In this deeply conservative moment, it appears the nation has divided itself into two camps around the issue of austerity: those who demand deep and decisive cuts, and those who demand moderation and protection for the poor. Both camps employ a discourse of fairness, responsibility, and restraint. But, as we have seen with the ConDem cuts to welfare, fairness means different things in different hands. Some would suggest that it is fair to reduce welfare so that “it’s always worth going to work”. Very few suggest the glaringly obvious: that it would be more fair to raise wages. At present, certain options have been deliberately excluded: to suggest our artificially low wages should be raised is to question neoliberal economic orthodoxy, and to go against the grain of austerity’s logic. What is overwhelming at the moment, what makes it so oppressive, is that the logic of austerity is parroted by every mouth.
A generalisation, you might think. Turn on the television or the radio – read a newspaper. Read the emails circulated around your department, with joking (and not-so-joking) references to the need to cutback on spending in this ‘age of austerity’. The role of the BBC (and other media) in producing and reproducing ideology becomes clear when we note the way that the need for austerity is presumed, has become an unquestioned fact. To quote the slogans of David Cameron: all that is left to us is to choose where to make those cuts. Labour says here; the Tories say there; the Liberal Democrats sit in the middle and lie through their teeth. Essentially, there is no difference between them.
What becomes clear is that, if the only choice we have is where cuts will be made, universities will not escape cuts unscathed. In fact, they will not escape without being brutally mauled (who doesn’t tremble at news of former BP chief executive, Lord Browne’s report?). If we accept the logic of austerity we doom ourselves.
Around the country many are finding themselves made redundant, or unable to pay their rent, or their mortgages. Pensions, benefits, working loads and hours are everywhere being manipulated to favour business under the cover of austerity. In this context no amount of whinging (for this is how it is seen) about the problems of higher education will register – particularly if our rationale is that education is valuable in itself, or that education must remain open to all. For we must face the fact that, under the current system, education is not open to all. There is no doubt that higher education has remained a privilege. Moreover, there is a contradiction many refuse to acknowledge: we (especially in the arts and social sciences) continue to defend the worth of education it itself, and yet we have accepted into our midst an increased instrumentality and increased bureaucracy. Indeed, the romantic notion of education being worthwhile in itself has become worse than a shallow lie: it has become an apology for the status quo in the face of a system where nothing may be conceived any more which does not cheerfully include instructions as to who its beneficiaries are.
We should not be satisfied, then, with either camp. When our union leaders call for more moderate cuts and a graduate tax their calls ring false, for, on the one hand, it is clear that we cannot accept the logic of austerity and expect that the beleaguered lower and middle classes will fund our privilege. On the other, because its is utterly defeatist to accept the inequities of our current system
Fortunately, another course becomes clear: reject austerity and reject the status quo. If we step outside the box of neoliberal orthodoxy, we immediately see that the two are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, complimentary. For the project of building a more equitable and egalitarian society could very well also prove to be a solution to the problem of the debt crisis – and of capitalism itself. It is with this understanding that we must reach beyond the university, beyond the partial cause, and establish solidarity between all those who struggle against the brutally irrational ideology of austerity.