When the Con-Dems ushered in the bright shiny new era of coalition politics with a tripling of student tuition fees the wave of anger this provoked seemed to suggest a popular opposition would be an enduring feature of this government's term in office. Prominent student leader Clare Solomon described the moment, with co-author Tania Palmieri, in her book Springtime as :
" There is a new anger that melts the snow. All hail the new, young student Decembrists who challenged complacent government and simultaneously fired a few shots across the bows of an opposition and its toadies in the media, all still recovering from a paralytic hangover, a consequence of imbibing too much Nouveau Blair."
Students occupying the roof of the Tory Party's Millbank HQ was a spectacle of revolt, occurring on the eve of the Arab Spring, militant resistance in Greece and Spain, the beginnings of Occupy in the USA. We really did seem to be on the edge of popular protest.
Just over three years later and the issue at the epicentre of Britain's embryonic and youthful protest movement would appear to be sleepwalking into a new common-sense. The eye-watering £9000 per year university fees are being paid, however grudgingly, universities are marketing themselves with little or no sense of the point of the courses or the recruitment targets just so long as income streams are fulfilled. The resentment - in most cases justified - at not getting 'value for money' - is all about service provision and the 'student experience', individualised, torn out of any context of the social or the collective.
Soon-to-be-elected TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady in the days building up to the 750,000 strong demonstration the TUC organised in March 2011 against the cuts described the mood as 'Trade Unionism's moment'. She detailed the potential as,
"To develop a great campaign, uniting a coalition of communities, service users, political and protest groups. Unions will have to reach well beyond our membership."
Perhaps the most visible link between both responses to the Con-Dems was UK Uncut. Imaginative and creative use of peaceful direct action, targeted at the worst of the High Street tax avoiders, Philip Green's Top Shop, Vodaphone and Boots. Precious few like a tax dodger. for a period UK Uncut was able to play a key role in framing public debate but UK Uncut's activism was sapped by an ever- increasing criminalisation of their non-violent protest . And not much in the more traditional way of marches and rallies has come in their place. The exhaustion of popular dissent is obvious. The exception being localised actions, mainly in defence of much loved hospitals, able to mobilise huge numbers and very effective campaigns but largely disconnected from any grander narrative of opposition.
The People's Assembly was launched in 2013. It is the most ambitious attempt yet to seek to turn public discontent into a popular movement on the scale of the anti-war movement of the 2000's. But even the most enthusiastic activist would have to admit that while resistance is never futile, right now it isn't exactly fertile, over-flowing with energy, support and action. One attempt to explain this has been provided by the late Stuart Hall in a superb paper he wrote shortly before his death with Alan O'Shea, Common-Sense Neoliberalism. .
The authors cite the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's concept of 'good sense' which co-exists with a broader, often reactionary 'common-sense' view of the world. For Gramsci this was ' 'the healthy nucleus ... which deserves to be made more unitary and coherent'. In an era of austerity Hall and O'Shea summarise this as
"Apparently obvious taken-for granted understandings that express a sense of unfairness and injustice about 'how the world works': landlords tend to exploit tenants, banks responsible for the 'credit crunch' expect to be bailed out by taxpayers rather than take the crunch themselves. CEOs receive immense bonuses even when their companies perform badly; profitable businesses will avoid paying tax if they can; and companies profiting from a fall in commodity prices will not pass the gains on to consumers."
In his new book Against Austerity the critic and writer Richard Seymour further develops this important line of thinking. Purposefully situating the imperatives of austerity in a political context framed by class, state and ideology. Richard Seymour dissects what he calls the 'bad news gospel' not only to reveal the wholesale transformation of the welfare state being ushered in under the rubric of austerity but also the inadequacies of much of the Left's response. Drawing on the work of Ernesto Laclau as well as Gramsci, ranging over Occupy and the student protests against tuition fees, international examples of resistance from Greece to Quebec this most impressive of polemical books rages against a Left that has so disappointed the author, and plenty more besides him too. Both in its social-democratic and r-r-r revolutionary variants. But this is no counsel for the terminally cynical, rather it is a demand to be scrupulously rigorous in the analysis of the predicament a largely marginalised left finds itself in at the very moment, of economic crisis, that it likes to think when it is best-placed to flourish.
The alternative offered is practical in its critique. One line in particular will be all-too-familiar to many on the Left. " The constant over-optimism about the latest flash-point of struggle, followed by demoralisation in which only the most hardened of activists remain." And this is coupled with the necessity to be both tactical and strategic in the political response the Left offers." We can win victories now, but we have a generation of slow, patient work in front of us if we are to fundamentally turn things round."
For those not in favour? Against Austerity, but with the very necessary connections to a popular good-sense understanding that the crisis was made by those who would seek to punish the rest of us with the consequences. Without this kind of twin-track Richard Seymour so carefully describes the Left is tempted to retreat into the warm embrace of the comfort blanket of dull certainty. Secure in the knowledge that it never had much faith in capitalism in the first place but incapable of contributing very much to popularise any kind of alternative.
Richard Seymour's Against Austerity book is available exclusively at half-price, postage free and a signed edition for just £6.49 when purchased with Philosophy Football's Against Austerity T-shirt . From here