by William Hawes Jan 21, 2019
Last October, Philip Hammond, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the annual federal budget speech to the UK Parliament, said this: “Austerity is coming to an end, but discipline will remain.”
Talk about Orwellian doublespeak. The truth about austerity is it is a means of social control, or as Hammond put it, “discipline.” Hammond’s recent comment is completely illogical. Austerity is economic discipline. Really, it’s just a way of making the poor suffer more, while continuing to bail out the rich every time they implode the economy.
It’s rare the titans of finance slip up so well, and so egregiously with their language, but it happens, this being an excellent case study. Now we know, straight from the source, just what economic experts, being mouthpieces of multinational corporations, really want, just as much or even more than “austerity”: discipline! Or, another way of putting it, they want austerity, except we aren’t supposed to realize that we live in austerity anymore…or at least don’t try and resist. These people want a normalization of austerity, until we just accept that this is the way it is.
A cursory look at the upcoming UK budget shows more of the same: billions to update the nuclear weapon systems, continued cuts for many government ministries, cuts to Scotland when considering inflation rates, a cap on total welfare spending, with a few crumbs for their Universal Credit benefits, etc. All of this is happening while homelessness is rising dramatically (up 169% since 2010).
So what kind of discipline is Mr. Hammond really talking about? A writer for VICE (one Simon Childs) succinctly summed it up:
In the end, Spreadsheet Phil went with ‘Austerity is coming to an end but discipline will remain’. So it’s not ‘over’, it’s ‘coming to an end’, at some point. But ‘discipline’ will remain – for which you can read ‘austerity’. So really, that’s, ‘Austerity is coming to an end but austerity will remain.’ If that sounds contradictory, that’s because it is. Austerity is a decade-long ideological project which has seen poor and working class people pay for the financial crash through cutting the supposed largesse of the welfare state. The government is trying to loosen spending up a bit while the effects of that project become even more stark.
As many commentators have pointed out, austerity is not based on any rational sense of finance or macroeconomic forces: it is an ideological mission, a moral argument stemming back to the Puritan/Calvinist and social Darwinist worldview. If you’re poor, it’s your fault, and all one has to do is pull oneself up by your bootstraps. Societal and systemic forces which consistently lead to high unemployment, substandard education, lack of social support structures, and stagnant wages are never addressed. What better way to keep people “disciplined” than to offload public spending onto the citizenry? Thus forcing private citizen, especially the poor and middle class, to pay more for essential services: this has predictably led to an explosion in college and personal debt.
The super-ego always judging itself produces a type of mental enslavement and has now engulfed the globe in late-stage capitalism. We are taught to always blame ourselves because we are not marketable, don’t keep up with technology, aren’t innovating or learning life skills to keep up in a gig/service economy with rising rates of poverty, which also is hollowing out all social forms of purpose and collective belonging.
The US educational system is complicit in this, since this is the first public institution most of us enter — a regimented oppressive nightmare of one-size-fits-all deluges of mostly useless information, where children are always competing and one-upping each other with grades, achievements, etc. As long as we were obedient little drones who raised our hands to ask questions, sat when told to, repeated the pledge of allegiance every day, and in general were (with our parent’s complicity) spoon-fed lies, omissions, and distortions of historical, scientific, and sociological facts, we could one day participate in adult life successfully. Of course, the more obvious sites for adult coercion and brainwashing barely need mention: jails, churches, mental institutions, large corporations, federal bureaucracies, etc.
The history of public education in our country is a history of indoctrination, or something worse, of which the horrors are so great they cannot be put into words, if one examines the African American or Indigenous histories of schooling. Modern schooling is freaking twelve years of boot-camp for the adult world of bio-psycho-social alienated labor. There is no use denying or getting around this fact.
The psycho-somatic beatings endured become embedded in our minds and the trauma is relived and has been passed down, generation to generation. This has created a militaristic society yet also a pacified and slavish one, which submissively bows down before capitalist/imperialist/colonialist systems of hierarchy. We are the “docile bodies” that Foucault spoke of.
