The Spectre of Austerity
“What a mistake it was to recognize austerity. In 2009 [David Cameron], avatar of the old empire, declared an ‘Age of Austerity’ as fact. Before long, the term achieved conceptual status, a maggot deposited in the ear of everyone who bothered to listen, or listened to those who listened. A brain worm producing lesions on the mind of the mainstream left in the imperialist metropoles.” (9)
With these blistering words, Moufawad-Paul begins his incisive polemic, Austerity Apparatus, a text that cuts at the heart of leftist politics. Alongside The Communist Necessity (Kersplebedeb, 2014) and Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain (Zero Books, 2016), Austerity Apparatus completes a theoretical trilogy that explores the political possibilities of communism in political activism, particularly as it manifests in Canada. Positioning himself as a Marxist theorist with experience in Left organizing in Toronto, Moufawad-Paul illustrates how austerity isn’t wholly new, but merely a different face of capitalism designed and maintained to reproletarianize the working class.Austerity presents itself as the “logical” response to the crisis of capitalism, a policy norm directly necessitated by crises such as the 2007-2008 financial crisis. As Moufawad-Paul describes, the politics of austerity isn’t new; its “newness, or rather its novelty, concerns its operation as an ideological apparatus—the way in which it produces subject positions and a particularly discursive framework about contemporary crisis capitalism”(49). In other words, while capitalism is always pushing the goals of austerity (cuts to services for the poor, profits for the rich), positioning austerity as necessary is like a new coat of paint for such capitalist ideology. It limits our ability to discuss and organize against capitalism through misleading rhetoric and policies. Austerity demands the impossible from those living in precarity, pushing the poor to tighten their belts and pinch their pennies when they are already at their limit. Framed by reactionaries as the “rational” response to a struggling economy, we’ve seen austerity throughout policy making, especially at the height of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
Academia supports this ideology as well. Take the example of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s 2010 paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” 1 This paper, which argued that high levels of government debt compromised growth, quickly became the cornerstone of research for politicians and commentators seeking to justify austerity policies. This thesis would later be disproven in 2013 when graduate student Thomas Herndo found critical errors in Reinhart and Rogoff’s data. I reflect on the role of academia because it was when I was in university that I first learned about auestrity. I found Moufawad-Paul’s arguments clarified how austerity as an apparatus, both politically and ideologically, asserts its agenda through the state and other organizational forces to subsume subjects into its framework of oppression. Academia is but one branch that can support austerity ideology.
In the words of Althusser, who Moufawad-Paul draws from, austerity interpolates subjects into its own ideological apparatus, creating “the austerity subject, the capitalist social being whose social consciousness is determined by the operations of the apparatus that called it into existence”(83). The idealized austerity subject lives in anxiety perpetuated by forces such as the state and submits to the austerity agenda. Meanwhile, solutions presented to combat austerity, such as a return to welfare capitalism and the introduction of a basic income, merely function to control the discourse around Left organizing. This isn’t to say that resistance is futile, however. Drawing from writers such as Gramsci, Moufawad-Paul writes that no ideology is perfectly disseminated or consumed. Rather than being a cohesive apparatus, austerity often manifests as a facade that is “cobbled together from the ideological detritus accumulated by the day-to-day functioning of the austerity apparatus” (84). During this ongoing attempt to reproduce austerity, Moufawad-Paul writes that, “The ravages of a failing system begin to disrupt spontaneous consent to bourgeois rule as the values of the ruling class become questionable—even the culture industry makes a buck by promulgating distrust for the so-called 1%”(70). In this context, resistance emerges. Although as Moufawad-Paul notes, nations also hold the power of violence to enforce consent.
In short, the apparatus of austerity masks the inherent violence of capitalism, turning the Left’s attention towards the dissolution of austerity. Although austerity is a particularly insidious face and facet of capitalism, capitalism has always been in crisis. One only needs to think of the many stock market crashes, recessions, and crises around the globe to realize the chaotic, destructive instability of capitalism. The only solution is therefore the dissolution of capitalism.
Austerity Apparatus is a timely book not only in the age of austerity, but also in the context of the recent rise of fascism. By identifying how austerity builds on anxieties to build its power, Moufawad-Paul illustrates how securitization and fascist politics gain traction. As austerity distracts from the fight against capitalism itself, the “anxious subject,” who recognizes the effects of crisis in capitalism but does not view capitalism as the cause, turns to a politics of scapegoating (98). Understanding the anxious subject is vital for antifa organizers who are building stronger resistance against fascism and austerity politics in Canada. The blame is not on immigrants or Muslims as the far-Right asserts, but capitalism’s destructive, exploitative, and chaotic nature that exploits and alienates us all.
