Devolution, Inclusive Growth and Local Skills Strategies

In today’s blog, CURA’s Jonathan Payne argues that the devolution agenda in England has so far been driven by a neo-liberal “growth first” approach that eschews consideration of the challenges presented by inclusive growth. He argues for an inclusive growth approach that is more sensitive to the quality of employment and the lower end of the labour market, and he specifically considers the role that local skills strategies might play in such a policy agenda.

Since 2010, UK governments have promised to empower local communities to drive growth as part of the devolution agenda for England. This has seen the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), bringing together local authorities and members of the local business community, along with ‘City Deals’, ‘Growth Deals’ and ‘Devolution Deals’, brokered between central and local government. The question is what kind of growth and for whom? The emerging discourse of ‘inclusive growth’ reflects concerns over poverty and inequality, and the general idea that everyone should benefit. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spoken of building an economy that ‘works for everyone’ and of spreading the benefits of growth across all parts of the UK. Against the backdrop of weak productivity, ‘industrial strategy’ is being promoted, with the aim of creating good high-value jobs, while the National Living Wage for the over-25s supplements the Government’s welfare-to-work agenda and its commitment to ‘make work pay’.

Inclusive growth is a hot topic, with an All-Party Parliamentary Group looking at the issue, and the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, Manchester University’s Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, amongst others, producing reports. The term remains, however, a contested one. A key distinction is between a neo-liberal, growth-first approach which seeks to create more jobs and connect more people, including marginalised groups, to the labour market, and a growth-shaping agenda which goes further by developing more and better jobs. Importantly, the latter puts the spotlight on job quality and includes the lower end of the labour market, an approach favoured by, amongst others, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

This is vital because nationally government policy remains firmly wedded to the growth-first approach. Industrial strategies since 2010 have been about sexy, elite sectors and technologies which employ only a tiny fraction of the working population, and have had little to say about the ordinary economy where most people work. Here, one in five UK workers are in low wage jobs and one in eight are ‘working poor’. Many of these jobs are low skill and insecure. While the National Living Wage is welcome, it remains age-restricted and is not a living wage. Progression out of low wage work also remains problematic, with only one in six managing to permanently escape after ten years. Government worships at the shrine of a ‘flexible’ labour market, which gives the green light to employers looking to compete through low wages and poorly designed jobs, ‘zero’ or short-hour contracts and other forms of ‘labour flexibility’, problems which extend far beyond the ‘gig’ economy. With the UK’s low paying sectors a major contributor to our productivity gap with European competitors, there are glaring policy tensions. Austerity also squeezes wages and corrodes investment, while welfare cuts and a punitive regime of conditionality and sanctions applied to those on benefits suck money out of deprived communities and are designed to drive people into any job.

Locally, there are real challenges in fronting up to inclusive growth. Funding for local growth has been cut from £11.2 billion between 2006/6-2009/10 to £6.2 billion between 2010/11 to 2014/15. Local authorities have experienced cuts of 40%. LEPs have limited resources and staffing. Devolution is top-down, limited and uneven, with a crazy paving of devolved powers and responsibilities, which threatens to worsen already stark regional disparities in one of the most centralised countries in the western world. There are concerns that central government is off-loading responsibility for spending cuts, uneven development and deep-rooted structural problems in our economy and labour market. Secret deals, brokered behind closed doors between central and local elites, can mean that questions of ‘what kind of growth and for whom?’ and the lower end of the labour market do not get a look in.

