Narratives of austerity are central to an agenda that seeks to link poverty to fecklessness.
Since the financial crash, fiscal discipline has been positioned as the 'solution' to the current crisis of capitalism: the correct response to a precarious future is to shrink the state, compact and condense public spending, become lean, pursue 'efficiency' and eliminate 'waste'. The austerity narrative is crucial to this positioning, and has now become powerfully anchored within the public imagination across policy, popular culture and media commentary.
The financial crisis (caused by the banking and financial sector) has been transformed into a fiscal crisis (caused by 'unsustainable' levels of public debt), and the economic problem of how to restore market stability has been transformed into a political problem of how allocate blame: a process of intensive ideological work that John Clarke and Janet Newman have called 'the alchemy of austerity'.1 Through this alchemy, the social problems of poverty, social immobility, economic inequalities and disadvantage are magically transformed into problems of 'welfare dependence', 'cultures of entitlement' and 'irresponsibility'. In many ways this narrative is a revitalisation of Thatcherism; and it is embedded in the increasingly conditional, targeted and punitive strategies of a new welfare regime.
The austerity architects have rapidly put the financial crash to ideological work, arguing that the post-war social contract - the commitment by the state to support its citizens from cradle to grave via the provision of welfare in times of need - has become too costly to continue to fund publicly. The welfare state has been (re) imagined as a negative form of 'big government', distended by 'welfare culture' and a sense of entitlement that must now be purged. Austerity policies are thus 'necessary', not because of a failure of capitalism or the excesses of global neoliberalism, but [End Page 60] because we have had it too good.
If we look closely we can see that the process of undermining social protections was begun many years before this current austerity project - and that the latest financial crisis is better seen as a catalyst than as the origin. Across Europe, the neoliberal consensus has taken the form of reduced minimum wage levels, 'liberalisation' of public sector employment (that is, making it easier for employers to fire employees), reduced benefits and higher consumer taxes. In Britain, even before the global recession a large-scale movement was underway to replace significant parts of the welfare state with forms of volunteerism and private enterprise. The austerity project has simply accelerated these processes. To understand how this alchemy of austerity has worked, we must explore not only its economic dimensions but also the emotional life of austerity.
The establishment and extension of 'Broken Britain'
The austerity narrative perhaps coalesces more substantively and intensively around the institution of the family and parenting than any other site. The current austerity regime - a lattice of reduced public spending, welfare benefit restrictions and sanctions, together with precarity and escalating living and housing costs - is effecting an economic squeeze on families, and particularly on families with low incomes, single-parent families, families with disabled children, large families and families who are precariously housed. Some recent calculations estimate that 80 per cent of the public cuts enacted so far have hit single parents.2
Clearly there is a broader project at work here around what kind of families will have a claim to social protection in the welfare landscape of the twenty-first century. We must ask why, and with what effect, these parents are being hit by austerity policies. Through an analysis of policy, together with broader analyses of cultural and media accounts of economic crisis and solution, we can begin to understand how 'austerity' works on material, social and emotional levels. 'Austerity' is producing accounts of waste and inefficiencies, moral conduct and lifestyle, work, worth and labour, within which parents are imagined as key actors of both blame and change. While 'feckless' parents act as scapegoats for moral and economic decline, 'good' parenting is offered as the solution to the social impact of welfare rollback and stagnant class mobility. [End Page 61]
In the globalised world of the twenty-first century, economic polarisation has reached...