We’ve been molded for the purpose of fitting into (increasingly mentally damaging) forms of labor. The stress of daily work in the US has almost completely precluded any serious resistance. I cannot stress this enough: as bodies synchronizing the finely-tuned engine of capital, we are poised to destroy ourselves and the majority of species on the planet if we continue down this path.
Once again, surprise surprise, the language we use has been beaten into us, and is a formidable weapon in the arsenal of capital. There’s a humorous anecdote in this Monthly Review article by Rebecca Stoner, spotlighting John Patrick Leary:
When General Motors laid off more than 6,000 workers days after Thanksgiving, John Patrick Leary, the author of the new book Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, tweeted out part of GM CEO Mary Barra’s statement: ‘The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient, and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future,’ she said. Leary added a line of commentary to Barra’s statement:
‘Language was pronounced dead at the scene.’
As Stoner explains, when it comes to words like “entrepreneur”:
When we talk about “entrepreneurs” with an uncritical acceptance, we implicitly accept [the] view that wealth was created by entrepreneurs via a process of innovation and creative destruction—rather than Marx’s belief that wealth is appropriated to the bourgeois class by exploitation.
This is why I always think of don Miguel Ruiz’s first agreement: “Be impeccable with your word.” So, Phillip Hammond was being perfect with his wording, really: he wants discipline, dammit!
Others take a more, well, mendacious approach to their phraseology. When people say that jail will “rehabilitate” prisoners or that “innovation”, “increased productivity”, and “hard work” will provide the tools to lead a 21st century economy, I am skeptical. Especially with regard our carceral-industrial complex, how obviously and openly corrupt and racist the prison system is in our country, where length of sentences are absurdly long compared to other nations, and rates of jailing are exponentially higher for black and brown peoples, with 10 cent an hour wages metered out for a smoke, snack foods, or a cell phone call while the largest corporations make billions off of what amounts to slave labor, which, mind you, the Chinese have been replicating with the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. I’d rather those in power tell us how they really feel. In a lecture on Nietzsche (with a nod to Foucault), Rick Roderick put it quite well:
The idea that we would send someone to prison in order to rehabilitate them…now we’re getting to be more honest about that. We’re getting a little more barbaric, and for Nietzsche that’d be better, it’d be a little more honest. We’re sending them to prison because we’re scared of them and we know if they go there really bad things will happen to them and it will ruin their lives and that will make us happy. That’s what we should say when we send one to prison.
That is what it comes down to for today’s centers of power. Kill, jail, torture, or condemn those lower on the totem pole to lives of penury, marginalization, and unpleasant labor. The chthonic chant from Trump’s base is connected to this impulse: “Lock her up!”… “Build the wall!” Whoever you can’t control so easily, ply them with media, drugs, fame, money, power.
This is how the system was designed from the early days of the Enlightenment. As Foucault asks rhetorically in Disciple and Punish: The Birth of the Prison: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Architecturally one of the more famous blueprints for constant surveillance, interrogations, examinations, and constant monitoring of the social body came from Bentham’s design of the panopticon. We notice the ones under surveillance, or even those who think they’re being watched, increasingly self-censor and self-monitor themselves to avoid untoward further investigation or physical violence from state authorities, whether inside an institution or outside in the public sphere.
Rather than rehabilitation, the modern notion of discipline is to induce punishment, and goshdarnit, our culture sure does know how to punish those less fortunate. On any given year between 10 and 20 million people worldwide die of starvation, even as silos of food lie full all over the USA and Europe. Preventable childhood diseases kill perhaps another 10 million kids a year. A mobilization of food, medicine, and competent medical professionals along with a logistics network to access hard-to-reach rural areas in the Global South could solve these crises within a short time frame.
Today we see disciplinarian methods used as a general principle, a blunt instrument applied to daily life, where conformism, homogenization, and compliance to authority dictate modern culture in work and the home. Also, people avoid vocalizing their internal critiques of the state, authority, or the economy for fear of social reprisal, becoming an outcast, and basic issues of self-survival (in minority communities under attack from police brutality) in an atmosphere of generalized anxiety, suspicion, and paranoia.
