Austerity is not about numbers, economic data or amorphous macro-scale policies; Austerity is about people. Middle and working-class people, they are the ones who bear the brunt of oppressive neoliberalism and carry the depressing burdens of austerity in their everyday life: increasing unemployment, decreasing wages, capturing debt, suicides, and the overall deterioration of the social welfare, healthcare and education systems.
Ethnography is a thorough and honest endeavour to understand the cultural meanings and activities of people, and to illustrate the grassroots realities of everyday life. Ethnography is an inlet which facilitates us to delve into domestic and particular social topologies. Ethnography is writing about people.
The two following books virtuosically fulfil this intellectual and humanistic task, presenting engaging and important ethnographies of living with and in austerity.
In Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, Lisa Mckenzie (LSE) transports us into complex realities of council estate life. For more than 20 years Mckenzie has lived on the St Ann’s estate (Nottingham, England), that has been stigmatised as a place where gangs, guns, drugs, single mothers, and those unwilling or unable to make something of their lives reside. Her insider status enables us to hear the stories of its residents, often wary of outsiders. We find strong, resourceful, ambitious people who are ‘getting by’, often with humour, in conditions of heightened poverty and inequalities. Through ethnographic vignettes, Mckenzie brightly shows us how the resilient and creative local community stands up in face of brutal and dark austerity. This well-written book is a vivid, authentic and subtle account of class, gender and race in austerity Britain. (Open access to a foreword by Danny Dorling and an afterword by Owen Jones).
What happens to society, and the environment, when austerity dominates political and economic life? – was also the question that troubled Laura Bear (LSE). To get to the heart of it, in Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt along a South Asian River, she tells the stories of boatmen, shipyard workers, port clerks and river pilots on the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges that flows into the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Through their accounts, the author traces the hidden currents of state debt crises and their often devastating effects.
Taking us on a voyage along the river, in this original book Bear proficiently reveals how bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and workers navigate austerity policies. Their attempts to reverse the decline of ruined public infrastructures, environments and urban spaces lead her to argue for a radical rethinking of economics according to a social calculus. This is a critical measure derived from the ethical concerns of people affected by national policies. The book shows how the most basic creation of value and capital in the global economy depends on a complex and local mobilization of labor, resources, cultural meanings and political force.
But Bear brings more than fascinating ethnographic specificities, by suggesting new practices of state financing and ways to democratize fiscal policy to restore long-term social obligations. Navigating Austerity greatly contributes to policy studies as well as to the understanding of today’s injustices on the ground in the shadow of state debt and contemporary neoliberal capitalism.