This is not to suggest that local actors have their hands tied when it comes inclusive growth. There are certainly things they can do to directly address low quality employment, whether it be local authorities ‘leading by example’, using public procurement to lever improvements in private-sector contractors, enlisting the support of local ‘anchor institutions’, such as universities and hospitals, or campaigning for employers to sign up to voluntary Living Wage Compacts. Preston’s experiment with Community Wealth Buildingis one approach, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Local Skills Strategies and Inclusive Growth

Another issue worthy of attention is the role of local skills strategies in all of this. At national level, skills have been the policy lever of first and last resort for addressing international competitiveness, productivity and social inclusion over the last 35 years. We know skills have a role to play in productivity and better jobs and in helping people to access work and progress in their lives. But research also tells us that skills have to be used in the workplace if they are to add to productivity. Equipping people with education and training can help some individuals to get better work but it cannot magic away low-skill, low-pay, insecure and dead-end jobs which still have to be done by someone. Neither should we think Robotics and Artificial Intelligence will ride to the rescue or that they will eat all the jobs. The ‘skills problem’ is not just one of too few people with the right skills (weak/misdirected skills supply), it is one of too many jobs which are not effectively using the skills and capabilities of many of those already in them (weak employer demand and poor utilisation).

Skills figure prominently in the devolution agenda, including a number of City Deals and are often an area where devolution deals have requested more influence. We also have the planned devolution of the post-19 adult education budget to Combined Authorities/LEPs by 2018-19, the most visible element of skills devolution to date. However, cuts to adult skills funding leave a massively reduced budget of £1.5 billion across England, much of which is already committed to meeting statutory learning entitlements. Schools and 16-19 funding remain a fiefdom of the Department of Education. Apprenticeships are nationally funded and administered through the Apprenticeship Levy, with government having set a target of 3 million new starts by 2020. Schools and Further Education Colleges both operate in competitive markets for learners, and are subject to centralised accountability mechanisms in the form of ‘high stakes’ national inspections. The ability of local actors to exert influence over the local skills system looks to be pretty limited.

The danger is that local skills strategies focus simply on boosting qualification stocks, addressing skills gaps and shortages, and equipping young people and the unemployed with the ‘right’ skills and attitudes for work, against the backdrop of massively reduced funding. As Ewart Keep has persuasively argued, locally we could see mini-versions of the same skills-supply, target-driven agenda, an approach that nationally has done little to address problems of weak employer demand and poor utilisation over several decades with much bigger volumes of public funding. As the OECD/ILO have also argued, if local skills strategies are to contribute to national productivity and inclusive growth they need to go beyond traditional skills supply measures and address employer demand and utilisation. They call for a major re-think of the ‘skills problem’ which would involve integrating skills into broader initiatives around economic development and business improvement, and working with employers to address issues of product market strategy, work organisation and job design, and the way people are managed. A key challenge is firms bedded down on the ‘low road’, competing on the basis of price, with low wages and low skill job design.

This raises interesting questions for local skills strategies in England at a time when Government is asking Combined Authorities and LEPs to bring forward ‘local industrial strategies’. How far will local growth strategies address low paying sectors? Will we see skills integrated with economic development and business improvement initiatives in ways that do not neglect the lower end of the labour market? Do local actors have the resources, capacity and expertise available to do any of this and can they think differently about the ‘skills problem’? How much progress can be made locally in terms of raising employer demand for, and use of, skills in the context of a weakly regulated labour market and shareholder-driven economy? On this latter point, we will only really know if we try. I have recently been carrying out research, funded by CURA, that has probed these issues in the Midlands, focusing on local actors’ understandings of the ‘skills problem’ and approaches to addressing it. The main finding is that local skills strategies are struggling to move beyond a narrow supply-driven agenda and develop a more integrated approach which fronts up to the challenges presented by low skill, low wage jobs. However, these are still early days. What is clear is that a focus on the ‘whole economy’ and the quality of jobs must be at the heart of inclusive growth agendas.

Jonathan Payne is a core member of CURA and Professor of Work, Employment and Skills at the Department of Politics, People and Place at De Montfort University.

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Conference Registration Open: Municipal Socialism in the 21st Century

With the rise of “new municipalisms” across the world, the launch of the #FearlessCities movement in Barcelona last year, and the recent renewal of commitments to “municipal socialism” by the UK Labour Party, it is timely to consider what municipal socialist ideas, practices and projects can contribute to struggles for justice in the 21st century.

