Austerity, aspiration and the politics of hope

In the aftermath of the 2015 election, much of the commentary centred on the Labour Party’s failure to speak to the ‘aspiration’ of voters to secure better lives for themselves and their families. Aspiration is fast becoming the dominant term around which narratives of political renewal now circulate with, I think, malign consequences. It is very different from the idea of hope. While aspiration speaks to individual or familial-oriented concerns – and, implicitly, those of the nation in a global competition for status and power – hope offers a more collective sensibility. And while aspiration is fundamentally an economic discourse, hope seems to speak to wider cultural and political – as well as personal – futures.

Hope is central to narratives that inspire political action. Hope lay behind the formation of political parties and trades unions; the development of welfare states and public services; and the transformative power of social movements. And hope for something different, including alternative ways of ‘doing politics’, has inspired many of the new forms of activism that have emerged in Austerity Britain. High profile examples include UK Uncut and Occupy; but there is also a proliferation of new forms of community activism, feminist mobilisations, local campaigning groups and wider movements that sometimes spring from them (of which the New Era estate campaign is an oft-cited example).

While these may appear defensive (campaigns against cuts, or to defend valued services) they are often cross-cut by forms of hopeful politics in the way they conduct their collective practice. As recent report from the New Economics Foundation[i] notes, austerity has not only generated forms of defensive and adaptive responses, it has also elicited creative responses that offer new social and political possibilities. New nationalist movements are based in part on a politics of hope – in Spain, the very word for the new progressive political party – Podemos- means ‘we can’. As in Scotland, we can see how this can be the basis of a form of political renewal that counters dominant narratives of political apathy and disaffection.

But the idea of hope is itself an ambiguous political construct. Hopes can be dashed, potentially generating new cycles of political despair and cynicism. And what Berlant (2011) terms ‘cruel optimism’ can trap people in fantasies of the good life when the conditions that might make it possible are no longer sustainable. So hope needs to be more than a fantasy, a vague sense of optimism: it has to be rooted in an analysis of political forces and dynamics. My own work[ii] shows how women with a background in different forms of activism have acquired networks, experiences and attachments that have sustained them through cycles of optimism and despair. It also demonstrates the continued capacity of people to be concerned with something beyond a narrow culture of aspiration, even in the current context of austerity and personal hardship.

I do not want to argue that aspiration is not a ‘real’ and valid sensibility, nor deny its power to shape future political agendas on the left in Britain. But I do want to argue that it is not a singular, nor even necessarily dominant, affective disposition. People do not hold simple identities but can work between different – and sometimes seemingly incompatible – beliefs and attachments. They can ‘aspire’ for a better economic future for their children – a ‘step on the ladder’ – while also ‘hoping’ for social or political change. They my become detached from mainstream political institutions, exhibiting what Jeremy Gilbert terms ‘disaffected consent’, but become stimulated to action when ‘their’ local service is threatened with cuts, in the process becoming part of new networks and lines of solidarity. They may turn to parties of the political right or emergent national or regional struggles as a way of protesting against the old political elites of Westminster and Whitehall, while also taking action to try to reshape the forces that govern their lives. 

I worry, then, about the way narratives of aspiration narrow the political imagination and fail to offer opportunities for a renewal of left politics. But I also want to highlight concerns about the wider effects of such narratives.  Austerity has had a malign influence on political culture, generating a search for scapegoats (migrants, benefit scroungers), rage (against the ‘metropolitan elite’, the European Union), and blame (was the crisis the fault of bankers, of the Labour Party, or even perhaps of a ‘baby boomer’ generation who had had it all and pulled the ladder up after them?). A narrative that privileges aspiring workers and families – and even nations – as the route towards deficit reduction and growth tends to exacerbate culture of division, hatred and blame.

The hope that supports the emergence of new forms of participation is easily crushed by what might be termed a politics of disdain and contempt. For example Occupy tended to be dismissed as a fleeting, non-serious spectacle, and regarded as not being a ‘proper’ form of politics (no coherent agenda, no leaders). Any form of resurgent feminist politics tends to be subjected to ridicule and dismissal, with high levels of personal abuse for those involved. The ridicule surrounding Russell Brand’s interventions detracted from any serious discussion of the way in which he spoke to a constituency of politically disaffected young people. And green politics has often been dismissed as a minority concern, a form of hippy nonsense.

Disdain and contempt for any form of hopeful politics clears the way for ‘aspiration’ as the only game in town. We need, perhaps, a politics that creates rather than destroys – creating images of what might be possible as a good society. We need a politics that fosters attachments – and not only the attachments of party or class – rather than a politics that encourages individualism and fragmentation. And we need a politics that offers hope rather than despair, division and rage. Such a politics must offer more than fantasy (of new futures) or nostalgia (for a past that is no longer possible). In the aftermath of the 2015 UK election, this requires an affective disposition towards hope rather than simply of loss, grief and blame.  

[i] NEF (2015) Responses to Austerity.

[ii] Newman, j (2012) Working the spaces of power: activism, neoliberalism and gendered labour. Bloomsbury Academic.

Newman, j (2013) Performing new worlds: policy, politics and creative labour in hard times. Policy and Politics  41, 4: 515-532.


One thought on “Austerity, aspiration and the politics of hope

  1. And what about the disdain and contempt that the Labour left feel for the white working class who feel betrayed?
    Before discussing hope this question needs to be addressed and answered adequately.
    Let us also recall the hype around the concept of the ‘audacity of hope'(sic)
    What happened to that?

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