The austerity of political debate


It’s remarkable how easily elite-serving language gets popularised. And with it, the very terms of ‘acceptable debate’. All those voluble calls to ‘end austerity’ seem humane and noble. But the ‘austerity’ meme itself helps foster the notion that the poor once enjoyed some kind of ‘pre-austere’ existence. The very notion of ‘austerity period’ as some kind of measured dose of ‘harsh-but-necessary’ medicine is not only wicked, it helps sustain the fiction that there was already some kind of tolerable ‘pre-cuts’ society.This allows the main neoliberal parties to engage in postured exchange about the relative effects of ‘austerity cuts’, their likely duration and, as election sweeteners, the possibility of their marginal easing.The narrowly-prescribed terms of such ‘policies’ neatly evade the much more fundamental issue of mass inequality, multiple deprivation and misery of life under capitalism at large. But that kind of discussion, probing the actual mendacity and madness of the corporate order, is deemed laughably immature, naïvely abstract and off-limits. Such is the deeply-austere nature of political debate.


Imagine one of the four main topic questions in the much-hailed Leaders’ Debate having been:

Are parties willing or even capable of doing anything to deliver society from the pernicious rule and crisis effects of neoliberal capitalism?

Or, instead of the political-media-hyped section devoted to ‘the burning issue of immigration’:

Climate change is the emergency issue of our time. What hope for a serious set of policies to control the corporate forces driving the destruction of our planet?

It was notable that in an entire two-hour mass-public debate, nothing remotely challenging of the dominant order could be deemed permissible for discussion, such as:

Why have party politics and the prevailing parliamentary system failed to advance the compassionate society?

While Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood made commendable efforts to refute the Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Farage consensus on continued cuts, deficit reductions and controls on immigration, any case for a more progressive politics was always still subject to cautious conditioning on what can be ‘reasonably’ argued, ‘sensibly’ said and ‘hopefully’ expected.

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Thus, from Labour, the ‘best hope’, we’re assured, for those struggling to survive and dependent on food banks is some supposed ‘rescue’ through promises of ‘renewed growth’, notional promises to end zero-hours contracts, and a few paltry tax inducements to all those ‘hard-working families’.

And that’s about the sum of it; the ‘as-good-as-it-gets’ limit of ‘radical reform’. Decades of ‘neoliberal realities’ have conditioned politicians, the media and the wider public to the very idea of what’s even mentionable, never mind politically doable.

Little wonder so many voters feel deeply alienated from the political system. We’re expected to be passive, compliant consumers of supermarket politics and brand-name parties, all hard-selling ‘extra-special’ versions of the same old generic product.

And the political fare on offer is all manufactured and presented to placate big business, to court corporate approval and to ensure that the ways in which we vent our dissatisfaction is safely-boundaried by QuestionTime-type ‘participation’.

So you will hear endless party gushings on the need to ‘tackle poverty’ and ‘create prosperity’, but never how to liberate people from the mentally-oppressing anguish, fear and distress of market life.

In welcome contrast, have a look at this honest, deep-searching Trews piece from Russell Brand on the dysfunctionality of corporate society, and ask the question: why is this kind of elementary subject matter, things that should constitute the very heart of political debate, not even remotely up for discussion?

As David Edwards, Media Lens co-editor, sums up Brand’s thoughts (ML message board, 31 March 2015):

Excellent. Isn’t it amazing that such an obviously rational analysis of these issues is more or less unthinkable anywhere in the corporate media? I mean, that even ideas as straight forward and rational as this are simply not allowed. I think it’s really difficult for any of us to appreciate just how much of reality is out of bounds.

What we end up with, instead, is sterile reportage of party claim and counterclaim over ‘improving living standards’, and relentless reminders of the need for ‘prudent economics’, such as ‘tackling the deficit’.

The entire public-political discourse has been reduced and infantilised to keep minds focused on the narrowest possible spectrum of ‘election issues’, most of it appealing to selfish individualism and the ‘threatening other’ rather than how to advance real societal care and compassion.

Isn’t it the most urgent time now for meaningful political debate over the meaningless nature of most party political debate?  Rather than being drawn into the facile narrative of ‘electoral choices’ and claims over ‘who won the TV clash’, shouldn’t we be asking: what kind of true debate and engagement is needed to expose the whole media-framed charade in order to promote new political possibilities for real radical change?

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