Here we begin to uncover the archaeological, or rather, genealogical evidence and the ideological underpinnings of centers of power. Ideologues, economists, and capitalists do not need to explicitly promote “austerity” (they can just change the name), but they do need a certain type of discipline, and the contrived system of artificial scarcity which keeps the multitude desperate. This destructive economic system which we dub “neoliberal” stymies thought, kills dreams, exploits labor, and reaches into all facets of political and daily life.
In such an authoritarian state, today, just as in ages ago, women and children bear the worst forms of abuse and punishment even as they do most of the work, either unpaid in the home or in professional employment. Women still must deal with performing emotional labor for men in the West that have not self-analyzed, and cannot see how they directly benefit from patriarchal institutions of power that filter down into the workplace, community, home, etc.
The sociological make-up of the middle classes, constantly under threat of falling into penury until European and North American capitalist states underwent a significant shift in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Constant competition, the modern factory, and striving for status and material affluence shifted the previous belief in a “Protestant work ethic” towards one of Social Darwinism, and from there to a consumer-based age of affluence, where the might of economic powers to exploit becomes an inherent right, where monopolistic corporations use advertising to continually encourage consumptive, addictive, and childish behavioral patterns.
Coupled with eugenics and the westward spread of US territories under the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the genocidal policies of Social Darwinism and racist medical practices spread worldwide. The professional classes were fascism’s most slavish disciples: medical doctors joined the Nazi Party at a higher rate (some say 7 times the rate of joining as the average job) than any other profession in Germany.
The harsh, unrelenting regime of discipline inherent in such bourgeois values creates a new form of human behavior and outlook towards society: one which Erich Fromm called the “marketing orientation.” As he wrote:
The mature and productive individual derives his feeling of identity from the experience of himself as the agent who is one with his powers, this feeling of self can be briefly described as meaning ‘I am what I do.’
In the marketing orientation man encounters his own powers as commodities alienated from him. He is not one with them but they are masked from him because what matters is not his self-realization in the process of using them but his success in the process of selling them. Both his powers and what they create become estranged, something different from himself, something for others to judge and to use; thus his feeling of identity becomes as shaky as his self-esteem; it is constituted by the sum total of roles one can play: ‘I am as you desire me.’
It is worth remembering mainstream economists such as Philip Hammond (or before him, fools such as Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan in the US) are not basing their budgets or speeches or interest rates or stupid Powerpoint presentations for corrupt elites on any rational model, any shred of common sense, to help working classes or even middle class citizens. These people are PR spokespeople for capitalists, nothing more. They are as the multinational corporations and financial sector desire them.
We are all sort of becoming who the centers of power want us to be. Pliable, obedient, cowed, desperate. Also more hardened, isolated, commodified, and easier to control. The social conditioning is so deep here in the US.
When Philip Hammond says, “discipline will remain”, the capitalist and colonialist policies he and his elite associates pursue have global consequences. The effect of his words may be hidden from many Western eyes, but they are not any different from the direct violence in previous eras of the corrupt town sheriff, the racist prison warden, the sadistic psychiatrist, the violent headmaster of a school, the conquistador, the slave owner, the SS officer.
This is, in fact, exactly what modern day discipline is. Words, ideas, images, stock markets, debt ratios, and the concepts of the ruling classes become material life-threatening issues which undergird our system of artificial scarcity.
The spreading of this dark cloud of Western civilization, with all the concomitant issues of technology worship, reification, and commodification of the human spirit and creativity continues to tell us: be disciplined, be rational, be good citizens, even to be human (in a specific sense passed down by Enlightenment figures). It is unsurprising that many decades ago the first theoretical models for the post-human age were underway: since the beginning of the so-called Anthropocene era, we have seen how the artificial divisions of nature and culture have been exposed. Even today, much postmodern art and critique, which opens up new avenues for research by exploring ideas surrounding intersubjectivity, depthlessness, waning of affect, etc., still indulges in the fantasy of isolated, separate, urban-centered, and rational humans as a given.
