by Joseph Markus
Austerity economics—a concept full to the brim with worrying overtones—has taken hold across Europe as the proper, demonstrably and scientifically appropriate response to the various debt crises that have multiplied and metastasised throughout the summer and winter of last year.
It means different things to different people. Assessed from one angle—that of the notional everyman on the street—it is unfair, tough and difficult. Assessed from others—the (coldly) rational technocrat—austerity is an effective reaction to an economic understanding of the macro-woes of the eurozone.
I’ve been thinking about this idea for some time.
Over the summer we saw huge resistance from the Greek public to economic measures imposed on the country by the European Union-IMF cabal. It should be obvious why that was. There is a keen injustice in having one’s socio-economic livelihood regulated and restrained by distant and largely non-democratic organisations.
To the governing classes of Europe the administrators of the IMF were benevolent overseers of a national economy gone horribly wrong. Their intent was only to support and to stabilise—to do what was in the economic best interests of Greece.
The odd thing is the number of times the word ‘economic’ occurs in the preceding paragraphs.
Economic knowledge and economic argument is the kind of thing that gets listened to. It is a discourse of considerable power and it has been ruling the debate in Europe.
By speaking exclusively in economic terms we make the eurozone’s problems—the problems of Greece, Portugal and Italy—problems to which there is a single, quasi-scientific answer. We get to the proposition that EU-IMF technocratic wisdom will save the day.
By speaking in these terms, we tend to overlook other viewpoints and angles on the problem. We miss that austerity was viciously opposed by massive public protests in Athens and that the ill-effects of austerity fall almost exclusively on those least able to afford them.
In centring economic-talk, we de-centre and de-legitimise other concerns and other approaches and we destroy our ability to win the argument on our own (potentially non-economic) terms. The human cost of austerity is dismissed as a necessary evil and the idea that a group of people—a nation—could democratically choose to oppose it is seen as fanciful.
In fact, the lure of economics for policy-makers is precisely that it is seen as a neutral and objective form of knowledge. It aims to present a totalising vision of human life and (co-)existence; in doing this, and by implication, it denies other forms of knowledge a voice. This would not be such a bad thing except for the fact that economics can be easily skewed to fit ideological agendas. The way that ideology is expressed through this language reifies what is said and makes it gradually incontestable. The fact that the spread of austerity was assisted by the IMF suggests just this form of ‘technocracy’.
Now the IMF has changed tack. The leaders of the IMF, World Bank and WTO, on Friday, issued a warning highlighting the economic and social risks of austerity programmes. The joint statement made reference, for what was one of the first occasions in this saga, to the concept of the social.
Austerity is still widespread. But finally the international financial institutions have hit on the right thing: that the social, as well as the economic (or ‘financial’), matters. (Although chances are, and their statement suggests, that the only reason they have changed their mind is that austerity has been shown, and is widely believed, to be bad economics.)
My point is this: economics is not some catch-all, and it cannot provide a magic formula for successful and harmonious community living—whether that community be defined locally or globally.
The right response to any given, ultimately social, problem will not be divined through a priori economic ‘knowledge’. It will be uncovered through political discourse, mediated and perfected through argument and debate, and in the end a choice will be made.