Austerity: Two, Three, Many Campaigns

Ian Parker examines campaigns and alternatives.


The Conservative government, the Tories, don’t care about us. Their lives, and the lives of those they mix with through family ties and business networks, are very different from the lives of those who are being told to pay for this crisis. You don’t need conspiracy theories to understand how it is that those in the top one per cent deal with crisis and have fixed a budget that benefits them.

They don’t need a National Health Service because they can pay for private medicine, for example, and so they have no personal interest in keeping the NHS going. They have some political interest in it, of course, because they need a healthy workforce and they need to respond to protests against it being dismantled, and some of them honestly believe that there should be a safety net for the poor, for those who can’t pay for health.

But that brings us to another aspect of the crisis that we have to deal with. Tories pump out stories about the NHS failing, and it is under real pressure, and that has, among other things, the deliberate effect of driving people into taking out private health insurance. We see here just one instance of how, because of the way they live their lives, they honestly believe that this is how everyone should live their lives. Their ideas are the ruling ideas.

Austerity and propaganda

So, we have two aspects of the crisis that lay bare what revolutionary Marxists have always argued. The ruling class and the capitalist state represent their interests, which are designed to protect their interests, pushing austerity and propaganda. The rich can pay, they can afford it, but we cannot; that is austerity. And the rich will tell us that this is the only way things can be, that there is no alternative; that is propaganda.

This propaganda, ideology as the ruling ideas that are always the ideas of the ruling class, was neatly summed up by a comrade, now no longer with us, Mark Fisher, in the phrase ‘capitalist realism’. We are faced with an intense barrage of ideology about the causes of the crisis and about who must pay; the underlying assumption is that this is basic reality; you can’t buck reality, you must bend to it, and so to be realistic you must play by the rules of capitalism. And, even more so since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that seems to be the case; capitalism seems to be the only game in town.

Capitalism as a political-economic system thus sets the ground rules for how we respond to crisis and distress, austerity and poverty. This capitalist realism makes it seem like, with the climate crisis that is actually driven by capitalist exploitation of nature also hitting us, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. You don’t need to explicitly consciously agree with that for capitalist realism to operate as taken-for-granted assumptions and practices that help us make sense of what is happening to us now.

This ideology, this propaganda, is a material force, operating alongside austerity. It makes us feel more hopeless and more miserable and sometimes makes us feel that it is somehow our fault, that we are not working hard enough, economising enough, or being positive enough. Everything is down to us, and on top of everything else, in these times of neoliberal capitalism, it is down to us as individuals. No wonder the crisis is making us sick, making us feel even more desperate and unable to do anything.

But, and this is crucial, this capitalist realism, capitalism and its ideology that tells us that it is normal and natural and that there is no alternative, is full of contradictions. The contradictions create spaces for movement and for change. We can now see contradictions, for example, between Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, on the one hand, and the International Monetary Fund, on the other.


There are contradictions between hard-line Tories intent on shutting down state welfare provisions and the softer, well-meaning ones who want things not to be so hard. This is either because they feel bad about what’s happening or they think they’ll lose votes from constituents who are a lot poorer than them. There is a danger that these kinds of contradictions are still within the same game, though, with capitalist realism apparently being the only game in town.

There are, of course, deeper contradictions, and those are contradictions that we need to notice at a global level. Capitalism is a global system, and we need to be internationalists to be able to understand it and understand our place in it. These contradictions are between those who are exploited and those who live off that exploitation. Those contradictions open up in mass struggles and in counter-attacks by capitalism. So, we see mass protests against austerity around the world, and we see attempts to repress those protests.

Here are key contradictions between the individualist solutions that capitalist ideology promotes and internationalist collective activity. Our task is to mobilise collective energy and enable the working class to take power. It takes a bit of power when it refuses austerity, and then speaks on its own account, for itself.

Those are the kinds of contradictions that we aim to open up, to really give voice to people who are organising to take control of their own lives. One deadly threat to that process is, of course, fascism. Fascism has always been an extreme way for capitalism to restore order. But there is, of course, another problem, and that is when contradictions work to divide us. Among us, among the working class, among the left. Sectarianism is a stupid and destructive part of that problem.

But here is a crucial point. Contradiction and debate among us as socialists is not itself a problem as such. Contradiction and debate are evidence of a liveliness and mobilisation of workers of different kinds. Here we find ways to give voice to the most oppressed, to those who are the target of racism; to those who work in the care sector and the family, those engaged in social reproduction as their labour; and to those who are already excluded from the workforce on grounds of disability or mental distress.

Let us focus for a moment on how we can engage in debate that works positively and constructively with contradiction. In these times of austerity, we have a number of different campaigns. They sometimes act as rivals to each other. Sometimes they put energy into promoting themselves against others. Of course, we want them all to come together in one big campaign against austerity. That way, we would be powerful. Then we could change the rules of the game, showing that this capitalist realism is not so realistic and that there is an alternative. In the meantime, however, we need to take a different path. The question is how we can support anyone involved in any of the campaigns and draw them into joint action.


