“Despair Fatigue”, but also much, much more

I’ll just put this here for future reference, more as a bookmark than anything else, because Despair Fatigue by David Graeber is one of those epic, monumental texts that should be collected into a universal and permanent textbook for understanding economy and politics of the current era in general.

Just a few key quotes. Yes, that’s a lot of words. It’s a long text.

There’s been virtually no public debate on austerity itself. At no point, for example, did a major TV news outlet host a panel of economists discussing whether public debt was really the cause of the economic crisis, or debating whether European-style austerity or Obama-style fiscal stimulus would be a more appropriate response. The only questions were how much budget cutting was required and where the cuts should fall. This confident Tory narrative reigned unchallenged from the rudest hack in the Daily Mail to the most chiseled eminence of the (supposedly socialist) BBC, and all figures of public authority held to it even after the immediate effects of the cuts proved spectacularly ineffective.


This consensus, oddly, has next to nothing to do with the opinions of professional economists. Almost all British economists understood that the gaping deficits of 2008 and 2009 had been caused by the banking crisis, not the other way around. Likewise, anyone paying attention knew that cutbacks of public services to “save money” reduced economic activity, and hence government tax revenues, and so really had the effect of raising, not lowering deficits. Most also understood that deficits weren’t really much of a problem to begin with. But even the opinion of mainstream economists was, suddenly, excluded from public debate. By 2012, even the IMF was issuing statements urging the Tories to lay off. But you’d never learn any of this from the Times, the Observer, or the BBC.

How could such total, lock-step defiance of reality be maintained in a country with a formally free press and highly educated population? To some degree, you find the familiar bubble effect. Politicians, journalists, lobbyists, CEOs, and corporate bureaucrats rarely talk to anyone except each other. They constitute a distinct intellectual universe. Within this universe, economic policies are designed primarily for political marketability; economic science exists largely to provide impressive diagrams and equations to sell them with. Phrases designed in think tanks and focus groups (“free markets,” “wealth creators,” “personal responsibility,” “shared sacrifice”) are repeated like incantations until it all seems like such unthinking common sense that no one even asks what the resulting picture has to do with social reality. True, the bubble logic can be maintained only by a certain studied ignorance of how the economy really works. One 2014 poll discovered, for instance, that 90 percent of sitting MPs, for all their endless debates on the need to save money, didn’t know where money comes from. (They thought it was created by the Royal Mint.)

The bubble effect is not unique to Britain, of course. Political debate in the United States, Japan, or Germany works much the same way. But in Britain, things have gone so far that we are beginning to see a classic Big Lie reinforcer effect. When the consensus reality gets this completely divorced from actually existing reality, when so many innocent people have suffered as a result, and when anyone pointing this out has been so consistently and aggressively denounced as a tinfoil-hat-wearing flat-earther or Trotskyite, to break ranks would mean admitting that the lunatics were right. There is nothing the established media is more loath to do.

The divorce between consensus and reality has grown so extreme and unworkable that even the technocrats charged with running the system have started to cry foul. In 2014 the Bank of England—its economists apparently exhausted by having to carry out economic policy in a made-up, topsy-turvy world designed only to benefit the rich—issued a statement on “Money Creation in the Modern Economy” that effectively destroyed the entire theoretical basis for austerity. Money, they noted, is not created by governments, or even central bankers, who must be careful not to make too much of it lest they spark inflation; it’s actually created by private banks making loans. Without debt there would be no money. The post-Keynesian heterodox economists, regularly denounced as a lunatic fringe by those commentators willing to acknowledge their existence, were right.

No major news outlet considered this a story; politicians continued preaching their morality tales of the evils of debt exactly as they had before.


Tony Blair’s New Labour policies, which, despite the Labour Party’s working-class funding base, basically represented the sensibilities of the professional classes, did attempt to forge an alternative vision. For the Blairites, the United Kingdom’s future lay in what they called the “creative industries.” Had not the United Kingdom, regularly since the sixties, produced waves of popular music and youth culture that had swept the world, bringing in billions in direct and indirect revenue? It must have seemed a plausible gambit in the nineties, but it failed because the Blairites were operating with a completely false understanding of where cultural creativity comes from.

They naively assumed creativity was basically a middle-class phenomenon, the product of people like themselves. In fact, almost everything worthwhile that has come out of British culture for the last century, from music hall, to street kebabs, to standup comedy, rock ‘n’ roll, and the rave scene, has been primarily a working-class phenomenon. Essentially, these were the things the working class created when they weren’t actually working. The sprouting of British popular culture in the sixties was entirely a product of the United Kingdom’s then very generous welfare state. There is a reason that in Cockney rhyming slang, the word for “dole” is “rock ‘n’ roll”(“he got the sack, he’s on the rock ‘n’ roll again”): a surprising proportion of major bands later to sweep the world spent at least some of their formative years on unemployment relief. Blairites were stupid enough to combine their promotion of “Cool Britannia” with massive welfare reforms, which effectively guaranteed the entire project would crash and burn, since they ensured that pretty much everyone with the potential to become the next John Lennon would instead spend the rest of their lives stacking boxes in their local Tesco as part of the new welfare conditionality.

In the end, all that the Blairites managed to produce was a world-class marketing sector (since that’s what middle-class people are actually good at); otherwise, they had nothing to show for themselves at all.


This is where the notion of despair fatigue comes in.

One might argue that its beginnings were already visible in popular culture. Witness the emergence of the Scottish socialist school of science fiction, which, after the relentless dystopianism of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, led the way to a broader trend by toying with redemptive futures once again. Then there was Steampunk, surely the most peculiar of countercultural trends, a kind of ungainly Victorian futurism full of steam-powered computers and airships, top-hatted cyborgs, floating cities powered by Tesla coils, and an endless variety of technologies that had never actually emerged. I remember attending some academic conference on the subject and asking myself, “Okay, I get the steam part, that’s obvious, but . . . what exactly does this have to do with punk?” And then it dawned on me. No Future! The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own. Then, of course, came the Great War, and we discovered what the twentieth century was really going to be like, with its monotonous alternation of terror and boredom in the trenches. Was not Steampunk a way of saying, can’t we just go back, write off the entire last century as a bad dream, and start over?

And is this not a necessary moment of reset before trying to imagine what a genuinely revolutionary twenty-first century might actually be like?

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