Looking beyond the pain principle

Dose of equality prescribed for 'masochistic' age of debt, UEL symposium hears. Matthew Reisz reports

December 16, 2010

"Righteous anger" needs to replace a masochistic "politics of pain", a public symposium heard as students took to the streets ahead of last week's tuition-fees vote.

Part of a long-planned series on "debt, pain, work" organised by the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London, the event on 8 December coincided with widespread student protests, the occupation of part of the campus and a strong sense that "the banking crisis has not led to a reining in of neoliberal capitalism".

Michael Rustin, professor of sociology at UEL, deplored the fact that "the central goal of economic growth has not been challenged and people have been blamed for spending too much and now feel they must make sacrifices to resolve the problem. It's disappointing that they have such a weak sense of entitlement and have fought back so feebly."

Yet public protest can be effective in undermining the government, since "unrest is not supposed to be what it is delivering", he said.

Kate Pickett, professor of epidemiology at the University of York, drew on the arguments of the book she wrote with Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009).

Although the rich live longer than the poor within particular societies, life expectancy is "not related to average national income", she said, but to degrees of income equality. The same applied to most areas of "social pain" - from mental illness and teenage pregnancy to drug addiction and levels of imprisonment. Thus, a "politics of pain" must be concerned with equality.

Jeremy Gilbert, reader in cultural studies at UEL, expressed annoyance with the slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On", which he noted was to be seen everywhere in the wake of the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. On one level, he said, it was "kitsch nostalgia" for traditional British stoicism. Yet its "smug self-deprecation" couldn't conceal the reality that it was also a state exhortation: "Keep Calm and Carry On - or you'll lose your job, your home, your credit rating and perhaps even your sanity."

Today's political rhetoric of "sharing the pain", Dr Gilbert added, was positively masochistic. Instead of a "righteous anger against the real culprits", it had led to a kind of "negative solidarity" with groups such as public-sector workers seen as suffering less.

Those working in higher education, he concluded, needed to hold on to a sense that work is joyfully creative only when it is collaborative. Yet they faced the huge challenge that "neoliberals believe that the only real pleasure is private - and the reforms are premised on that principle".


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