Against austerity

The proposed ‘Age of Austerity’ is not a rational response to the financial crisis. It is a political campaign to ration our passions.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

According to the British Conservative Party, the global financial crisis is propelling us into a new ‘Age of Austerity’. There will have to be ‘belt-tightening’. We have got too used to the ‘good life’, as the Daily Mail described it, and now we must hope ‘that the British people realise that only by cutting savagely can the authorities govern responsibly’. Apparently, ‘any worker who expects to see his real income rise in the next few years has another thing coming’ (1).

So, retrieve the ration books from your attics; patch up your old clothes; forget about dining out or holidaying abroad; and prepare yourself for what some commentators are referring to as ‘economic breakdown, with queues for soup kitchens and millions living off their allotments’ (2).

If there is one thing we should be angry about in relation to the financial crisis – one thing far more infuriating than the apparently ‘evil’ bankers who are treated like voodoo dolls by the shallow anti-capitalists of the British press – it is this discussion of enforced austerity. Anyone who values choice, political imagination, individual liberty and independence should reject it. History tells us that austerity is not only an assault on our desire to live comfortable lives free from need or guilt; it is also a tool of political repression, which both springs from and reinforces the lack of a political alternative on how society should be organised. The Age of Austerity would not only prevent us from ‘buying new three-piece suites’ or ‘wasting hundreds on jokey Christmas presents from those idiotic mail-order catalogues’, as one commentator sneeringly puts it (3). It would also further increase state power over individuals and stifle political vision and debate.

It is striking that, for all the talked-up differences of opinion in recent months between the dwindling band of free-ish marketeers on one side and state socialists (or perhaps social-ishs?) on the other, there has been little live debate about the need for belt-tightening. That is because, long before the ‘credit crunch’ kicked in, there was a wide-ranging political consensus, spreading form left to right, from radical greens to dyed-in-the-wool Tories, that people’s material desires must be restrained. Whether it is justified on the green-leaning basis that our lust for stuff is destroying the planet, or the right-leaning notion that our materialism is undermining family life and community relations, it is broadly agreed that over-consumption must be tackled and austerity re-introduced, by force if necessary (4).

Indeed, the most infuriating thing about the new Age of Austerity proposed by the Tories is that it is not a practical or necessary measure to deal with a Depression-style economic crisis. It is the culmination of a highly political campaign to wean us off our ‘addiction’ to materialism. The ‘credit crunch’, a very serious crisis that has understandably made people feel worried, is being cynically exploited to make us slavishly accommodate to the already-established politics of low horizons.

The discussion of enforcing austerity is not based on economic analysis but on today’s culture of limits: the widely accepted idea that there are only so many resources available, and only so many solutions that humanity can come up with. This is clear from the fact that austerity is being proposed even though many economies, despite the turmoil in the financial markets, are still growing. As Fund Strategy magazine points out this morning, Michael Mussa, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has predicted that the economies of the industrial countries will grow by 1.2 per cent in 2009, compared with 1.5 per cent in 2008 and 2.5 per cent in 2007. So growth is shrinking, but it is far from a severe economic downturn. To put it in perspective, America’s industrial output fell by 47 per cent during the Great Depression of the 1930s (5). This is not to argue that the financial crisis won’t have a destructive impact on what is called the ‘real economy’, but rather to point out how quickly the A-word has entered the frame.

The political-rather-than-practical nature of the new Age of Austerity is also clear from the fact that, even when the British and American economies were growing okay in recent years, there were numerous and loud demands for enforcing austerity (6). Indeed, even in relation to China – where the economic leaps forward and material development over the past decade have been inspiring – the mainstream Western view has been that such growth is destructive, poisoning, even murderous, giving rise to a ‘rapidly advancing dystopia where rivers run black’ (what most of us refer to as ‘modern China’) (7). Clearly, the mainstream discomfort with economic growth – the idea that ‘sustainability’, restraint and even austerity are preferable – predates the credit crunch and is the product of a political outlook rather than of economic necessity.

Even before we all started talking about ‘derivatives’ and ‘casino capitalism’, high-level public debate in Britain was shot through with notions of rationing and austerity. Environmentalism, which has risen to become the organising principle of many Western societies, is built on these ideas. As one leading green said before the term ‘credit crunch’ had entered popular parlance, environmentalism is a campaign ‘not for abundance but for austerity’ (8). Influential greens have openly, and without a sliver of shame, talked about pushing to one side the battle for material equality around the globe and demoting the war against need that motivated so many radicals and progressives in earlier eras. Mark Lynas, decorated by the Royal Society no less for his various hysterical screeds on the future of our planet, says: ‘I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems on which all of us depend… The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere.’ (9)

Not only is this an extraordinarily callous statement – Let Them Live In Poverty! – it also captures the essentially anti-political nature of the environmentalist moment. Just as Gordon Brown and other mainstream politicians have sought to remove fundamental economic matters from the sphere of political debate, so environmentalists have sidelined the issue of material development in favour of developing a fear-packed morality tale about the End Of The World in which they take the leading role as planetary saviours. Politics and economics are subordinated to the narcissistic cult of environmentalism; imaginative debate about improving the living standards of all seven billion of us is neutered by the imagination-free culture of limits.

