Economics and politics - comment and analysis

Ethnographies of Austerity

Ethnographies of Austerity

 A review by  Oleg Komlik

Austerity is not only about hard numbers, economic data and macroeconomics.  Austerity is also about people, what they eat, where they sleep, how they survive, often with difficulty, sometimes against the odds. Middle and working-class people increasingly bear the brunt of oppressive neo-liberalism. They carry the depressing burdens of austerity in their everyday life. A long list of horrors can be produced: increasing unemployment, decreasing wages, debtsuicides, the overall deterioration of social welfare, healthcare and education systems. Although austerity has been completely debunked, policies do not change. Ethnography is a thorough and honest endeavour to understand the cultural meanings and activities of people and to illustrate the grassroots realities of everyday life. It is an inlet into domestic and specific social topologies. How does austerity affect people’s daily lives? How do people and families manage and survive? Recently, two books were published that provide answers to such questions. They fulfill the intellectual and thoroughly humanist task of presenting important ethnographies of living with and in austerity.

In Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity BritainLisa Mckenzie from the London School of Economics confronts the reader with the complex realities of council estate life in Tory England. Mckenzie lived on the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham for more than twenty years herself. St Ann’s has been stigmatised by the Conservatives and neo-liberal Labour alike as a place where gangs, guns, drugs, single mothers and those unwilling or unable to make something of their lives reside. Her insider status enables us to hear the stories of its residents who are often wary of outsiders. In complete contradistinction to the conservative rhetoric about welfare scroungers and people who are too lazy to work, McKenzie finds strong, resourceful and ambitious people who are ‘getting by’ in conditions of heightened poverty and inequalities. Mckenzie shows in great detail the enormous resilience of families and the creativity and power of social bonds within the community in the face of the brutal austerity assaults. This well-written book is a vivid, authentic and subtle account of class, gender and race in austerity Britain. There is open access to a foreword by Danny Dorling and an afterword by Owen Jones.

What happens to society and the environment when austerity dominates political and economic life? Laura Bear from the London School of Economics got to the heart of it in Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt along a South Asian River.  She tells the stories of boatmen, shipyard workers, port clerks and river pilots on the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges that flows into the Bay of Bengal. Throughout their accounts, the author traces the hidden currents of state debt crises and their devastating effects. This is an original book. Taking us on a voyage along the river, Bear describes in great detail how bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and workers navigate austerity policies. Their attempts to reverse the decline of ruined public infrastructures, rural environments and urban spaces lead her to argue for a radical rethinking of economics according to a social calculus. This is a critical measure derived from the ethical concerns of people affected by national and, indeed, global policies. The book shows how the most basic creations of value and capital in the global economy depends on a complex and local mobilisation of labour, resources, cultural meanings and political forces. But Bear brings more than fascinating ethnographic details. She breaks new ground by proposing concrete suggestions: new practices of state financing and ways to democratise policies to restore long-term social obligations. Navigating Austerity greatly contributes to policy studies as well as to the understanding of today’s injustices in the global neoliberal capitalist order.

This review was first published by Oleg Komlik on the Economic Sociology and Political Economy community site.