The book’s short length presents some limitations. Due to the author’s specific theoretical focus on the maintenance of the austerity apparatus in Canada and the us, those in the global peripheries may find the ideological dissections of capitalism useful, but likely face a different set of concerns or formations in terms of the needs of activism and political mobilization. 2 For instance, Moufawad-Paul’s discussion of the creation of the modern security state as a response to the crisis of capitalism and September 11 may be more applicable to the Global North than the South.
For those familiar with the analysis surrounding terms such as “austerity” or “capitalism,” this book offers a dense but rewarding summary of how austerity and subjectivity operate. However, those seeking a more accessible analysis may want to look elsewhere. That being said, as someone who has never studied political science but understands Marxist theories in a broad sense, I found the book insightful in explaining how certain institutions (such as the state and academia) work together to perpetuate austerity.
Limitations aside, I recommend the book for activists, as Moufawad-Paul offers a fruitful analysis for leftist organizers. For instance, the author shares personal stories and experiences organizing with his own union where some members actively impeded bargaining for greater gains by invoking the necessity for austerity measures. These examples illustrate the constricting logic of austerity, which convinces the austerity subject to believe that resistance is futile and impossible within the current economic climate. However, the author reminds us that we cannot simply accept the capitalist logic that we can’t push for better wages and benefits at the bargaining table because “times are tough.” If anything, it is exactly in these moments where organizing becomes critical.
While Moufawad-Paul discusses how austerity has the potential to deradicalize, he also offers insights as to how it may facilitate mobilization. The author illustrates examples of Canadian Left activism grappling with austerity as well as discussion of policies of austerity more broadly. For instance, he warns of the lure of “welfare capitalism,” such as the Basic Income pilot program planned by the Kathleen Wynne government in Ontario. Basic Income is the idea that the state will supply a regular form of minimum income to all of its citizens. Despite its potential benefits, such as eliminating the stigma associated with social assistance and reducing barriers to access services, Basic Income is a clear example of the austerity apparatus. Support has emerged from both the Left and the Right for such a program, a unity that should give us pause. Why does this policy hold such broad appeal? For some on the Left, Basic Income appears as a panacea, a stabilizing force that can potentially lift people out of poverty. Yet for the Right, as John Clarke reminds us, Basic Income is about giving as minimum support as possible to the working class. 3 The liberal government’s Basic Income project did not promise a progressive turn, but rather alluded to potential cuts to other social services, such as the elimination of the Disability Support Program. The idea behind Basic Income is that stable money would eventually replace the need for public social assistance services. In other words, Basic Income recipients will use that money to access low-quality, non-comprehensive, privatized services.
The growing interest in Basic Income programs, especially in centrist and right-wing policy circles, means radical activists and organizers need to prepare to challenge the way these “solutions” are being framed, to articulate who these programs ultimately serve, and to push past them by developing sustainable, comprehensive alternatives. In short, activists and organizers must remember that welfare capitalism is a branch of the austerity apparatus itself. Instead of fighting for or accepting the Basic Income project as is, the Left should keep pushing towards the dissolution of capitalism itself. A richer discussion of such anti-capitalist organizing that avoids the interpolation of the austerity apparatus are outside the scope of the short book, and would be welcome territory for supplemental material by the author or other organizers.
Economists, both on the Left and the Right, have written extensively on auestrity with books ranging from Mark Blyth’s economic history, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, to Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier’s exploration of austerity’s impact on academia in Austerity Blues. The ideological ramifications of austerity have also been explored by Alex Callinicos’ work on the contradictions of austerity. When we consider these other contributions, Moufawad-Paul’s analysis is not a game changer, but rather functions as a philosophical rumination for those familiar with Marxist theory.
Just as Lenin asked “What Is To Be Done?”, the book’s concluding recommendation on fighting austerity is to develop a “partisan war machine,” that is, drawing on Maoist organizing methods, tactics, and strategies used by mass movements in places like India and the Phillpines, and utilizing them in a way that can potentially unite oppressed peoples in Canada, in particular Indigenous peoples and workers against the repressive forces of capitalism, imperialism, and settler colonialism. Moufawad-Paul argues that there can and must be a diversity of struggles and movements, and that we need a theoretically and practically advanced revolutionary political party connecting these often dispersed struggles. As austerity is the main subject of this book, however, the crucial role of the partisan war machine and what this would entail is left broad and undeveloped. Instead, we are invited to read Moufawad-Paul’s other book Continuity and Rupture, where a fuller history and applicability of Maoist theory and organizing is explored. •
2 Charles Arthur and Phillip Inman, “The Error that Could Subvert George Osborne’s Austerity Programme,” The Guardian, April 18, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/18/uncovered-error-george-osborne-austerity. If anything, this event makes it quite clear the necessity of peer review.3