Thinking about Resilience: #Budget2014

As part of my new job as a Research Fellow on the RESCuE FP7 project (general details to be added to my about page in due course), I have spent the first few weeks delving into literature concerning resilience. Specifically, I’ve been looking for literature dealing with patterns of socio-economic resilience – i.e. how do poor households cope on a day to day basis with being poor? The implications and associations with the arguments found in the literature chime fairly closely with my existing research interests and knowledge. Which is helpful. But more interesting for me at the moment is the actual (political) nature of resilience itself. 

[Note: Some of the references link to articles behind paywalls. I’m sorry about that]

As a social science term, it is relatively new, depending on where you consider psychology to sit in the disciplines (in which the term has a long history). The other antecedent of resilience as an academic term comes from ecology. Although there are of course a number of differences between the multiple definitions found in these two fields, a decent summation of resilience is the ability to withstand shocks and general adversity, and the ability to ‘bounce back’ to a state of equilibrium. 

The word is popular in politics. George Osborne, after years of assuring everyone that ‘we’re all in this together’ and invoking a re-imagining of the blitz spirit to remind everyone how jolly bonding austerity really is, must have taken great pleasure in talking about Britain’s resilient economy. Which he did seven times. He might have been referencing the economy, but there were plenty of implications for citizens and households.

1) This is a budget for building a resilient economy
Osborne’s first use of the term. In context:

Our country still borrows too much. We still don’t invest enough, export enough or save enough. So today we do more to put that right. This is a Budget for building a resilient economy. If you’re a maker, a doer or a saver: this Budget is for you.

If you’re a maker, a doer or a saver, this budget is for you. Who isn’t in this category? Of course, this is half the point: almost everyone makes, does, or saves in some capacity. The bankers make money, the legislature makes law, the Oxford workers shown on BBC news 24 all Wednesday make Minis. Everyone’s included. Apart from those excluded people who some may assume do nothing: those on unemployment benefit, the disabled, those defrauding the system. They don’t contribute anything according to this rhetoric. The budget isn’t for them. In essence this is a simple extension of the by now well embedded deserving/undeserving discourse. Presumably these are the same people who twitch their curtains and sneer at the hard workers?

2) A reminder of why we need to build our economy’s resilience
The second use of the term, tying Britain’s economic ecosystem in with the wider global system. In context:

But we should be alert to the risks. The euro area is slowly recovering but as the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] caution “further damaging instability remains possible”. There is volatility in emerging markets.

And while for now the OBR do not expect the situation in Ukraine to have a “large impact” on us, they warn that an escalation risks higher commodity prices, higher inflation and lower growth.

It’s a reminder of why we need to build our economy’s resilience.

This dovetails nicely with the catch-all definition of resilience I provided earlier. The nation must acknowledge that even though the UK is an island, it’s not an island. Activities in one economy doubtless effect others. It is a domino effect. Markets are volatile, especially emerging markets (that established markets invest in heavily, taking advantage of lower prices). The potential conflict in Ukraine, alongside the strained diplomatic relations between Western Europe and Russia, will affect our economic stability. Particularly if Russia decides to turn off the gas (which they have done before). In this context, however, building the resilience of the British economy is almost entirely macroeconomic. The relative positions and financial stability of citizens does not really matter, unless we are talking about the overall stability of the nation. More vulnerable households will suffer, but will not be a priority as long as financial channels remain resilient.

3)…Protect us from economic shocks…
Again, a textbook use of the generic definition. In context:

And to enhance our resilience, and protect us from economic shocks, we will also continue rebuilding our foreign exchange reserves.

The connection with the resilience of households is that a strong economy equals a financially stable citizenry. An extension of the argument that the UK would be much worse off if the financial sector wasn’t allowed enough freedom, because its ability to trade as it sees fit, combined with the self-arbitrating market, will yield the best results. This means more money for the UK, which means more money circulating in the UK economy. If it isn’t syphoned to the Cayman Islands, that is.

4) A more resilient pound
A very conservative pronouncement, this, in that it appeals to days gone by.  In context:

In honour of our Queen, the coin will take the shape of one of the first coins she appeared on – the threepenny bit. A more resilient pound for a more resilient economy.