Despite the push by liberal democracies to spread a certain type of modern propaganda reminding us of our so-called secular, materialist, cosmopolitan, consumer society, the urge for spirituality, for raising of consciousness, still remains strong in contemporary culture via the rapidly expanding interest in yoga, meditation, mindfulness practices, psychedelics (another term is entheogens) and even paganism in the West. Yet even many of these basic self-exploratory and self-coping mechanisms are increasingly and continually mediated through corporations or at least small businesses and hierarchies, at the expense of cooperative and communal forms of organization.
What I think would be beneficial for people to think about is a return to a notion popular in 60s counterculture- the idea of a new sensibility (or sense-abilities, as it were). Readers may know about the ideas of/fury generated towards its most vocal theoretical promoters: Susan Sontag, Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown. I believe it would be worthwhile to revisit those concepts.
In his speech “Liberation from the Affluent Society”, Marcuse said:
Let us give one illustration of…the need for such a total rupture [which] was present in some of the great social struggles of our period. Walter Benjamin quotes reports that during the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city there were people shooting at clocks on the towers of churches, palaces and so on, thereby consciously of half-consciously expressing the need that somehow time has to be arrested; that at least the prevailing, established time continuum has to be arrested, and that a new time has to begin…
This situation presupposes the emergence of new needs, qualitatively different and even opposed to the prevailing aggressive and repressive needs: the emergence of a new type of human, with a vital, biological drive for liberation, and with a consciousness capable of breaking through the material as well as ideological veil of the affluent society…society has invaded even the deepest roots of individual existence, even the unconscious of man…We must get at the roots of society in the individuals themselves…who, because of social engineering, constantly reproduce the continuum of repression…
Further on, he states:
…to give sensitivity and sensibility their own right, is, I think, one of the basic goals of integral socialism…They presuppose…a total trans-valuation of values, a new anthropology…we may say that today qualitative change, liberation, involves organic, instinctual, biological changes at the same time as political and social changes…no longer subject to the dictates of capitalist profitability and of efficiency…socially necessary labor, material production, would and could become increasingly scientific…it means that the creative imagination…would become a productive force applied to the transformation of the social and natural universe…
Quite clearly and perhaps being a tad self-conscious, he later says: “And now I throw in a terrible concept: it would mean an ‘aesthetic’ reality- society as a work of art.” Indeed. Marcuse goes on to cite, in the Western tradition, hippies, Diggers, and Provos as groups (we can think of many more today, especially indigenous cultures) who offered “a new sensibility against efficient and insane reasonableness.”
It is intense “social engineering” and “insane reasonableness” which we are loath to stand up against due to our own relative affluence. Today that affluence is disappearing especially in the developing world as climate change and ecological devastation threatens all. In the West the stores may be open, and the planes may run on time, but late capitalism is running on fumes. The “veil” remains, along with elitist media manipulation which distracts and diverts public attention, but various anti-capitalist forces are arrayed at its edges, preparing to draw in the masses. Discipline has been unmasked for what it really is- a one way ticket to an early grave for the poor; or a lifetime of spiritual turmoil for the ruling class and the collaborating professional/managerial class flunkies and sycophants.
Yet again, the violence of words such as productivity, efficiency, free markets, national sovereignty, etc., all contribute to the intolerable living conditions for large portions of the world’s population. This is the metaphysics of capital, where abstract business concepts have very real, and deadly, consequences. Jason Read writes in Crisis and Critique:
Labor power must be made virtual, and then productive. The foundation of the capitalist relationship is the separation of workers form the means of production, and thus the potential of labor power as a potential. Once this potential is sold, enters into the workplace, it must be actualized, transformed into actual productive acts.
He goes on to cite Pierre Macherey, student of Althusser:
From this point of view, we could say that when the capitalist occupies himself with his workers’ labor-power, which he has acquired the right to employ in exchange for a wage, treating it as a ‘productive power’ whose productivity he intends to increase in order to produce relative surplus value – he practices metaphysics not in a theoretical but in a practical way. He practices this peculiar sort of metaphysics not during his leisure time, as a distraction or mental exercise, as he would a crossword puzzle, but throughout the entire working day dedicated to production.
By opening up his company to notions such as ‘power,’ ‘capacity’ and ‘causation,’ he thereby makes them a reality, realizing these fictions, these products of the mind, which he then employs with daunting efficacy. In this way, with payrolls and charts of organizational tasks at hand, he shows, better than a philosopher’s abstract proofs, that the work of metaphysics could not be more material, provided that one knows how to put it to good use in introducing it into the factory.
