Book Review: Austerity, Women, and the Role of the State by Dabrowski

Austerity, Women, and the Role of the State: Lived Experiences of the Crisis (2020) by Vicki Dabrowski, published by Bristol University Press.

Vicki Dabrowski is Associate Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. Her research interests include gender, class inequality and the role of the state. She is a Website Review Editor for the journals Theory, Culture and Society and Body and Society. She tweets @vdabrowski.

Review by Daisy May Barker, 8th April 2021.

Reflecting on the past decade of austerity in the United Kingdom, it is crucial to ask ourselves, how has such a dangerous, divisive, and deadly formation of austere politics and neoliberal governance gained legitimacy? What is the impact of punitive cuts, the disembowelment of the welfare state, and precarious employment on different individuals in society? These questions are more pertinent than ever as the Covid-19 pandemic illuminates and exacerbates the necro politics of inequalities. 

Within Austerity, Women and the Role of the State, Vicki Dabrowski centralises these questions, and makes a vital contribution to the burgeoning field of feminist scholarship on austerity, as a gendered political project. Particularly, via focusing on women’s lived experiences of this crisis, Dabrowski invites us to bear witness to the disproportionate, yet different, ways her participants have been impacted not only by Austere fiscal policies, cuts, and reform, but its associated moral and political discourses. Through the lens of difference, Dabrowski offers a compelling account of how women’s ability to live, navigate through, and imagine their futures in the context of austerity is intersectionally shaped by class, ‘race’, age, ability, geographical location, motherhood, and relationships. Thus, this monograph succeeds its central aim of analysing the symbiotic relationship between the role of the state in legitimising austerity, and women’s radically different everyday experiences. Its remarkable theoretical, and methodological contributions could not be more timely, as many researchers, like myself, are grappling with how to document and analyse the ‘collision’ of the crises of austerity, and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the multifarious ways this is impacting women. 

To achieve such a nuanced account of the uneven gendered impacts of austerity grounded in lived experiences, Dabrowski draws on a complimentary and comprehensive variety of qualitative methods, including: interviews with 61 women, two group discussions, observations, and political discourse analysis. Dabrowski’s empirical data is enriched by not only a large and diverse sample of participants, but her decision to spread her fieldwork across three different sites: Leeds, London, and Brighton. Per the academic conventions of adaptation from thesis to monograph, I was saddened to see the methodology included in the introduction rather than its own chapter. Whilst Dabrowski provides an excellent snapshot of her critical engagement with her fieldwork (2014 -2015), her honest articulation of “how the messiness of the research process mirrors the messiness of the concept of austerity” (2020:17) is enthralling, and warrants fuller exploration. I hope to see her original insights on the practical and ethical complexities of researching lived experiences of a crisis expanded on in a journal article in the near future, as uncovering these concealed aspects of research is necessary now more than ever!

The most significant feature of this monograph is its exemplary use of historical and theoretical frameworks to analyse its empirical data. The first chapter situates the current political project of austerity “within historical legacies that structure, reproduce and legitimise material and symbolic violence” (2020:21) and concisely analyses the austere [state] history of the U.K. from 1930-2015. Thus, Dabrowski sophisticatedly illustrates how in times of crisis, the state has repeatedly typified working-class, BAME women as “a solution, blamed or labelled as the problem…in the interests of capital” (2020:21). This amplifies how austerity is a recycled gendered project. Additionally, Dabrowski constructs a vigorous theoretical framework to further analyse the legitimisation of austerity by the state, and utilizes Bourdieu’s theorisation of ‘capitals’, to falsify Austere rhetoric that “we are all in this together”. Her elucidation of Bourdieu’s concepts alongside the analogy of ‘weathering the storm’ in subsequent chapters, to consider how her participants lived experiences of austerity was shaped by their access to social, economic, cultural, and educational capitals, is accessible, yet nuanced. How the robust historical and theoretical frameworks enable closer reading of the empirical chapters is a testament to Dabrowski’s writing; although often implicit, it is obvious when the ghost of these gendered, classed, and racialised austere archetypes haunted her participants lives. For example, the classed contours of the ‘thrifty housewife’, synonymous with the gendered labour of ‘cutting back’ and ‘mend and make do’ is amplified through Cherry’s testimony of the calculations she does to make her foodbank parcels last, shrouded in stigma and shame. Particularly, her genealogical analysis of austerity has majorly inspired a strand of my PhD research, which situates the collapse of the political economy of social reproduction due to the Covid-19 pandemic within a longer history of its reconfiguration in periods of crisis, to understand the disproportionate impact this has on women. 

The rich empirical data is dynamically organised into five chapters, and voices the radically different, and often harrowing, lived experiences of austerity. This includes how some women live in austerity, whilst others live with it, the different forms of gendered labour involved in navigating through austerity, talking about, and back to austere discourses, and how austerity pervades discussions of both feminism and the future. Dabrowski’s ability to seamlessly weave together micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis within these chapters is intellectual artistry. Personally, the most fascinating thread across these chapters is the gendered shift of ‘personal’ and ‘parental responsibility’ from the state, to women, in which single mothers are disproportionately burdened and blamed for the weight of this ‘individual’ responsibility for life making and rearing. I found myself constantly extending the participants’ narratives, to the current crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, and wondering how they are weathering this storm. I found myself particularly worrying about Heather, Marta, Lauren, and Cherry, and their access to the vital resources and facilities they need, during ‘lockdown’ periods which saw many of the institutions they relied on shut, or at limited capacity. This is something that Dabrowski has also critically engaged with, in an article for ‘Transforming Society’, which extends her arguments from this monograph around ‘parental responsibility’ to analyse the stigmatisation, and consequent contestation, surrounding the extended provisioning of free school meals. Thus, identifying toxic parallels between the politics of the crisis of austerity and the Covid-19 pandemic: the individualisation of rampant inequalities. 

Austerity, Women and the Role of the State is an essential read for academics, activists, and those who have been subjected to the violence of austerity. As Vicki Dabrowski concludes, “those of us who have access to the bigger picture and comprehend the inner working of capitalism…need to question, challenge and resist the delegitimisation of those who have no value for capital” (2020:160), and this is more urgent than ever, in the current crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Daisy May Barker is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Lancaster University, whose research interests are gender, labour, social reproduction, crisis, responsibility, and capitalism. She is in the first year of her PhD research that considers how women are disproportionately, yet differently, impacted by the collapse of the political economy of social reproduction due to the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. She regularly tweets about her research @_daisymaybarker.

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