Sharing the Pain: The emotional politics of austerity

“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the post-ironic catchphrase for Phase One of the Financial Crisis. On one level, this was a piece of nostalgic kitsch. However, to truly understand its popularity, we have to consider the ways in which the message - ‘keep calm and carry on’ - expresses perfectly the affective regime through which emotional responses to the crisis of neoliberalism are being organised by powerful forces today.

The following essay is the latest contribution to OurKingdom and openEconomy's Happiness Debate.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the fashionably arch, post-ironic catchphrase for Phase One of the Financial Crisis. Its popularity as a motif first on posters and then on every conceivable kind of merchandise peaked during the period following the critical moment in September 2008 when Lehman Brother collapsed and the entire international banking system teetered on the edge of an abyss.

Technically, this was a piece of nostalgic kitsch. The design came from an obscure home office poster prepared in 1939 for use if the Nazis had invaded the UK. Given such an eventuality,  ground combat in the coastal regions would have placed considerable physical and emotional demands on the the rest of the country, and the poster was designed to steady the national nerves should those trying circumstances arise. Thankfully, they never did, and the poster was not distributed during the war, but was rediscovered and reproduced for its comedy value only in 2000, becoming a popular ironic decoration in many workplaces during the early years of the twenty-first century.  It’s a powerful image: on the one hand, a clichéd yet outmoded expression of ‘traditional’ English stoicism, on the other hand an example of emotional exhortation by the state, whose almost Orwellian tones render it both anachronistic and vaguely sinister.

The peculiarity of such a slogan in today’s unstoical world - where we are all supposed to value ‘emotional literacy’ over reticence and calm resolve - and its apparent naiveté in the face of the perpetual crisis of late capitalism, are certainly enough to raise a smile in anyone. But it’s hardly hilarious enough for that to explain its extraordinary popularity. To understand the latter, I suggest, we have to consider the ways in which this slogan - ‘keep calm and carry on’ - condenses and expresses perfectly the parameters and constituent elements of the whole affective regime through which emotional responses to the crisis of neoliberalism are being organised by powerful forces today.

On the one hand, the phrase deliberately evokes at once a general history of English sang froid and the specific instance when this national characteristic is widely assumed to have been most crucial in the very survival of the nation, when the attempted Nazi invasion was held off by virtue of the sheer determination and immovability of a historically rather conservative British people. On the other hand, the fact that the poster was designed for use in the event of a full-scale German landing which never happened (with the overtone that it might succeed in becoming a successful occupation) lends it a certain otherworldly quality, evocative as it is of another possible world which did not come into being, but could quite conceivably have done. But this otherworldliness seems only to reinforce the slogan’s potency, rather than diminishing it by virtue of its unreality. Why should this be? Surely it’s indicative of the fact that the very act of reviving this particular piece of pre-emptive propaganda expresses something more than the apparently rather casual stoicism it purports to endorse: something which is perhaps latent in that stoicism even while it might seem at first glance to be rather alien to it. That something, I suggest, is a certain paranoia which is itself constitutive of a whole emotional economy of reticence, passivity and control.

A degree of paranoia clearly motivated the very production of the poster in the first place, intended as it was for use only in a moment of national defeat, the very possibility of which more optimistic minds would have refused to countenance. But the imagined scene which it conjures up is simply infused with paranoia on every level: an invaded people maintains its stoicism even while surrounded by the forces of an advancing, potentially victorious enemy. Just think what is really implied in this imaginary scenario: a national community is sustained in the face of its possible destruction only by a wilful denial of the reality of its defeat, carrying on as if nothing has changed, as if to admit to the reality of the situation and to respond with appropriate emotion were to invite destruction. 