If anything, the Tories’ proposed Age of Austerity in response to the financial crisis, though shocking and anger-inducing, is mild in comparison with the hysterical clamour for enforced austere living that we have witnessed in recent years. The talk of an Age of Austerity has led some commentators to wonder if we will return to Second World War-style rationing. Yet serious liberal commentators, including those who now attack the ‘greedy bankers’ who have landed us in economic hot water, have for a long time demanded war-style cuts in people’s choices and living standards. A columnist for the Independent said recently that the only way we can save the planet is by ‘governments legislating to force us all – green and anti-green – to shift towards cleaner behaviour. Just as the government in the Second World War did not ask people to eat less voluntarily, governments today cannot ask us to burn fewer greenhouse gases voluntarily.’ (10)

Indeed, recent debates about ‘carbon rationing’ and ‘water rationing’ – where the government is implored to restrict how much electricity we may use and even how much of the Earth’s life-giving substance, water, we may drink or splash on our faces – reveal the already-existing, long-standing desire to make us live severe and simple existences (11). In her book Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption 1939-1955, Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska discussed how rationing was enforced during the Second World War at the expense of open political debate, on the basis that the ‘effort, suffering [and] sacrifice’ needed to win the war should be ‘accepted willingly and proudly’ (12). Anyone who spoke out against austerity was seen as a potential enemy of the nation. Today, too, the fantasy that we face a ‘climate war’ as threatening (if not more so) than the Nazis is used to undermine open debate and demonise opponents of austerity. Earlier this year, Rosie Boycott, who is now on Boris Johnson’s London mayoral staff, said that ‘climate change is too vital an issue to sacrifice to political infighting’, which is why ‘a cross-party coalition should be formed (as during the Second World War) to guide and direct both government planning and industry direction’ (13). If, like spiked, you oppose eco-austerity in favour of eradicating need and extending choice, then you are labelled a ‘fake libertarian’ who is in the pay of Big Oil (14).

In recent years, various serious thinkers have argued that materialism makes us mentally ill, and only pared-down forms of living can save us. Some of them have been employed by the government to enforce a ‘happiness agenda’ which roughly translates as a top-down campaign to make us adapt to austere forms of living (15). One writer, concerned that too many mainstream greens and politicians were being too explicit in their desire to enforce austerity, has argued that ‘the task is to imagine and bring about a future which can accommodate both austerity and autonomy’ (16). This is the very definition of a contradiction in terms. You cannot have austerity and autonomy. Austerity represents the obliteration of choice, the demotion of democracy, and the strangling of debate through a determined demonisation of the ‘awkward squad’ – those greedy individuals who always want more.

In proposing an Age of Austerity, our leaders are not only seeking to offset their mismanagement of the economy on to the rest of us, and demonstrating their inability to understand, manage or resolve the crisis – they are also cynically hoping to make real, finally, their politics of low horizons and to spread the new material meekness across society. The financial crisis has exposed the hollow, zombified nature of the old categories of ‘unbridled capitalism’ and ‘state socialism’. But the elite nodding consensus on the need for austerity has highlighted a possibly new divide in contemporary politics: one between the political and cultural elite who are guided by the politics of limits, and those of us who refuse to kowtow to limits and instead wish to break them; between an elite possessed of a severely limited political imagination, and those of us who believe the possibilities for humanity are limitless. The divide today is over limits or no-limits – to production, to development, to the political imagination, to our history-making potential – and whether we should worship at the altar of restraint or burn it down.

One group of eco-authoritarians has set up a blog called ‘Riot 4 Austerity’, inspired by a leading environmentalist’s complaint – yes, complaint – that ‘nobody ever rioted for austerity’ (17). There’s a good reason for that: austerity is severe, illiberal and undemocratic, whether it is justified in eco or economic terms, and people recognise that. So, how about a riot against austerity? Certainly we should reject the new Age of Austerity and declare war (with no rationing) on the culture of limits.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) New age of austerity, Daily Mail, 1 October 2008

(2) This economic orthodoxy was built on superstition, Guardian, 6 October 2008

(3) New age of austerity, Daily Mail, 1 October 2008

(4) We’ll save the planet only if we’re forced to, Johann Hari, Independent, 21 February 2008

(5) Continued growth belies hysteria over global depression, Daniel Ben-Ami, Fund Strategy, 6 October 2008

(6) We’ll save the planet only if we’re forced to, Johann Hari, Independent, 21 February 2008

(7) Great global coal rush is fast track to irreversible disaster, Guardian, 30 August 2007

(8) Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, George Monbiot, 2006

(9) Interview with Mark Lynas, Red Pepper, 2004

(10) We’ll save the planet only if we’re forced to, Johann Hari, Independent, 21 February 2008

(11) See the Carbon Rationing Action Groups website

(12) Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption 1939-1955, Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Oxford University Press, 2002

(13) The war to end all wars, Guardian, 20 May 2008

(14) See The Independent, Big Oil and me, by Brendan O’Neill

(15) See When ignorance is bliss, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 24 January 2008

(16) Climate change: a question of democracy, Dougald Hine, Open Democracy, 2 March 2007

(17) Riot 4 Austerity

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Topics Politics


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