How does austerity function and maintain the efficiency of its project? As a political regime of appropriation of public wealth, austerity is founded upon a certain myth of scarcity. This myth is propagated through a sensationalist right wing media to create the artificial impression that we somehow cannot afford any of the public goods we previously enjoyed, and consequently must cut down on all welfare and public spending. The interminable question “but where’s the money going to come from?” echoes around the nation every time any demand for free and accessible healthcare or education is made.
The concerted effort of the Conservative government since 2010 to cut or strip away parts of the public sector deemed superfluous has been articulated as the intervention of good economic sense into the pathological and grotesque financial mismanagement that the welfare state is understood to be. The nation is constructed as an individual who fatally ignored the realities of its own material poverty and spent and overspent money and material wealth that it simply did not have. In this sense, the nation is found guilty of the cardinal sin of financial mismanagement, and thus every individual is drawn into the moral economy of austerity. They are responsibilised personally for the financial punishment that the nation must face. We are all tasked with ‘living within our means’ – which functions in material terms to make the mass appropriation of public wealth by capital ideologically palatable. This has been theorized time and time again over the past six years. We already know this to be true; in fact, we feel it every single day.
The above narrative tells a story of one myth: that of the scarcity of material wealth. But the austerity regime seeps down even to the stratum of our personal relations, revealing a sister myth: that of the scarcity of emotional capacity. This scarcity functions in more insidious ways, leading to the breakages of solidarities and severing the links that hold together the economies of care necessary for our physical and mental survival.
Just as the first myth individualizes the responsibility for curbing material expenditure, the second isolates the individual as responsible for the economic management of its internal emotional economy. Austerity has equated financial and emotional resources as units of exchange. A fundamental scarcity of emotional capacity is placed at the centre of each individual subject. Just as one budgets one’s monthly incomings and outgoings of money, it is required of us to approach our interpersonal relationships with the same calculating rigour. If one cares too much about their neighbour, their friend, their family, if one errs on the side of looking after someone else more than themselves, then eventually they will be utterly emotionally destitute. There just simply isn’t enough care to go around, so one must be thrifty with one’s own capacities – or risk drowning.
When we (the authors) inspect our own networks of family both chosen and biological, we can pinpoint times at which we have rejected cries for help on the basis of feeling emotionally incapacitated. We justify our choices along the lines of barely having the capacity to sustain our own survival, let alone to support our wider network of suffering siblings. Within the vocabularies we have fostered within our communities, we often deploy the language of self-care to insulate and protect ourselves from expenditure of emotional capacity. These are symptoms and iterations of the myth at work, not moral failures on our part, but nonetheless a phenomenon we must think about critically.
Myths are not simply illusions; they produce real material conditions. When we say the myth of material scarcity maps onto and produces a myth of emotional scarcity, this is not to say that material deprivations under austerity do not exist, and similarly that this does not influence our emotional capacities. What we do counter is the notion that this has to be the case. The real emotional scarcity that we experience when trying to keep our loved ones and fellow people alive and cared for is a product of the austerity myth. One of its purposes is to quell collective resistance to its project of appropriation. Capital would far rather its dispossessed be bereft of the capacity to care, unable to extend a hand to one another for fear of disintegration, than to flourish in collectivised care practices, reproducing our capacities to live and struggle.
Countering the myth: collectivising care.
Insofar that we are individuals under capitalism, it is inevitable that austerity effectuates real and material scarcity for the majority. However, this need not be the case for the collective. When we understand ourselves as communities rather than individuals, we have an inexhaustible capacity for the emotional and reproductive labour necessary for all to be cared for and to flourish. What we need to do is collectively claim this capacity and potential for what we might term an ‘emotional commons’. It is only through the collectivisation of care practises that we might be able to uncover the common emotional plenitude that would be so dangerous to capital and its project of accumulation and dispossession.
Capital is not merely interested in the flows of money and goods, but equally insists upon structuring and stemming economies of affect, emotion and solidarity. We see this in the growing criminalisation of collective kindness across the Global North. In Norway, proposals to criminalise not only begging, but public donations to rough sleepers, are being rushed into legislation. Increasingly in Britain, fines are being used to prevent the ‘anti-social behaviour’ of living on the streets, fostering an environment in which the destitute are positioned as the enemy of the public, and discouraging acts of solidarity. Additionally, care and mutual aid within communities of the dispossessed is perceived as the growth of a public menace, the emergence of dangerous ‘gangs’ who collectivise begging strategies and gains.
Capital criminalises that which it is threatened by. And if it cannot tolerate the forms of solidarity and care that emerge in the cracks of its economy as listed above, imagine the extent of the threat we could pose if we were to generalise the emotional commons. This is to say that our task now is to build and formalise sustainable collective economies of care that can enable the possibility of survival and even thriving, independent to the weaponised bureaucracies of the welfare state. Care must be built into the infrastructure of the community resistance projects emerging even now in opposition to the international far right coalition of Trump, May, Farage, Le Pen. We are poised at a critical moment in history, where the onslaught against our communities is about to double down. Our challenge is not simply to build effective networks of resistance, but to ensure that these networks are structured around collective care.