Keep calm - any display of emotion is dangerous. As is well documented, this was a view of emotional and social life prevalent in England between the wars and by no means restricted to imagined doomsday scenarios. The historian Ross McKibbin[1] argues persuasively that the crystallisation in the 1930s of a ‘national character’ whose striking feature was emotional reticence and affective inexpressivity was a direct consequence of the need for a hegemonic but threatened middle class to overcome very quickly deep historic cultural differences (particularly between the Anglican and Dissenting traditions) in the face of an immediate threat both from organised labour and from the crisis of capitalism which shaped that era, adopting a behavioural code which simply narrowed the range of acceptable conversational topics and tropes to the point where no significant antagonisms could be given expression within ‘polite society’. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ seems to express the view that maintaining that code would be even more important to the survival of the nation than would the adoption of the traditional response of an invaded people - anger, retreat, retrenchment and counter-attack.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply for a moment that any of the people wearing ‘keep calm’ t-shirts over the past couple of years have been genuinely simply nostalgic for the classic English ‘stiff upper lip’. But they were’t simply mocking it either. The ironic appeal of those shirts clearly derives from the perceived split between, on the one hand, the apparent impossibility of actually maintaining such a position of ‘calm’ in the chaotic maelstrom of contemporary capitalism; and, on the other hand, the recognition of the fact that we do all have to try to keep our sanity under such circumstances, if we are to go on functioning at all. This is the position that we find ourselves in when we realise that the price for failing to ‘keep calm and carry on’ is increasingly high, as competitive pressure intensifies at every level in the labour market (keep calm, carry on - or lose your job, house, credit-rating, life…), but that it is precisely the abstract agency of the market making these demands on us to remain calm which also renders them impossible to meet. 

Without a certain genuine identification with the exhortation to ‘keep calm’, and its implied aims, the ironic force required to raise the requisite smile in the viewer would be quite lacking. As such, I’d want to insist that there is a degree of genuine nostalgia - albeit for a complex amalgam of past instances - implicit in the sheer enthusiasm with which so many consumers have participated in this apparently ironic revival a never-used official slogan. Most of those consumers, I would postulate, may be aware that there is something increasingly absurd about the fantasy that we could simply ‘keep calm and carry on’ indefinitely with liberal consumer capitalism as we know it; but I nonetheless I think they are genuinely expressing an authentic wish that we could. At the same time, a certain element of nostalgia for the historical moment when such slogans could be something more than ironic, when states, governments and communities could realistically expect to act decisively and together even in the face of major existential threats, is certainly present here also. 

It is worth reflecting, then, that even while this slogan seemed to appear everywhere as a smugly self-depreciating acknowledgement of the extraordinary nature of the times in 2008-9, keeping calm and carrying on is precisely what the emergent movement against government cuts proposes that we should not do. Keeping calm and carrying on is exactly how the coalition wants us to behave: about to lose your public sector job? Stay calm, retrain, go to work in the private sector. About to lose the right to subsidised Higher Education? Never mind - it won’t make any difference really. In this context, getting excited, angry, hopeful, furious, passionate and inspired - as protesters have been doing all around the country for the past few weeks - is exactly what the coalition does not want us to do.

We are currently facing a historic assault on what remains of British social democracy - which was, in so many ways, a product of the experience of the Second World War. Indeed, the welfare state was arguably the institutional expression of the vigorous, inclusive, expansive, optimistic version of British Englishness, which won the war against the Axis abroad and the struggle against petit-bourgeois liberalism at home.  As such, the use of this slogan from the early days of WWII, advising calm resignation in the face of defeat, at precisely the moment when we should be becoming very angry in defence of the legacy of that same war, is significant, however ironically intended.

The slogan can be seen as an expression of two things: the official culture of defeatism and appeasement, which still continued after Chamberlain’s declaration of war and, second, the fact that it was prepared for a successful invasion having actually taken place. If we fast-forward the same scenario to our own time, it suggests that in some way we feel we have indeed now been invaded (let’s say, for the sake of argument by international corporations having acquired our banking, water, electricity and gas supplies) and that we have to accept this in the spirit of appeasement. In this way it expresses a profound sense of the scale and nature of the imminent defeat. Of what? Of the welfare state itself that was the British people’s prize for winning the war.

It is surely important that the slogan originates in the earliest phase of the war before Churchill had asserted his leadership with a quite different rhetoric of “we shall fight them” and “blood, sweat and tears”. By contrast “Keep Calm and Carry On” takes us back to the political establishment of the 1930s - steeped as it was in Victorian liberalism and resolute anti-socialism. Churchill himself was, of course, an imperialist and anti-socialist. But of a quite different temper. His improbable but historically crucial elevation to the head of a government was made possible, indeed it was insisted upon, by the Labour leaders of that generation - who were to be the key figures of the UK’s greatest reforming government, 1945-51. Is it interesting to contrast the rhetoric of resolute, fearless stoicism which Churchill mobilised so brilliantly with the paranoia and pessimism which seem to have characterised official attitudes during the first year of the war, of which ‘keep calm and carry on’ was one official expression, and to reflect that something about the transition from one to the other way bound up indissolubly, if still rather mysteriously, with Britain’s transformation from a liberal to a social democratic state.

