Arguably there has to be a ‘tipping point’ – a point beyond which social and economic crises bring forth political and social movements. The situation for many young people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece is bleak and, this is now being reflected in the rise of new social and political movements around the semi-periphery of Europe – Spain and Greece particularly, with the rise of Podemos and Syriza.
But Europe as a whole is not revolting. As the first majority Tory government since 1997 takes office, it is clear that conservatives predominate, for various reasons, in the majority of the largest countries. Arguably, what JK Galbraith called the ‘culture of contentment’ persists. Things are bad, people may think, but things could be a lot worse, and generally, people not forced to rely upon food banks remain comfortable and well-fed. If one manages to avoid such dependency, one tends to be grateful, rather than angry, and, in any case, it is not always obvious where to direct any anger.
Polling suggests that there is little enthusiasm amongst the public for policies that favour corporations and the richest individuals: the mystery, therefore, is how conservative parties continue to dominate. It seems that their current success is a result of more general political and social stagnation. A veil of perception, woven by modern marketing strategies, reinforces the stifling political culture in which current conservatism grows, stifling the political debate. As a consequence, a stale politics emerges, in which a grudging form of conservatism develops, as might mould in a dank cellar. It is perhaps informative to look at the former Eastern Bloc countries: those who have joined the EU since 2004. Looking at these economies objectively, the numbers do not point to any significant degree of objective contentment for a majority of people. Instead, they point to huge levels of insecurity and below-subsistence incomes. Living costs are close to average EU levels, whilst relative wages remain at remarkably low levels, with little sign in most countries of a serious tendency towards convergence with EU standards.
Yet politically, with the exception of some of the former Yugoslavia and possibly Romania, there seems little or no enthusiasm for social change. Things are neither easy, nor what they seem. The seemingly inexorable rise of Jobbik in Hungary may be seen by outsiders – and even by many Hungarians – as an indicator that post-contentment politics may emerge among the former Eastern Bloc countries. However, central to Jobbik’s programme is a further extension of the current punitive workfare and compulsory labour regime. Jobbik’s hard labour solutions for the ‘long-term unemployed’ are entirely within the constructs identified by Galbraith back in the early 1990s: the attempt by the comfortable to punish the chronically marginalised with the most arduous, mundane and pointless tasks.
As Galbraith argued, this punishment is also an attempt to re-inforce the moral superiority of the more powerful in society, through highlighting the self-inflicted nature of poverty. The poor and marginalized are much easier to blame for all the problems – inequality, work, lack of housing, public services, schools, the health service, and even the post service. As such, Jobbik’s approach to these questions remains firmly within the parameters of the neo-liberal settlement. I believe this provides an important clue as to how a political culture based upon exclusion can evolve against the backdrop of a slew of crises.
First, it seems that the ‘culture of contentment’ can become exportable as a cultural and intellectual good. The huge rupture between pre-1989 systems, and the following intense cultural and ideological exposure to US-dominated globalised media, has allowed the ‘culture of contentment’ to be part of a ‘new normal,’ as Eastern European countries look further West than simply Western Europe, towards an affluent suburbia encapsulated by 1980s US B-movies. Viktor Orban’s government may be close in some ways to Putin’s Russia, but its advanced communications strategies and themes, like those of the Tories, owe much more to the US Republicans, creating pervasive dichotomies which have successfully permeated into wider society. The economy may be failing people now, but the failures of the pre-1989 economic system, and those of centre-left administrations since the fall of the Wall, can be invoked to justify a set of unsubstantiated policy preferences, whether it be workfare, privatisation or a low, flat income tax rate. Despite usually gearing themselves to serve privilege, in one form or another, conservative politicians are increasingly turning hard work into a fetish – at a time when automation and casualisation are increasingly impinging upon middle-class occupations.
What we can observe, therefore, is a strange juxtaposition of a non-participatory political culture with modern political marketing techniques. Low voter and party membership rates, and minimal levels of interest in politics, can combine with seemingly unsophisticated but carefully calibrated political standpoints to ensure that voters act against their own economic interests – for example, it is not unusual to observe Roma settlements in Eastern Hungary, whose inhabitants increasingly tend to vote for one of the right-wing parties.
The messages can be closely targeted. For young people, times may be tough, politicians concede, using pessimism as a surrogate for empathy with those most affected by austerity. In former Eastern Bloc countries, they regularly invoke the grey, repressive nature of the previous system, and that system’s apparatchiks. They re-inforce the psychological contrasts and ensure that people too young to remember the previous system know that things could be worse. Meanwhile, the use of workfare to suppress wages is widely, if quietly, lauded, across the continent, at least in right-wing circles.
Second, as with the adoption of religious precepts, neo-liberalism can be adopted and incorporated in different ways by different societies, even in the absence of the large clusters of prosperity which formed the basis for the Western version of contentment. In Hungary, for example, the ‘culture of contentment’ can be said to be encapsulated within a concept of a ‘national middle class’ – an aspiration to nation-building which now overtly underpins the ideology behind Hungary’s struggling higher education system. Objectively, the Hungarian middle class in 2015 is fairly small; the lower reaches are extremely insecure.
Subjectively, however, the working class was hugely deprecated by the prevailing discourse in the last decades of communism and the transition era.. High levels of social mobility in the 1980s and increasingly aspirational education systems – both characteristic of loosening communist regimes of Eastern Europe – have resulted in widely shared expectations of middle-class employment. The ‘culture of contentment’ can therefore exist as an aspiration for the majority, even though its material rewards accrue to the minority. It should be remembered that in its Western form the existence of contentment is highly contingent upon racial and socio-geographical factors. Galbraith’s ‘culture of contentment’ was anything but universal.
The current right-wing political settlements across the continent can, therefore, be said to be an attack on universalism but, more than that: they are an attempt to manufacture consent based upon exclusion and a deliberate removal from political discussion of any topics outside the normal political conversation, for example, relating to inequality or the environment. The economic reality of modern Europe is increasingly based upon both underemployment and coercive employment, with people under duress from competitive forces apparently beyond governmental control. Largely as a result of this deliberate abdication, real prosperity remains a distant prospect for so many, yet the prospect of solidarity seems equally remote. And, as Galbraith indicates in his unstintingly pessimistic essay ‘The Culture of Contentment’, the longer-term implications of this period of conservative dominance may well be unpredictable, as problems continue to mount, unaddressed. Inequality grows, environmental problems mount, economic forces prevent a stable economic settlement, whilst mainstream political democracy becomes increasingly devalued and limited in its demographic scope. What Peter Mair referred to as the ‘hollowing’ of democracy becomes acute, as the ability of party politics to provide redress to social injustices continues to erode.