If you want an end to austerity, fight for growth

It’s understandable that Europeans are angry about austerity measures. But we must also tackle the trendy anti-growth ideas fuelling such measures.

Yesterday there were protests across Europe over the spending cuts and unemployment levels caused by EU policies. However, the first step to solving these problems is to tackle today's deep-rooted anti-growth ideas, which precede the current crisis.

Across Europe, people took to the streets in protest at the austerity measures being imposed by the EU. There were national strikes in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, and protests in France.

‘Greek workers have been struggling for three years against neoliberal policies that are destroying the social state. These policies are ahistorical: just as austerity destroyed democracy in Weimar Germany, today it threatens our democracy’, declared the leader of the Greek civil servants’ union. ‘There is a social emergency in the south’, said Bernadette Ségol of the European Trade Union Confederation. ‘All recognise that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working’, she said. Italian trade union leader Susanna Camusso railed against Italy’s technocratic government. ‘Stop telling us that there is light at the end of the tunnel… This austerity is strangling labour, impoverishing the country and doing nothing for the future.’

Banners declared that ‘Austerity Kills’ and the protests were certainly angry. The Guardian noted that ‘there was also a violent, even desperate edge to the demonstrations’. Riot police were out in force, particularly in Madrid.

There is certainly plenty to protest about. Living standards in these heavily indebted countries have been hit hard. Unemployment is very high, over 25 per cent in both Spain and Greece. Austerity has been imposed by Brussels on those countries, as well as on Portugal, Ireland and Italy. Even the French president, Francois Hollande, having been elected on an anti-austerity platform, has started making cuts.

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It seems clear that, in the short term at least, these cuts will prove to be self-defeating. Piled on top of already-sickly economies, the cuts are causing economic contraction. The wealth-creating base which should be supplying tax income to pay off debts is shrinking, which leads to yet more demands from Brussels for spending cuts.

The only way out of this bind is through economic growth. Yet anti-growth ideas and policies have been the order of the day for the past two decades. Rather than working out how to expand wealth production - and make the uncomfortable decisions that might be required to reorganise the economy to allow that to happen - there has been endless handwringing in recent years about the dangers of material wealth.

If we believe those influential writers and academics who promote the idea of ‘affluenza’, for example, then having greater wealth and material comfort is actually making us sick. Money can’t buy you happiness, we’re constantly told. If our own mental health is not enough to make us stop obsessing over ‘stuff’, we should worry about the planet instead. We need to reduce our collective ‘ecological footprint’ before we all roast from global warming, starve from dwindling food supplies, grind to a halt as the oil wells run dry, or sob regretfully in the dark as the lights go out.

What were once fringe ideas in politics have become central principles of government. In the corridors of power in Brussels, the big ideas in recent years have been ‘sustainability’ and ‘precaution’. When it comes to agriculture, for example, the idea of growth, of actually growing things, has taken second place to ‘stewardship’ - keeping the place looking nice for the flora and fauna rather than producing food at a low cost to feed the people. New technology is treated with suspicion rather than greeted with open arms.

There is an element of adapting to circumstances. Europe’s economies - even before the credit-fuelled and rather feeble boom that brought about the current crisis - had been stumbling along for decades. Yet even now, rather than aggressively attempting to rediscover the ideal of economic growth, to rescue it from the past two decades’ fashionable ideals of restraint and reduction, we have seen governments positively promoting the idea that growth is an optional extra. What former UK prime minister Gordon Brown declared as the ‘end of boom and bust’ mostly meant the end of boom in favour of steady but utterly anaemic growth. Even that seems ambitious now.

All of this has created a situation in which there appears to be no way out. No wonder those protesters were desperate. Without a plan for how we might get economic growth up and running again, we can expect nothing but years of pain and the waste of millions of lives that should be active and productive. The starting point for tackling the crisis needs to be winning the argument over growth. To want more ‘stuff’ doesn’t just mean desiring designer clothes and iPads (although there’s nothing wrong with that) - rather, even getting more services such as healthcare and education can only be done through the production of wealth in the rest of the economy. Growth is not an optional extra - it is absolutely vital to the future of Europe’s peoples.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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