The Anti-politics of Austerity

Exploring the Scalar and Spatial Dimensions of Political Crisis and Renewal in Europe

Dr Ross Beveridge
Glasgow University
Dr David Featherstone
Glasgow University
SMALL GROUP PROJECT:

Abstract

“Anti-politics” and “austerity” are defining features of the perceived political crisis in Europe. Anti-politics refers to disenchantment with traditional forms of political organisation, while austerity, the reduction of public spending, is reconfiguring state, market and societal relations. However, little is known about how the two phenomena intertwine, how they are contributing to a decline of the ‘political’ and how, conversely, the anti-politics of austerity may also be contributing to novel forms of political renewal in Europe. The overall objective of this project is to engage with a wider audience of academics, policymakers, social groups and citizens in order to advance public discourse on the topic of anti-politics and austerity. It aims to show the interlinked and contested nature of these phenomena by developing a collaborative network beyond disciplinary and national boundaries. It does this in two main ways. First, it brings these two key dynamics of contemporary politics into dialogue. Second, it brings political scientists and geographers together in comparative and European collaborations to address the scalar and spatial dimensions of the anti-politics of austerity. This interdisciplinary exchange is central to the project and crucial to developing knowledge on the subject. Existing research has tended to explore the spaces and scales of austerity discretely, without regard to the relations between them. Further, both anti-politics and austerity have been approached through separate analytical lenses leading to parallel rather than interconnected debates. This project will support an emerging network of scholars working on anti-politics and austerity. The funding will be used primarily for a workshop and the establishment of a website for collation and dissemination of knowledge. This will achieve a conceptual framework for understanding the anti-politics of austerity – and an understanding of how these processes are being negotiated in different ways in different parts of Europe.

The Research Idea

Austerity has been sold to publics across Europe as an economic imperative – the only legitimate response to the various capitalist crises now afflicting liberal western democracies (Pierson, 2001; Shäfer & Streeck, 2013). Existing research has emphasised that the impacts of austerity extend beyond the economic, to the political, social and cultural (Farnsworth & Irving, 2015). This project makes a significant contribution by exploring how austerity in Europe is feeding into rising anti-politics, political crisis and, potentially, renewal. It will do this in two ways.
1. It brings two key dynamics of contemporary politics, “anti-politics” and “austerity”, into dialogue. Anti-politics is viewed as the disenchantment with, or retreat from, ‘traditional’ modes and spheres of the political (Mouffe, 2005; Hay, 2007). Austerity is understood as a reconfiguring of the state/market relation characterized by, among other things, the retrenchment of the state (Blyth, 2013).
2. It brings political scientists and geographers together in comparative and European collaborations to address the scalar and spatial dimensions of the anti-politics of austerity.
Through this integrated, multidisciplinary approach this project will support and extend an emerging network of scholars to develop political understandings of space beyond the ‘metaphorical’, as a contested outcome (and shaper) of social relations (Dikeç, 2012). Further, it will allow geographers to engage with the diverse intellectual resources political scientists have brought to anti-politics research. Through doing so the project develops theoretical insights on the impact of austerity, the ways it entwines with anti-politics, including the spatial and scalar opportunities for political renewal.

Background

Scholars have noted the ambivalent politics of austerity in Europe – on the one hand, they recognise its depoliticising effects (Davies, 2014), its contribution both to the ‘retreat of the publics’ and the ‘retreat of the elites’ from traditional manifestations of the political (Crouch, 2004; Mair, 2013; Clarke, 2015). However, the ‘anti-politics of austerity’ have also helped to reinvigorate spaces, opportunities and agents for contestation and resistance. Issues, ideas and institutions which were previously thought to be depoliticised have now become (re)politicised (Featherstone, 2015). Furthermore, oppositional politics have contributed to political innovation (e.g. Spain and Greece), which challenges formal political institutions and elites from below (McNally, 2010).
The challenges and opportunities afforded by austerity have implications, which are both spatial and scalar in nature. Austerity has involved the further marketisation of urban public spaces, and the public sphere, while at the same time allowing us to redraw and rethink what is national about politics and what is political about the state and local environments. Existing research has explored the impact of austerity on the (anti-)politics of the local, the national and the international, but has often analysed the spaces and scales of austerity discretely (Peck 2012), without regard to the interactions in and between sites and their uneven geographies. Further, both anti-politics and austerity have been approached through separate analytical lenses leading to a tendency for different theoretical and disciplinary perspectives to talk across one another rather than engage directly with each other (Featherstone & Korf, 2012).

The Focus

Anti-politics and austerity are key dimensions of the growing political crisis in Europe (Habermas, 2010). In particular there are serious political risks for contemporary democracies associated with lack of engagement in political process. Further there is the formation of exclusionary forms of anti-politics often articulated with racist overtones. This project will engage with three aspects of the contemporary problematic.
Firstly, through exploring the different ways in which austerity is being mobilised in political terms, or used to close down political debate, the project will have significant relevance for one of the main political challenges facing contemporary Europe. Through adopting a set of innovative approaches to analysing these challenges it will have broad relevance for different public and policy actors.
Secondly, through engaging with the processes which lead to marginalisation of social groups from formal politics the project will have important implications for the ways in which publics, movements, trade unions and parties understand processes of political engagement and democratisation. The project will help such actors to identify processes and mechanisms of re-engagement with political activity.
Thirdly, through analysing the terms on which anti-politics connects with austerity the project will develop resources for engaging critically with the terms on which austerity is brought into contestation. In this regard the project will be relevant for attempts to challenge the ways xenophobic populist movements articulate opposition to austerity and crisis. The project will also support the further development of progressive articulation of opposition to the uneven and unequal geographies shaped through austerity.

