Blaming bankers and accepting austerity

Our everyday experiences of taxation have been crucial to the way that the crisis has been interpreted

Liam-Stanley-100There is something for everyone on YouTube. A piece of satirical songwriting, entitled ‘Bugger the Bankers’, is quickly racking up many thousands of views. You barely need to watch the video to get the gist. Indeed, following the global financial crisis, bankers are far from popular. Why? The simple answer is scapegoating. When telling stories of failure and crisis, the human mind is more attuned to blaming a set of culpable individuals. Linked to this is a notion of unfairness, something that is implicit in virtually every complaint about bankers’ bonuses.

Meanwhile, Aditya Chakrabortty, among others, has pointed out that the British public are meeting the promise of ten years of austerity with ‘barely a murmur of protest’. Again, why? It is hard not to relate this reluctant acceptance of austerity to the narrative of ‘Labour’s Debt Crisis’ told by Coalition politicians: the state spent too much and thus must cut back, like a sensible over-leveraged household would. But it goes further than this. In fact, these two trends – banker bashing and austerity acceptance – are somehow related: related through the concept of tax.

Initially, this claim might seem a bit strange. After all, what have bankers got to do with tax, other than presumably doing their utmost to avoid it? ‘Tax’, indeed, is often limited in the public imagination to the self-interested accountancy of individuals and businesses. But as the ‘new fiscal sociology’ shows us, another important element is what we can call the public or lived experience of both tax and spending, apparent in the oft-hailed concept of ‘taxpayers’ money’.

The point here is simple: rather than a simple cost-benefit calculation, the experience of publicly spent money and the state, we must presume, will impact upon the legitimacy of further collection. And this matters for austerity.

A brilliant piece of research (discussed here on the equally brilliant Thinking Allowed) entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Taxes’ argues that taxation is viewed – imagined, experienced even – through the prism of a moral abstract order.

In the middle of this order lies the proverbial 99%, which includes me, you and pretty much everyone we know: hard-working normal people whose taxes go to support the undeserving poor – yes, ‘welfare scroungers’ or ‘chavs’– but also, in the current political climate, the undeserving rich.

The quip that ‘we’re all middle class now’ is a symptom of this moral abstract order. And it is something that was exacerbated by New Labour through the proliferation of what sociology professor Ruth Levitas calls the ‘moral underclass discourse’ – a theme also brilliantly critiqued by Owen Jones’ Chavs. The genius of this moralised abstract order lies in its inclusivity: very few of those who currently rely on benefits will attribute their position to their own fecklessness, just as few bankers will attribute their success to being greedy or immoral.

Bankers have certainly come across as undeserving recipients of taxpayers’ money. The state-funded bank bailouts have given rise to a number of important issues. But, when Gordon Brown was busy ‘saving the world’ (or, at least, saving the livelihoods of many in the finance industry), I doubt he put much thought into how it might impact upon how the average taxpayer feels about contributing further to the state’s coffers. As they sing in ‘Bugger the Bankers’: ‘the workers get taxed while the wealthy relax’.

The point is that everyday experience matters. On a more general level, the frustration of witnessing the local council waste our money, as a million anecdotes go, on re-laying a perfectly functioning road (or whatever) matters.  The story of state overspending as encapsulated by ‘Labour’s Debt Crisis’ – whether economically accurate or not – gives sense to these concrete experiences.

In this way, the transformation of public services in the image of the private sector hasn’t helped matters. Birmingham council chief executive, Stephen Hughes, earns £180k a year. Does he really deserve £180k instead of, say, £90k of ‘our money’? Such stories, and the underlying legitimacy issues, are the perfect foil to those who wish to tell a story of state overspending.

Simply put, if one believes that ‘taxpayers’ money’ is being used to support the undeserving, then one will question the legitimacy of contributing towards that. After all, isn’t the state taxing people and paying for stuff what austerity is all about anyway?

If a gap – what we could call a ‘legitimacy gap’, if we were so inclined – exists between what’s expected and what’s perceived to be being delivered (i.e. support for the morally undeserving), then perhaps it is no surprise that significant parts of the British public are not protesting against a promise to trim back the state. And the everyday maintenance of this moral order, of which banker bashing is now a part, is crucial to understanding the political significance of this perceived ‘gap’.

Much intellectual focus, especially in academic circles, has been devoted to showing how the strategy of deficit reduction is misguided or disingenuous. But pointing out how an idea is wrong, although otherwise incredibly important, doesn’t help us understand how it can at the same time capture the imagination with such ease. By exploring the sociology of the idea of fiscal consolidation we can perhaps begin to understand, a little better, Chakrabortty’s observation of our reluctant acceptance of the age of austerity.