Lets get things straight from the start; George Osborne is a twat. On his own terms he has failed as a Chancellor, otherwise he wouldn’t have been proudly announcing yesterday cuts of a further £11.5 billion. Osborne’s motivations are now purely and overtly political rather than economic (was it ever thus?) as he carelessly sets about at best stunting, at worst destroying the lives of anyone in the UK who isn’t sitting comfortably within the wealthiest 10%. Even his ostentatious protection of pensions, about half of the total welfare budget, will surely be undermined in practice as the public services used by many pensioners are taken apart as a result of his spending decisions.
Bizarrely however Osborne and Cameron continue to score highly in opinion polls on trust and economic management. How can this be? A big help to them is the simplistic story they have to tell of how the economy has come to be in the state it is and how it should be repaired. Its a narrative that has been used unquestioningly by large parts of the media.
Reporting yesterday’s spending review, BBC News sent a reporter out to get the reactions of ‘real people’. There was a quick quote from a dismayed trade union official before moving to an interview with a local shopkeeper. After giving his predictable views on the featherbedding of public sector workers, the shop keeper was asked how many holidays he had a year – one; did he have a pension – no; if he was ill did he have sick pay – no! And that was it. The message from this exchange seemed to be; this is what workers should expect – particularly in the public sector because clearly they already have it shit in the private sector – as the sum of their employment rights. Osborne must have popped open another champagne bottle if he was in front of the telly for that particular vox pop (obviously the irony of a BBC journalist, a public sector employee, asking these questions went unremarked).
How to respond to this miserable state of affairs? Clearly by having another argument to put forward and plenty of economists, politicians and commentators do. It doesn’t appear to be making that much of a difference yet however. What seems to be missing is individuals simply questioning what they/we are told.
We seem increasingly to be living in a monopolised world where a few massive and massively powerful corporations make the running, set the narratives away, spy and collude against us – ‘the masses’. Meanwhile, the social ties that can bind us together weaken as we’re encouraged to see ourselves as individuals, responsible entirely for our own success or failure and for assembling for ourselves the support and structures needed to enable us to make a success of our lives, economically and socially.
Whilst as socialists, we might recoil from such a vision of brash individualism, quite obviously we are individuals and some of the 20th Century experiments in communism which sought to homogenise whole populations are just as horrific as the socially atomising neo-liberal model. Is the trick to accept our agency as individuals but to reject the parameters of the debate put forward by the likes of Osborne and his chums in the media?
Surrealism isn’t the slick tricksy paintings of Salvador Dali. Surrealism is a way of looking at things differently, of questioning and – crucially – destabilising accepted narratives. In some ways we already live in a surrealist society. Andre Breton wrote in the Second Surrealist Manifesto, that the simplest or purest surrealist act was to walk into a crowded street and randomly fire a pistol into the crowd. There are countless acts of violence in recent years that meet Breton’s definition but obviously we needn’t go that far.
However by stepping outside of the narrow confines of what is currently the dominant narrative, by drawing on other ideas and disciplines, as the surrealists drew on the ideas of Freud as much as those of Marx and to propose a different way of engaging with the world around us, then perhaps we can begin to topple smug assurances put forward by western government and their neo-liberal apologists.
Through creative acts of writing, painting, making music, we can begin to create our own view, our own narratives and hopefully unsettle the comfortably settled. The idea that we should be content with one week off from work per year, work that in the UK and the west generally is more and more likely to be low paid and short term, is utterly miserable. We need to take control, to poke and to prod and to use our imaginations.