On Austerity

In the 1990s, when I first understood economics, austerity was a word that scared me. It represented a paradigm that I associated with the story of Zambia in the late 1980s. Zambia had one of the more functional public health systems in Africa in the late 70s and early 80s. It then became IMF’s test case for user fees in health care and the rest of the story is familiar one of user fees, loss of access and a systemic worsening of care in an already incredibly poor country. “Austerity” was [and is] in economics of a certain tune, not about economy class travel and eliminating excess photocopying. It was about tightening state expenditure, usually to pay off large scale debts. It was part of Structural Adjustment and the attack on “big” African government, part of the shock transitions of Eastern Europe.

In one of its shades, then, austerity is the slow dismantling of the welfare state. It is not the stance — as the UPA would have you believe — that one takes in some notion of deference to the reality of poverty, it is the cause of some of that poverty in the first place. Every time one government or any other calls for “austerity drives” of any kind, the shadow of this austerity still haunts them. The austerity that causes poverty is also rooted within these calls, though more quietly.

Let me explain. What does it mean to be austere? The word comes from a thirteenth century use of being “stern, harsh” to a later use in the 16th to imply unflinching self-discipline and then severe simplicity in the 19th. In the world wars, it became indelibly linked to rations and genuine conditions of shortage. [As an aside, even those memories seem to travel in other discourses today. Witness The Austerity Kitchen: “The Austerity Kitchen brings you the best in austere fare, past and present. From the watercress and black bread sandwiches that nourished Victorian working classes to the stews that succored the Greatest Generation, no bone goes unturned as we search for History’s best recipes from hard times.” And, of course, trust the Economist to think up of a market logic for “austerity chic.” See here].

In the end, it is that thirteenth century sense of austerity we seem to be hankering for. A sternness, a harshness, a self-discipline. Yet what does it mean to call for self-discipline? Why do so many call for it? The thirteenth century austerity was an exercise in self-development. What does it mean in 21st century India? There seems to be a commonsensical agreement that one should, in fact, be austere. That it is the right ethico-moral position for most, and especially for public servants. What is behind this “common sense”?

The elephant in the room is an old one. You speak of austerity because you don’t want to speak of what actually drives the desire for even a superficial performance of it: redistribution. David Harvey once wrote that John Rawls’ famous theory of justice was not just wrong but counter-revolutionary. It was a theory, he said, that made you believe that you could move towards just outcomes within a system that Harvey argued was premised on the continued creation and maintenance of scarcity and inequality. [The system, no prizes for guessing, starts with C and rhymes with “italism”]. Rawls, he argued, by offering a liberal theory of justice, gave you a way out to feel just even as injustice remained rampant and obvious around you and was continually recreated by the system with which you were tinkering.

But this is not about capitalism vs. socialism or any other. It is also not about the obvious point that talking about austerity with respect to poverty is like putting a band-aid on a tumour. It is about discourse and the construction of “common sense.” Talking about austerity to me becomes worthy of more than a passing snide snort at its apparent silliness [even idiocy seems to serious a word to describe the Twitter landscape of seat 14F] only because it is counter-revolutionary in precisely Harvey’s sense. It is not just that it is incorrect and misguided. It is that it claims discursive space. It prevents other conversations – on the nature of the production and reproduction of inequality; of how government and governance in this country re-create the same poverty they seek to show deference to through “austerity”; on how conversations on austerity centre only on the state and never the market; on how it is the poor that are most often [though never directly using the A-word] asked to be more austere, to not buy a TV while living in a basti, to make do with less and less, to economise, to avoid “wasteful” expenditure, and to be “responsible” spenders.

My point is simple: it is just as important to see how conversations are avoided as to see how conversations are made. Harvey’s sense of counter-revolutionary discourse is about the gentle management, especially within liberal democracies, of internal inconsistencies, inequalities and gaping systemic chasms. It is about the words and concepts we use to understand our own ethical selves as those who have and live amongst a vast majority who don’t. Austerity has many companions: Development, world-class cities, public private partnerships, slum upgrading, community participation, decentralisation, efficient service delivery. These are all conversations created as much to silence as to speak. They are conversations that leverage power and inequality, the quell dissent and revolution, that put balm on deeper wounds. They are the management of endlessly unfulfilled promises, of dreams eternally deferred.

