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Orchestrating Austerity

by Filipe Duarte on September 7, 2017

Donna Baines and Stephen McBride’s co-edited book Orchestrating Austerity: Impacts and Resistance addresses one of the most important issues of current political economy in western societies: austerity, the policy of cutting state budgets to promote growth, has been the preferred policy in all OECD countries, since the 2008 financial crisis.

In this sense, the debate about austerity continues to be highly relevant in all western countries. Orchestrating Austerity is the result of a workshop organised by the “Austerity Research Group” at McMaster University in Canada. It succeeds in positioning itself as a substantial contribution from different Canadian fields of expertise to discuss, in both practical and intellectual terms, not only the global context of austerity, but also by applying an interesting and perceptive analysis of Canada’s neoliberal politics in its various forms and intensities.

Arguably, this edited book offers several scholarly written pieces on austerity with a good overview of the literature and critiques. It is highly recommended for those interested in a critical understanding of the political economy of austerity, from a Canadian perspective. The book is structured into four parts, offering significant experiences of resistance, with a total of fourteen chapters from scholars, labour organisers and activists from all Canada.

Baines and McBride set out the aims and objectives of the book with an introductory overview of austerity, both historically and theoretically. They question whether there is something new about austerity, or if it can be considered as a new wave of previously existing forms of neoliberalism.

Part one addresses “the context of austerity”. The chapters in this section explore the shift to austerity, its applicability and incidence not only in Europe but also in Canada. Some chapters are more convincing than others. For example, MacBride’s chapter “In Austerity We Trust” is a scholarly written piece, in which he offers a good overview of the literature on austerity, notably a critique of Mark Blyth’s approach, one of the world’s leading scholars on austerity. McBride pitches his arguments perfectly, despite his title sounding suspiciously like “pop economics”. Although I also found some contradictions with Mark Blyth’s book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, McBride says that “there is nothing new in practice or in theory about austerity” and Blyth, too, has convincingly demonstrated that austerity is a powerful idea rooted in political ideology with its own empirical foundations as well theoretical basis.

Part two of this edited book seeks to explore some of the “Contradictions” of austerity in terms of gender equality, unionism, social democracy and class struggle. The chapters under this section help to understand some of the feminist critiques of neoliberalism, by rethinking and deconstructing the discourse of austerity. These chapters also combine perspectives from the labour movement and social unionism to re-invent solidarity in times of austerity. This interesting discussion within this section helps to outline the provocative thesis of this edited book.

Part three of this book, “Insecurities”, offers interesting insights about the inequalities and the contradictions produced by austerity policies. Some of the chapters in this section contribute to understanding why the poor pay for the mistakes of the rich. They demonstrate why austerity is mistaken in both its arguments, and in its effects, and promotes inequality and unfairness. Citizens cannot maintain an acceptable standard of living as a result of different types of insecurities, such as the growth of precariousness in the labour market, the erosion of wages, public pension schemes, and the imposition of job training programs oriented only to promote corporate lobbies and their cheap labour. Nevertheless, despite these convincing arguments, the chapter on Aboriginal issues by Shauna MacKinnon could have better explored the linkages with the general thesis of the book in terms of the impact of austerity following the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

The fourth part, “Public Sector: targets and resistance” offers a critical consideration of how the ongoing neoliberal agenda and its legitimate offspring – which is the financial and economic crisis – constitutes a formidable threat to the public services, and in particular, the welfare state. The strongest element of this section is the critical lens about the depletion of the public sector and as a potential site for profit-making through public-private partnerships, such as in education and in non-profit social services. Baines convincingly shows that austerity can be documented in the non-profit sector by pushing their services into pro-market relations. Furthermore, she offers a comparative in-depth analysis of the influences of neoliberal practices on social care provided by non-profits in Canada, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand.

The final chapter offers an excellent afterword from Jim Stanford, in lieu of a conclusion. Stanford highlights some of the most important discussions explored in the previous chapters to show that there is, and will always be, resistance against all kinds of austerity. Furthermore, Stanford provides relevant claims and evidence about Canada’s labour market by describing the Canadian path through austerity in an interesting and lucid way, and also by putting neoliberal policies in the context of the Canadian political economy. He also succeeds by exploring some new solutions that aim to promote social justice and end austerity.

A key strength of this edited book about austerity is definitely the variety of dimensions that it explores. The Canadian experiences provide a unique view into the internal dynamics of austerity in Canada. Readers interested in learning about critical perspectives of austerity and understanding how different forms of neoliberalism work will certainly benefit from this excellent contribution. It is recommended for academics and social activists who are interested in understanding the political economy of austerity, but also to those who are more broadly interested in learning about critical thinking and radical alternatives to neoliberalism.

This review first appeared in Canadian Review of Social Policy

Filipe Duarte
Filipe Duarte completed a PhD in Social Work at Carleton University (Canada). His thesis, entitled "The Politics of Austerity and Social Citizenship Rights: A Case Study of the Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Welfare State in Portugal", provides a detailed account of the austerity measures on welfare cash benefits adopted in Portugal between 2010 and 2014. Filipe is also a researcher and activist within the radical/structural social work tradition.

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