A Brief History of Austerity

[This article originally appeared in The London Economic]

Austerity comes from the Ancient Greek austeros meaning harshness, sourness or bitterness. It roughly translates as “to singe the tongue”. From this idea of discomfort, an austere person came to mean a stern person, someone who treated others harshly. One of the slaves in the Bible for example, says to his master “I feared thee, because thou art an austere man”.

Around the time Christians started to denounce the world (“do not love the world nor the things in the world“) austerity took on a more ascetic meaning, referring to a lifestyle of avoiding sinful horrors like wine, music, and intimacy with other people. In the extreme case of the Cathars, spiritual austerity formed the basis of a suicide cult where disciples purified themselves through starvation.

Until very recently, austerity referred to an amalgamation of these meanings. Many of our grandparents (and parents) for example, lived through the austerity of World War II. Their austerity was strict rationing and stern discipline in the face of the Blitzkrieg bombing campaign. To understand how austerity went from being a necessity of war, to a political response to economics, we need to start with the events of the 70s.

In 1973 the price of oil quadrupled. This was disastrous for poorer countries, whose economies were built on exporting raw materials to wealthier countries. Expensive oil affected consumption in these wealthy countries, which meant reduced demand for poorer countries’ materials.

With these exports falling and the costs of imports ballooning with the new price of oil, these countries (predominantly African but also South Asia, Latin American and Caribbean) inescapably ran up national deficits.

Hazardously in debt, these countries turned to the world’s financial institutions for help, and these institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) responded by offering loans accompanied by strict, harsh, stern conditions. These conditions were called Structural Adjustment Programmes and demanded the following:

  • financial deregulation
  • the removal of food subsidies (including basic food subsidies)
  • the removal of protective import controls and other “trade barriers”
  • the introduction of fees-for-service in education and healthcare
  • currency devaluation
  • the privatisation of state enterprises such as hospitals, schools, public transport, electricity, power stations, water supply, sanitation and other essential infrastructure.

Flying in the face of national sovereignty, these poverty-inducing demands were politely referred to as austerity measures.

The message was clear then, and is clear now – shrink the state and maximise the market. This type of thinking (see also Thatcherism, Reaganomics, the Chicago Boys) has its intellectual origins in people like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, and is commonly referred to as neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is perhaps the most extreme form of capitalism every realised, only a few philosophical steps away from anarcho-capitalism (wherein courts and the legal system would ideally be privatised). Because it is an ideology, nobody is sure exactly how shrunken the ideal neoliberal state would be. Increasingly a relic of its 19-20th century stateliness, there is the prospect that followed to its logical conclusion, neoliberalism will leave us with some form of privatised feudalism.

Perhaps this brings us full circle. Our privatised future will happily accommodate austere slave masters and suicide cults and food rationing. And once the state has fully collapsed, George Osborne will do that thing when he’s pleased and he tried to smile.

These times of austerity will be over. Welcome to the Age of Austerity.


Image: mgrarethm / Flickr


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