Everyone in Britain is playing a game called Austerity. Some are playing the game with enthusiasm and conviction. Some are playing with calculation and cunning. And others believe they are not playing, when in fact they cannot escape the game.
Austerity is not a console game with expensive graphics, nor is it an addictive casual game for smartphones. It is a LARP: a Live Action Role-Playing game. Like other LARPs, this game consumes your environment and your life. Unlike other LARPs, Austerity does not take place on a disused Swedish naval destroyer and end after a weekend. You will live and breathe Austerity for as long as everyone continues to believe in it, which means it may have no end.
It has a beginning, though: the Second World War.
Nostalgia is an intoxicating brew. We venerate WW2, the last time Britain was Great, the last time the Kingdom felt truly United, the last time we had a national victory that wasn’t on the field of play. It’s natural to look back fondly on such times, acknowledging the horrors and respecting the sacrifice.
Wait, no. Not respecting the sacrifice – fetishising it.
This is Keep Calm and Carry On. This is Dig for Victory, ration books, Downton Abbey (sort of) and Doctor Who’s innumerable wartime stories.
Dig for Victory and ration books are real, of course. They were part of the civilian mission to harness the entire capacity of a country in the pursuit of victory in a total war. Likewise, war bonds and volunteering and sewing clothes for the men. Money was tight but it was necessary to be thrifty. Virtuous, even. And who can say that the war was not won by such virtuous sacrifice?
Austerity has those sentiments at its heart: sacrifice is necessary for victory against an existential threat such as the Nazis.
Today’s existential threats are the European Union, immigrants, a slightly high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a lack of respect from other countries. To prevail against such enemies, hard choices must be made. We cannot afford to waste money on shirkers, or waste money on fripperies such as arts and culture. We must cut taxes on entrepreneurs and reward hard-working families, because people who are not in families, and people who do not work hard, do not deserve anything.
Now, it may be that these hard choices often end up benefitting those who already have lots of money; but this is where the game becomes important as a justification and a distraction. If players are encouraged to emulate the heroes of WW2, to Keep Calm and Carry On, then we will be prepared to sacrifice anything to save the nation from existential threats: to cut social security, to close those theatres and museums.
Sometimes players get upset when they perceive that other players are breaking the immersion, as can happen in other LARPs. For example, we didn’t have all these foreigners back in WW2, so it’s wrong to have them here now. We didn’t have wind power and solar power either, so that must also be wrong.
But the truth is, we are all breaking the rules in Austerity. If we were really committing to the LARP, then we would be investing hours a day into community gardens and volunteer work. We would be living and fighting and dying, cheek by jowl, on the front lines, the baker next to the banker, the lawyer next to the labourer.
Real believers in Austerity would reinstate the two thousand British Restaurants, communal kitchens that would sell you a healthy meal for the equivalent of £1 in today’s money. They would serve a million meals a day to those who couldn’t afford any better, and they would make the country fit and strong.
Like other LARPs, Austerity is a sham. And like other LARPs, a lot of players don’t want to take on the hard roles – they just want to do the easy fun stuff; the sewing and dressing up and saving pennies while forcing other players to part with pounds. That is why the special mission in Austerity, “The Big Society”, was such a failure.
The real danger of the Austerity LARP, though, is that it’s not actually real. We don’t live in 1945 any more; we live in 2015. We do not face an existential threat to the nation (other than perhaps climate change). We are not obliged to spend £45 billion, or 2.2% of GDP, on a non-productive military. We do, however, have the money to spend more on the institutions that made this country great: social security, NHS, the universities, the schools.
We need to snap the fuck out this playtime and get real.