variant 39/40 | Winter 2010 |
The political climate in the UK, given as it already wasto the emotive and nationalist tropes o the War onTerror, ound a new aective register with the fnancialcrisis: the invocation o public and personal shame.Admittedly, shame and other moralized negativityhas been never ar rom the national imagination.Some recognizable examples would be the Victorianmarking o deserving and undeserving poor, the variousmoral panics o youth deviancy or the inuence o communitarian authoritarianism on New Labour socialpolicy.Yet, as the banks were olding it was neithersingle mothers nor young NEETs (not in employment,education or training) in black hoodies that were theobject o the public’s rage but the proession whichcontinues to operate as the nerve centre o the UKeconomy: the bankers. Amidst calls or public apologies,fnancial business practices were re-cast as the recklessactivity o individual ‘banksters’. Suddenly it seemedthat the whole celebrated fnancial industry, thebackbone o London’s economy, and thus o the UK asa whole, had been driven into the ground by deviantindividuals renzied by ‘perverse incentives’, a ‘bonusculture’ o greed, ambition and excess. Thatcher-eracultural anxieties about ‘City boys’ resuraced with avengeance but with little o the class politics.Two years on, we can see how much o this outcryby politicians has not led to a stronger regulation o banking practices, but that indeed it amounted tolittle more than a public shaming o the appetites o bankers; an appeal to conduct their business a bit moreprivately, not quite so visibly. The lack o any change wasre-channelled into a call upon the decency o middleEngland to sacrifce or the national good and to directtheir anger downwards on those who exploit the publicwithout ‘creating wealth’: people who out the normsthrough an ‘excess o dependence’, those who regard“benefts as a liestyle choice” (Conservative ChancellorGeorge Osborne, interview 9th September 2010)
. Their‘shameless’ milking o state benefts allows them to livein areas o Central London which low-paid workers can’taord, and their reckless personal habits burden ourcash-strapped public services.Little o this is new i we look back across UKpolitics o the last 30 years but also i we look acrossto elsewhere in Europe or North America. However,as part o various discussions on how to organize andintervene, we elt it was important to consider morecareully the aective register that is so orceully calledupon. A register that talks o shame and excess outlinedagainst an assumed notion o a common-sense decencystill to be ound in the working-class heartlands andwhich, so some argue, can be mobilized as part o aprogressive politics. With these questions in mind, weapproached Lauren Berlant. Berlant teaches Englishat the University o Chicago and is a cultural theoristwhose work – inormed by inuences that range overpsychoanalysis, queer and eminist theory, as well asanarchist and autonomist politics – has over the yearsprovided a remarkably sharp and nuanced analysis o the relationship between ‘cultures o aect’ and socialstructures. This interview exchange was conducted overseveral weeks in writing.
MV: Looking at the role of shame and shamingin creating a post-crisis culture and a publicconsensus, we are interested in how assumptionsand norms using the language of personalresponsibility shape the political discourse of‘austerity’. There is a sense that such languageacts conservatively in how social and economicproblems are conceived, including their causes andsolutions, that it both permits and excludes certaintypes of policy approaches and certain types ofdefenses and criticisms of those policies. Therelationship between shame and indebtedness is amajor example, how the link of credit to credibilitybecomes a cipher for all kinds of social violence.
On the other hand, the unstable affect ofshame can also have more radical implications,as with your discussion of the difference betweenstructures and experience of shame
: for example,shame can also be an affect underlying desires forsocial justice or solidarity: as Mario Tronti said
,we have to start with disgust at the way thingsare before we move on to imagining how we’d likethem to be. There is a modality of excess to shamewhich means its deployment in political rhetoric isjust as likely to turn on its handler as on its object– as in all moralistic or moralizing discourse. Is itthe difference between individualizing shame orcollective shame?Thus for background. Our question here wouldbe how you would relate the distinction you havemade between the structures and experienceof shame to the concrete political moment ofbuilding a consensus around intensied neoliberalpolicies in the wake of the nancial crash?LB: Polly Toynbee wrote a great sentence aboutthe savage cuts of the new austerity: “The priceof everything was laid out, but not the value ofanything about to be destroyed.”
