The secret state: spending cuts and the end of compartmentalised Keynesianism

The coalition government will announce the findings of its Spending Review next month. In other words, the cuts are upon us. Several media outlets are running ‘cuts watch’ features, and there is an understandable frenzy underway among stakeholders of all shapes, sizes and political stripes about how cuts will impact on their particular interests. Every other day we have senior members of the government, and Nick Clegg, out and about making speeches and conducting interviews about how these cuts are necessary but fair.

Representatives of the commentariat have also been busy talking to ‘the general public’. While the government is asking us for ideas, journalists and pollsters have set themselves the task of proving how incredibly stupid and selfish we are. You see, a strange thing happens when we get asked about public spending. We say that government should cut waste – but nothing that I personally benefit from could possibly be classified as waste, we add. We say that government should cut benefits to scroungers – but the benefits that I personally receive are entirely legitimate, we argue. And we say that government should raise taxes on the rich – but I myself am far from wealthy, we explain.

I don’t want to sound flippant, nor to challenge the wisdom of the public at large. But it is clear to me that there is huge uncertainty among most people in Britain about what the state does and why it does it. I am about to embark on a gross simplification, but I would suggest that this is a product of the depoliticisation of public life. We don’t even think about the fact that free bus passes for the elderly or SureStart centres, for example, are items of public expenditure that cost taxpayers billions. We’ve lost a sense of the bigger picture and are concerned purely with our own back yards. The New Right and Thatcher told us to think like this. We were told it was natural to think like this.

And then New Labour came along and said it is even okay for socialists to think like this. They told us there was no point bothering with politics anymore, because globalisation had stolen all of our power anyway. But not to worry, globalisation is a merciful god; the promised land is a globalised space. The great paradox is that these governments who, influenced by neoliberal dogma, told us that the state is dead, actually expanded the reach and size of the public sector more than any government since Attlee’s.

It’s an open secret. Even if one did want to try and generate an understanding of what the state does, in order to think about cutting it back, just where would you start? The state has been sliced up into so many different agencies and layers of governance it’s hard to know what is public spending and what isn’t. It is compartmentalised Keynesianism: creating jobs for middle-managers otherwise redundant due to technological change. The market cannot and will not employ the growing middle-class. So the state must. This is roll-back, baby, neoliberal style.

Neoliberalism hit the rocks when the financial crisis came. It sank without trace when financial crisis led to the banking bailout and caused a fiscal crisis. The secret growth of the public sector can no longer continue unabated. But given that we’ve had two generations of collective denial about the functions of the state, developing consensus on what to do about it is going to be impossible.

Save 6 Music, if you must, but sell Radio 1 and Radio 2

So the BBC’s digital radio station 6 Music has been saved from closure by the BBC Trust, the gaggle of professional board members and luvvies who represent the public within the Beeb. Whether you agree with this (non-)decision or not, there are serious issues about public service broadcasting that are strangely missing from the debate.

I’ll be honest – I’m not a fan of 6 Music. I think it celebrates indie mediocrity and provides a haven for presenters who aren’t quite funny enough for Radio 1 or nice enough for Radio 2 or pretty enough for television. But that’s not the point.

In fact, on balance I think 6 Music probably should be retained. But my concern is that the debate about 6 Music – perhaps the most significant engagement of the public in an issue concerning public service broadcasting since the Andrew Gilligan affair – has been conducted exclusively in terms of whether or not 6 Music is any good.

As I said, it’s not good. Tiny listening figures suggest (albeit not definitively) that most people agree with me about that. But the whole point of public service broadcasting is that it sustains things that might not be as entertaining as the other channels and stations, precisely because they are in the public interest. 6 Music’s ostensible aim to nurture new artists is, arguably, a very positive thing.

Very few people have bothered to make this argument. A small band of people seem hell-bent on rescuing 6 Music but have not utilised the strongest argument in support of their campaign. Thirty years of neoliberalism has destroyed the value of public service broadcasting in UK political discourse and values.

Here’s an idea for you. Save 6 Music, but sell Radio 1 and Radio 2. The BBC’s flagship radio stations provide virtually no public interest. I am not saying that public-owned broadcasters should not attempt to entertain. But it should entertain for artistic reasons, not just to chase ratings. The little bits of public service provided by Radio 1 and Radio 2 could easily be provided by the BBC’s other stations, or by public funding of private sector providers. It is certainly the case that Chris Moyles, Chris Evans et al would be able to find gainful employment elsewhere, as much as it pains me to admit that. There is simply no case grounded in the value of public service broadcasting to expect taxpayers to fund two huge institutions which operate as a near-duopoly in UK radio.