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity is hosting a one-day conference to discuss these issues at De Montfort University on Wednesday 27th June.  Please see the draft programme below. If you have any queries or requirements, please contact Adrian Bua at Adrian.bua@dmu.ac.uk.

Attendance is free and open to all, though we can only cover expenses for speakers.  Please register for the conference at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/municipal-socialism-in-the-21st-century-tickets-45438001285?ref=estw.

Find the conference programme below. We look forward to welcoming you on 27th June.

09:30 – Registration and Welcome

10:00 – Setting the Scene (Jonathan Davies and Miguel Robles Duran)

10:30 – 12:15: Resistance and transformation: State, Commons and Class

Paul O’Brien (Association for Public Service Excellence): Community Wealth Building: Towards a New Municipalism

Simon Parker (Redbridge Borough Council): Limits and potentialities of municipal socialism: the case of Redbridge.

Hannah Gardiner (Shared Assets): Reframing Public Land

Dan Durrant (University College London): The Potential and Limits of Time Credits

Joe Beswick (New Economics Foundation): Municipal Housing and Municipal Socialism

12:15 – 13:00: Lunch

13:00 – 14:45: The Feminisation of Urban Power and Resistance

Liliana Almanza (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain): The organising power of women in outsourced worker struggles

Irantzu Varela (Activist/journalist from Bilbao): 8-M and its aftermath

Hilary Wainwright (Transnational Institute/Red Pepper): Feminism and the deepening of Local Democracy

14:45 – 15:15: Coffee

15:15 – 17:00: Whither Municipal socialism in the 21st Century?

Neil Barnett (Leeds Beckett University): Lessons from British Municipal Socialism

Bertie Russell (University of Sheffield): A Counter-History of Municipalism

Mike Geddes (University of Warwick): Implications of Radical Localism in Latin America

Frances Northrop and Adrian Bua (New Economics Foundation): What can a think tank do to advance Municipal Socialism?

17:00 – 17:15: Closing Discussion

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PhD Study Opportunities at CURA

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity is looking for prospective PhDs students interested in developing innovative, interdisciplinary research projects in any field of the arts and humanities that relate to our established areas of expertise in urban governance, identity and resistance.

People interested in developing research related to the topics listed below are encouraged to contact Valeria Guarneros as soon as possible: valeria.guarneros@dmu.ac.uk

  1. Role of arts/culture in urban governance
  2. Culture of resistance and labour struggles
  3. Life histories in popular local struggles
  4. Arts/culture and service provision
  5. Collective identities and political participation.

Opportunities for PhD scholarships are available.

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Austerity and Food Poverty: the vicious circle of obesity, ill-health and deprivation

In today’s post Hillary Shaw and Julia Shaw consider the links between poverty, poor diet and ill health.  In the UK, escalating food, fuel and housing costs, stagnating incomes and poor employment prospects have realised a fateful and catastrophic convergence of problems, which all serve to compound and amplify each other. Increasing social inequalities have, in turn, evidenced the rising incidence of obesity and diabetes, fuelled by nutritional poverty. In the broader context of austerity and welfare reforms, it is suggested that the urban food question – specifically in relation to accessing foods essential to a healthy diet – becomes a priority on the political agenda. The authors describe the particular challenges this poses, and argue that more comprehensive policy solutions that go beyond focussing on individual behaviour, to include regulating industry as well as creating positive food environments, are necessary.

When Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister 1979-1990, advocated a return to ‘Victorian values’; she probably did not mean the return of ‘Victorian’ diseases we are now seeing, such as gout and rickets which are closely linked to diet. Gout is caused by excess consumption of fatty food and alcohol; rickets is caused by lack of vitamin D which we get from sunlight and from oily foods, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals. Today, children in deprived areas are going to school without having had breakfast; some even return home to no supper. They may even arrive at school with lunchboxes containing cold chicken nuggets, stale toast, or last night’s leftover chips, so that in deprived areas (e.g., Lanarkshire, Scotland) there is a need for programmes such as ‘Food-365’, an initiative to provide school lunches all year round to alleviate ‘holiday hunger’ amongst the most vulnerable. The ‘health premium’ – the excess cost of eating well either in terms of money, time or knowledge acquisition – has never gone away, and rising inequality in the early 21st century has brought back the old 19th century diseases of dietary poverty. However hunger, poverty and poor diet are now commonly associated with carrying excess weight rather than being underweight.