What does itmean for a symbolic relation to be too expensive,an unbearable burden? The image of the good lifeis too dear; something has to be sacriced. Theattempt to associate democracy with austerity– a state of liquidity being dried out, the waywine dries out a tongue – is fundamentally anti-democratic. The demand for the people’s austerityhides processes of the uneven distribution of riskand vulnerability. Democracy is supposed to holdout for the equal distribution of sovereignty andrisk. Still, austerity sounds good, clean, ascetic: thelines of austerity are drawn round a polis to inciteit toward askesis, toward managing its appetitesand taking satisfaction in a self-management inwhose mirror of performance it can feel proud andsuperior. In capitalist logics of askesis, the workers’obligation is to be more rational than the system,and their recompense is to be held in a sense ofpride at surviving the scene of their own attrition.This looming overpresence of risk and theleeching out of even the phantasm of sovereigntyacross nations and persons translates into such acomplex assemblage. Under the current conditionsof debt and exposure, nation-states can’t bear toadmit their abjection, can’t bear that they havebecome mere supplicants for the wealth that theyhave allowed to become privately held on behalfof a spectral growth on whose tithing the statehas come to depend. The Euro-American state isa cowardly lion, a weeping bully, a plaintive loverto nance capital. It cannot bear to admit that,having grown its own administrative limbs to serveat the pleasure of the new sovereign of privatizedwealth, that the wealthy feel no obligation to feedthe state. So the state bails out banks and tellsthe polis to tighten up, claiming that the peopleare too expensive to be borne through their state,which can no longer afford their appetite forrisk. They are told that they should feel shamefor having wanted more than they could bearresponsibility for and are told that they shouldtake satisfaction in ratcheting down their imageof the good life and the pleasures to be hadin the process of its production. The affectiveorchestration of the crisis has required blamingthe vulnerable for feeling vulnerable; not dueonly to a general precarity but also to the politicalfact that there is no longer an infrastructure forholding the public as a public. The public mustbecome entrepreneurial individuals. All of thestrikes and tea parties in response to the state’sdemand for an austere sacrice under the burdenof shame tell us that this incitement for the publicto become archaic as a public is not going downtoo easily.The big question is whether the popularculture of a “civil society” unwilling to let goof the collective good life fantasy secured by abenecent state can mobilize its assertion of itspriority over market democracy in a way that canfundamentally restructure the state’s adjudicationof capital, and meanwhile avoid fascism. But this ishard too. We remember that the bubble associatingeconomic growth with civil rights of the last sixtyyears or so is an anomaly in world history. Besidesthat, though, the demands of the present meanprotesting not only the state’s servility to capitalbut people’s very own fantasies of the good life.Just as the relations of the market to the stateare fraying and changing, so too the destructionand elaboration of fantasy in relation to what alife is and what a good life is will need to shiftabout and reknot. The response to a potentiallyradical reconstruction of the conditions of thereproduction of life ought to be very demanding oneveryone, including the resisters. At the momentmost resisters are protesting state/capital but notprotesting themselves. Without accommodatingthe affective demands for adjustment to theaustere ordinary with which they’re beingconfronted, people need to think about whatkinds of good life might better be associated withourishing, and ght that battle (with fantasy,politically) too.
That which is unbearable
MV: I am interested in the point you make aboutresponding to the imposition of austerity byreconstructing what counts as good life, and howthat relates to the ‘shaming of the appetites’which legitimates, as well as provides libidinalsatisfaction, to the non-negotiable imperativesof austerity. What forms of social action orstructures of feeling do you think it would takefor such attempts at reconstruction to rebut thiskind of shame, as it were, with another vision oflife rather than adopting shame as a purgative
Affect & the Politics of Austerity
An interview exchange with Lauren Berlant
Gesa Helms, Marina Vishmidt, Lauren Berlant