Death to ‘austerity’ Long live sustainable abundance


UEA Lecturer and Green party politician Dr Rupert Read explores what is wrong- and right with the frame of ‘austerity’

The ‘austerity’ issue is very much in the news. In last Sunday’s ‘Observer’, for example, it popped up in several articles. On the front page a number of economists are quoted as supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s “anti-austerity politics”. Inside there is an opinion piece by economics correspondent William Keegan who credits Corbyn for foregrounding the issue and challenging orthodox arguments for government spending cutbacks. On another page, a “young Labour supporter” explains why she supports Corbyn because of his stance on “Tory austerity”.

Elsewhere in the paper, a feature reports on the growing unpopularity of the President of Brazil, the Workers Party’s Dilma Rouseff, partly due to her acceptance of ‘austerity’ policies. There is also a big item about the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis who broke with Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, over the EU austerity package. In the same manner as Corbyn’s attacks on Tory policies, the new breakaway party from Syriza condemns the measures as not just unnecessary but also totally counter-productive.

Perhaps genuine issues are getting clouded in all the Tory- and EU-bashing… Not that such bashing is undeserved! On the contrary! But: we have to carefully home in on what exactly it is that deserves such bashing…

For, in reality, there are two possible meanings for ‘austerity’:

‘Austerity 1’:

Current government programmes around the world with George Osborne very much at the forefront. Here, ‘austerity’ basically means: often-cruel cuts targeted at the vulnerable, in pursuit of a pro-corporate variety of neoliberalism that is fixated on (reducing) government deficits.

‘Austerity 2’:

For reasons we’ll come to, this is probably better called ‘Green scissors’. These are the desperately needed targeted cutbacks in significant segments of both public and private spending as well as (and this, literally, is the bottom-line) in total levels of consumption: to create ‘one-planet’ economies, the only sustainable option. At present, we are living as if we have about four planets. Three more than we actually have. Current policies for more physical growth can be but a recipe for ruin.

Let’s start by examining ‘Austerity 1’. Austerity in the first sense could be argued to be quite a bit of a misnomer, for reasons we will explain.

It is certainly true that part of the population has been hit hard and sometimes very cruelly so by cutbacks in certain areas of government spending. In that sense, government policies are indeed an ‘austerity programme’. And we condemn such policies resolutely: it is in this sense that the Green challenge to austerity is second to none.

Yet many people remain comfortably off, some cushioned by private or public sector pensions that are generous, and/or the sale of an inherited parental property, and/or high salaries, bonuses, rents & dividends.

So sales at comparatively upmarket stores such as Waitrose reflect the spending power still possessed by this layer. Similarly, car-sales in 2014 were at their highest level for a decade. This summer has seen a boom in long-haul flights forward bookings. The size of this layer of the populace may partly explain why ‘anti-austerity’ politics cut less ice at the last General Election than many had expected.

Many millions of people voted for parties that advocated deficit cuts and fiscal ‘discipline’. To some extent, propaganda (falsely) comparing government finances with those of individual households has worked. But, basically, a lot of these people — more than enough to elect a government — still feel quite comfortable. There is a growing number of what Guy Standing calls the ‘precariat’ in this country, but tens of millions in this country who feel anything but precarious in their well-off-ness. The cuts do not necessarily come as a severe and direct blow, certainly not to all.

For example, Morpeth, in mid-Northumberland, has long been very heavily dependent on jobs in the public sector. One might assume that it would be badly shaken by all the cuts therein; and indeed some particular individuals and communities have been. However, the impact seems to have been softened by the fact that many ‘victims’ were close to retirement age anyway, had paid off their mortgages and had reasonable employment pensions to live on. These are also people who are, perhaps, more likely to vote (and to be on the electoral register in the first place) than many of the younger and/or poorer people much more harshly hit by cutbacks in benefits, by tuition fees, bedroom taxes and so forth.

A much smaller group has seen its income and general wealth shoot way up under ‘austerity’.Overall there has been penalisation of some but rewards for others. It is a redistribution, Robin-Hood-in-reverse programme, not austerity for all. This is why it is a sickening lie of Osborne et al to pretend that we are all in it together. And why to speak in blank terms of ‘austerity’ even in sense 1 is highly misleading: austerity for the allegedly ‘undeserving’ only has been the rule.