At first glance, this doesn’t have much to do with resilience at all, particularly the resilience of individuals and households. It looks like it’s just another opportunity to wheel out the R word. Arguments about the new pound being harder to forge aside, this appeal to resilience is deliberately appealing to days gone by. It’s no coincidence that in news reports on this a common anecdote was used highlighting how in the war, people in the dark bomb shelters could recognise a threpenny bit immediately. The spirit of the blitz – resilience and solidarity against a common enemy – lived out in a modern coin for a resilient economy.

5) A more balanced economy
An appeal to rational sensibilities, as well as an appeal to a common element of financial resilience (i.e. not necessarily household resilience): diversification. In context:

A resilient economy is a more balanced economy with more exports, more building, more investment – and more manufacturing too. We’ve got to support our manufacturers if we want to see more growth in our regions.

On a personal note, I find this one rather amusing and a bit ironic. A conservative government is lauding manufacturing as a solid base for an economy. It’s like the last three to four decades never happened. If they were a bit quicker with getting to this point (in terms of decades) they would have found a lot of infrastructure oop north. Not so much anymore, as mills and factories are turned into swanky apartments, wine bars, banks and the like. Or simply left to decay. The other question is where is the funding going to come from to fund what sounds like a mammoth investment strategy? Is this the other side of the coin to slashing and capping welfare support, the disparity between a rising cost of living and a real-time fall in salaries/wages for many people? Only time will tell. Finally, supporting ‘our manufacturers’ is unlikely to mean those on the shop floor in the first instance. It will be more about cutting the carbon floor to make energy cheaper, reducing business taxes, making the UK a more inviting place for the owners, rather than those struggling with decimated pensions, falling wages and increasing job insecurity.

6) A government on the side of manufacturers
Supporting the previous statement. In context:

Today I have cut the cost of manufacturing in Britain. Half of the firms that will benefit most are in the north of England. A third are in Scotland and Wales. Thousands of good jobs protected. A more resilient economy. A government on the side of manufacturers. A Britain that makes things again.

A Britain that makes things again. Can you hear the Dambusters soundtrack in the background? A strong Osborne, head up, chin jutting toward victory. The Union Flag proudly being waved by Michael Gove who has conveniently been hidden for the duration of the speech. 83.3% of these jobs to be protected and/or created outside of the Home Counties. I hope an organisation with a better relationship with numbers than me keeps an eye on this pledge, as I would be genuinely impressed if this happens. Of course it is no coincidence that this bold announcement was made in this Budget. As BBC commentators said, this is essentially the Tories’ election Budget.

7) We’re building a resilient economy
One of the final things Osborne says. Just in case you were sceptical, or you had forgotten, a resilient economy is being built. In context:

The forecasts I’ve presented show: growth up, jobs up, the deficit down Now we are securing Britain’s economic future with: manufacturing promoted, working rewarded. saving supported. With the help of the British people we’re turning our country around. We’re building a resilient economy.

Osborne’s forecasts have been wrong before. There has been plenty of revision of numbers and stats. But that’s not the interesting bit here. This extract in some ways encapsulates the ideological content of resilience, particularly at a household level. Manufacturing promoted, working rewarded, saving supported. If you’ve got money to save, the Tories like you. If you’ve got a job they will reward you. If you’re doing these things in manufacturing, you can enjoy your beer and bingo safe in the knowledge that you are one of the makers, savers and doers. If you’re not in this category, regardless of the reasons you may have, I’d buckle up – the ride’s about to get bumpy.

Household resilience – the ways in which people cope with economic hardship – is tied directly to the state’s economic resilience, both materially and ideationally. The financialisation pre-recession and the discipline of austerity transmit particular rules about how one should act, how one should save, and so on. What is rewarded is the ‘correct’ way of coping. It is a particular paradox of homo economicus, that. Theoretically we should use the resources we have to best effect. In practice our choices are limited somewhat by our positions and indeed by power relations.

To finish with a slight non sequitur, one can argue this is why neoliberalism does not favour regulation of the social democratic and socialist sort: it distributes power, influence and resources in such a way that those at the top of the food chain can no longer enjoy total dominance and freedom under a rigged set of rules.

You can find Osborne’s full speech here

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