Austerity nostalgia, racism and xenophobia

Why anti-racism and migrants rights activism need to be central to anti-austerity campaigning.

Kirsten Forkert
12 August 2016

Flickr/Ian Muttoo. Some rights reserved.

On an economic level, austerity draws its appeal from the common-sense idea of the economy-as-household previously mobilised by Thatcher. This is based on of not living beyond our means as individuals and the assumption that an identical logic also applies to macroeconomics. As economist Mark Blyth argues in The Austerity Delusion (2013), ‘Ideologically, it is the intuitive appeal of the idea of austerity - of not spending more than you have – that really casts its spell’. The appeal of the metaphor of the economy-as-household, however, is only partly about economics; it is in fact primarily a moral argument. In situations where macro-economics are seen as difficult to understand, the metaphor of economy as household provides a kind of reassuring simplicity and ordinariness. In other words, the economy is simply about living within our means and not spending too much on things we don’t need, or having to borrow from friends or relatives.

But the metaphor of the home is moral and emotive in other ways, as it brings together questions of familiarity, intimacy, property relations and security. It also works as a metaphor to mark out nationality, citizenship and belonging. As William Walters argued in ‘Secure Borders, Safe Nation: Domopolitics’ (written before the financial crisis but still relevant):

…the home as our place, where we belong naturally, and where, by definition, others do not; international order as a space of homes – everyone should have (at least) one; home as a place we must protect. We may invite people into home, but they come at our invitation; they don’t stay indefinitely… Home as a place to be secured because its contents (our property) are valuable and envied by others (2004, p41).

The home serves as metaphors for both the national economy and the national territory; its familiarity and ordinariness give it a powerful moral and emotional appeal. It also has particular salience within the austerity context: in terms of an acceptance of the inevitability and necessity of cuts, and also as marking out who deserves the scarce and shrinking resources of the welfare state; whose needs should be prioritised and who is seen to be a burden on stretched public finances. So who is in and who is out? In this post I’d like to flag up the issue of race, and the framing of immigrants and racially minoritised people as undeserving outsiders.

Whose austerity nostalgia, whose lost community?

Since the financial crisis, there has been prevalent narratives within both popular culture and political discourse about nostalgia for a lost sense of community, which austerity provides an opportunity to restore. For example, in The Ministry of Nostalgia, Owen Hatherley examines rehabilitation of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster as both the affirmation of a national stereotype (the ‘stiff upper lip’) but also a particular "manufactured nostalgia for the protective, watchful eye of public institutions" (2016, 33). Rebecca Bramall and Tracey Jensen have also explored this type of nostalgic imagery in popular culture. Within such narratives, idealised conceptions of the Second World War and the immediate post-war era frequently come to stand in for the thrift, discipline and moral certainty currently lacking in the present. Given current imperatives to dismantle the welfare state, there is a particular irony in such nostalgic imagery being mobilised. Zoe Williams pointed out this contradiction:

The word “austerity” conveys an atmosphere that is the exact opposite of the society it actually creates: blitz spirit, togetherness, community, waste-not-want-not (the results of the spending cuts have, contrariwise, been mutual suspicion, alienation, and a huge amount of want).

However, what is key here is the appeal to socially conservative values as providing moral certainty in response to social anxieties caused by material insecurity. Austerity nostalgia also calls on us to identify with particular national stereotypes (the stiff upper lip) even if ironically, and assumed shared cultural memories (rationing, the Blitz spirit etc) which are all quite culturally specific – it thus calls on us to buy into particular idea of Britishness, and possibly even Englishness.

But what is also often implicit within austerity nostalgia is also a mourning of the loss of a mythical social solidarity which was based on shared ethnic and cultural homogeneity: where people lived in close-knit communities, knew their neighbours, and shared the same cultural references. This narrative is evoked more explicitly by post-liberal commentators such as David Goodhart, who argues that cultural difference threatens social cohesion, and is an important part of UKIP’s appeal and the rhetoric around the Leave campaign. These narratives have long pre-dated the financial crisis, and Paul Gilroy has written about this sort of nostalgia as symptomatic of unresolved issues around the history of colonialism. But it’s a narrative that’s become increasingly common, as austerity discourses intersect with assertions about the failure of multiculturalism, as Alana Lentin has written for this series.

It is also important to ask whose nostalgia this is, and whose lost community is being mourned. For racially minoritised communities the post-war period was a time of overt and prevalent racism, including the colour bar in many workplaces; No Blacks, No Dogs and No Irish signs in windows; and the Conservatives’ infamous election campaign slogan in Smethwick, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” to give a few examples. Satnam Virdee has written extensively about histories of this in relation to the history of the English working class and the role of both racism and anti-racism. In ‘Blind Pessimism and the Sociology of Hope’, Les Back problematized the myth of the "white working-class uncomplicated by empire, globalisation or immigration" and flagged up alternative narratives about the post-war period and models of how solidarity could operate across different communities.

Austerity, race and immigration

To return to the present, in many ways racially minoritised people have borne the brunt of austerity cuts; according to research carried out by the Runnymede Trust, changes to tax credits and benefits have affected them twice as much as white people; they are also more likely to be lower income and have less money in assets which would mitigate austerity cuts (according to the same report, the average White British household had assets of around £221,000, this fell to just £21,000 for Black African and £15,000 for Bangladeshi groups). Cuts to local authority budgets disproportionately affect BME disabled people and many local authorities are neglecting to carry out equality impact assessments.

The past two years have also seen the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 which has affected access to the welfare state and other aspects of everyday life for non-EU citizens. This includes the introduction of healthcare charges (despite the fact that they already contribute to the budget through paying tax) and in some cases charging for hospital care; the requirement for DVLA staff, banking staff and landlords to be responsible for checking immigration status. When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May justified these measures in terms of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular immigration, but evidence (such as the JCWI’s evaluation of the landlord check pilot in the West Midlands) shows that faced with complex and confusing rules and stiff fines, people often end up discriminating against those who might look or sound “foreign”. Other politicians also justified immigration crackdowns in terms of immigrants ‘taking things that rightly belong to us’, as Sally Davison and George Shire have observed, or the dog-whistle politics of campaigns like the Go Home van (which evoked the racist taunts from the 1970s). With May now as Prime Minister, these sorts of measures look set to continue.

It is also important to flag up the racist attacks in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU. There has been a 57% increase in hate crimes reported to the police in the four days following the referendum result, and a report by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) points out that the actual incidence of hate crimes could be much higher, as many incidents are not reported or prosecuted.

All this shows why anti-racism and migrants rights activism need to be central to anti-austerity campaigning, and why it is also crucial to challenge attempts by politicians to make political capital out of nationalism and nostalgic, nativist conceptions of national identity. But it is also important to remember that rose-tinted nostalgia has such strong appeal when there is little hope for the future or in the possibilities of collective agency, especially across the lines of race and nationality. This is why alternatives to austerity are urgently needed.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series with Goldsmiths.

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