In September, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to Oxfordshire County Council to ask what more they could do to ameliorate the very cuts that his government has imposed across the country as part of its never-ending-austerity programme. The irony of this needs no further elaboration.
I wish to use this blog post to propose three possible explanations for David Cameron’s actions.
The first and most simple explanation is that the man known as ‘Call me Dave’ is a ‘liberal’ in the general (and worst) sense of the term. Among a great many other problems, the liberal condition has a very strong tendency to decouple all that is inextricably linked while aligning all that is disparate. For example, on one level (say, the liberal myth of meritocracy) there is no ‘perceived’ connection between rich and poor in the sense that the existence of one has no ‘obvious or visible’ determining effect on the existence of the other (rich people are seen as being talented and hardworking, poor people are lazy and feckless). Yet in another sense liberalism aligns a diverse range of people (with vastly uneven and unequal volumes of economic and cultural capital) with politically motivated rhetorical sound bites such as ‘we are all in this together’, ‘we all need to tighten our belts; or ‘we should all pay our fair share’…etc. Dave has himself produced a very useful example by recently decoupling any connection between the rise of ISIS and western military intervention in Iraq, and by aligning disparate groups of people who oppose the bombing of Syria under the broad rubric of ‘terrorist sympathisers’. This is what liberal politicians, journalists and academics have a strong tendency to do, they decouple all that is linked and align all that is disparate. So, in his letter to Oxfordshire council, Dave seems to have decoupled any link between his own party’s austerity measures and the cuts being made to his local council services and aligned the government, local and county councils and the public in sharing responsibility for the task of doing all they can to lessen the impact of the cuts (which his government is responsible for imposing).
The second explanation for understanding this situation revolves around the notion that Cameron is exercising a form of ‘cynical practice’ (see Crawford and Flint 2015). This form of cynicism arises when professionals (often public sector managers) are all too aware of the distance between the reality (what can realistically happen) and the mask they wear in public (the pretence they wish to promote), yet still insist on wearing the mask (despite everyone’s acknowledgement of the distance between the two). Carlen’s (2008: 20) example is useful’
For while ‘everyone knows’ that the chief inspector was only ‘doing his job’, ‘everyone else knows’ that in-prison programmes and decent regimes are almost certainly not in themselves going to reduce offending…So why lose credibility (or your promotion, or even your job if you are a prison officer or a prison governor) by continuing to say what everyone else always and already knows?
Perhaps then, since Cameron knows that austerity is a political rather than economic programme, his letter to Oxfordshire council could well be a cynical ploy. He knows what he’s doing but pretends he doesn’t know. Dave could be playing a double bluff.
Thirdly, there is what I’ve decided to call ‘quantum subjectivity’ a concept similar to the psychological notion of ‘cognitive dissonance’ but without there being too much ‘dissonance’ involved. Quantum subjectivity arises when an agent harbours two (mostly contradictory) positions on the same subject. The position which emerges depends almost entirely on the situation within which the agent finds him/herself. We don’t know a person’s position until we engage them, an activity which always takes place within a context, located within both social and physical space.
Think Schrodinger’s cat. Is it alive? Is it dead? Until you look (thus pinning it down to one state or the other) it is both at the same time. A quantum particle can be in two places simultaneously, only once you pin it down (by observing it), does it provide its location. In sociological terms, what a person ‘thinks’ is often determined, not by their social position (as classical sociology might suggest), but by the situation in which they find themselves when they are ‘pinned down’ to having to express an opinion. My own research provides useful examples. When discussing eviction practices with housing professionals, they would freely alternate between structural and individual discourses depending on the context. On one hand they would adopt a position in which structural factors played the most significant role in the causes of rent arrears (the problem was collectivised and therefore depersonalised), and in another context would adopt a position quite the opposite of that, where it was the irresponsible behaviour of the tenant which was the issue (the problem is then individualised and thoroughly personalised). So, in short, the same professionals, from the same offices, oscillated between the same binary frames in order to deal with the contradictions contained within the practice of evicting tenants. Quantum subjectivity, it seems, allows professionals to deal with the inherent contradictions, political tensions, and moral ambiguities which have come to characterise modern ‘public service’ provision in the UK.
The ‘quantum subjectivity’ explanation suggests that David Cameron’s position on austerity is determined by the situation in which he finds himself. When Dave is at home, in Oxfordshire, drinking tea in the garden with his wife and children, the effects of the cuts to his local services appear to him to be so severe, he is compelled to write to the council to ask why more cannot be done to reduce their impact. When David Cameron is in Parliament, surrounded by his Bullingdon Club chums, all braying like donkeys, manically waving their order papers as they ridicule and berate those in opposition, the government’s austerity programme seems the most sensible policy for dealing with problems, the real impact of which David Cameron appears to know absolutely nothing about.
Two entirely different positions.
Two entirely different worlds.
Pictures [from David Cameron’s (Tenant’s) special relationship with Scotland] are published with kind permission from Greg Moodie
By Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)