 Just imagine what would have happened if instead of an ironic, half-despairing mobilisation of this 1939 slogan, 2008 had seen some public mobilisation of the spirit of 1940, of a determination to unite the country against a threat (in this case, the threat to our way of life posed by the merciless caprice of international finance) which could only be fought on the basis of a radical new egalitarianism. If Brown really had wanted a ‘Churchillian role’ this would have been it [2].


Guilty Pleasures

Perhaps one of the factors inhibiting Brown from taking such a position was the same one that is partly responsible for the more widespread acceptance of the austerity agenda that has followed. This is the factor of guilt, of the sense that in some way, the crisis is something that we all deserved and all asked for, because we have brought it on ourselves. When I presented the original version of this essay as a paper at a symposium at the University of East London , Owen Hatherley made the important point that one reason for the widespread acceptance of this agenda had been the genuinely felt sense that we the public, collectively and individually, had been living beyond our means for some time. This is a persuasive argument. Since the 1970s the neoliberal social model has been predicated expanded levels and new forms of consumer debt replacing the real-terms wage increases which drove improvements in standards of living after 1945. Hatherley’s argument suggests that a certain half-conscious awareness of this fact and of its long-term unsustainability already infused contemporary structures of feeling, to the point where one readily-available response to the crisis was simply to accept responsibility for it ourselves, and to see ourselves as worthy recipients of the pain which must justly ensue. This was a key contributing factor, I would suggest, to the growing centrality of an increasingly explicit strain of collective masochism in public responses to the crisis. In particular the notion of ‘sharing the pain’


Sharing the Pain

The idea of ‘sharing the pain’ - of collectively enduring  the consequences of austerity - meshes neatly with the idea of the Big Society (founding slogan:  “we’re all in this together”), and has contributed to both its initial popularity and its widespread notoriety. This film by Don’t Panic Media brilliantly satirises the masochistic, self-sacrificial tone of pro-austerity politics.

What we encounter here is a subtle shift in public discourse from the stoicism which ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ seems - ironically but sincerely - to exhort us to, to a more directly masochistic turn of phrase. This phraseology makes a direct appeal to an ideal of social solidarity at the same time as it invokes suffering as the very medium of sociality: ‘we’re all in this together’ becoming inseparable from the assertion that we are all ‘sharing the pain’ of the cuts. As such, pain becomes not just one thing that we share, but the very condition of possibility of sharing as such: the only thing that could be shared and even the limit of all possible sharing.


Stoicism Vs. Masochism?

 Perhaps the border between stoicism and masochism is always fuzzy, as the former involves taking a certain satisfaction in the capacity to withstand pain. If the qualitative difference between them can be maintained it turns on the fact that such stoical satisfaction assumes the capacity of a body (be it a single human body or a body of another kind - a ‘body of men’) to withstand suffering unchanged, or changed only to the extent that it emerges strengthened. Masochism, on the other hand, implies a certain openness to the unpredictable transformations which pain might unleash upon the body, even where they are very likely to lead to some lessening of its power: this is perhaps why Deleuze saw something positive in masochism, understood as a certain orientation towards transformatory becoming.

If ‘masochism’ can, following Deleuze, arguably be understood in terms of a certain radical openness, then what is the abstract quality which ‘stoicism’ expresses? Strikingly, there is an answer to be found in the writing of Deleuze’s hero Spinoza. Borrowing directly from the actual Stoic classics, Spinoza sees a particular tendency as characterising all life and arguably all matter: conatus, which we might translate loosely as ‘persistence in being’. Conatus is that quality which makes a rock endure and resist our attempts to carve it into a shape, but it is also the quality which informs the tendency of every organism to seek to maximise its potential, its reach, its awareness and its creative capacity.

If conatus designates the capacity of the body to persist, then, for Deleuze, masochism registers its potential independence of any stable form. At the level of contemporary social politics, these are both qualities which have their uses and their potential abuses: just as the movement against the cuts will require the resilience to withstand an all-out assault on our social democratic legacy and an openness to the disorienting realities of the 21st century, so the coalition is absolutely relying both on the stoical capacity of the British people to endure sometimes terrible deprivation, and on our willingness to suffer the ‘very real pain’ which, as we keep being told, we simply cannot avoid and will change our way of life forever.


Embrace your Weakness!