Similarly the state has been ‘rolled back’ in some areas but strengthened in others, with much more centralisation, as in education. The state is highly pro-active in many fields, not least thanks to measures such as the Growth and Infrastructure Act (2013). The government was of course highly interventionist to prop up the financial sector, shelling out some £141bn on bank bailouts, as at March 2013.  Another wing of the state, the Office of National Statistics, puts the cost much higher at £1021 bn (£1.021 trillion) as “temporary effects of financial interventions” in the UK banking sector.

Total government spending has not been falling significantly. It is particularly inaccurate to say it is returning to 30s levels. What is really happening is the cutting of direct public provision (libraries, care homes, etc) and its transfer to other hands, sometimes to not-for-profit companies but at other times to pure ‘sharks’ (see James Meek’s excellent and disturbing book, ’Private Island’). In other words, ‘Austerity 1’ is not so much the dismantling of the state and overall slashing of its spending as its restructuring and the redirection of its expenditures.

Some government departments are indeed being pruned severely but others are protected. Government may be cutting direct provision (eg social housing) but it pays monies indirectly by way of assorted raised thresholds, credits, allowances and benefits (eg housing benefit which really benefits landlords rather than their tenants). It is paying out much bigger sums on vast infrastructure projects, typified by gross boondoggles such as Hinckley Point nuclear power station and the HS2 ‘rocket-on-wheels’ scheme (the ‘anti-austerity’ Jeremy Corbyn seems to be hedging his bets on the latter).

There is no shortage of money for bread-and-circuses, e.g. the Olympics and other spectacles. Indeed, the London Olympics could be seen as state-led gentrification, with both poorer local residents and local biodiversity paying the direct price.

Not surprisingly then, total state spending was over £735bn in 2014 and will hit £780bn by 2020. Debt interest payments are higher than spending on education, for example. George Osborne borrowed more in 4 years than Labour did in 13. Debt has been used as a ‘growth’ strategy, as in the Help-to-Buy housing bubble. No austerity for landlords and estate agents!

Basically, the government itself is doing ‘Austerity 1’ on only half its budget. It is investing in harmful new transport infrastructure (roads, carbon-intensive high-speed rail and, soon, air), giving tax breaks to highly-harmful fossil fuels (e.g. fracking), and so forth. Shifting investment (as the Government is doing) from people to such capital investment makes it HARDER to achieve one-planet-living. Increasing our spending on infrastructure within a shrinking carbon budget will tend to increase inequality. This is so especially because only the rich will be able to afford to use that invested carbon – over and above basic needs. This is a growing problem and a problem of increasing urgency, because it also reduces capacity for climate adaptation (for all). A couple of examples of what we mean here: road-building is well-funded — but there are cuts in the number of bus drivers. And investment in incineration (heavily subsidised by government) is actively curtailing recycling rates.

So, as we’ve now made clear: ’Austerity 1′ is only really austerity for some. Meanwhile there is no ‘austerity’ at all in terms of the pressures being put on the real economy, the Earth’s ecology: quite the reverse. As we’ve said, the Government and the ‘Opposition’ alike in Britain favour huge road-building programmes, a new runway for one London airport or another, subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and on and on and on, through one eco-destructive project after another. Similarly, Brazil’s Dilma Rouseff has been pushing certain forms of government retrenchment. But there are no cutbacks in the war on the rest of nature. She has relaxed (already not very strong) controls on logging in Amazonia, opened doors for more dam building and encouraged more fossil fuel exploitation.

‘Austerity’ as practiced in the sense of Austerity 1 is really all about wasteful profligacy for the benefit of the few paid for by the proceeds of deliberately-inflicted human misery. ‘Austerity 1’ needs to be opposed relentlessly, as Greens oppose it. But, as we have already heavily hinted, reckless non-austerity with the resources of the planet, resources which add up to our very life-support system, can be found just as much in most of those supporting ‘Austerity 1’ as in many of those opposing it…

Let us turn to ‘Austerity 2’. This is a sense in which, especially here in the prosperous West, some kind of fairly-shared material austerity is needed…

What for the sake of argument we are here calling ‘Austerity 2’ starts by recognising the obvious: that the simplistic slogan ‘No cuts!’ is plain wrong: because there are lots of things that need cutting, Trident, perhaps most obviously. But also: all subsidies for nuclear power, and for fossil fuels, and for air travel, and for the arms industry, and for polluting industries; virtually all road-building programmes; advertising that deforms innocent minds and encourages binge-consumerism; and much more besides.  An ecological mindset obviously wants to cut a very great deal. What needs further exploring, is what this implies…