There is, first of all, and most successful, the ‘Enough Is Enough’ campaign. This brings together comrades from inside and outside the Labour Party, from Momentum and from the Communist Party, and a range of other people. It is organised as what we might recognise from the history of socialist struggle as a ‘popular front’. That is, it is of course a front organisation for different organisations, but it also operates on a coverall agreed argument. That is summed up in the title of the campaign, ‘Enough Is Enough’; it is a complaint and an appeal.

So, at the very large meeting in Manchester recently, for example, we had the Dean of the Cathedral speaking, other faith leaders, trade union leaders; and Andy Burnham, who had most probably calculated that there was nothing too contentious in the campaign and he wouldn’t be committed to doing too much. There you can see the limits, and we have to be careful that the shutters do not come down on more radical approaches. This kind of popular front campaign is an approach which works across classes and brings together people who think capitalism could be nicer and those who really think capitalism is no good.

If we can have voices in that campaign and an opportunity to link and mobilise people, then that is excellent, and the campaign should be supported on that basis. Our participation then is alongside many people who we debate with and debate with while taking action. There will be a dynamic in that kind of campaign, contradictions in which there will be some who want to keep things steady, hold to commonly agreed complaints and appeals, and some who want to take action, strike action for example.

The second kind of campaign that has been going on for much longer is the ‘Peoples Assembly Against Austerity’. That campaign has brought together some Labour Party activists, some from the Communist Party and, with great energy, from a small group called Counterfire. It has been doing great work over the years, and it works a little to the left of ‘Enough is Enough’, but with some significant overlap. The overlap comes in action, in protests at the Tory Party conference, for example. Where it moves on from simply staging bigger and bigger demonstrations in which its organisations can recruit members, to strikes and other joint action, that’s where it is really worth supporting.

This is closer to what we would call a ‘united front’. The difference between a popular front approach, like that of ‘Enough Is Enough, and a united front approach that we see in ‘Peoples Assembly’ is that there should be room for open disagreement and debate. We need to be clear about what we think are the ways forward but combine them at key moments in action. To be honest, it is a bit of a struggle to keep things open in this way inside a rather top-down organisation. The watchword of the united front is ‘march separately, strike together’.

A third campaign is further to the left but also operates in a slightly different way. That is the ‘Don’t Pay’ campaign. This is smaller and has a clearer, action-oriented approach. It is a kind of ‘united front’, but a bit more tightly organised than that, organising around one demand. It is quite understandably suspicious of the labour and trade union bureaucracy and operates according to a ‘rank and file’ principle that was once a trademark of the Socialist Workers Party. The demand is an action; it says that if it gets a million pledges not to pay energy bills, then it will mobilise people and support people not to pay them.

The main movers of this are another small group called RS21, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century that broke away from the Socialist Workers Party, and another even smaller group called Plan C, the C is for Communism. Let’s do what we can to support that, but be clear about a limit, a problem. There is a danger that those who really don’t pay in the end will be those who really can’t pay, i.e. the poorest among us, who will be even more victimised. Not paying can have a big impact on credit ratings, tying more people into poverty. The campaign is clear that we should do what we can, go as far as we can, and not push people beyond their limits.

So, we need to be able to find a way to take the actions that are actually supported by these three different campaigns and treat them all together, wherever possible, within a genuinely democratic ‘united front’ approach. Many in the popular front-style ‘Enough Is Enough’ campaign are already up for that. They won’t be tied to the limits of the campaign, and they are already doing other things, supporting strikes and so on.

Many of those in Peoples Assembly do themselves consciously believe in a united front approach, and they know that top-down organisation and the silencing of different alternative voices is a real problem and a limit to what is possible. We meet them and work with them on demonstrations, and at those times, outside the rather controlling campaign and planning meetings, we do really have an opportunity to turn what is happening on the ground into a united front.

The ‘Don’t Pay’ campaign has managed to get nearly 200,000 pledges to not pay the energy bills. Yes, that has been undercut a bit by the government handing billions to the energy companies to subsidise them and protect their super-profits. Don’t Pay campaign activists are also working ‘united front’ style with those from other campaigns.

Unity in action

There are other campaigns, of course. There is a Cost of Living Crisis campaign that aims to work across the other campaigns. This campaign was initiated by Anti-Capitalist Resistance, working with other organisations and individuals. It operates as a campaign but also, and this is what is most important, as a link between the other initiatives calling for joint assemblies and joint action. It has demands that most activists in the other campaigns will agree with.

These demands include an immediate wage and state benefits rise to beat inflation; price controls on consumer goods; rent controls; a cap on energy bills; an end to higher prices for those on prepayment meters; taking the energy companies into public ownership and rapidly moving them toward renewable energy sources; and a wealth tax on individuals and corporations.

These demands aim to work at what is reasonable and realisable, transitional, and in such a way as to challenge basic assumptions made by capitalist realism. Those assumptions are not simply false ideas or conscious choices, but the underlying rules of the game. The only way to challenge them, and to challenge austerity, is to engage in action, with whoever will do it, putting forward our own analysis and marching separately but striking together. We are for unity in action and are looking to build something that can push for that, against austerity and for a world that doesn’t need poverty, one that can end capitalism altogether.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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