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It’s not austerity

September 8, 2012

The word “austerity” is much in vogue these days.  While it’s particularly evident in the so-called “peripheral” countries of the European Union, it’s also very firmly entrenched in Germany and the “core” as well where wages have been stagnant for two decades now.  Declining benefits, stagnant wages, and high un/under employment are endemic, not just in the EU of course, but in the United States and throughout the “first world”.  Wages in the “developing” countries may have improved at a somewhat higher rate, but the overbearing reality of “BRIC” like states is massive poverty and inequality.

Austerity then seems to be the law of the land.  But there’s something highly unsatisfactory about the word.  According to the dictionary, austerity – the state of being austere – normally refers to either an inherent condition of something or a self imposed quality.  Definitions of austere include “severe or stern in disposition” as in an austere minister; or “without luxuries or unnecessary expenditure” as in an austere way of life; or “practicing great self-denial”.

What’s happening in the world, though, isn’t at all an outcome of some aesthetic of self denial.  It’s a totally undemocratic imposition of hardships by a small class of elites on major fractions of subjected populations.  It’s the power of business, the oligarchy, capital, finance, the bourgeoisie, civil society, call it what you will, to subjugate populations into serving their goals.  And those elite goals aren’t remotely ones of austerity as we can quite easily see by a glance at their penthouse apartments, estates, yachts, jets, luxury cars, servants, exclusive clubs, fine wines, etc, etc, etc.

Let’s then choose a different explanatory word for what’s happening – how about “oppression”?  We can reasonably measure its level, I think, by comparing the actual living standards and economic security of a population to its productive potential.  If we do so, we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that we live in one of the most oppressive societies which has ever existed.  The spread between the potential and the real has rarely been higher.  People have certainly lived worse in many places in the past, but their productive capacity was far less.  Today there is absolutely no “economic” reason for anyone to live unhealthy, insecure lives or even, for that matter, to have to work particularly hard.  Our productive capacity is that advanced and, as JK Galbraith well noted many decades ago in his “Affluent Society”, the problem has been solved.  Despite this, populations everywhere are outrageously being oppressed into accepting menial living standards, near or actual poverty, inadequate housing, inadequate nutrition, inadequate health care, grossly limited leisure time, polluted environments, delayed and insecure retirements, and so on, and so on.  All while the elites live in corrupt splendor.  “Austerity”, with its implication of self denial, doesn’t describe this world; “oppression” clearly does.

From → Dynamics, Suppression

  1. Yup. Austerity is not the right word. It is used because people understand “good” austerity: the frugality that can be necessary & good in times of excessive growth & demand, like a war. And this is conflated it with its opposite, the bad austerity of a depression consisting of an attack of the rich and powerful upon the poor.

    It is creating famines, laying sieges, blockading. The kind of thing that one does to an enemy nation. That is a large part of the problem, getting to see the oppression as an activity, an action, the class war that it genuinely is, and not something natural, something inevitable. The biggest part is the imposition of mass unemployment, the deprivation of any way out for the 99%. The biggest, most decisive and least visible victory of the bad guys was in effacing the universal, common knowledge, hard-won in the Depression, that unemployment is always & everywhere a government decision. A minimal requirement for a sanely run monetary economy is a JG.

    It’s the power of business, the oligarchy, capital, finance, the bourgeoisie, civil society, call it what you will, to subjugate populations into serving their goals. Yes, but a very major goal of this subjugation is the subjugation, the poverty, the misery itself. We are ruled by people who effectively believe that their opulence is diminished if it is not contrasted by penury. Who reject any equal improvement, even if a wealthier 99% would make the 1% absolutely wealthier too, and it would. Effectively, others’ pain is more important than their own pleasure. Not too many are consistent enough to actually consciously hold this position, though they definitely exist, but that is our current arrangements’ “equilibrium state”.

  2. Good points Calgacus. Words are carefully chosen. As you say, oppression needs to be seen as an activity, an action. You need a verb to express it and austerity has no verb form – to austere?

    I didn’t mean to imply that raw power wasn’t a very major goal, only that it isn’t described by “austerity”. What you describe as the ‘equilibrium state’ seems inescapably true and it’s been a source of confusion for many Keynesians who, as economists, have real hard times thinking of power.

  3. Thanks. Lately reading some Alain Parguez, a circuitiste – the Continental version of MMT. Don’t think he / they gets enough press & cred in the still anglo-dominated blogosphere. Though the style is different, he tends to mince words less, so I like his writing overall, like Modern Austerity Policies (MAP): An Analysis of the Economics of Decadence and Self Destruction e.g. “For the first time in history, rulers of a society decide to impose poverty and no hope of a better standard of living for the future.”

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