‘Austerity’ deflects us from true nature of economic crisis
Artificial scarcity is imposed to satisfy markets in absurd system
A participant in an anti-austerity march in Dublin last November. Photograph: Alan Betson
Imagine that, last night, you’d watched a TV news report depicting some distant people who, living amidst great abundance of the wherewithal for human existence, were observed to be emaciated and weakened from hunger. We have seen such images many times, so it’s easy to recall their impact and have a reasonably clear sense of their likely meaning. But imagine that, in the report, the cameras panned across fields of wheat and potatoes and fattening cattle grazing their fill, and arrived again to fix on the distended bellies of the children and the wasting bodies of their parents.
Imagine further, the solemn voice of the news reporter intoning an explanation for this shocking scenario: that these people had no access to cutlery because the knives, forks and spoons they’d been using had been repossessed by the transnational cutlery company with which their government had entered into an arrangement it had been unable to honour. Imagine the reporter elaborating that, some time previously, these people had given up the right to own and control their own cutlery in favour of a leasing arrangement with this transnational supplier.
This somewhat under-developed fable offers a crude but useful analogy for our present situation. For “cutlery” read “money” or “euro”. For the absence of cutlery read “austerity”.
Had our culture been less skilful in the darkening arts of amnesia, it’s a scenario that might create a frisson of resonance in our collective folk memory. We, above all people, should recognise the “moral” edifices within which such peculiarities come to pass, and how their attendant absurdities become normalised and the voices of those who suffer are drowned out in a babble of rationalisation and pseudo-reason.
The condition endured by the peoples of Cyprus, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy is not the outcome of authentic scarcity, but arises from the imposition of a false lack imposed by the architect and gatekeepers of the money system. There is no famine in Europe, no absence of anything essential for human life or happiness. No essential material or resource has become scarce, apart from the pseudo-substance we call money, a token of exchange which becomes “essential” only by virtue of artificial rules enforced by artificial laws, including laws which enforce the artificial scarcity of this means of exchange.
For linguistic and cultural reasons, that terminally abused word “austerity” has been manipulated to enter the consciousness of both the individual and society in a manner as to suggest privation based on a real absence of resources. We have been lulled into a habit of thinking whereby the past couple of decades is as though a glorious opportunity frittered away, now followed by a lengthy period of generalised punitive restitution. This is accompanied by a vague promise that, if austerity can be endured, we will go on to our reward – a strangely Catholic view for a post-Catholic society to fall for.
The word “austerity” is used, really, to summon up a set of constraints which might face an individual who had lost his or her income, and had to make difficult choices with regard to staying within reduced means. But the collective situation of the peoples of Europe is not like this. The means to recalibrate everything is within the capacity of those in charge. The problem is that they refuse to use the tools and powers available to them to do other than protect the more powerful interests holding stakes in the prevailing, absurd system. They act on behalf of the cutlery supplier, rather than the starving people.
The word “austerity”, then, has become an instrument of misdirection in the supposed “debate” concerning our situation. Its function is to divert public attention from the true nature of the crisis, guiding it towards a bogus explanation. In the Irish context, this has been particularly easy, since we have in our relatively recent folk memory an experience of economic crisis – in the 1980s — in which an analogy with an individual facing suddenly straitened circumstances was somewhat more appropriate, and, moreover, the harsh remedies applied on that occasion were seen to work to advantage. The 1980s situation, however, is but remotely comparable. The purpose of “austerity” in the present crisis is not to restore genuine balance to our financial affairs, but to send signals to mystical entities called “markets”, in the hope of persuading them to again lend us eating implements.
In as far as we discuss the issue, the discussion is directed towards the alleged scarcity of cutlery, and not in the least related to the nature and purpose of the implements in question. Mainly, we discuss the problematic absence of eating instruments and why it means we must go hungry, moving on only to advocate the amending of our behaviour to ensure the restoration of silverware at the earliest possible moment.
It never occurs to us that we could again fashion our own spoons.