fifth column

We're into Endgame

By Benedict Seymour, 14 October 2010

'Cut us, don't kill us!' plead UK culture luvvies, but perhaps 'if you're going to hit me, hit me with the axe' is a more radical slogan? Benedict Seymour considers the parallels between Beckett's Endgame and the Treasury's

Write about the cuts, they said, but make it funny. Why not, nothing is funnier than unhappiness, as Nick Clegg's favourite playwright Samuel Beckett reminds us in his play, Endgame. Didn't know Clegg was a Beckett fan? He is, I'm not making it up. And Cameron's favourite singer is Morrisey. 'I was looking for an existentialist deputy prime minister and I found an existentialist deputy prime minister, and heaven knows I'm miserable now...

But I digress…  The point is that the cuts do have a tragi-comic absurdity, and if anyone speaks to the contradictory (il)logic of our moment with appropriately black humour it's Beckett. The economy seems more than ever to embody the principle – 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better'. As a Treasury source told a Financial Times reporter researching October 20th's Comprehensive Spending Review, 'We’re into the endgame.' The wonks have arrived at the stage where they know exactly how severe the cuts for the small and medium sized departments are going to be, and only the big departments’ fate remains to be decided. Government employees have sized themselves up and determined to what degree they will have to amputate themselves.

However, perhaps what the Treasury source was trying to tell us is that government employees are really into Endgame now. The trajectory of UK government is being remodelled on the logic of Beckett's play. Like Endgame’s narrative and dramatic downsizing however, one suspects it will somehow never quite be less enough to get rid of the excrescent remainder - in this case the population, nor the surplus of absence - the national debt. That one involves the other is of course the dialectical lesson of Beckett, together with the indiscernability of too much and too little, the impossibility, without brutality, of separating living and dead flesh.

One can't imagine that 'Oh all to end' posters have completely replaced 'Keep Calm and Carry On' ones on the walls of government offices, but nevertheless, Beckett really is the laureate of the hour. As Vladimir says to Estragon, 'there's no shortage of void', and the entire economy has 'a strong weakness for oxymoron'. It takes a moron, or rather a Beckettian pseudocouple of morons, to preside over its paroxysms. Forget Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Clegg and Camm are our Clov and Hamm. Their curious mission is a reductio ad absurdum, an attempt to reach the zero that is bound to falter and recoil upon itself as the exponential unexpected consequences of their less-is-more produce ever more of less and less.

Clov: ‘Better than nothing! Is it possible?’

But as the austerity deluge begins in earnest, one urgently wants to ask, like Hamm in his blind anguish, 'What's happening?’. The answer as Cleg/Clov would no doubt tell us is as follows:

'Something is taking its course.’

A survey of this week's news reveals that, for capital, the trick is to stifle anguish under gradualness. Something is going on, sure, but the cuts are not a shock assault. This is not personal. This is not something over which anyone has any control nor for which anyone can be held responsible. No, with the cuts, as with the bailouts, 'Something is taking its course' - and the governmental Clovs and Hamms, servants of an obscure will with their telescopes trained on the uncertain world outside their cells, are merely its instruments. The main thing is to keep it all as smooth as possible and spread the pain.

As ACAS – one of the quangos that was saved – advised employers this Monday, state and capital must avoid doing things in one fell swoop. Instead what is required is a long fell glide. A measured three-year gutting of all that can be gutted without provoking the slumbering beast of class anatgonism. The powers that be are very candid about this, although more in the Financial Times than in The Sun or The Mirror. The lieutenants of the endgame are all froideur and capability in the face of their 'Something'-given task:

'This organisation has ice in its veins and nerves of steel, we can get things done!' - Ed Sweeney, ACAS chairman.

But does anyone actually know WHY everything has to be cut? Do they really believe that fairy tale about 'balanced budgets', as if the economy was a pocket money account? What no one seems to want to say is the patently obvious, i.e. that there is no correct choice of action. Either do nothing, and watch things collapse, reflate and stall, and watch things collapse, or cut abruptly and watch things collapse – or worse, watch former things rise up as people. Like Clov and Hamm or Vladimir and Estragon, the capitalist pseudo-couples are currently doing all of the above, making Deleuzean nonsense of their various pronouncements, whether hawkish or dovelike in their brooding over the abyss.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let's go.

They do not move.

