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Books review: Challenge to neoliberal dominance

Against Austerity: How We Can Fix The Crisis They Made 

by Richard Seymour

(Pluto Press, £11.50)

AUSTERITY has dominated our political landscape since the financial crash of 2008 but the left has yet to formulate a comprehensive analysis of it, never mind a compelling alternative economic strategy.

Richard Seymour’s Against Austerity provides an excellent and accessible critique of austerity — how it relates to class, the state and ideology — and advocates new types of organisation and resistance to it. 

Seymour rejects the left’s immediate assessment of the crisis — that it would spell the end of neoliberalism — and instead argues that austerity is best understood as a distinct class strategy framed within the deepening of neoliberalism. 

Austerity is not about spending cuts but the fundamental realignment of capitalism through the growth of financial capital, a movement from consumption to investment, the recomposition of social classes and the growing penetration of the state by corporations. 

The neoliberal state may present itself as a small-government, free-market structure but, as Seymour demonstrates, it is less concerned with the volume of state activity than the character of state activity by regulating markets, bank bailouts and reconstituting the public sector through privatisation. The neoliberal state dismantles welfarist obstacles and replaces them with markets. 

One of the key effects of austerity has been the decline in the political participation of working people. Central to this has been the changing nature of class formation with an increase in job insecurity, underemployment, casualised work, zero-hour contracts and temporary work. 

Seymour identifies this fragmented group as the “precariat” and observes that trends of non-standard employment — entrenched by a growing culture of indebtedness — are gendered and racialised and linked to growing forms of segregation and ghettoisation. 

His strategy for opposing austerity is “neither the radical left party nor the trade union but the social movement.” In the short term an “alliance of the working majority” must be stiched together that reconciles diverse interest based on mutual solidarity and collectivism. 

A form of “new unionism” — fusing social movement unionism and community unionism — that engages the majority of private-sector workers with no union recognition through wide-based political campaigns, such as tenancy rights and energy prices, is essential. 

Seymour champions a working-class strategy that recognises the changing formation of the working-class and the ways it is constructed along gender and racial lines to build resistance both inside and outside state structures and, most importantly, challenge neoliberal ideological hegemony. 

Dan Smith

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