However, it seems unlikely that either Spinoza or Deleuze would have recommended the kinds of stoicism or masochism which we are currently being enjoined to practice, as appropriate responses to the current situation facing the population of the UK. Here, Spinoza’s basic categorisation of affects and their implications can prove very illuminating. After all, what exactly is pain? Even more than its categorical opposite, pleasure, ‘pain’ is a difficult concept to pin down, to explain in itself rather than merely to illustrate with examples. Spinoza, however, offers the most elegant answer to this question in the history of philosophy: pain, he tells us, always involves, in some way, a diminution of the body’s capacity to act. Remember, again, that ‘body’ here can mean almost anything: the individual human body, but also the collective body of the socius, the city, the nation, the public.

Does this not tell us something very clear about what the discourse of ‘shared pain’ is inviting us to embrace? Isn’t it precisely inviting us to embrace  - welcome as both inevitable and desirable - a demonstrable diminution of our collective capacity to act, to decide our own fate, to exercise our common will through political institutions, to protect ourselves from the exigencies of the market and the markets? It’s no secret that the coalition’s ambition is permanently to weaken the capacity of democratic institutions to act as vehicles of collective power, and what the Don’t Panic video so brilliantly exposes is the extent to which the rhetoric of the ‘Big Society’ is a transparent cover for a project which would diminish the power of individuals by placing burdens on them which they currently share with others through the medium of institutions. The invitation to share the pain is very much the invitation to embrace our collective powerlessness [3].

This invitation, of course, is informed by a deeply entrenched set of assumptions, which draw on the same sources which give ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ it’s dark and paranoid tone. Clearly, the idea that the boundaries of the private self must be strictly policed, while the emotions of others always pose a de facto threat, runs back through the history of bourgeois thought - especially English bourgeois thought - much further than the 1930s, at least to Hobbes, who re-founded modern political philosophy in the 17th century on the assumption that the ‘state of nature’ was a war of ‘all against all’. Within this tradition, collectivity can only ever be a limiting factor, a fetter on the freedom of the only entity that counts: the private, propertied individual. From Hobbes to Freud to Hayek and beyond, the assumption that the social is the site at which the noble autonomy of the single person is threatened, while the location of all authentic agency and creativity is the individual, runs very deep. Carried to its logical conclusion, this view of the human condition must see all sharing as bound up with suffering, because to share something is always to lose something.


Negative Solidarity

In contemporary political discourse, this assumption manifests itself not just in the masochistic injunction to ‘share the pain’, but in what the blogger Alex Williams has called ‘negative solidarity’- a resentful hostility towards social groups who are perceived to be suffering less than one’s own, in particular those public-sector workers who are thought to benefit from ‘gold-plated pensions’ and undue levels of job security. There can be no question that the persistence of negative solidarity and the complete failure of the left to counter it (we have yet to see the Labour leadership make any serious attempt, despite the obvious strategic imperative to do so) laid the ground for a general acceptance of the austerity programme over the past three years: ‘we have suffered a loss of pensions, job security, real-terms wages - so why shouldn’t the teachers, nurses, and social workers?’

The failure to counter this discourse with a positive affirmation of social solidarity and of a collective aspiration to restore those losses in the private sector has been the Labour leadership’s most categorical failure since the moment when Brown became prime minister. At the basic level of political strategy, the importance for the Left of countering this trend is easy enough to grasp. Ultimately the success of any movement against the Coalition agenda will depend upon finding ways to transform the ressentiment of negative solidarity into a widely-shared righteous anger at the real authors and beneficiaries not just of the crisis, but of the long-term decline in real wages and social benefits which almost all working people have suffered since the 1970s. But it is also important to grasp the lineaments of the affective regime which makes negative solidarity so easy to promote: the entire tradition of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and especially its neoliberal manifestations, are founded in part upon the assumption that real pleasure can only be private. And this, perhaps, is the most insidious dimension of the current proposed ‘reforms’ to the funding of Higher Education. For these reforms seek finally to institutionalise and finalize the privatisation of HE finance as a means of fully individualising and commodifying the relationships which make up the process of higher education, a process which in truth can only ever be joyful as long as it is creative and can only be creative as long as it is collaborative.


Equality Creativity, and Joy

This last point reminds me of the conclusion I came to when I was asked a few months ago to deliver a response to Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s hugely influential book, The Spirit Level.  The Spirit Level presents a very serious case for making the pursuit of social equality an end in itself above all others, and in particular presents evidence that social equality benefits even the elite sections of a given society. However, it seems to me that the book actually often uses the term ‘equality’ to name something for which, properly speaking, ‘equality’ could only be a metonym: for a certain set social of conditions under which the creative capacities of human sociality can express themselves fully. Many of the social evils which the book links to inequality- obesity, drug abuse, depression, violence - seem to be responses to a lack of opportunities to engage in particular kinds of activities which involve self-expression and self-development in meaningful collaboration with others. As William Davies  reminds us, neoliberalism proposes that the acceptable substitute for such opportunities is the maximisation of opportunities to consume, even while it works to depoliticise the question of how the things that we consume get produced [4].