Once the poor and malnourished were thinner than the rich; yet in modern times, uniquely, they are heavier and more likely to be obese. At age 11, the poorest British children are, on average, 2 kg heavier than those of the wealthiest families, which is the exact opposite of the figures in 1946. At the extremes of obesity the gap is even larger, with the most obese 10% from the poor weighing 4.6 kg more, on average, than the 10% most obese from the wealthy. The same reversal has occurred in developing countries. In Brazil low-income women in 1997 were 40% more likely to be obese than underweight, whereas in 1975 they were four times more likely to be underweight than obese. Once, you had to be wealthy to afford to be obese; now we have an abundance of sugary junk foods and cheap fatty meat, and you increasingly need to be wealthy to be slim.

In Victorian Britain, poor people did die of starvation. At best, undernourished children would suffer physical stunting and mental retardation. So, has the situation improved now the poor are over-consuming calories rather than under-consuming them? Perhaps not, for four reasons. Firstly, obesity stigmatises the poor whereas the sight of a starving person, especially a child, excites sympathy, provokes action and public philanthropy. Our mental attitude has not caught up with our modern socio-economic food situation, and we tend to associate obesity with self-indulgence and laziness. Secondly, obesity is harder to reverse than emaciation; our calorie-hoarding biology, inherited from prehistoric days when food could be scarce for long periods, means we are very efficient at gaining weight and strongly biologically resistant to losing it. Thirdly, obesity creates long-term health problems which cascade on from one another. Excess weight precipitates cardiovascular problems and arthritis; fat can promote cancer, and above all, type 2 diabetes is a major cause of blindness and amputations. These are all chronic and expensive conditions, and may lead to the poor being accused of consuming excess health resources and money, as if they wanted to be obese and ill, and it is their fault they are not eating healthily. Naturally the concept of the health premium is seldom mentioned here. Fourthly, obesity keeps poor people poor. Obese adults are “less likely to be hired, are lower paid, have fewer opportunities and are often outright bullied in the workplace”. This especially applies to women, who already suffer the consequences of the gender pay gap, and who also have higher expectations of ‘appearance’ placed upon them by society. Accordingly, this adds multiple reinforcing layers of prejudice and discrimination to the poverty and obesity issue.

The ‘obesity prejudice’ begins early in life, with overweight children being bullied and achieving less at school; again this may mean they attain lower qualifications and, as adults,  earn less and remain poor. In turn, the cycle of poverty means they tend to produce poor children who similarly eat unhealthily and gain excess weight. This is one crucial way in which poverty can transmit itself down the generations. Obesity also propagates poverty through sleep apnoea, causing daytime exhaustion and lower productivity. Obese schoolchildren often miss lessons as they take time off for associated medical conditions such as intensive dental treatment, and obese adults miss work days for a range of illnesses associated with poor nutrition, as noted above.

Society tends to put the burden of reversing obesity largely back on the individual; exercise more, get fitness apps, learn cooking skills, read the food labels. There is no current policy initiative aimed at stopping supermarkets from selling unhealthy foods. A sugar tax has been recently imposed, which raises costs to the consumer, but the government is not using this tax revenue to reduce the costs of healthy foods; for example, a negative VAT rate on fresh produce. Schools have restarted cookery lessons, but there is no educational provision for adults with advice on easy, cheap and healthy eating at the places where they can be easily accessed, for instance, jobcentres, food banks, citizens’ advice bureaux, housing associations or GP surgeries in deprived areas. There is also a tendency to promote a revolutionary rather than evolutionary approach to diet, as typified by Jamie Oliver’s initiative in Rotherham, straight from ‘Turkey Twizzlers’ to gourmet vegetables. This may be interesting, and even informative, for more affluent families who can afford to experiment, waste food, spend time on learning new cooking techniques, and drive to shops which sell these novel foods.

