Challenging 'austerity' and its self-contradicting narrative

Austerity for the rich! Image: Michael Thompson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Austerity for the rich! Image: Michael Thompson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
As the Greens announce anti-austerity policies in their election manifesto, Bennet Francis & Rupert Read examine the austerity narrative - and find it doesn't add up. By insisting that deficit reduction is necessary for growth, the politicians of austerity undermine the very meaning of the 'prosperity' they promise us.
What kind of 'recovery' is it that enriches the rich, while leaving the majority worse off than ever: in insecure employment, relying on foodbanks, struggling to find affordable housing, insecure about the future?

Margaret Thatcher reportedly said in 2002 that her great achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour.

The epoch-defining power of her ideology, combined with the personality cult of her 'conviction politics' was enough to shift all discourse to the right, it seemed permanently.

David Cameron has behaved as though he can continue to ride on her coattails a quarter of a century later, given momentum not by positive ideology and charisma, but by a negative ideology of crisis, austerity and despair.

Arguably, however, this is reversing the Thatcher effect, causing the pendulum to begin its fall back. Instead of galvanizing the centre ground, the grey men of today's political scene lack the personality or the vision to legitimate their technocratic project.

As this Parliament is dissolved, we the people stand confused and angry among the fragments of narratives the Cameron-Clegg government has tried in vain to piece together.

Austerity will 'fix broken Britain'?

'Labour's mess' has been the leitmotif which has echoed through all three acts of the drama of this Parliament, its tone at first triumphant, then resigned, and finally lost, out-of-place, pleading.

Austerity was sold to us initially on the grounds that our national debt - the result, of course, of Labour's profligacy - was the mark of a weak economy and that reducing it was necessary to escape recession - to "fix broken Britain".

This confused people on two counts. Wasn't the recession actually rather something to do with a global economic collapse, initially triggered by the mortgage market in the United States? And what exactly was the link between 'the deficit' and 'the crisis' - felt as a lack of job security and a fall in income?

But the strength of our nation's semi-loathing for Gordon Brown was at that stage enough to put these worries to the back of our minds. It was not difficult to believe that the man the Tories were keen to brand "the most unpopular Prime Minister of modern times" had left a stench behind him.

Slowly, the air began to clear. But before we could take stock, the European sovereign debt crisis loomed, giving Cameron a much-needed cache of ammunition. In fact, for the first time, the story started to make sense. National debt and economic crisis were indeed the same thing, apparently!

What was more, we were able to point to the supposed economic wrecks of southern Europe as the antithesis of the UK's entrepreneurial spirit (using Ireland for this purpose was clearly too close to the bone), giving austerity an attractive nationalist flavour.

This was especially useful when it came to imposing austerity on the welfare system: the lazy European immigrant was the perfect enemy for us to unite behind as the safety net was pulled out from underneath us. Anti-EU sentiment, anti-immigrant sentiment, and deepening economic fears were bound together to strengthen the fasces, the swingeing axe of austerity.

What kind of 'recovery' is it that enriches the rich, while leaving the majority worse off than ever: in insecure employment, relying on foodbanks, struggling to find affordable housing, insecure about the future?

But something doesn't add up ...

In the final act, however, the contradictions have resurfaced; the ties that bind have begun to fall apart. The economy, we are informed, is now a success story. Towards the end of 2014, unemployment reached pre-crisis levels. Last month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that average income was back to normal as well.

Just don't look at either of these statistics too closely - there's been a massive increase in the number of people who are 'self-employed', which in human terms means that people who had steady jobs before the crisis are now trying to scrape by as free-lancers.

According to the IFS report, what the headline income statistic hides is while the incomes of older people have recovered, the incomes of younger people are still depressed. There has been exponential growth in zero-hours contracts, and in precarity of various kinds.

Nevertheless, some kind of 'recovery' is clearly going on. It seems like the government is starting to succeed at jumping through the hoops it holds out for itself. Who cares about the fact that most people are on balance worse off, so long as the economy is growing?

Victim of its own success?

Where does this leave the austerity narrative? The coalition's aim when they came into power was to reduce the deficit, and they have done this to an extent. By cutting public spending, they have reduced the shortfall between revenues and expenditure. No great success story there, just simple arithmetic.

Annual borrowing, however, is still much higher than it was before the crisis, as deficit reduction has not kept pace with the growth of national debt. George Osbourne is adding to our bill faster than Alastair Darling. So if 'Labour's Mess' means the level of national debt, the coalition cannot claim to have cleared it up.

At the same time, however, we go to the polls with an economic success story being touted. Which is a problem: the link between 'economic recovery' and reducing our national debt, a story it took five years to spin, is clearly broken - we are back where we started.

Moreover, what kind of 'recovery' is it that enriches the rich, while leaving the majority - and especially the young and the poor - worse off than ever: in insecure employment, relying in increasing numbers on foodbanks, struggling to find affordable housing, subject to worsening levels of pollution and insecurity about the future?

If austerity has succeeded in generating recovery, it is not by being a means to some end: becoming "a Britain living Within Its Means", to quote the least inspiring political slogan ever conceived.

Rather, it is now clear that austerity has been an end in itself. For this government, austerity is 'growth'. What we have seen is a drive to cut public services not because we cannot afford them, but so that the private sector can move in to fill the gap: so it can grow by gobbling up public space and publicly-owned assets.

The more the NHS relies on private providers, the more our schools become part-owned by profit-making consortia, the more employment rights are eroded by the brutal hollowing-out of the legal system, the more potential there is for profit in every walk of life, and thus for 'growth'.

'Austerity' = 'prosperity'? Maybe, for a very few ...

It is now increasingly clear to voters that business cycles have once again been used against them, as a means to make them give up their hard-won rights and privileges.

This is why Ed Miliband has chosen to make the NHS, that shibboleth of British social values, the battlefield of this election. This is why David Cameron has followed his lead, hoping that the infamous 2010 campaign poster - "I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS" - has faded from our memories.

However this is also why voters are fleeing the 'centre' (the centre Thatcher marked out for a generation), into the arms of smaller parties.

The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, and (unfortunately) UKIP are all becoming forces to be reckoned with, possible partners in coalitions in the next parliament - all, in their own way, evidence of the collapse of the austerity narrative. Because the first three of these Parties at least all reject austerity completely.

Out of the ashes, then, will something of value rise? The two trends that have emerged are arguably a genuine force for good. A more diverse political landscape has gone hand in hand with a new faith in the possibility of transcending orthodox political economy.

The prevailing ideology has culminated in a palpable contradiction: the equation of austerity and prosperity. It is becoming clear to voters that there is only one solution to this contradiction: giving up our faith in the necessary connection between the growth 'imperative' and our own happiness .



Rupert Read is a philosopher of ecology, of economics and of 'the social sciences'. He is Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Languages at the University of East Anglia, and the Chair of Green House. He is also Parliamentary candidate for Cambridge for the Green Party.

Bennet Francis is an MPhil Research Student in Philosophy at University College London.

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