In Act IV Scene I of King Lear, the blinded, humbled, suicidal Earl of Gloucester hands his purse to the naked madman, 'Poor Tom' (actually Gloucester's ill-used son, Edgar). As he does so, he observes: 'So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough.'
Shakespeare's 400-year-old wisdom has proved too advanced for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, whose plans for the next five years involve a redistribution of wealth from the have-littles to the have-more-than-enoughs of historic proportions. The new government's first budget slashed spending on benefits for unemployed and disabled people, childcare and housing, froze public sector workers' pay for two years and raised VAT, a regressive tax, to 20 per cent - while cutting corporation tax by 4 per cent and reducing employers' national insurance contributions.
At the same time, the government plans to force hundreds of thousands off benefits, eliminate 500,000 to 700,000 public sector jobs, sacrifice another 600,000 private sector jobs dependent on public spending and curtail the expansion of university places. Inevitable result: a much-enlarged reserve army of the unemployed, which will undermine wages, conditions and security across the board.
On top of that, the public services on which both employed and unemployed rely will deteriorate in quantity and quality. Poverty, however measured, will increase and will become harder to escape or ameliorate. The inequality that already blights British society will intensify. The lives of the majority will grow more precarious. Overall, there will be a drastic reduction in the social wage, without which paid wages and benefits do not amount to a livelihood.
This is necessary, we're told, so that the deficit can be paid down. Yet, in the absence of substantial economic growth spurred by private sector investment (since the state has withdrawn from that function), the costs of unemployment will cancel out reductions in the deficit. All that pain will have been for nothing - though not for the rich, who will see their rates of profit protected and their share of national income increased. The pain is not being shared. In fact, the recession is being exploited by the government to alter the balance of wealth and power in British society in favour of those who already have much more than enough.
In resisting this sweeping attack, we will have to confront and overcome the legacy of more than 30 years of relentless propaganda for the primacy of individual self-interest. Working class people have internalised the measuring rod of neoliberalism, the shame of 'failure' and the worship of 'success'.
To respond effectively to the coming onslaught, we will have to engage with a deep crisis of working class confidence. To do so requires not only vigorous, unapologetic counter-propaganda, but collective action, which remains the most salutary antidote to the sense of powerlessness.
Being a 'coalition' makes it easier for the government to claim it's acting in 'the national interest'. The presence of the Lib Dems, and even their reversals on VAT and the like, strengthens the pretence that there is no alternative: that the cuts are 'necessitated' by the state of the country's finances.
On the other hand, a coalition is obviously more unstable and more vulnerable to popular protest. If, as seems likely, the government's economic package pushes the economy back into recession, the coalition could unravel and the government could be toppled or forced to change course. But that will only happen if, in the meantime, we have built a movement that insists on an alternative.
Stripping the mask
Our campaign against the cuts has first and last to contest their 'necessity'. This involves a challenge to the dictatorship of 'the markets', which we need to identify as a modern form of despotism. We have to strip the mask from the financial elite, whose self-interest is dressed up as the public interest, and who disguise self-serving policies as mere obedience to impersonal economic 'laws' (see 'Countering the cuts myths', page 22).
In this consumer society we are offered 'choice' in everything but what matters most: the determination of our common priorities and the disposition of our common resources. When it comes to taxing and spending, we are told there is no choice. So the struggle against the cuts is also a struggle for democracy and should be framed that way.
Extreme wealth exercises an undemocratic sway over our economy. Redistributing that wealth is not a luxury, but the only means of building a sustainable economy. The public sector is our most precious long-term investment, not an optional extra or a burdensome debt to be disposed of. It's the necessary basis for economic activity and social development. The fight against the cuts is a fight against waste: waste of resources, skills, labour power. It is a contest over fundamental social values, not a dispute between expert economists. The case for the cuts rests not on arithmetic but on ideology, a series of linked assumptions that can only be sustained because they are protected from scrutiny.
It's time for everyone to become an economist, to apply their own moral sense to public priorities, and to bear in mind that those who publicly pontificate about the need for cuts belong largely to the minority who will benefit from that policy. Commentators who preach austerity with the same air of scientific sagacity with which they once endorsed the financial sector's speculative shenanigans should be treated not with respect but with mockery and derision.
In the 1980s, Thatcher made a virtue of not turning back. That boast became a self-fulfilling prophecy largely thanks to concessions made by her opponents. If we repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, we will lose the coming battle. Back then, the labour movement succumbed to division; there was a failure of solidarity and a failure of vision from the movement's leadership. The intelligentsia endowed every setback and justified every compromise with the weight of historical inevitability. Those who weren't cowed or seduced were isolated.
We have to be alert to and staunch in opposing attempts to create divisions between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, private and public sector, 'productive' and 'unproductive' workers, the poor and not-so-poor. We have to appropriate the government's slogan - 'we're all in this together' - and use it to consolidate a movement of the majority. Our campaign has to foster interchange between workforces and service users. We have to organise locally, nationally and internationally, drawing strength from the struggles against cuts already underway elsewhere. We have to employ a wide variety of tactics, including cultural interventions. The London Olympics may well be held amid social turmoil and we should prepare now for the opportunities the event offers.
Do or die
In the end, wide-scale industrial action will be necessary. For the trade unions, the next few years are do or die. Either they re-establish themselves as effective champions of working class people or sink into marginal irrelevance. At the moment, the rhetoric from the leadership is militant but there's not much evidence of strategic planning. In the meantime, momentum has to be supplied by community campaigns. These have emerged in some localities but need to become ubiquitous. They are indispensable vehicles for disseminating the arguments and recruiting activists.
Unity and solidarity are the watchwords. They have to be not just lofty sentiments but constant practice. The movement as a whole, trade unions and local campaigns, needs to rally to every flashpoint, widening (not isolating) local or sectoral struggles as they emerge. The more confident people are that they will receive support, the more likely they are to take action. The key here is that the government will only retreat if we do not. In the 1980s, every 'tactical retreat', every concession, left Thatcher et al hungry for more.
It's time we returned to Shakespeare's wisdom, and perhaps even further back to the first century, to Rabbi Hillel, whose ethical catechism should be pondered by all public sector workers and service users: 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?'
'Contending for the Living' is Mike Marqusee's regular column for Red Pepper. For more see www.mikemarqusee.com
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.