For less wealthy families, and certainly the poorest, a gradualist approach may be preferable; by, for example, introducing leafy green vegetables into ready meals, making healthier sandwiches, adding fresh fruit to processed puddings, and replacing fizzy drinks with fruit juices. A major problem is that truly breaking the vicious circle of obesity, ill-health and deprivation takes far longer than the customary five-year lifetime of a government. A climate of austerity and squeezing the already poor creates financial returns much faster. Although entrenched vicious circles such as the seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty are hard to break, and even though social returns often only materialise –as Ivan Illich almost said – ‘at the speed of a bicycle’, nevertheless social returns bring true longer-lasting benefits for all.

Julia J.A. Shaw is Professor of Social Justice and Interdisciplinary Legal Studies, as well as a member of CURA at De Montfort University.

Hillary J. Shaw is the author of many journal articles, book chapters and commissioned reports in the general areas of economics, geography, politics and the sociology of food consumption and obesity – particularly in relation to the dynamics and evolution of the food desert phenomenon within the wider context of austerity. His book The Consuming Geographies of Food: Diet, Food Deserts and Obesity (Routledge, 2014) explicates the development of the current global food system and explores how sustainable and accessible political and economic structures for feeding the future global population of ten billion can be achieved. He is currently completing a further monograph, Corporate Social Responsibility and the Global Food Chain (Routledge, forthcoming 2019) which explores corporate social responsibility in relation to government policy and the food retailing industry.

 

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First Annual Lecture – Professor Miguel Robles-Durán – The Dialectics of Parallel Urbanization: Cohabitation Strategies and the Politics of Scale

CURA is delighted to announce our first annual lecture, with Professor Miguel Robles-Duran (New School, New York City) on “The Dialectics of Parallel Urbanization: Cohabitation Strategies and the Politics of Scale”, from 18:00 to 19:30 on the 26th June at De Montfort University, in Leicester.

Miguel Robles-Durán is Associate Professor of Urbanism and member of the Parsons School of Design Graduate Urban Council in New York. He is a Senior fellow at “Civic City”, a post-graduate design/research program based at the Haute École d’Art et de Design (HEAD) Geneva, Switzerland and is a current fellow at the Montalvo Arts Center Sally & Don Lucas Artists Residency Program in Saratoga, California.  In 2008, Robles-Durán co-founded Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra), an international nonprofit cooperative for socio-spatial research and development based in Rotterdam and New York City, which focuses on conditions of urban decline, inequality and segregation within the contemporary city. Parallel to his work with CohStra, Robles-Durán’s direct engagement with urban social movements and institutions has led him to become acting Judge at the International Tribunal of Evictions, advisor to The Right to the City Alliance, the International Alliance of Inhabitants and co-directed with the Marxist geographer David Harvey the National Strategy Center for the Right to the Territory (CENEDET) in the Republic of Ecuador.

Venue:

De Montfort University, Leicester (venue to be confirmed)

Tuesday 26th June 2018, 18:00 – 19:30.

Booking:

This event is open to all.  To book your free place(s) for this event, please register at https://bit.ly/2FaeLsD

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Time exchange and reciprocity in the co-production of public services

In today’s blog, Daniel Durrant discusses a paper based on research conducted as part of an evaluation of the Cambridgeshire Time Credits Project which the Cambridge Centre for Planning and Housing Research were commissioned to do. Time Credits are a form of community currency. The particular model discussed in the paper was promoted widely by Spice – an entrepreneurial and rapidly expanding social enterprise.

Time Credits were developed in South Wales having attracted considerable support from the Welsh Assembly and nationally from the Department of Health. The model stresses its origins in the work of Kennedy era policy adviser, Edgar Cahn on Time Banking, with volunteers able to earn a credit for an hour’s voluntary work which they can either exchange for an hour’s reciprocal work or as is more common for an hour’s worth of services from a ‘corporate spend partner’ usually a local gym or cinema.

