Academic journal article New Formations

What Is Austerity?

Academic journal article New Formations

What Is Austerity?

Article excerpt

Jeremy: How do we defi ne 'austerity'? Is there an economic defi nition or is it a purely political concept? Or is it a socio-cultural category? What do you think, from an economist's point of view?

James: In practice it's political. There's a hard and fast rule by which to defi ne recession - a formula: a recession starts when there's been two consecutive quarters of negative growth. But there isn't anything similar for austerity - so it's a political category rather than an economic one. And the politics of it is particularly important in the UK.

Over the last few years we have had austerity - defi ned not so much by the government, because I think, especially initially, they didn't use the word - but by others. When the Coalition Government was created in 2010, very dramatic and severe spending cuts were forecast, but even then the word 'austerity' was not used by advocates of the cuts. Then after a few years of missing dramatic targets for spending cuts, for a number of different reasons, the government eased up on cuts entirely. For the year running up to the general election there were actually no spending cuts applied at all.

The politics and rhetoric of this process matters a great deal, because for some time we actually had less austerity than we were told we were going to get; and then in 2014-15, in the year running up to the election, there were twelve months of really no new austerity at all. All the while the entire rhetoric was stating that austerity was continuing, that the government was still implementing cuts, this is all going ahead - which completely disabled the Labour opposition at that point.

Labour were saying a number of different things that didn't work out: 'this is just going to trash the economy' and 'we're going to oppose the spending cuts' and 'this is going to lead to everybody having falling living standards', etc. None of these things quite occurred as predicted. So the whole message was confused. They were gamed by Chancellor [fi nance minister] George Osborne, who has his hand on the main lever, after all. If you're the government of an independent country like this, you can determine how much you spend or don't spend, how much you tax or don't tax at any point in time; so they did, and they completely gamed the Labour opposition over that period. So the politics of 'austerity' and the defi nition of it really matter here, because the story counts for more than what you actually do.

Rebecca: We could try to answer the question by thinking about how austerity is defi ned by the groups that have come to oppose it. So within the various strands of anti-austerity politics, how has austerity been understood? There are some signifi cantly different ideas in circulation. A group like UK Uncut has a particular implicit conception of what austerity is; anti-austerity movements across Europe have arguably differing conceptions of it. Sometimes it is about being against the political structures that are imposing austerity - the EU, the Troika. Sometimes it's about cuts to public services or privatization. In the case of the most prominent UK Uncut campaigns, there has been a focus on the relationship between corporate tax avoidance and cuts in public spending. Arguably, this actually isn't an anti-austerity position at all. It doesn't challenge the idea that you need to deal with the defi cit; rather it's about pointing to an alternative way of eliminating it. So within these different movements, distinctive conceptions of what activists need to challenge and to work against produce very fl uid meanings of austerity.

James: There is some consistency to what the term means though. Basically what everyone means by 'austerity' is quite severe spending cuts of one sort or another. At the UK general election in May 2015, the three main political parties - Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives - took differing approaches to the question of how to balance spending cuts and tax rises. …

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