Theoretical Novelty

The project will make a major contribution to specific debates on anti-politics and austerity and the more general terms of inter-disciplinary debate between geography and politics. It will do this through the following key conceptual innovations.
1. Developing a set of interdisciplinary conversations between political scientists and human geographers exploring scalar and spatial dimensions of the anti-politics of austerity. It will bring together different concepts at work in these disciplines – for example, scalar politics and multi-level governance – to develop fresh insights on the processes through which anti-politics and politicisation of austerity are generated across space and scales in Europe.

2. Making an important intervention in existing research on austerity and anti-politics through sharing cutting edge work from diverse geographical contexts in Europe. In particular it will draw together work from places positioned in different ways to the uneven geographies of austerity being shaped across the continent.

3. Articulating an original focus on the interactive and iterative relationship between austerity and anti-politics. This will allow an important focus on the different spatial processes through which austerity and anti-politics are configured. This will allow a set of challenges to key normative assumptions about anti-politics and will instead offer a spatially sensitive explanation of different processes of politicisation and depoliticisation.

4. Learning about the diverse ways in which austerity is being politicised and the openings this creates. This has important implications in terms of ways in which publics, movements and political parties understand processes of political engagement and democratisation.

Methodology

The methodology is focused on producing high-quality collaborative written work and is designed to embed inter-disciplinary exchanges into the project.
1. Research pairs will be set-up at the start of the project: These pairs (one geography, one political science) will develop comparative and Europe-wide considerations of anti-politics. This approach will encourage both reflexivity and interaction as partners act as ‘critical friends’ offering feedback on ideas and written work.
2. Exchanges in theoretical perspectives: Research pairs will exchange key concepts. This will develop cross-fertilisation in terms of conceptual approaches and create a rigorous inter-disciplinary conceptual framework.
3. Exchanges in empirical contexts and research: Partners will use their contrasting country context knowledge to produce a comparative analysis.
4. A website will be established (on WordPress) to support this process and provide a more general resource for research on the anti-politics of austerity. Contributors will share research material and blog posts and contributions from European-wide experts will be invited.
5. A one and a half day workshop in the middle of the project at which draft papers will be presented, potential collaborations between participants discussed, a proposal for a Special Issue (e.g. a multi-disciplinary journal like Political Geography) developed and the outline for a further funding application produced (e.g. European Research Council, COST Action or Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)). Researchers, especially in their pairs, will be encouraged to develop regular contact both in the lead-up to and after the workshop. This will help papers to develop cross-cutting research agendas and themes.

Work Plan

The funding will be used primarily to host a workshop at the University of Glasgow and facilitate collaboration through the establishment of a project website for blogs and uploading of research.
1. Establishment of research pairs between the five political scientists (Beveridge, Davies, Donmez, Koch, Standring) and five geographers (Arampatzi, Clarke, Featherstone, Naumann, Benach Rovira) (January 2017)
2. Development of papers in research pairs (January 2017- December 2017). Authors will be asked to consider their own area knowledge and theoretical approaches and focus on the following key questions:
a. What are the spatial patterns of austerity anti-politics across Europe?
b. How do we account for the scalar relations of austerity within Europe and how do they relate to anti-politics?
c. How can we identify the dynamics of political crisis and the potential for renewal emerging in different spaces and at different scales in Europe?
3. Setting up the project website (January 2017)
4. Co-PIs contact journal editors regarding possibility of SI (January 2017)
5. The project workshop in Glasgow (one and half days) (June 2017). Outputs: Special Issue proposal and outline for further funding proposal
6. Completion of special issue papers (December 2017)
7. A further grant application to ERC, ESRC or COST Action (throughout and beyond project)
8. Development of edited book proposal (potential submission to Routledge) (throughout and beyond project)
9. Participation in or organisation of panels on anti-politics of austerity at international conferences (throughout project).

Outcome

A primary goal of this project is to engage with a wider audience of academics, policymakers, social groups and citizens in order to advance public discourse on the topic of anti-politics and austerity. It aims to show the interlinked and contested nature of these phenomena by developing a collaborative network outside of existing disciplinary and national boundaries. It will build a long-term legacy along three specific areas of output:
1) Academic/Intellectual: the novel theoretical, methodological and empirical insights developed through the interdisciplinary collaboration will be disseminated across panels in international conferences. The most immediate output from the project will be the development of a proposal for a Special Issue in a high-impact international journal with a multidisciplinary focus. There will also be the development of a submission for an edited volume in a new book series, ‘Routledge Studies in Anti-Politics and Democratic Crisis’. The series editors have already been approached and agreed, in principle, to publish the results of the research network.
2) Public Engagement: the project website continue beyond the project’s duration and become an important academic and public resource. It is through the website that the network will collate and disseminate research to a wider audience.
3) Developing the network: The project lays the foundations for future collaborative, inter-disciplinary European research on the topic, especially in terms of the opportunity to develop a further research bid.