Do hard lives always lead to harsh judgements?
This article seeks to understand why it is easier to blame the poor, the unemployed and migrants for the financial crisis, rather than to hold responsible those in power. To help explore this question I will look at ways in which the current public mood is shaped through the reinforcement of conservative social norms, particularly in relation to debt and ‘hard work’, and the focusing of rage and resentment on those who challenge them; and to assist in this I will look in detail at popular responses to the case of unemployed graduate Cait Reilly when she challenged the Department of Work and Pensions over being required to work at Poundland.
Anxiety and nostalgia
The present moment is marked by anxieties about society falling apart, and nostalgia for a lost era of social cohesion. These anxieties shape the dominant narrative about the causes of the recession – which are seen as resulting not from the excesses of the financial sector but from a profligate welfare system and an overly permissive immigration system, which has given the wrong people access to public services -the unemployed, the disabled, single parents and immigrants. This narrative justifies the austerity measures implemented by the Coalition government; and it is able to do so because of the cross-party consensus about the need for cuts, and the divisions between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’.
Anxiety and nostalgia for lost social cohesion is also being expressed by political commentators, who blame the erosion of shared traditions (through globalisation, changes to the nature of work and the family) for the current malaise. This includes architects of the ‘Blue Labour’ tendency such as Maurice Glasman, policy advisor to Ed Miliband; and Jon Cruddas MP, whose 2011 New Statesman article ‘A Country for Old Men’ questioned the left’s emphasis on progressivism. It also includes Prospect editor David Goodhart, whose 2013 book British Dream argued that immigration, particularly from the global South, was destroying the social fabric of the country.
This approach chimes in with the nostalgia within popular culture and the media for an earlier moment of stable livelihoods and authentic lives – typically the 1940s and 1950s, as signalled by the popularity of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ posters. Tracey Jensen, for example, has examined ‘the new thrift’, a middle-class romance of craft practices and other means of living with less. This nostalgia tends to airbrush out the poverty and hardship of that time, let alone the experiences of women, gays or ethnic minorities. It also fuels the ‘chav’ stereotype of contemporary working-class people as lazy and undisciplined, unlike their hard-working and respectable predecessors. And it helps to connect together a further set of related assumptions – including the guilty sense that ‘we have lost our way’ and are living less virtuous, healthy and authentic lives after the binge years of credit-fuelled consumerism and open borders, and so must now repent and return to a worthy, modest existence: we must become more like previous generations, when people knew how to mend things and didn’t eat fast food or own flat-screen televisions. (John Clarke and Janet Newman call this the ‘[puritanical] penalty to be paid for these dubious pleasures’). As Tracey Jensen argues, austerity nostalgia is also highly gendered: those seen as most in need of ‘lessons of restraint’ are mainly women, and ‘the new thrift’ connects with powerful romances about the virtuous resilience of pre-feminist lives.
This nostalgia can also be interpreted as a symptom of our loss of hope for the future, and particularly belief in the possibility of a better world, which makes it tempting to romanticise the past. And it can also be seen as resulting from a contradictory situation: the living standards conventionally associated with the good life and adulthood have become unattainable, but they still persist as dominant social norms and indexes of personal success. The gap between these norms and experience then fuels reactionary politics.
Another aspect of this public mood is the normalisation of precarity. As Jeremy Gilbert argues, neoliberalism ‘consoles’ us on an everyday level insofar as we experience our ‘sense of insecurity, of perpetual competition and…
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