The People’s Assembly is no alternative to austerity

This anti-austerity group has too much faith in the state and too little faith in the public.

On Sunday, an estimated 50,000 demonstrators aligned with the anti-cuts collective, the People’s Assembly, marched on Parliament Square in London to protest against austerity. Who could fault their aims? The UK coalition government’s austerity policies have only further damaged our already beleaguered public services. And although belt-tightening, by its very nature, does little to aid growth, the government has told us for years that it is necessary. Indeed, the government has promised severe austerity since it came to power in 2010. In a speech late last year, the prime minister, David Cameron, went so far as to call for permanent austerity as a way of creating a leaner, trimmed-down state.

Of course, despite the government’s bellowing, the severe austerity never came, and, as was pointed out in the Spectator this week, state spending has been steadily rising since the coalition came to power in 2010 - up by almost £60 billion, to £732 billion. If re-elected, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, promises more cuts, but even if he sticks to his pledge, overall state expenditure will fall by a mere four per cent in real terms by 2018. Cuts are never welcome, but Osborne could hardly be described as a butcher of public services. It seems the only people to have swallowed the Tory hard-talk about austerity are the government’s detractors. 

Determined not to let the facts get in the way of a good demo, speakers including journalist Owen Jones, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and socialist comedian Mark Steel addressed the crowd in London. Predictably, the self-appointed, one-man revolutionary vanguard and non-sequitur machine, Russell Brand, stole the show, calling for ‘peaceful, effortless, joyful revolution’. ‘Power isn’t there’, he said, pointing towards parliament, ‘it is here [gesturing to his heart]... within us’. The jubilant crowd chanted his name and people cried ‘We love you, Russell!’. He continued: ‘The people of this building [parliament], generally speaking, do not represent us, they represent their friends in big business. It’s time for us to take back our power… The revolution that’s required isn’t a revolution of radical ideas, but the implementation of ideas we already have.’ Unfortunately, Brand did not elaborate on how his peaceful, effortless, joyful, non-radical plan to overthrow the state would be executed.

Members of the political class often tell the public it is our duty to vote. Of course, this is nonsense. If none of the candidates or parties in a given election is inspiring, why should you endorse any of them, other than out of a misguided notion of civic duty? Yet, for Brand to tell the crowd ‘I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either’ is different from abstaining until something worthwhile comes along. Rather, it reveals a disdain for the very idea of democracy, and the idea that people can actually change things.

This is what is most nonsensical about the People’s Assembly. It simultaneously holds political power in contempt while demanding the state exerts even more influence on society. It is no mystery why politicians are so reviled. But disdain for politicians alone is not a progressive stance. It often reveals contempt for democracy and, by implication, the demos. One might think that people who believe in ‘people power’ would demand more democracy and less state intrusion into our lives, but when it comes to the People’s Assembly, it seems the opposite is true. This reflects the paradoxical thinking of many of those on the left today: they claim to loathe ‘the powerful’, but they do not believe people themselves can change things, so they call on the state to make the changes they desire.

Like the Occupy movement before it, the People’s Assembly makes a virtue of the fact that it is inclusive, vaguely demanding ‘an alternative’ to greed and selfishness without ever articulating what that alternative might be. It does, to its credit, have a few tangible objectives. It calls for more well-paid jobs, improved public services and abundant high-quality housing, although such demands are always tempered by a contradictory demand for sustainability, which is itself a form of austerity. However, like the Occupy movement, the People’s Assembly’s lack of faith in politics as a means of people changing things means it doesn’t actually offer any overarching or serious alternative to the status quo; it simply wants more state solutions and more state intervention to prop up people’s existences. Making a vacuous and ideas-lite person like Russell Brand its mascot of choice is quite fitting.

Rossa Minogue is staff writer at spiked.

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