The name ‘Austerity 2’ has been introduced by us here as a provocation to thought: because, in the currently dominant mindset, the programme for reducing today’s unsustainable eco-footprint will involve some retrenchment that will be widely perceived as ‘austerity’. It will be a big break from the consumerist bonanza of recent decades’ decadence. (For most people, mention the word ‘decadence’ and the lifestyles of the rich and powerful in the Roman Empire come first to mind. But the majority of citizens of the contemporary West live in a manner at least as wasteful, objectively-speaking, as those ‘decadent’ rich and powerful did, two millennia ago…) There are plenty of scientific papers and oodles of popularisations of them, documenting the extent of ecological overshoot at all levels: and thus the need for some ‘retrenchment’. Possibly the most shocking recent revelation is that half of all the world’s wildlife has gone in the last 40 years alone. Of course it varies from country to country and from one social group to another, and the rich are typically by far the worst offenders. But the scale and breadth of excess can be seen by the way China, a country still with many poor people by any standard, hit ‘Overshoot Day’ on May 14 this year.

This really is a bubble that can only burst if collectively we keep on over inflating it, and with ruinous consequences for civilised living.

So we need to ‘think shrink’. If the desperately poor (as well as the species now being driven into extinction at unprecedented rates) are to get a fair deal, then those with bigger stomachs will have to tighten their belts even further. Fairness is at the heart of Austerity 2 (whereas some ‘anti-austerity’ campaigners in UK seem in practice to ignore the plight of the world’s really poor peoples — some 1.5 billion people in what the UN Human Development Report calls “multidimensional poverty” — as well as the needs of non-human species and the needs of future generations. These are massive omissions.).

This may not as yet be a popular message. But it has the great advantage of being an honest one. And it is one that can last. For there are solid reasons for thinking that Mass Consumerdom is a doomed project. It will end regardless of whether people want it or not. The danger is that the affluent (conventionally defined) and those dreaming of that kind of affluence will become desperate to defend consumption-as-usual. They may back any dangerous techno-fix if they can be persuaded that it will eke out a few more years of undisturbed ‘normality’. It is sadly all too easy to foresee what Geoff Hiscock’s book calls “Earth wars” in a increasingly desperate race to grab remaining resources (see also Michael Klare’s ‘The Race for What’s Left’).

Clearly, it is better for the coming crisis to be treated as an opportunity to build society for the common good, with the emphasis on quality of being, not quantity of things. It has more chance of happening the more people can be persuaded to embrace the change.

So, we need to think of ways in which to present it in appealing ways, with due emphasis on both fairness and the opportunities for not just a more ‘sustainable’ but also more enjoyable way of life. For the green vision is one of sustainable abundance of all the things that really matter – such as having secure access to high quality food that one has had a role in providing, such as trust, community, love, nature and unpolluted environment – not ‘austerity’ at all, in these respects. Some writers have called the needed new lifestyles ‘voluntary simplicity’. Others talk in terms of ‘better, not bigger’ and ‘sharing smaller pies’.What we are envisioning, in plain terms, is a more stable and secure economy and ecology, with a better quality of life.

More recently there has heightened interest in what is being called ‘postgrowth’ or ‘degrowth‘. These are the real alternative to the growthism that is rampant in all the ‘grey’ parties, in everyone from Corbyn to Cameron. ‘Austerity 1’ – the approach of Cameron, Osborne, Merkel et al – shares completely with Corbynomics the assumption that growth is desirable, and (tacitly or explicitly) that ‘Austerity 2’ is impossible or undesirable or both.

In this specific sense, being anti-Austerity-1 and pro-Austerity-1 are not necessarily, unfortunately, opposites at all. They can even be two sides of the same out-dated coin. A coin that ever-increasingly weights too much for the living Earth to be able to bear that weight…

A more positive and genuinely forward-looking model is provided by the changes brought about under the leadership of Enrique Penalosa in Bogota, at the time one of the most unlikely places for such initiatives, with its rampant violence, deep social divisions, ingrained car culture etc. Penalosa came clean, openly stating that he could not deliver American-style affluence but he could make most people happier than they were.

The Canadian activist Guy Dauncey has assembled many such examples of big changes, sometimes against the odds. They illustrate how steps could be taken, with reasonable hope of popular support, as part of what he calls a ‘positive vision of a sustainable future”  (This or that detail does not really matter: it is the general picture of a safer and better world that counts)

Whatever the language, the idea is basically the same: living better on less. Sometimes the conventional attacks on ‘austerity’, when they fail to differentiate between two different senses of that word, are obscuring the really radical changes we need.