One could, incidentally, derive from this a new and caustic definition of metaphysics: in this rather specific context, it boils down to a mechanism for profit-making, which is no small matter. This means that, amongst other inventions that have changed the course of history, capitalism has found the means, the procedure, the ‘trick’ enabling it to put abstract concepts into practice – the hallmark of its ‘genius.’
More bluntly, the contributors at the website Endnotes put it like this:
The abstract universal — value — whose existence is posited by the exchange abstraction, acquires a real existence vis-à-vis particular concrete labours, which are subsumed under it. The real existence of abstractions, which acquire the ability to subsume the concrete world of production under them — and posit themselves as the truth of this world — is for Marx nothing other than a perverted, enchanted, ontologically inverted reality. The absurdity and violence which Hegel perceives in a relation of subsumption applies not only to Hegel’s system itself, but also to the actual social relations of capitalist society.
As one can see, it takes a very specific sort of discipline to deploy this type of thought — as well as to mouth the PR Double-plus good Newspeak that Philip Hammond and the GM executive spoke of above. As we have seen through history, the consequences are not pretty. This shackling of the human spirit molds workers in a totalitarian way, and becomes the baseline ideology for accessing elite institutions of knowledge and power. Hence, this is why some today speak of “total subsumption.”
In this sense, production via exploitation of labor power only speaks of half of the problem: the flip side is that humans are produced as cogs, or, put another way; the social reproduction of the masses is instilled by the constant reminder under capitalism to be productive, market yourself, speak appropriately in every varied situation, etc. Thus, humans are molded to believe in the need for police, tax collection agencies, borders, and industrial civilization. As usual, the unwaged labor of care work in the home continues to oppress women around the globe, as feminists such as Martha Gimenez, Kathi Weeks, Nancy Fraser, Silvia Federici, and many others have shown.
Words cannot express how far capitalism extends into daily life; or the amount of harmful and hateful behavior it has led to. Humans are valued only insofar as they are productive: productive in a myopic framework designed to narrow consciousness, reduce potentialities, blight the human condition, and destroy and degrade wildlife and ecosystems. People all over the world are simply being “farmed” for their labor power, their creativity, their social media posts, to pay taxes, the various licenses, fees, and insurances needed to secure a bare means of existence. Not only are the elite thriving economically, the 1% are estimated to live 10 years longer than the average of the 99%, as Danny Dorling explains in Inequality and the 1%.
The modern calendar and clock also regiment, divides, and orients our perception around the holy grail of productivity, turning human potentialities for creativity, for organic agriculture, for art, for useful crafts, for efficient renewable energy systems, for basic joy, and destroy those possibilities. Instead, we find abstract notions of labor and value, which are then actualized and concretized into power “paving the way” for progress. Our time system, essentially from the very beginning of Western civilization in Mesopotamia, started with set dates for repaying debts, which eventually morphed into regularly scheduled time frames for starting wars, shackling us all to a five day work week, etc. Our time system is the operating system for Empire, its software; hence the Parisians desire to end it.
Solutions lie in listening to indigenous peoples worldwide who have been living sustainably for millennia, via processes of trust-building, of starting truth and reconciliation for past atrocities and modern day dispossession, of growing communities based on non-profit cooperatives, etc. Tight-knit indigenous livelihoods counter the growth of destructive forms of modern discipline, an unnatural system of time, instrumental reason, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy; through power structures distributed horizontally, with deliberative bodies and direct democratic practices.
Authentic resistance against our system should therefore question and dispel the lies embedded in what the rulers and functionaries of capital call “discipline.” Our interior lives have been colonized, our jobs are alienating and exploitative, and our social media and data are now “harvested” for wealth. The abstractions of capital must be abandoned. Perhaps only by returning to the “integral”, the holistic, something closer to the Earth, by finding something elemental, by reigniting desire, can the vast utopian dreams and potentialities, which for many lie dormant, lead us to find some sort of joy and sustainable methods of living to transform this mad society.