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Who Says “Austerity”

The connotations and resonances of the word “austerity”, so prolifically used amidst expressions of disenchantment at present, inevitably contain a positive normative attitude (especially in Britain) – a whiff of salutary frugality, moral rectitude, tightening of belts as a patriotic duty. That the word currently appears to have colonised talk of economic measures after or amidst (depending where one is) the financial crisis seems to be worth pausing on and unpacking a bit.

The connotations and resonances have something to do with the history of the word. How that history is understood depends on how the word is approached. If approached as a political economic idea, in the way Mark Blyth defines it in Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2013, p.2) --

Austerity is a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness, which is (supposedly) best achieved by cutting the state’s budget, debts and deficits.

-- the idea, not necessarily the word itself and as such, can be traced back to the 17th century, as Blyth shows. This political economic sense, in Blyth’s definition, has an interesting double thrust in seemingly being something that happens at a systemic level in the economy while being actively enacted by the state. That doesn’t, however, give a clear sense of the moral tilt in the word. The considerably older Judeo-Christian roots of that are picked up in a brief online article in 2013 by theologian James Walters on observing that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary named "austerity" its Word of the Year in 2010. A more linguistically anchored approach to the word – the history of the specific term “austerity” – finds a useful line between Blyth’s and Walter’s approaches which is obviously relevant now in everyday usage.

The political economic sense of the word is clearly of moment now, but without losing sight of the Judeo-Christian tilt within it. The history of its usage in English has something to do with its compromised current presence in our vocabulary. The OED cites various examples of the broadly moral and descriptive senses of the word from the 15th century onwards; for the political economic sense it observes that, “The word entered common use in 1942, and was frequently used in the context of rationing and other measures introduced by governments in the period during and after the Second World War (1939–45)”. War-time austerity is where the word made a transition from the predominantly moral-descriptive to the predominantly political economic sense. War-time austerity was a material and economic matter, but it was equally a matter of patriotic fortitude and moral fibre. It was even a clarion call for attack in the war effort: a light war locomotive designed by British and American engineers in 1943 was aggressively named Austerity.

Post-war austerity was where the word acquired its predominantly political economic nuance. The word was being emphasised as such by J.M. Keynes and various Keynesians already during the war, and when the post-war economic recovery was planned “austerity” was firmly pegged as such. So, somewhat after the Beveridge Report of 1942 and shortly after the Bretton Woods conference in July 1944, at a Chatham House lecture A.R. Guinness had full command of this sense of the word:

I suggest that this period [a three- or four-year period of implementing the monetary plan in Britain discussed at Bretton Woods] should definitely be looked upon as one of austerity, when we shall have to do without many of the things we were accustomed to before the war, and conform to a much stricter regime. We shall have to continue eating Woolton Pie and ration our expenditure both internally and externally. Only in this way shall we be able to regain our economic position and make up part of what we have lost, but if we set a limit to this period and have the clear goal of freedom before us and a better standard of living, our people will agree to this self-discipline and our foreign friends will put up with the inconveniences. (“International Trade and the Making of Peace”, International Affairs 20:4, October 1944, p.497)

With the formation of the Labour government in 1945, under Clement Attlee as Prime Minister, post-war austerity policies were gradually implemented. In particular, Stafford Cripps, first as President of the Board of Trade and then Chancellor of the Exchequer, came to embody the spirit of austerity – puritanical, vegetarian (no doubt well acquainted with Woolton Pies), socialist. Even Keynesians wondered at times whether continuing austerity was necessary; Roy Harrod wrote a passionate argument against austerity as implemented then, Are These Hardships Necessary? (1947). Despite vicissitudes, post-war austerity was always meant to be temporary and did end by 1951, and meant the formation of the modern welfare state in Britain, a series of Acts ensuring social protections and workers’ rights, the formation of the National Health Service, the nationalization of major industries and public utilities.

After post-war austerity, the political economic sense of the word dominated, but the positive normative inflection remained and became associated with the economic sense. Austerity had been a good and necessary phase -- a morally justified period of economic and social planning -- in common discourse once it was over.

So it is ironic that in the political economic sense “austerity” now, with the 2008 financial crisis, suggests exactly the opposite of what it meant for post-war Britain: a permanent rather than temporary condition; privatizations of public services; dismantling of welfare mechanisms; continuing deregulation for the benefit of banks and corporations; the alignment of politicians, entrepreneurs and speculators … synonymous with neoliberal economic policy. Or perhaps it isn’t ironic – perhaps the fact that this current condition is labelled as one of “austerity” is by design. It allows for a righteous ring to be extrapolated from post-war austerity and associated with economic policies which are the opposite of those during post-war austerity. The use of “austerity” from the 2008 financial crisis onwards is designed to fool everyone by suggesting a salutary continuity with post-war austerity, whereas present-day austerity actually represents a determined drive to do away with what was achieved through post-war austerity.

