Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 288 pp.
(Note: This is an extended, remixed version of a book review I’ve written for a forthcoming issue of New Political Science).
In the context of the current financial crisis, it is fair to expect that any book taking as its title Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea should satisfy at least two criteria. On the one hand, the book should present a robust exposition of the basic genealogy of the concept. On the other, the book should try to offer an argument as to how this idea achieved such a preeminent position in guiding not only the decisions of key policymakers but also the everyday, commonsensical worldview of the very populations for whomthese decisions will have the most serious consequences. It is in terms of the former that Blyth’s book is strong.
The wonderful people over at Disorder of Things have posted an extended version of my recent review of Dave Eden’s excellent ‘Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.’ The original version, which appears in the current issue of New Political Science, is focused more on the book itself. This version tries to offer a more developed response to Eden’s thoughts on the place of the critique of the commodity in contemporary Marxism. Sincere thanks to Wanda and Pablo for hosting the piece. ~ Nick
Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”
Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.
From Wanda Vrasti, does the language of precarity empower us? Or can we do better?
But what if precarity was the wrong rallying point to focus on? What if instead of describing a shared experience all that the concept did was point to the absence of a common ground? Is there any way we could turn precarity around from a testament to our shared vulnerability into a positive affirmation of collective desire?