In September of this year, artist Phil Collins will install a giant Soviet-era statue of Friedrich Engels in Manchester, England, as part of an art project entitled Ceremony. In the run-up to this event, the BBC has asked a number of British writers to reflect on the legacy of Engels, who, along with Marx, spent a significant part of his life in the UK and produced some of his most influential works there. Nina Power’s stirring contribution, entitled “Austerity is Over,” contends that austerity is structurally unsustainable, because its pitiless exploitation of already vulnerable people produces its own gravediggers. Here’s an excerpt:
A moral reversal is taking place – the old media empire, the scaremongering, anti-immigrant, anti-other press that deals in low- and high-level fear, has lost its footing. Young people born in the 1990s and 2000s don’t read these papers, and if you tell them they should be ‘afraid’ of Britain returning to the 1970s, they say it sounds great, what’s the problem? Indebted, badly-paid with zero hope of getting a house or having any kind of future that contains within it any sort of positive horizon, why would young people vote for the executioners of hope, the very people who had it easy telling them they just need to work hard and they too will succeed? Except they’re not even being told that any longer, more just keep your head down, get a rubbish job if you can, stop complaining. So what if it’s a rich country? You’re still poor!
When the lives of people are cut short by state violence – by ‘social murder’, as Engels put it, whether it’s at the hands of the police, or at the hard end of economic savings that lead to the deaths of many because of cheap, flammable cladding – it is clear that some lives do not count as much as others. Whatever justice people can eke out of the state is paltry, insulting, if it ever comes at all. You have to try, but you cannot get justice from the state, because the state itself is unjust. It does not count all lives equally. It does not share wealth. It does not offer equal opportunities for rich and poor, because it does not try to eliminate the difference between rich and poor – in fact, it thrives on this very difference, exacerbating it at every turn.
How do the rich think of death, of the dead? Do they understand that in death all will be equal, and that even they themselves cannot escape it, no matter how much money they stockpile and how much power they wield in the land of the living? Can they conceive of the grief and anger felt by those who survive state and economic violence, only to face indifference and further pain? Austerity is violence, and it makes clear that some people’s lives are expendable. Whether you are working or not working, your life and your time is not your own, because all the means of supporting yourself and others have been stolen in grand historical acts of theft on so large a scale that we can barely see them – nick something piddling like a bottle of water, though, as someone did in the riots, and you’ll get six months. As Brecht could have said, what is the robbing of a bottle of water compared to the full-scale privatisation of natural resources that should belong to everyone?
Image of Nina Power via roehampton.ac.uk.