In particular, it seems to me that one of the subtexts of The Spirit Level is a story of populations relentlessly self-medicating, using TV or drugs or junk food or prescription anti-depressants or alcohol to compensate for the fact that certain quite ordinary kinds of joy are closed to them, and that in all of these cases this joy which is denied has something to do with the opportunity and capacity to collaborate and to create: to cook a meal, to play sports, to share time with friends, to engage with forms of culture which require some level of educated participation. As such, the book seems to me to raise the question of how we conceptualise not just equality, but the importance of various kinds of communal and collective life and the opportunities for creativity that they afford. We should understand the value not just of equality as such, but also the experience of collectivity as a truth of the human condition characterised both by a certain reciprocity and by a certain scope for collective expression that is necessary to the realisation of creative potential.


This Happy Breed

In this way, The Spirit Level to some extent reiterates a very old and central claim of much radical thought: the belief that the maximum capacity for acting freely in the world can be available to people and achieved only in collaboration with others. This proposition is often presented in a quite abstract or utopian form, as when Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, call for ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ But it is easy enough to demonstrate that almost every human capacity, which is also to say every real positive freedom, is dependent upon some form of collaboration with others. Despite the great myths of liberal individualism, individuals entirely on their own have no power at all, and no freedom to do anything much apart from curl up in a corner and starve to death. What can any person actually do in the world without the assistance of others, and why would they want to do anything at all without others to do it for or with?

This brings us to a very important and illuminating - if arguably somewhat discomfiting - aspect of the conceptualisation of pleasure and pain which Spinoza offers us. From this perspective, happiness is not, as a certain tradition (which includes most of psychoanalysis) would have it, simply an index of the extent to which our individual wants, desires, cravings and lacks are temporarily satiated; it is rather an index of how far we are able - singly and collectively (the two are indissoluble) - to enhance our physical, emotional and intellectual capacities. From this perspective, happiness is deeply intertwined with power: ‘power’ here not merely referring to power over others, but to that capacity for resilience and growth which in different ways is implied in concepts such as conatus, or will to power or becoming.

This is precisely the issue which is occluded by the contemporary biopolitics of happiness: the definitions of happiness promoted by the agents of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) such as Richard Layard have very little to do with the question of the reality of creative power or its absence, and even less to do with the crucial question of those imbalances of power which subject some groups and individuals to the humiliating experience of real disempowerment. CBT (and it’s extreme variant, ‘neuro-linguistic programming’) tend to stress the value of the adaptation of the subject to circumstances, rather than the transformation of the circumstances that constitute the subject. We can be fairly sure that the ‘national happiness index’ proposed by the coalition government will, like CBT and the rest of the ‘happiness’ industry, measure happiness in terms of a liberal model of the privatised domestic person as the ideal model of the happy citizen, and not in terms of an expansive capacity for collective becoming and collaborative creativity.

It’s surely no accident that this limited model of the happy individual finds its precise analogue in the image of the satisfied / employable student-customer which minister David Willets wants to entrench at the heart of English higher education.  The logic of his approach is crucial for us to take on board. It is not enough to counter this model of education with a moralistic appeal to the traditional value of the humanities and liberal education. Within the radical tradition it has always been assumed that the fundamental aim of education is collective empowerment - and unless we can make a public argument that restates this case fully, while affirming the indissoluble connections between such empowerment and the sheer creative pleasure which education should entail - then we might as well all stop protesting and go home.

This is a crucial point, because it is in the recognition of the intimate connection between collaborative collectivity and real creativity that we can find the resources with which to counter this marketising trend. Just as everyday life and culture - from the busy streets to Glastonbury festival, from the dancefloor to the seminar room, from Facebook to the Women’s Institute - is full of instances of collective invention and self-organisation, so the new anti-capitalist politics which is re-emerging in the university occupations and on our high streets has many sources to draw on for inspiration an enrichment. If we want to find social and institutional models which can express the radical potential which all of these phenomena manifest, then it will not be enough, even in the universities, simply to defend the status quo, clinging to the faded relics of 20th century social democracy. Rather, we will have to initiate a new wave of institutional and cultural experiments which aim to ensure knowledge is not treated as a commodity and does so in new ways and enable new forms of democratic collaboration between students and teachers, and in the governance of the institutions themselves.

