It’s not austerity
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.