attempt to analyse the complexity of this society, to find the common basis for our oppression and exploitation, so as to find a unitary basis for our struggles against it. But unity can only come from action, not from mere theoretical agreement, nor from setting up a party that seeks to integrate all struggles into its own enclosed space, time and understanding, for the purpose of achieving separate power. In producing this magazine we have posed for ourselves more questions than we have answered, and we are continuing our analysis, our discussions on the practice of what we have learnt, together with (we hope) the development of our real practice.

If our language seems at times rather abstract and obscure, this is partly because this world is not as it portrays itself, so it is necessary to deal abstractly to find its tendencies that explain its concrete acts and existence (the basis of this society is value, an abstraction from our concrete production), partly because we have not yet made our theory totally concrete in our practice (which is probably impossible outside a revolutionary situation). Also as words change their meaning through use, it is sometimes easier to define things clearly with words that are least used, and so have retained a clearer meaning.

Source; Modern Times - London, UK, News From Everywhere/Campaign For Real Life, 1988.