Here is the heroism of the ruling class in extremis, declaring, we've got the nerve to impose the cuts, but urging that, since it may not be done when it's done then 'twere well it were done slowly (to invert Lady Macbeth). Let's do it softly softly, night must not be allowed to fall in a Beckettian instant. Instead, it’s about (a) staggering destruction, a slow motion massacre. It's the same story with Sickness Benefits and Student Fees, Sovereign Default, and even Financial Regulation. Cuts and caps are needed everywhere, but we mustn't wake the children. Like parents rehearsing for the arrival of Santa Claus (or Godot), the capitalist class desperately want someone to think that what's going on is plausible, so they can believe in it too. They want to tell us, so that they themselves can believe it, that all this is a) not going to hurt too much b) going to work out, in the end. Everywhere there are signs that, like Clov and Hamm, they know only too well that whatever is taking its course is far from over yet, and that what hasn’t worked so far is going to go on not working. The pantomime is patently wearing thin, and yet, once again,

Hamm: Since that's the way we're playing it...

The powers that be are facing symmetrical risks, on the one hand they are scared of rudely awakening the population to the scale and stakes of the cuts, on the other hand, of frightening capital – i.e. themselves - with the scale and stakes of the crisis. So the same edition of the FT that gives us the Treasury announcement of incipient 'endgame' also tells us of the OECD's anxiety that bond investors over-reacting to sovereign default risk in europe will strangle the (phantom) recovery. No shit? One must avoid 'a cliff effect'. Wildcat strikes can be averted, say ACAS, but only if 'a whole host of things' is tried to diffuse the shock. Incidentally, this is very much the thinking that, in the form of derivatives-based hedging of risk, helped bring capital to the brink in the first place. First they hedged and diffused economic risk across the entire system to avoid the dreaded encounter with the real limits of the economy, now they are trying to hedge and diffuse the risk of social antagonism. One can only hope that their prevarications and botched measures are just as unsuccessful this time.

A sense that what’s needed is at the same time what’s impossible is seizing not only ACAS and the OECD but all the other acronymic blocs of bureaucrats now facing auto-evisceration as quangos burn and wonks measure up their throats for the blade. The Financial Services Authority's attempts to impose regulations on the City are now perceived to risk damaging the UK's reputation as a centre for unregulated trading. Who’d have thought it? Homer Simpson was not actually Beckett’s creation but the phrase ‘Doh!’ springs to mind. The way forward is blocked, and as in Beckett's Unnnamable, capital's characters proceed by aporia and contradiction, if at all. Like Clov and Hamm, both the hawks and doves are locked into their mutually constituting cells, stuck on the horns of their shared dilemma. Capital's representatives shuffle back and forth in an attempt to evoke an appearance of rational purposiveness, spiced with hints of a restorative violence,that merely diffuses and amplifies their paralysis.

That the population to some degree would like to believe the fairytale about recovery, and hence masochistically accept the need for shared sacrifices, is perhaps a reflex of the governing delusions. Certainly, like Clov and Hamm, none of the political pseudocouples, Camm and Clegg nor Obama and Glenn Beck, want to admit that there may be no way forward that would correspond to the narrative of ‘recovery’. But then again, no one wants to admit that blind destruction is the only option left on the capitalist menu, and that it would have to go way further than anyone likes to mention in order to restore the system to growth in any meaningful sense.

In the mean meantime it would seem that all the pseudo-couples of capital are now bumping into the limits of their pseudo-projects. Those that support austerity now and those that oppose it, those who call for reflation and those who demand a short sharp shock begin to converge. So we have simultaneously a massive programme of cuts and a further trip to the treasury for another bout of Quantitative Easing. They try hard to start a new, completely separate, life, but like Hamm and Clov, Con/Dem and New Labour, the doves and the hawks, the republicans and democrats et al, are absolutely co-dependent, united by their ultimate belief in the market and Value, that great ‘Something’ that must always, finally, be taking its course. Like the tempo and telos of Endgame, there seems to be an aching desire for all this to end, coupled with a profund inability to have done, not least an expression of the desire on the part of the master to keep his servant alive. In fact Clegg and Camm seem to have been studying Clov and Hamm quite carefully when it comes to their vision of our economic renewal:

I'll give you nothing more to eat.

Then we'll die.

I'll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You'll be hungry all
The time.

This is pretty much what the (aptly named) communist journal Endnotes reminds us about the symbiosis between labour and capital, that odd couple who always want to have done with one another but can never quite split, on pain of inexistence.

OK, so it may not seem all that funny now, but if there is a last laugh to be had, it lies in the asymmetry of this couple, since in the end(game) labour really could live without itself as a subset of capital, while capital absolutely cannot survive without labour. ‘That joke isn’t funny any more’, as Morrissey sang and Endgame’s Nell recurrently complains.

But there is a dim glimmer of a punchline coming into view as the cuts hit and the pseudo-couples converge. Perhaps a new age of political slapstick comedy is about to begin. Or in the words of Hamm:

If you must hit me, hit me with the axe.

Further reading:

Endnotes 2: