Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The appeal of austerity

Foodbanks have come to symbolise austerity
The economics of austerity have been pretty exhaustively examined and discussed. Countless commentators and almost as many academics have looked at questions of what fiscal austerity is, how it works, how it fails, and the impact it has on various groups in society. I don't intend to go over old ground here. What interests me is not so much the mechanics of austerity - although these can hardly be ignored - but the idea of austerity. Austerity as a concept rather than as something concrete. I am interested in what austerity means to different people and groups. How they regard it. The associations that the term holds for them and the connotations it implies. I want to look at how people perceive austerity. And how they choose to portray it.

Clearly, austerity means different things to different people. When British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne and, say, Robin McAlpine of The Jimmy Reid Foundation talk about austerity they may well both be talking about the very same economic measures, but the word itself means quite different things to each of them. A situation further complicated by the fact that each will also seek to present austerity in a way that serves their political agenda, regardless of how they actually regard it themselves - supposing there is any difference between the two.

Mark Blyth, Eastman Professor of Political Economy at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, presented a useful perspective in a short video presentation that he made back in 2010 (Mark Blyth on Austerity - YouTube). In an attack on the economic folly of austerity which is both concise and scathing, Professor Blyth refers to the fallacy of composition which arises when it is inferred from the fact that something is true in a particular context that it is true in a more general sense.

Thus, the "common sense virtue" of balancing the household budget by way of a bit of belt-tightening at home becomes the economic nonsense of imposing austerity across the functional economy. What makes sense when a few people do it becomes madness when everybody tries to do it at the same time, for the rather obvious reason that suppressing essential economic activity denies everybody the income they require in order to pay down debt and "clean the balance sheet".

The appeal of austerity, and its power as an implement of social engineering, lies in this simplistic notion of a "common sense virtue". And this appeal can be taken beyond mere common sense with rhetoric which references such ideas as noble sacrifice, cleansing. renewal. and a supremely dubious appeal to mutualism.

In all of this one recognises both an ominous contamination of politics with the language of fundamentalist religion and a rehashing of Thatcherite rhetoric about "broken Britain" and the necessity for drastic measures to combat a common foe. Then, it was the unions which were declared to be "the enemy". Now it is "benefit scroungers" and anybody who espouses progressive politics and aspires to social justice.

Extreme fiscal rigour is presented as a wholly pragmatic, scientifically sound, and self-evidently sensible approach to a "problem" which is defined by the proponents of austerity in such a way as to very conveniently fit their preferred solution.

But let there be no mistake! The austerity agenda is driven by ideological fervour and not economic prudence. The benign-sounding language of domestic thrift is a flimsy deceit intended to disguise a project to transform our society in ways that are unequivocally detrimental to the many, and dangerously close to irreversible.

Our purpose in the coming election is to defeat this project.

This article was first published in The Grist #2 Spring 2015

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