When I say the misleadingly associative transfer of “austerity” from the post-war regime to the present-day regime happened by design I don’t mean politicians and financial pundits called a boardroom meeting and decided to make it happen -- at least not immediately in 2008. It happened in 2008 as a series of opportunistic linkages made by persons with an interest in courting the public eye. To take an example: consider popular historians. In 2007 historian David Kynaston’s voluminous Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 appeared to the general approval of reviewers. So, when it became apparent that cutbacks would follow the bank bailouts from 2008, Kynaston allowed himself to be called upon as an “austerity” guru and remind the public that this was no bad thing, quite the contrary, remember post-war austerity. He did his bit in a 2 November 2008 introduction for The Independent’s “The Austerity Issue: Don’t Panic”, sub-headed thus:

Amid the bewildering complexities of the global financial crisis, one simple fact stands out: the little we have left needs to go a lot further. Fear not! We'll show you how to endure the forthcoming recession with a bit of grit, some nous and the wise advice of our post-war forebears.

Similarly and also in 2007, broadcaster Andrew Marr had presented a BBC2 series A History of Modern Britain (the first part of which was devoted to post-war austerity), and published a book with the same title to go with it. He did his bit too as an “austerity” guru, in, for instance, a 24 December 2008 Daily Mail feature entitled “Austerity be damned! We're all cutting back, but ANDREW MARR says that's the reason to make this Christmas special”. As an expert he marked out a series of parallels between post-war austerity and present-day austerity:

No historical era can really be revisited. But having recently written A History Of Modern Britain -- and presented the TV series that accompanied it -- I've found it intriguing to spot the parallels between then and now.

In fact, in 2008 whoever could managed to get in on the act, making virtuous-sounding comparisons between austerity then and now, evoking a bit of war-time and post-war patriotism and backbone. Various public health aficionados, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, called for a return to wartime cooking. “Austerity”, with those post-war associations in mind, was reiterated variously in 2008 as still a good thing. As design guru Stephen Bayley was quoted observing in a 2 July 2008 Telegraph article:

“Recession could be healthy, interesting," he says. "Austerity is a good thing -- an inspiration, not an impediment to genius. It forces more expressiveness and more interesting choices. The tighter the discipline, the more creativity flourishes. I adore Norman Lewis's observation on encountering some Spanish village in the Alpujarras that beauty is best maintained under a reign of poverty. Now the same village would have an EU grant and they'd all have 4x4s and satellite dishes. Restraints - economic, philosophical or religious - tend to ensure beauty. When anything goes, nothing does."

These opportunistic links between post-war and present-day “austerity” in 2008 were embraced with neoliberal design by David Cameron in his speech of 26 April 2009 at the Conservative Party Conference, in the run-up to the 2010 elections. The famous announcement from the PM-in-waiting went as follows:

There are deep, dark clouds over our economy, our society, and our whole political system. Steering our country through this storm; reaching the sunshine on the far side cannot mean sticking to the same, wrong course. We need a complete change of direction. I’m not just talking about changing one group of Ministers for another. Or one set of policies, plans and proposals for another. I’m talking about a whole new, never-been-done-before approach to the way this country is run. Why? Because the world has completely changed. In this new world comes the reckoning for Labour’s economic incompetence. The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity.

[…]

First, the age of austerity demands responsible politics. Over the next few years, we will have to take some incredibly tough decisions on taxation, spending, borrowing – things that really affect people’s lives. Getting through those difficult decisions will mean sticking together as a country – government and people. That relationship, just as any other, is strengthened by honesty; undermined by dishonesty.

[…]

Does the age of austerity force us to abandon our ambitions? No. We are not here just to balance the books. There’s more to our mission than coming in like a bunch of flint-faced accountants and sorting out the finances.

[…]

The question is: how does government help achieve these wider aims in the age of austerity? And the answer is: by delivering more for less.

No kidding, an age of austerity was announced, not 3 or 4 years of post-war-like austerity but an age. And the reason was that the “world has completely changed” – but from when? It seemed to need no explanation Perhaps Cameron meant since those post-war austerity years. The biggest change was, possibly, that this time around a majority of British voters bought into an age of austerity without any experience of war to explain why they should – twice. The rest is, so to speak, history in the making.

It might pay to be attentive to what is meant when someone says “austerity”.

Suman Gupta, August 2015