Working the edges in and against the State

By Joe Penny

When we think about resistance to the politics of austerity and its effects, we often think of visible and embodied forms of protest: people marching on the streets, demonstrating peaceably, or perhaps rioting violently. Our minds are drawn to Athens, or London during the summer of 2011. We think of groups such as the Indignados, Occupy, and UK Uncut. Rarely, I think, do we consider those who work in government, for the local authority say, or for the numerous charities and community organisations who provide welfare services. After all, aren’t these people really part of the problem – agents of austerity, carrying out the cuts mandated from on high by Osborne?

Focusing on the eruptions of popular opposition to austerity politics “offers an image of dominant regimes of power – of state, capitalism, government – confronting a series of activist struggles: social movements, street protests, union, and labour challenges.” (Newman, 2013: 139). This conceptualisation of politics separates power from resistance, state from society, and formal from informal politics in a neat and clear way. We know who the good guys are (the ones holding placards) and we know who the good guys aren’t (the ones in riot gear, kettling protestors).

Yet, while the work of these groups and citizens is fundamental to opposing austerity and challenging neoliberalism more generally, I am more interested in the everyday, prosaic, and ambiguous forms of resistance enacted by those working ‘in and against the state’ (London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, 1979). That is to say, in a different study of politics and power “that uncovers contradictions, tensions and imminent possibilities” (Scott, 1992: xii). More specifically, I wonder how ‘street-level bureaucrats’ and ‘regulatory intermediaries’ (councillors, local authority officers, frontline providers etc.) navigate the contradictions and dilemmas inherent in challenging budget cuts, whilst simultaneously carrying them out?

There is one contradiction that most interests me at present: how do well-meaning local authority councillors and officers deal with the pressures of trying to meet people’s needs and deepen local democracy on the one hand (long standing goals of progressive local authorities), whilst implementing centrally mandated cuts on the other.

If you do try and act, perhaps by working to support a citizen-led initiative, a food bank, or by coproducing public services, you risk inadvertently doing and legitimising the work of austerity. As Janet Newman’s work has shown, activist commitments in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to progress social and political change actually “prefigured many of the elements of the new forms of governing that subsequently became the object of critique, from new participative leadership paradigms to equality mainstreaming, from new governmentalities of community to policies associated with active citizenship and the ‘social investment state’ (Newman, 2013: 137).

Yet doing nothing is hardly a viable alternative. While Zizek’s (2012: 482) call to “change nothing so that everything will be different” sounds attractive when read in a book, out on the street it is unlikely to gain much traction, and is in any case a philosophy that would quickly leave you unemployed in local government.

Of course, many people working in and around local government simply won’t attend to this contradiction. I do not wholly subscribe to the ‘local government as victim’ narrative, which depicts local authorities as innocent in the project of state restructuring and retrenchment. Many of those working in local authorities act as agents of austerity, embracing its logic or at least resigning themselves to ‘disaffected consent’ (Gilbert, 2010); doing the work of austerity albeit begrudgingly. But many won’t.

So how can local councillors and officers meet people’s needs and deepen democracy without furthering austerian governmentalities? Although there can be no simple solution to this issue, I think that Janet Newman’s three-fold understanding of ‘political labour’ makes for a good starting point. Based on interviews over several years with female activists, Newman identifies three ways in which we can work the edges in and against the state.

The first is through Making visible. This implies an analytical and performative process of making people aware of issues that have been made un-‘sensible’, or invisible. One way of doing this is through embodied protest, including marching and demonstrating. However, there are other, more analytical ways of making visible, such as through advocacy to highlight “the gendered and racialized impact of cuts and austerity politics: how informal care work is intensifying, how racial abuse and police harassment are increasing, how responsibilities for filling gaps in health, education, and welfare services are being devolved to ‘families’ and ‘communities’, both highly gendered entities, and how pressures generated by inequalities of money, time, care and work are exacerbating mental and physical ill-health” (Newman, 2013: 140).

The second is by staging public conversations which seek to challenge and ultimately shift governmental discourses (on ‘strivers and skivers’ and the deserving and non-deserving poor, for example) and public culture. Those working with the most vilified in society are uniquely positioned to give voice, directly and indirectly, to those who require a politics of redistribution, but also of recognition.

The third, and final, form of political labour identified by Newman is creative labour. This is perhaps the most challenging of the three, and involves prefiguring the future in the here and now through imaginative practices that inflect and subvert government policy. This might involve refusing to accept official definitions of affordable housing – as the London Borough of Islington did– or supporting housing cooperatives. This form of ‘political labour’ asks that those seeking emancipatory change in local authorities become ‘radical pragmatists’ (Unger, 2009): pragmatically doing what needs to be done now to mitigate the worst of austerity, whilst retaining a ‘radical imagination’ (Haiven and Khasnabish, 2014) that seeks its overhaul.

None of this is easy of course. It is “uncomfortable work that[involves] key dilemmas: where to put your energy; how to sustain multiple, and often competing, loyalties and commitments; how to make a living while living your politics; how to combine working for an imagined future while living or prefiguring that future in the here and now” (Newman, 2013: 141)

The recent election of the Syriza-led government provides some timely inspiration for what can be achieved. Far from being co-opted into ‘do-it-yourself’ neoliberal-style service provision, Greek activists, running soup kitchens and health clinics, fostered new political subjectivities through solidarity; connecting the politics of individual stories with a universal demand, which in-turn has led to the election of Europe’s first anti-austerity government.



Haiven, M and Khasnabish, A (2014) The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity, Zed Books, London.

London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group (1979) In and Against the State avaliable online

Newman, J (2013) “Governing the Present: Activism, Neoliberalism, and the Problem of Power and Consent”, Critical policy Studies, 8, (2): 133 – 147

Scott, J. C (1992) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden transcripts, Yale University Press, USA.

Unger, R (2009) The Self-awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, Harvard University Press, USA.

Zizek, S (2012) Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Verso, London.

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