Sunday, 17 April 2016

Missing the point of austerity

One of the reasons for not slumping into apathetic, knee-jerk leftism is the sheer laziness and associated smugness around the protestations of correctness.  Akin to the opposing schematic where it is considered an act of base class treachery to be anything other than a full-blooded neoliberal contempt for the notion of society, it diminishes the level of discourse and creates a very large hole in the debate about both the rights of the citizen and the role of government.

There was a large-scale "anti-austerity" demonstration in London yesterday, which appeared to be uniting a diverse range of those with a grievance against the current government and the structures of the world.  It coincided with a thoughtful piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian that analysed the extent to which the neoliberal, economic reductionist language of the Thatcherite/Reagan right has paralysed efforts to broaden debate from purely monetary frameworks into a much wider engagement on the future direction of society in an unstable, environmentally-unravelling world.

Demonstrating against the government may provide a degree of self-satisfaction, but the cause itself should be examined before engagement commences.  Many of this administration's policies are at best misguided and at worth downright idiotic, and should be protesters about with vigour.  However, "austerity" is a misplaced dog-whistle, as it in itself does not represent more than a fig-leaf to cover the poor intellectual endowments of knee-jerk oppositionism.

Austerity in itself is not a bad thing.  If it means that public resources are properly and efficiently managed in the pursuit of improving the lot of the citizen, then this should be cheered on.  It does not imply that cutting services and slashing the role of the state is of itself a good thing, but it does work towards the presumption that government involvement should be as lean and effective as possible.  Attacking the current consensus on these grounds provides much more potential.

The revelations of the ease of tax avoidance, and the recent exposure of the chicanery and opacity surrounding Tony Blair's post-governmental financial affairs, should act as a galvanising moment.  Impressions of declining quality of public services and the public realm may be subjective but they are unlikely to be wrong.  Taken alongside increasing costs and the complexity of much government engagement there is the basis for a much more pro-austerity narrative, but going after the parasites who keep their snouts in the trough while protecting their own interests is a true pursuit of austerity - which might even appeal to those Tories who are vaguely uneasy about the direction of the country.

The privatisation, outsourcing and contractualising of public service delivery has proceeded apace in the last forty years, at the same time as a deluded belief in the power of microeconomic regulation as a proxy for either the market (if you're at the extreme neoliberal end of the spectrum) or the public interest (if you retain the capacity for rational thought).  This has created a hidden state, and the bullying power of the outsourcers means that government, at all levels, is near-powerless to exercise the correct control that would benefit the wider community.

If you look at health, or education, or indeed any public service, there are a plethora of indicators and targets - which are used not to illuminate but to obfuscate, fudge and shift blame around.  Complexity is the enemy of accountability - a lesson that has been ignored since the financial crash - and there needs to be a manageability test rather than a pure financial assessment of the best way to deliver services.  Just because something keeps lawyers, accountants and economic regulators in business does not make it a desirable state of affairs.

There is an asymmetry of capability between the state, on behalf of the citizen, and the behemoths and profiteers that stalk the land  It's down to money and resources - the latter have much more to hand than the former, and then charge the former for the privilege of being outwitted.  If you place complex contracts in the hands of local councillors, officials or even national civil servants, it is hardly surprising that they are usually fouled up, and difficult to unravel.  You read about the way in which contract variations are a one-way bet for the outsourcing organisation, which does not provide them with an incentive to get it right first time - yet billions of public money are spent out each year without proper control.

Austerity should be around ensuring that the taxpayer and the citizen get good value for their money.  Taking the battle to those who are profiting while individuals and services suffer is a much better, but more time-consuming reaction than a pat on the back amongst like-minded folks.  Identifying the Tories as the enemy is easy but wrong - it's the technocrats, the parasites whose conduct is on the margins of amorality and criminality and their apologists who are the real foes and who should be the first to feel the discipline of austerity and fiscal duty.

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