Anti-austerity is terrible messaging

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Opposition to the UK government’s cuts, since 2010, in all public services – deep cuts in police, transport, hospitals, schools, fire, universities, disability benefits, mental health services, care for the elderly, legal aid for the poor, nursery schools, the army, green technology … everything – has gone under that banner of “anti-austerity”. And every time I hear the slogan, I despair.

First problem: the words are wrong. Ignore for the moment the meaning you intend when you say it, and think of how it helps (or doesn’t) persuade the uninitiated.

“Austerity” is an abstract noun. In this, being for anti-austerity is like being for the war on terror – what the hell are you fighting against?

But it’s worse. The metaphor of waging a war, ghoulish though it is, is a call to arms, to action. Being “anti”-austerity is just being against. Sometimes that’s useful, when the thing you’re against is very clear – against invading Iraq, or against fracking. But against an abstract noun? Rally round!

And, “austerity” again. Is it a bad thing? I don’t mean are the budgetary policies of today’s governments a bad thing, I mean austerity, generally. Monks and nuns are austere. Stoics are austere. We may not want to live that way, but we admire them for their self-discipline and simplicity. We like austere Shaker furniture. “Austerity” entered the contemporary political discourse as a positive wrapping for cuts to public services: a way of saying “this is not easy, but we need to be tough and virtuous”. Just using the word is to concede half the argument.

For those who already have a clear understanding of the budgetary policies that are part of “austerity”, and of why they’re unnecessary and unfair, none of that matters, and you can rally around a banner of anti-austerity. But as a slogan for rallying others, anti-austerity is really, really bad. If you want to communicate with those who don’t already agree with you, and aren’t most comfortable in a life of perpetual opposition, other terms are needed.

Second problem: the message is muddled.

Not only is calling for an end to austerity bad messaging, it is a bad message. Bad because it mixes up two different things. One is how public spending should change in response to a recession or financial crisis, the other with the explosion of high incomes together with the successful avoidance of taxes by the rich and the corporations. Call the first the Keynes problem, and the second 0.1% problem.

The Keynes problem is a relatively simple technical issue for economists and policymakers. Even the IMF and OECD repeatedly told George Osborne he was wrong. Just Google “OECD Osborne” or “IMF Osborne” and you’ll come up with…”austerity”. But the Keynes problem is often difficult to explain clearly to the general public. The best you can do is probably “cutting spending on services just makes the slump worse – we’ve known that since the 1930s; they’re just using this as an excuse to make cuts they want to make anyway”. That won’t bring about immediate change, but at least it educates.

The Keynes problem is about a squeeze on public finances by choice – a simple political choice in response to a recession or financial crisis. The 0.1% problem is not the result of a simple choice. It is an outcome of an exceedingly complex set of causes, of the whole organization of our economy today. The 0.1% problem does damage to the public budget and services at least as great as the damage done by a bad answer to the Keynes problem: that is to say, the 0.1% problem is a major source of austerity. But railing against austerity doesn’t begin to get at the 0.1% problem: it doesn’t help people understand it, and it doesn’t contribute to a program to correct it.

Unlike the Keynes problem, the public understands the 0.1% problem in a visceral way. Unfortunately, many politicians seem not to understand it well enough to do anything about it, and to be stuck in modes of either reaction or accommodation. The reaction comes from those who see the 0.1% problem as simply the product of a coup led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan against the old order of the 1950s and 1960s; the accommodation comes from those who see it as a technological inevitability, the price of progress.

Both are partly right. There was a coup, a counter-revolution, but it happened, and happened when it did, because the world was changing in ways nobody had chosen. You can fight it, but not by going back, because the old world is gone.

Technology has changed production systems and the way companies are organized; it has raised the cost of being a small closed economy vs. one open to trade; all of that has changed the playing field for labor against capital, and new laws and new forms of labour organization are needed in response.

New technologies – in software, the web, telecoms – have also brought opportunities for a whole zoo of new network monopolies, which are the source of vast unearned fortunes and the attendant political might, and which cry out for a new system of regulation.

The bloated financial sector not only destabilizes the economy, but acts as a tax collector on behalf of the 0.1%, skimming commissions off our pensions and for managing the non-taxation of the fortunes of the rich.

The decline of public goods and services has fed an economy of hypertrophic individual consumption that feeds on inequality, and which is environmentally unsustainable – but very difficult to unwind.

These different bits of the 0.1% problem all feed into the squeeze on public finances that is the long-term creator of “austerity”. But here austerity is not a policy – it is the product of a lot of bad policies and defective institutions, and those are what need to be attacked.

This isn’t rocket science. Most anti-austerity campaigners know this stuff. The rocket science, surely, is in finding good new slogans – bumper sticker slogans, soundbites, elevator talk explanations. We must take it as our task to do better than “anti-austerity”.

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