The seduction of austerity

One of the problems with living in ‘an age of austerity’ is that it can become very enjoyable.  Perhaps all this goes back to the ‘Blitz spirit’, though one might question the enjoyment of having bombs rain down on you night after night.  The point here, though, is that enjoyment is not just about having a pleasurable experience; in fact, it’s got very little to do with pleasure and a lot to do with what Freud defined as ‘beyond the pleasure principle’.  It’s what Lacanians call jouissance, which is essentially untranslatable, but is normally taken to mean enjoyment in terms of something beyond pleasure.

One of the important things about enjoyment is the meaning that is attached to it (enjoy-meant).  And perhaps this might give us a clue as to the enjoyment of austerity.  Living in an age of austerity is meaningful; in fact, in many ways it is more meaningful that living in an age of plenty, a life of indulgence, a life on the never-never.  In fact, one might even say that a life of austerity is about living within one’s meaning, instead of living beyond it.

A life of austerity is a serious life – or so we are lead to believe.  A serious business, instead of a life of frivolity.  Austerity equals realism.  Austerity also means we are all in it together, just as the Blitz meant Londoners were all in it together (especially if you lived in the East End and docklands areas).  Furthermore, austerity makes life simpler, as well as more serious and realistic.

But why should this be a problem?  Surely, it’s much better to enjoy austerity than resent it, even if we pretend it’s not what we really wanted all along.  And, as an added bonus, we can enjoy something that is both meaningful and serious, rather than being complicated and frivolous.

There are, however, a number of problems with this approach.  Perhaps the most obvious one is political: austerity for whom?   For all of us – or just for some of us?  Not everyone suffers equally in a time of austerity; in fact, some people seem to do rather well out of it.

However, there is an even more fundamental issue here, which relates to the meaning of austerity.  Or perhaps it might be better to say: the enjoy-meant of austerity.  One of the key points about austerity is that it equates to suffering.  Many people, though not usually the proponents of it, suffer in a time of austerity.

Not only do people suffer economically, i.e. not having enough money; but they also suffer psychically as well.  Having to forgo one’s dreams and aspirations, at least temporarily; having to shop at Lidl rather than Waitrose; having to watch other people having a good time and going on expensive holidays whilst you make do with yet another staycation.  More generally, it’s about being poor in a world of consumerism and the promise of plenty.

There are a number of ways to respond to such suffering.  One, of course, is to try and alleviate it in various ways, e.g. by trying to earn more money; or, if this fails, turning to drink and drugs.  Another response, though, is to make a virtue out of necessity; in other words, to make suffering a virtue.

Again, though, does this matter?  In fact, isn’t it a positive advantage if one can make a virtue out of necessity?  But once again, we are faced with problems of meaning.  Why should suffering be a necessity?  The fact that many people may gain a great deal of satisfaction out of suffering (albeit unconsciously most of the time) is not the same as suffering being a necessity.

And this brings us onto the dark territory of suffering and enjoyment; or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say, suffering as enjoyment. This is one of the reasons why ‘enjoyment’ is not a particularly satisfactory translation of the term ‘jouissance’, because it doesn’t really capture its radical nature, its ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ as Freud would have said.

This is why Lacan argued that there is, ultimately, only one drive: the death drive, and this is the domain of jouissance. The satisfaction of endless repetition; but a satisfaction, which by its very nature, goes nowhere; one which is essentially destructive in its very enjoyment.  And this is the real problem with austerity: the fact that, in many ways it is so enjoyable, so full of meaning. But an enjoyment, a meaning, which leads nowhere, except for more of the same.