Cambridgeshire County Council has commissioned Spice to roll out their Time Credits programme in the county with initial trials in Wisbech. A geographically isolated and relatively deprived corner of an otherwise affluent County with an economy focused on agricultural production and the low skilled, insecure and often migrant labour associated with it. The Council’s commitment to the programme and the notions of reciprocity and ‘co-production’ imbedded within the model is both ideological and explicitly financial given the 60 percent reduction in budget they face in the decade 2010-2020. It is the tensions between the rhetoric and reality of co-production identified through the ethnographic component of the evaluation that this paper explores.

Academic interest in reciprocal exchange has a long heritage in the social sciences going back to Marcel Mauss’ work of gift exchange. David Graeber (2001) contrasts this ‘open’ reciprocity, implying a relationship of permanent mutual commitment, to the ‘closed’ balancing of accounts that occurs within a money transaction. It has also been identified as one of the internal logics of co-production in its current form in UK policy making (Glynos and Speed, 2012) seen in recent Coalition policy such as the Big Society. The concept, as applied to UK policy, is a fuzzy one containing a whole range of aspirations from the ‘transformational’ alternative forms of economic activity and democratic renewal to the more prosaic service improvement through dialogue with users.

Our findings were that on a personal level, for many the experience did indeed have a transformational element with considerable success in attracting what we describe as ‘non-traditional’ volunteers. Furthermore, we found clear evidence that the physical and mental health benefits associated with volunteering were present and that the programme was giving people and crucially families on low incomes access to physical and leisure activities often denied them by a punitive welfare regime.

The concept of co-production promoted by Spice, however, had very little resonance amongst the volunteers or the community organisations administering the programme. First, for volunteers there was very little reciprocal exchange with Time Credits generally spent with the corporate spend partners and valued as such. These interactions were much closer to closed monetary exchanges. Second, in terms of shifting the balance of power between the recipients and providers of welfare services, there was some evidence that Time Credits were a useful tool for skilled community workers. Yet with austerity reducing the number of these workers and increasing the workloads of the remainder there is little evidence that volunteers, earning Time Credits, can replace this capacity.

This led us to the conclusion that the form of co-production was what Glynos and Speed describe as ‘additive’ in that the users of a service are clearly involved in the delivery of a model that supplements existing provision. In this case the addition is set against the withdrawal of services and resources. We believe this calls into question the rhetoric of reciprocity within the entrepreneurial, contract driven model of time exchange pursued by Spice. It may fit neatly with local government priorities to reduce welfare expenditure, yet we found very little evidence of the more ‘transformative’ aspects of co-production. This suggests that in the absence of wider economic shifts there are limits to the extent to which the model can fill the gap in services left by austerity policies or on its own address the deed rooted problems faced by communities in places such as Wisbech.

Daniel Durrant is now a Lecturer in Infrastructure Planning at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning where he takes (and encourages students to take) a broad view of infrastructure, that includes physical infrastructures, emerging technologies on the way to becoming infrastructures and institutional and includes ethical frameworks as infrastructures. The paper discussed in this blog draws on research into civil society and the infrastructures it produces. It was conducted whilst he was working at The Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research with former colleague Dr Gemma Burgess who is a Senior Researcher there.

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Municipal Socialism in the 21st century – Call for contributions

We are delighted to announce that on Wednesday 27th June, we will host a 1 day conference on the theme of Municipal Socialism in the 21st century. This will take the form of a dialogue between researchers, policy actors and urban activists. We expect to organise round-table discussions over the course of the day around a cluster of themes, including:

  • Whither municipal socialism in the 21st century?
  • The feminisation of urban power and resistance (especially in the aftermath of 8-M)
  • The return of the left: implications for community organising and coproduction
  • The local state as agent of resistance and transformation
  • Trade unions: bringing the organised working class back into urban politics.

