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Unmasking Austerity

Unmasking Austerity: Opposition and Alternatives in Europe and North America, by Dexter Whitfield, reviewed by Edward Dingwall

October 1, 2015
3 min read

unmaskingaThe historical currents in which Dexter Whitfield wrote this book came before a flood: before the UK election, the Greek escalation, the redoubled attacks on already-battered sections of society. But also before a movement found a man for the moment in Jeremy Corbyn.

Part economic exposé of austerity’s origins, part instruction to a potentially renewed labour movement from myriad campaigns around the world – if the prose is sometimes dry, it is at least clear, sharp and short on inessential rhetoric. The analysis and ambition are credible, the examples are instructive, the scope is global and the observations astute. Were we to pursue Corbyn-style participatory policy-making, Whitfield’s is certainly a valuable voice.

Unmasking Austerity explains how we got here, but I am not sure it is as clear on where we are going. He offers another account of the massive transfer of wealth that took place when financial speculation emerged as crisis, and the early and disparate ‘anti-austerity’ flashpoints such as the Occupy camps, student protests and isolated strikes. While such initiatives seemed to stall, Whitfield sees how their energy actually spread into new connections, cross-pollinating alternative ideas and methods. His ready acknowledgement of these developments and their potential power is more forward-thinking than many other public services scholars. His proposals for organisational reform, priorities and effective economic levers are familiar, though, even if he ties them together more neatly than others manage.

I first encountered the author as a trade unionist in Barnet, a situation he covers here. His alternative business case to mass council outsourcing was fundamental to our opposition efforts, though leaders on all sides were slow to see the sense in them. His ideas have helped more in places where those in power were willing to contemplate different options.

And that’s the thing. There is plenty here that should be done, even if it is not always obvious by whom or exactly how, and that feels like an easy sell to the like-minded. Whitfield’s exposé adds to what is obvious: if you are minded to look, austerity has no mask. It is thoroughly discredited, yet it persists.

The assault on social democratic values, institutions and people’s lives is even more disturbing without the cover story of immediate and unavoidable necessity. Yet without the mask, we can see it truly and better determine our way forward.