I say ‘a new wave’ - that is not the same as saying ‘an entirely new type’. There is a great danger of ahistorical hubris in much of the rhetoric surrounding the recent protests at the present time. They have not been the biggest protests since the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, as many now routinely claim, and they haven’t come close to the level of public mobilisation that saw literally millions across the UK protest against the invasion of Iraq, less than a decade ago. Virtually none of their decentralised organising techniques are new: they almost all belong to the repertoire described in detail by Marianne Maeckelbergh in her excellent book, The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy. Twitter has not yet actually demonstrated itself to be any more effective an organisational tool than the use of telephone trees by roads protesters in the 1990s (which is not to say that it won’t!), and the ideals of ‘horizontal’ and radically participative organisation stretch back through the early history of the New Left to the libertarian socialists of the 19th century to the utopian communities of the 17th.

Despite the extraordinary convergence of sonic, kinetic and political energy that we saw in some pockets of the recent demonstrations (as discussed here and here), we’ve yet to see anything resembling the displays of public, militant conviviality which characterised the best of the 1990s Reclaim the Streets actions, or of the free festival movement which was so comprehensively crushed between 1985 and 1995. The ridiculous, but apparently now-widespread, idea that being caught in a ‘kettle’ is something to be proud of – when kettling was a technique developed by the  metropolitan police precisely in order to prevent street protests remaining the open sites of joyful collectivity that Reclaim the Streets had turned them into – is surely a sign that the current movement has something to learn from that history if it is to escape the limitations of its own collective masochism (symbolically and literally). The wonderful actions undertaken by UKUncut are drawing on techniques developed over many years by North American anti-corporate campaigners, such as Reverend Billy. Many of these tactics and ideas are in turn a legacy of the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, so often belittled by ‘leftist’ commentators such as Zizek because of its partial co-optation by consumer capitalism (as if this co-optation really were evidence of some inherent corruption, rather than the outcome of a series of partial defeats).

I don’t make these points in order to belittle the achievements or to dampen the enthusiasm of the current cohort of protesters, but rather to point out that there is no need for us to waste time or precious energy in re-inventing the wheel when a long history of struggle lies behind us, and informs everything we do. The realisation that humans working together can transform their world, and are the source of all meaningful change, is at least as old as the belief that they must be prevented from doing so by wise authority, and it is one which has informed a great tradition of thought, practice and culture. Much of the world we inhabit today is its product and its legacy. We should look to this tradition for inspiration and information, even while we seek out genuinely novel routes to changing the world.

What this tradition teaches us is clear: the most fundamental elements of the pro-austerity world-view are wrong. Privatisation = deprivation, at every level of existence (psychic, social, physical, emotional, political). Pain and weakness are not good for us and are not the only things that can be shared. In fact there is no pleasure without power, no power without collaboration, no collaboration without co-operation and experiment. This is true in the classroom and it is true on the streets, and its truth is our greatest resource.

[1] Ross Mckibbin Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford University Press, 2000)

[2] Isn’t it obvious that this Churchillian role  is in fact the only one that Gordon Brown - as riddled with personality defects and lacking in charm as Churchill himself - could have played convincingly on the national stage? But Brown could not or would not take the step which would have enabled him to play it: clearly and unambiguously to have identified an enemy  in the banks and the interests which they represent. To  use Ernesto Laclau’s terminology,  Brown’s undoing was his unwillingness or inability to make the leap from the classically ‘institutionalist’ politics of New Labour - i.e. a politics which tries to deny the existence of all social antagonisms, all real conflicts of interest, all real politics, in fact, claiming to administer the nation without ever taking ideological sides - to a new ‘populism’, in which the opening up of a ‘dichotomic frontier’ would redefine the political space in terms of a clear antagonism between the people and the banks.

[3] In fact, the film makes absolutely explicit that this weakening takes the precise form of a de-valorisation of citizens' time. The value of time, is, according to one reading of Marx, the basic stake in the class struggle, as workers organise to maximise the value of their labour power and its price (i.e. their wages), while capitalists pull every trick they can to lower its value and its cost. This is important because it demonstrates both how continually central this issue to any consideration of contemporary power relations, and just how brilliant this film is.

[4] Here, of course, we are in the classic territory sketched out by Marx himself, confronting once again the most fundamental contradiction of capitalist social relations: capitalism privatises consumption, but it socialises production, and the function of capitalist ideology is always to naturalise the former process while neutralising the political implications of the latter.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See for more information, or follow @jemgilbert