We will have only a small number of slots for panellists, but if you are interested in speaking on one of these themes, please email adrian.bua@dmu.ac.uk with a brief description of your contribution.  We will send out further details, and information about registration in due course.

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PhD Opportunity at CURA

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity is looking for prospective PhD students interested in developing innovative, interdisciplinary research projects in any field related to cities, urbanism and austerity.

Candidates shall submit a one-page draft proposal to Dr Adam Fishwick (adam.fishwick@dmu.ac.uk) in the first instance. Final submission date for a full application is 17th May. Please note, Full Bursary Scholarships are available only to UK/EU applicants. Fee Waiver Scholarships are open to UK, EU and overseas students.

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Austerity Diasporas: Brexit, Portugal and Looking to the Future

With the following post Lisa Rodan completes the four-part series on “Austerity Diasporas”, which is related to her ongoing PhD research onthe experience of Portuguese migrants affected by the 2008 crash and ensuing austerity. The first post focussed on social changes in Portugal leading up to the 2011 austerity measures. In the second post, Lisa described how migration has shaped Portuguese history up to today. Part three dealt with the experience of Portuguese migrants in London under austerity. Finally, in part four, Lisa discusses the predictions of her research participants for life after Brexit.

The Brexit vote gave an unexpected jump-start to my PhD fieldwork. I had just begun identifying potential respondents for a year-long anthropological examination of how the 2011 austerity measures around Southern Europe had affected the outlook, identity and long-term social imagination of millennial Portuguese migrants in London. They were a group that would eventually become defined within my research by their access to higher education during the more prosperous 1990s.

After the initial shock that it had actually happened, the attitude amongst many of my interlocutors was defiant. “What are they going to do, chuck us all out?” said Mariana, 26, a nurse, “The economy would collapse. They can’t do without us.” Jose, 32, an engineer, was not worried either. “For people like me, there are always lots of opportunities. If they are so short-sighted to make us leave, I’ll go to Germany. But they won’t. I don’t know about outside of London but here at least I know we’ll be OK.”

Not everyone felt as confident though, and the feelings of betrayal caused by the vote were often expressed with resentment and suspicion. Olivia, a 34-year-old waitress who trained as a teacher in Portugal, grimly welcomed Brexit as a, “Necessary evil to keep out those who come for benefits, layabouts… unlike us who have come here to work and contribute.” Her words were echoed by those who resented the harsh living conditions they were exposed to in London. They framed Brexit as a necessary change to a status quo which enabled exploitation of people like them. For Guilherme, 32, an ambitious potential businessman who was feeling burnt-out after two years of working in various catering businesses, “Politics is a sham,” and he welcomed a shake-up of the whole system.  “I came here to work hard and make something of myself,” he told me bitterly, “and am treated worse than a dog. There are too many people here and something has to change.” Marco, a 39 year-old teaching assistant, is determined to stay until he gets the experience that will allow him to establish himself in a permanent teaching career but is resentful of the decision for symbolic reasons. “Portugal is Britain’s oldest ally, right? And I come here, the Spanish, the Italians, we respect the culture, we have a common, western culture. Why is it us they want to stop coming? Me, I never asked for benefits in my life, there’s something wrong, isn’t there? Rather than asking us all to leave, they should stop the benefits, make the people work!”

Over the course of my fieldwork these initial reactions to Brexit became part of a wider reflection from my respondents on plans for the future. Many started to increasingly refer to Portugal as no longer a ‘country in crisis’ but rather somewhere with potential. Returning home was presented as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and a chance for a ‘good life’ with frequent references to accepting and adapting to a new way of being. “People are a bit humbler now” says Andreia, 35, a former pharmacist turned medical student in Porto. “People’s expectations of how things ‘should’ be done are different, it’s no longer go to university, get a job, have a family. People have changed their mentality and learned to adapt to the way things are now. Especially those whose degrees saturated the labour market, like me.”

