New Internationalist

Rob Newman: ‘The Age of Austerity is a sham’

May 2013

Comedian, author and activist Rob Newman talks to K Biswas about the corporate welfare state, WH Auden and austerity, and offers an intriguing solution to Greece’s economic woes.

What’s your earliest memory?

Throwing my teddy bear out of the cot and one of its glass eyes smashing on the floor. My daughter now sleeps with that one-eyed bear.

Who or what inspires you?

The work of our greatest living philosopher, Mary Midgley, inspired my new stand-up show, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution. She is a brilliant writer, especially her book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene.

You’ve been working on your latest novel – The Trade Secret – since 2006. How did the idea come about?

Serendipity, in the British Library’s Rare Books & Music room. By fluke, I stumbled upon the true story of a bunch of Elizabethans who discovered oil, coffee and messenger pigeons in Persia. It was astounding to read first-hand Elizabethan accounts of things like an oil well in Fallujah called The Valley of Pitch! The novel is set in Isfahan, Venice and London between the years 1599 and 1606.

You were in Seattle for the anti-globalization demonstrations in 1999. Do you think that this event can be seen as a direct forerunner to the protests we have witnessed in developed countries over the past few years, from the Indignados in Spain and Syntagma Square in Greece, to the Occupy movement?

I think the Indignados and Syntagma Square are more like the long-running Global South movements against the IMF/World Bank a decade or so ago. Those protests – from Malaysia to Costa Rica, the Philippines to Argentina – were against exactly the same aggressive structural adjustment programmes now being forced on southern Europe.

I’m hoping that the Greeks will discover a long-lost patent on the isosceles triangle. They could then threaten to bankrupt all northern economies by collecting unpaid royalties, and then forgive our debt providing we abolish corporations.

You’ve written that no country can afford to run two welfare states – one for humans and one for corporations.

Governments on the left and the right always justify welfare cuts by pitting, for example, mobility scooters against needle exchanges, or the soft-play area in children’s playgrounds against an old people’s home. Who deserves it most, they say, students or cleaners? Old or young? But when we’re running not one, but two, welfare states, that’s a totally fake scenario. The real choice is between playgrounds or gas rigs, between Meals on Wheels or The City of London Currency Speculators’ Maintenance Allowance.

There’s a connection – never mentioned in the news – between, let’s say, Britain’s eight new deep-water gas rigs and its 200 new food banks. The connection is that the $4.5 billion subsidy package being doled out to transnational gas corporations is a very big slice of the welfare pie. And to keep the gas transnationals on the benefits to which they are addicted, hungry humans have to queue for tinned food that is too close to its sell-by date to be kept on the shelves of supermarkets, many of which are themselves massive recipients of corporate welfare.

What hope is there for the welfare state in an age of austerity?

Well, firstly, it’s not an age of austerity. As [the BBC’s Business Editor] Robert Peston, of all people, let slip on a news programme a couple of months ago, the big problem for the markets at present is too much of what they call liquidity. Too many liquid assets – that is, too much cash and hard currency sloshing around with no place to go to get triple-digit returns. Calling it an age of austerity makes it seem like a law of nature or a geological epoch, when the fact of the matter is it’s much closer to what WH Auden describes in his poem ‘A Walk After Dark’:

And the truth can no longer be hid,
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened, did.

Rob Newman spoke to freelance writer K Biswas.

The Trade Secret (ISBN 978-1190888517) was published in Britain in April.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 462 This column was published in the May 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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