The Times, they are a-crazy

by False Economy

Anatole Kaletsky, Editor-at-large of The Times, today turns the table on those who believes the fiscal crisis has been caused by the banking bailout. It is not greedy bankers, but rather greedy old people. Citing the upcoming retirement of the first wave of baby boomers, and David Willet’s book on the subject, he argues that “[t]he credit crunch and recession did not create the present pressures on public borrowing and spending. They merely brought forward an age-related fiscal crisis that would have become inevitable, as by 2020 the majority of the baby-boomers will be retired.”

There is something to be said for Kaletsky’s argument. An ageing population is a challenge to society on many fronts: cultural, economic, and certainly fiscal. But is it a bad thing that people are living longer? Of course not. While they were constructing a welfare state safety net and accruing decent pensions, the baby boomers were also responsible for creating a sustained period of unprecedented economic growth, ushering in age of prosperity which has benefited society in countless ways. What is the point of economic growth if not to help fund more comfortable lifestyles at the end of our working life? Kaletsky also makes the classic mistake of not considering public spending growth per capita. Older people cost the taxpayer more, but will today’s retirees actually get more than their predecessors, or are there just more of them? The latter is far closer to the truth than Kaletsky lets on.

There is also the bizarre claim that “pensions, health, and long-term care” are protected and even “ring-fenced” entitlements. On the first two, Kaletsky may have a point. But long-term care? Ring-fenced? I must have missed something, because as far as I can tell, all of the main political parties have been scratching their heads for years trying to work out how we will pay for long-term care in the future. Despite the immense political power exercised by old people, as Kaletsky seems to think, nobody wants to stump up the money to fund a sustainable solution to the care crisis.

Kaletsky ends his article with the “modest proposal” that when people reach the age of 75 or 80, they should no longer be able to vote. If depriving UK citizens of their most basic right as members of a democratic society is “modest”, I dread to think what “radical” looks like.

If there is a “war between the generations”, as Kaletsky claims, then it is a war declared not by the baby boomers, but by the neoliberal elite desperate for somebody other than themselves to blame for the mess they have made. An ageing population is a problem, as well as an opportunity, but it is one that will be solved by forging sound inter-generational relations rather than the kind of childish nonsense being peddled by The Times.

Making hard work of it: Allusions to work in the party manifestos

I’ve believed for a while that the advanced capitalist economies are likely to enter a period of reduced demand for labour (economically speaking, that is… demand for the big-L variety dried up circa 2008). It isn’t inevitable – nothing ever is – and the evidence is still quite sketchy. But there is a fairly strong likelihood that the post-industrial expansion of employment fuelled by domestic, financial and technology-related services has already reached its historical peak.

In one way, the party manifestos back this up. Governments just don’t do employment strategies anymore, and there is nothing to suggest otherwise at this election, despite the recent and upcoming rise in unemployment following the recession. On the other hand, the parties don’t seem to get it. They actually talk endlessly about work – even though in some sectors, and in some areas, the jobs simply do not exist. Ultimately, work has been individualised (i.e. our leaders talk about our capacity to work, not the organisations we could actually work for), and as such is presented as central to our identity as human beings and our citizenship.

The Labour and Conservative manifestos bang on and on about welfare-to-work policies and providing training for young, workless people. Labour also champions its record on the National Minimum Wage and its employment-based model of individual rights. The Conservatives go even further: their manifesto talks about the social evil of workless households and how immigrants are taking jobs that homegrown NEETs could be doing. It suggests we should work longer – i.e. raise the state pension age faster than already planned – and even the creation of ‘local work clubs’ where people meet up to talk about jobs, recruitment, etc. The latter is indicative of the Conservative’s ‘big society’ shtick: not only do they want us working ‘til we drop while we’re at work, they want us running the country in our spare time. Is it just me, or does the whole thing feel a bit like a really lame version of Mao’s cultural revolution?

The Lib Dems are perhaps the least guilty in this regard. They emphasise flexible working (a slight acknowledgement that there is an over-supply of labour) and how an Obama-style green economy would create jobs (thus in a minimal sense creating more labour demand). Moreover, while their (much shorter) prospectus has less on training the NEETs, they are the only ones to offer some serious government money for apprenticeships. Nevertheless, all the parties refer far too much to vocational education (why not education for its own sake?) and we should all become worker-managers in mutual and co-operatives (gimme a break). Work/life balance, anyone?

We’re in a situation where the political class have privatised the pursuit of social justice. It is only through paid employment that we are truly empowered. Of course, this ideological trick has been influenced by the fact the state can no longer afford to do social justice, even if it wanted to. So the state does more with less by getting us to pick up the slack. I’m no statist, but given the trends in labour demand and the huge potential for new economic lifestyles that could result, it is an intellectual move that seems to be coming at precisely the wrong time.


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