Part of this ‘learning to adapt’ is harnessing new sources of income generation which will enable a ‘good life’ in Portugal. The intertwined pillars of the post-crisis world in the Portuguese context, from my respondents’ point of view, are digitalisation of careers and tourism. These are dominated

by educated members of the millennial generation and a global outlook achieved through their experience abroad. Ines, 33, a nurse, plans to go back to Portugal but not to work in healthcare. “Long-term I want to change, something with tourism. That’s where the future is. The hospital I worked before, noooo, never. Terrible place! My idea is I’d like to get a two bed flat and rent one bed out on Airbnb. But I have to figure out how.” Like many of my respondents, she had multiple success stories of people who had done just that and achieved the perfect balance of a salary that enabled a global lifestyle and local images of a ‘good life’ represented by the weather, food, and cultural and family connections of Portugal. A friend of a friend, she told me, had quit his prestigious banking job in London four years earlier and moved back to Porto with his wife and baby. He now had a business running food tours, supplemented by freelance financial consultancy. “You see? That’s the dream!”

Who is able to access this dream depends as much on professional and educational capital as on the changing nature of working practices. The digitalisation of a transnational ‘gig economy’ in Portugal has its roots in a generation who consider themselves ‘European’ as well as ‘Portuguese’. They have experience abroad and are now returning wielding their bilingualism and globally recognised skill sets, which allow them to stand out from the crowd. Within such experiences and imaginations are a whole spectrum of potential success stories, ranging from teaching Portuguese via skype, to online jewellery business and international brand consultancy.

The Portuguese cultural imagination has long honoured the trait of ‘making do’ via the concept of ‘desenrascanço’– which loosely translates as “the act of disentangling yourself from a difficult situation using available means.” The Portugueseness of such responses to its’ local crisis is nevertheless embedded in a post-austerity global political economy where reduced state services have placed the onus on the individual to engage in work which can be simultaneously empowering and precarious. Offering digital services allows freedom of movement whilst at the same time removing long-term stability. Whether this diversion of domestic work practices in Portugal will exacerbate existing inequality amongst those who had the opportunity to leave and are now returning and those who had no choice but to stay remains to be seen.

Lisa Rodan is a third year PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where she is working with three colleagues on an ESRC funded project entitled Household Survival in Crisis: Austerity and Relatedness in Greece and Portugal.

 

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The Future of Capitalism with Wolfgang Streeck

In this special edition of the CURA podcast we talk to Wolfgang Streeck, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, about his works “Buying Time” (2013) and “How Will Capitalism End?” (2016). You can listen and download the podcast here , on soundcloud, itunes, and most major podcast platforms.

Drawing widely on classics from Schumpeter, Polanyi and Marx, Streeck offers an account of the lineage of democracy, capitalism and the state since the post-war period, identifying the deeply de-democratising and self-destructive trajectory in contemporary capitalist development. Against liberal received wisdom, Streeck argues that democracy and capitalism are anything but natural partners or easy bedfellows, but have in fact been in constant historical tension. The post-war social democratic settlement represents an unusual “fix” to this tension that was relatively favourable to the popular classes, or “wage dependent”, parts of the population. However, this fix unravelled in the 70’s as the capitalist, or “profit-dependent”, class rediscovered its agency and, with neo-liberal globalisation and financialisation, began to shape a world in its interests.

Streeck argues that these processes are putting in danger not only the existence of democratic politics, which is increasingly circumscribed by the need for states to appease financial markets, but also the future of capitalism itself. Streeck’s vision for what is to come is gloomy. Capitalism continues to erode the social foundations necessary for its own sustenance, as well as the resources needed to collectively construct an alternative order. Institutional and policy fixes to capitalist contradictions are running out. We can expect the result to be the development of an increasingly uncertain and under-institutionalised social order, reminiscent of a Hobbesian state of nature, where individual agency and creativity becomes fundamental to meet basic needs and achieve even minimal goals. Politics offers hope of rupture, but is itself increasingly constrained and defiled by capitalist development and rationality.

In this podcast CURA‘s Adrian Bua talks to Wolfgang about his work on the trajectory of capitalism and democracy.

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