How Helplessness Grew Boring
By David Graeber and cross-posted from The Baffler
Is it possible to become bored with hopelessness?
There is reason to believe something like that is beginning to happen in Great Britain. Call it despair fatigue.
For nearly half a century, British culture, particularly on the left, has made an art out of despair. This is the land where “No Future for You” became the motto of a generation, and then another generation, and then another. From the crumbling of its empire, to the crumbling of its industrial cities, to the current crumbling of its welfare state, the country seemed to be exploring every possible permutation of despair: despair as rage, despair as resignation, despair as humor, despair as pride or secret pleasure. It’s almost as if it’s finally run out.
On the surface, and from a distance, Britain looks like it’s experiencing one of the stranger paroxysms of masochistic self-destruction in world history. Since the Conservative victory of 2010, first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and now on its own, the British government has set out to systematically unravel much of what makes life good and decent in the country. Conservative leaders started by trashing the United Kingdom’s once proud university system, while eyeing the greatest source of national pride and dignity, the universal health guarantees of the National Health Service. All of this is being done in the name of an economic doctrine—austerity, the imperative need for fiscal discipline—that no one genuinely believes in and whose results pretty much everyone deplores (including prime minister David Cameron, who in private has denounced the decline of his local public services), in response to an existential crisis that does not exist.
How did this happen? It appears that the entire political class has become trapped in the bizarrely successful narrative that swept the Tories into power after the crash of 2008 and still sustains them long after its consequences have run beyond any sort of humanity or common sense.
Boom Crash Opera
Pretty much every major sitting government was booted out after the crash, and the political complexion of the government in question largely determined the popular narrative of what had caused the crash to begin with. In the United States, it was George W. Bush’s fault, so the popular onus fell on the CEOs and hedge fund managers who Bush used to refer to, at fundraisers, as his “base.” None were actually prosecuted, but most Americans felt strongly that they ought to be. In the United Kingdom, where Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was sitting in Downing Street, everyone accepted the opposition’s narrative that the British crash resulted from irresponsible social spending and government deficits. In fact, the Tories found that appealing to a rhetoric of shared sacrifice, belt-tightening, and even collective suffering struck a chord in the British public. This was perhaps most true of working-class voters. Now almost entirely stripped of any sense of community, neighborhood, or workplace solidarity by decades of right-wing social engineering, they saw the hard times and rationing of World War II as the last time Britons had acted with a genuine common purpose.
The social effects of the spending cuts—all ostensibly aimed at reducing the supposedly catastrophic government debt overhang—have been devastating. British universities, which not so many years ago were (as in most of Europe) entirely free, have become among the most expensive in the world. Social housing has been ransacked, subsidies have been cut, and squatting in residential properties was made illegal at exactly the moment tens of thousands were being “decanted” from their homes. To be poor now means to be endlessly assessed, monitored, and surveyed, and almost invariably found wanting.
No one really knows how many thousands of people have died as a result of the freefall in government support, but to get just an inkling: between December 2011 and February 2014, the Department of Work and Pensions reported that 2,380 Britons previously on disability support were found dead no more than six weeks after receiving notice that they were having their benefits cut because they had been determined to be “fit for work”…