My review: Austerity as public mood: social anxieties and social struggles

Austerity, in the minds of most, is an economic policy. For others it might represent a paradigm; for others still, a class conflict. Kirsten Forkert’s book considers austerity as something more ubiquitous and mysterious: as a public mood.

Mood, of course, is a tricky thing to pin down. Forkert notes that mood is somewhat undefinable and unexplainable, but attempts to describe it as a prevailing attitude, some combination of public opinion and ideology.

Forkert’s book takes the reader through a series of case studies, mostly centred around the UK. Her case studies focus on varied spatial scales, ranging from the local to the national and the transnational. She brings in diverse data, including tweets, auto-ethnographic and ethnographic data collection, and analysis of government discourse, in an attempt to capture the ways in which this public mood pops up in all aspects of life.

Her case studies begin with a focus on Benefits Street, a British ‘reality’ television show which mocked the lives of welfare recipients in one street in Birmingham. Focusing on both the portrayal of the residents and the reaction that viewers had to them, she outlines the ways in which the notions of respectability and of the UK as a meritocracy—in which failure is a result of individual weakness, rather than structural shortcomings—are key to the public mood surrounding the production. Her second case study looks at discourse and emotion relating to immigration and the welfare state in the UK, drawing out how the notion of migrants as a ‘drain’ on resources is used to advance an imagining of welfare as a finite resource. Solidarity becomes, in this context, a means through which an exclusionary mood is generated, defining who does and does not belong—and, importantly, who is and is not entitled to benefits.

Forkert shifts focus to a local level, looking at responses to the closures of five libraries in Lewisham. In this case study, Forkert begins to explore creativity as resistance to austerity, and the ways in which activists become resigned to manage, rather than prevent, austerity-driven change. Her final case studies—trade union activism following the 2010 student protests in the UK and a series of trans-Atlantic movements focus on housing, debt and austerity—provide a hopeful account of efforts to counter austerity and generate movements of solidarity that connect people against neoliberalism.

On first reading, the book’s case studies appeared disparate, even disconnected. Further reflection, however, brought to light the ways in which such disparate case studies are necessary for pointing to a mood. It is in the wide variety of contexts, media and social problems that the ‘public mood’ of austerity emerges. A public mood is mysterious, ephemeral, and difficult to point to. It is emotion, attitude, feeling, sentiment, rather than policy. It can be captured in discourse, but is something more than merely discursive. Forkert’s use of varied case studies teases out the way this mood is a sort of omnipresent force infiltrating everyday life. The use of these varied case studies is also likely to help the book’s appeal to a wide audience, which may range from those interested in cultural studies and human geography to sociology and social movement studies.

Forkert focuses on the way in which emotions—especially guilt, nostalgia and shame—are animating forces throughout these case studies. The notion of ‘mood’ helps connect a series of seemingly unconnected and even contradictory trends: the vitriol pointed towards welfare recipients, the fear of the migrant, nostalgia for ‘keep calm and carry on’, a disdain for trade unions despite attributes of ’toughness’ and ‘hardworking’ being celebrated.

The moments when Forkert allows the narrative of her case studies to take over are undoubtedly the book’s strongest, not least because it is in these anecdotes—rather than in her survey of previous literature and extensive discussion of Stuart Hall’s contributions—that austerity as ‘mood’ bubbles to the surface.

The notion of austerity as mood is compelling. It helps explain how policies injurious to both the working and middle classes have come not only to seem acceptable but ‘right’, how these notions have come to shape thinking not just in macro-economic management but in the daily lives of citizens.

Her focus on resistance is to be applauded. Unlike much work on neoliberalism, her focus on resistance feels like more than a postscript or an afterthought. She attends to the challenges of resisting amongst this mood of austerity—the ways in which austerity thinking changes logic, alters the rationality of those resisting to accept or settle for compromises that are far from ideal. She describes how many citizens resisting the closure of libraries are unable to resist the prevailing mood, and have become resigned to managing, rather than opposing, the situation. But her description of these challenges does not tend towards the hopeless, and indeed her discussion of possibilities for creative resistance to austerity as mood highlights the broad range of actions taken across the world in hopeful gestures of defiance against this mood.

Whether austerity as mood might prove easier to dislodge than austerity policy remains to be seen, but Forkert’s book concludes with a hopeful insight into the ways in which activists are challenging prevailing emotions and building solidarity to shift the public mood.

This review was published in Emotion, Space and Society: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1755458618300483.

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