Moreover, in the (welcome) upsurge of popular support for Jeremy Corbyn, and the concomitant nostalgia for the great reforming 1945-51 Labour government, people are forgetting one important feature of the Attlee government: the stern moral figure of that Government’s Chancellor, Stafford Cripps. Cripps is an ambiguous figure with a contested legacy, but the intriguing and unavoidable truth is that the Chancellor of what is widely acknowledged to be the greatest Labour government of all time was popularly known as ‘Austerity Cripps’. This was utterly different from Osborne’s austerity; at a time of massive investment in public services, consumption of relative fripperies like luxury food, sugar, cars, fuel and clothing was massively controlled and constrained. Food rationing, in context an egalitarian programme that improved public health, of course continued right through into the 1950s.

‘Austerity’ hasn’t always been a byword for something repellent to ‘progressives’ like us, and like you, dear reader…

And so to sum up and conclude. We desperately need to differentiate being ‘anti-austerity’ in the sense of wanting, recklessly and absurdly (given the breaching of planetary boundaries currently underway), open-ended economic growth and more stuff for all (and in this sense, much of the Right is just as ‘anti-austerity’ as the Left!), from being ‘anti-austerity’ in the sense of opposing savage cuts and privatisations (anti-Austerity-1). The green movement and the Green Party is (or ought to be) as strongly against the first as it is in favour of the second.

In the mainstream media, such as in the Observer articles that we opened this article by mentioning, these two things are not separated out. We need to very clearly separate them. Being ‘anti-austerity’ ought to mean opposing government cuts; it ought not to mean backing growthist business-as-usual.

‘Austerity 1’ means: Current government programmes which are in reality penalisation of some but rewards for others. It is a redistribution, Robin-Hood-in-reverse programme.

‘Austerity 2’ means: Not austerity in terms of well-being — on the contrary — but a certain degree of shared material austerity, for the sake of a survivable future, in which we can all flourish and prosper, a more equal fairer greener trimming of our cloth to fit our means.  It means downsizing from a 4- or 3- to a 1-planet economy. This would require a more equal society, with the poorest having a little more and the rich having a lot less. In fact, in a country like Britain, the majority would probably have less: because Britain is living as if there are four planet Earths, and thus most Britons, not only the 1%, are living beyond our shared long-term means. But having less consumer goods — not having a new phone-handset every year forever — would be compatible with and would in fact, when done properly, ensure a better quality of life.

Are we proposing that we rebrand our green vision for the future as ‘Austerity 2’? For several reasons, already outlined, the answer is: certainly not. Above all, perhaps, because the term ‘austerity’ has simply come to be associated too closely with the pro-rich redistribution programme that is Conservative policy (and, in a Lite version, was New Labour policy too).

But we are suggesting that it is intellectually dishonest to suppose that the opposite of such ‘Austerity 1’ should include an on-going binge of consumption, at least if one cares our non-human kin, about future generations, etc. And this is where Labour, including yes even Corbyn, are very weak: for they don’t dare to question the idea of endless growth, of an endless binge. Corbyn’s policies on various things — such as tax evasion, and renationalising the railways — are right; but his growthism is the same old same old, at a time when what is desperately needed is something different. Something eco-logical.

The real intellectual issue can be put this way: ‘Austerity’ as opposed to what? If the opposite of austerity is a decent social security net, then count us 100% in to opposing it: Greens believe passionately in taking care of the vulnerable, and thus we oppose steadfastly and profoundly the savage-cuts-for-the-most-vulnerable that is ‘Austerity 1’.

But if ‘anti-austerity’ is just a demand for a fairer version of growthist business-as-usual, then count us 100% out to opposing it. Equality without ecological sustainability is simply fair shares in collective suicide. Rather than the rough label of ‘Austerity 2’, one that will be misunderstood, let’s call this ’Treading Lightly’, or ‘Elegant Simplicity’, or whatever works best. The underlying reality is this: Ecological capital is dwindling, so monetary outlay, by whoever for whatever (including even clever schemes such as ‘People’s QE’), must be limited in due turn. And then we must restore our ecosystems. This process will involve human beings restraining our appetites.

This happier but somewhat more materially ‘austere’ future that we envision then would actually be a future in which we were truly all in it together. …As we are: for the atmosphere does not discriminate between rich and poor. If runaway climate change comes — and if it comes it will be as a predictable consequence of the currently-hegemonic fanaticism for more and yet more ‘growth’ — then it will affect the poorest soonest and worst, but sooner or later it will ruin us, one and all.

This post originally featured on The Ecologist blog

Image Credit: Flickr

Rupert Read is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and Chair of Green House.










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