Keywords for the Age of Austerity 31: Austerity

Our last new entry for a while! Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism arrives in December 2018, but here’s an entry that I found on the cutting room floor. It’s a word I should’ve defined a while ago: 

Austerity (n.)

Economist Mark Blythe defines “austerity” as “a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness, which is supposedly best achieved by cutting the state’s budget, debts, and deficit” (2).  The word has come into wide circulation since the 2008 financial crisis and the global recession it triggered, when public debts increased as tax revenues fell. “Austerity” is used mostly by its critics, though the word is more common in Britain, for historical reasons that may become clearer below. In the United States, the cuts to public spending are described as “budget cuts,” framed at an individual level in evasive, wonky terms: as tax reform or entitlement reform, for example. My sense (though this is really a sense) is that public spending is more easily framed in technocratic terms in the U.S. than in Britain. There, the class politics of tax policy and public expenditures are more obvious, or at least less easily disguised in a language of pragmatic, non-ideological “good government.”

While the contemporary politics of austerity in the United States and in Western Europe is shaped by the financial crisis of 2008, it does not begin there. To Blythe, the economic defense for austerity policies is a dishonest “morality play” in which blame for economic crisis shifts from the banks that caused the crisis to the state (14).  The idea of a morality play—a didactic allegorical drama pitting good versus evil—is present in the very word “austerity,” with its suggestions of ascetic self-discipline following on gluttonous self-indulgence. Austerity’s moral dimensions are paramount, and they derive in large part from the word’s metaphorical reference to the human body. Along with nimble, robust, lean, and flexible, austerity is a bodily metaphor for national and global economies. Unlike these last, though, austerity is a term favored by its opponents, since the word lacks the athletic glamor of nimble or even the efficiency of lean production Austere bodies are spare and emaciated, and it is difficult to reconcile the bodily metaphor of austerity with the ideal of “economic growth” that remains the horizon of much mainstream writing in economics. The authors of a 2013 IMF working paper on the effect of budget deficit-reduction policies on increasing inequality preferred the neutral, rather dry term, “fiscal consolidation.” (Note how this author puts “austerity” in scare quotes, unhappily conceding the term’s popularity.)

Austerity’s links to morality and the body go back to the Christian ascetics’ righteous denial of worldly comfort. More than “frugality,” which suggests a kind of humility and prudence, “austerity” is righteous self-denial. After the devastation of World War II, Stafford Cripps, the socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer under the postwar Labour government, oversaw an “age of austerity” marked by rationing and widespread shortages. It also included the nationalization of key British industries like coal–measures reversed under the “austerity” policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government four decades later (though even then, it was her opponents that preferred the word, “austerity.”) A 1947 New York Times profile of Cripps portrayed him as “Austerity’s Prophet,” describing him as a deeply religious vegetarian ascetic, an “English Gandhi” ready to fit post-war Britain with its national hair shirt. Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 4.13.54 PM.png Think, today, of all the ways public-sector cuts to balance budgets are routinely described in the American media: a “bloated public sector”; “trimming the fat from the state budget”; cutting public budgets “to the bone” or, occasionally, “with a scalpel” instead of a hatchet, machete, or ax; and less gruesomely, “tightening our belts” and “taking a haircut”: all metaphors that imagine the national budget as a greedy body that must be whipped into shape or a fatty piece of meat to be distended. The only possible exception here is “haircut,” more cosmetic than surgical, perhaps because that term is often used to refer only to the relatively painless losses that private creditors are expected to take during “fiscal consolidations.”

Most people who use the word “austerity” today would agree that the only people never really required to undergo it are the already wealthy. Austerity, in other words, has a clear class meaning. A polity undergoes austerity to end up lean and nimble, always under some great political and economic pressure. This extends from the national to the local level. As John Summers pointed out in an essay on the aggressive wooing of the tech economy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is not enough for the private sector to embrace its own market-worshipping mantras. Instead, he writes, “the whole community must conform,” in the form of tax breaks for tech companies, the demise of rent control, and other assaults on public goods. Austerity is a discipline. Conform, or be disciplined.


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