Unearthing these silences must be part of any progressive thought that seeks to re-center and de-center dominant debates. The point is not to enter the debates but to critique them in Foucauldian sense of criticism: to expose the pipes and plumbing of an argument, to expose its inner workings to show its hidden assumptions, its internal wiring and all that it buries beneath the plaster of its walls and hides deep within its closets. It doesn’t matter just whether we think Tharoor should fly economy or business but what we are not talking about while we have that debate. Only then can we turn the the debate away from austerity to the actual question of redistribution. It is only then that we actually speak of, defer to, and respect the reality of poverty, inequality and vulnerability in India.

11 thoughts on “On Austerity”

  1. Excellent. But talking of pipes and plumbing, of internal wiring, let me bring in another angle. A couple of days ago, our favourite newspaper carried an editorial comment titled ‘Holy Cows’ (you know the reference to that, and cattle class etc). It was an agitated and panic stricken edit. And this is where, maybe, you might have stretched your argument a bit: For the panic or agitation was that the discourse of ‘austerity’ (precisely that, though the words used by the editorial are different) is sending out wrong signals; it is “assuming an anti-rich and anti-aspiration overtones”. This one phrase needs to be decoded at length. And the edit writer is quite clear that it is the prerogative of individual politicians to live simple and austere lives. No problem there. It is this discourse that is dangerous (again, not my word). In the 21st century, the C***** system can last only as long as people keep buying and not be austere. This thing that poor people should not buy TVs, is probably a remote memory of ancient times, Gautam! Today, companies would even have them buy cars on EMI, if they knew they could get the money out of them. Precisely the other side of the ‘austerity’ you decry – that of structural adjustment. It is austerity of government spending that is crucial – and no Shekhar Gupta will have any problem with that kind of austerity. What he fears (as do all cheerleaders of Capital) is that this should not become a discourse that produces any kind of common sense that starts affecting people who should simply consume.

  2. This is an interesting comment by Bhan and the response by A Nigam. However, my reaction to this “auterity” is somewhat contrary and less cynical to theirs. Gestures by political leadership have very important symbolic value though they may not matter in real terms. Second, the UPA government/congress has a significant section that belongs to the technocrats and neo-liberals/capitalists. But many of its policies show that this section is being challenged quite successfully by the liberal/politcal elements within the government/party. Thats what explains legislations like NREGA, NRHM, Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan and right to education bill and non-opposition to scrapping of article 377. Third, Manmohan Signh is an interesting individual full of contradictions. (that reflects the political complexeties of indian democracy). He is the one who bought in liberalisation of indian economy as a finance minister that led to large scale creation of what economists say wealth. With it it created a huge middle class that started flaunting money in the most crass manner. And the disparities class disparities grew. I think the political elements in the congress party like Sonia and now the new manmohan recognise the political danger to cong party from such materialism and crass-commercialisation. Austerity drive is i think part of a political statement that challenges the neo-liberal class of indian establishment. Sorry this is a very simplistic reaction on a blog that is highly radical and likes to challenge anything that it percievs as part of establsihement. But thats the fun of blogging and i welcome sites like kafila.

  3. dewaan, I certainly do not think that your comment is simplistic. It actually introduces an absolutely critical element that I would have liked to bring in, in a subsequent post myself. Partly as a response to Gautam but also as a counterpoint to what I have often felt uncomfortable about in thinking of ‘government’. This is about how the task of government is never simply reducible to class interests, or ‘capitalism’ or ‘neo-liberal capitalism’. Elsewhere (Power and Contestation India Since 1989, with Nivedita Menon) we have tried to deal precisely with the kind of political space that opens with the something like the present day Congress and the UPA – despite its neo-liberal commitments. In fact, in my response to Gautam, this is what I meant when I said that “it is austerity of government spending” that is always welcome. On re-reading my comment, it seems I should have made it clear that I meant not just any government spending but precisely govt spending on the social sector – and there the UPA/Congress despite Manmohan Singh and Co, might actually be going against the dominant logic of IMF-WB type of austerity.

  4. Dear Deewan and Aditya,
    Thanks for both of those comments. I agree with what both of you have to say, entirely. And Deewan, your point is not simplistic at all and I see clearly your argument about a political point being made by the UPA. Backed up Aditya’s very correct observation that the UPA [no matter what many think of it] is actually bucking the austerity of govt spending trend in some ways is true. Our social spending is higher than it has been in decades.

    I’ll say in response only that I think our points should all be read together. yes, austerity is a symbolic metaphor. Yes, it is the UPA trying to make a point. But i think that’s the only thing I’m trying to get at. we’re surrounded by so many metaphors — unpacking them and the need to unpack them, especially when they are used with “good intentions” [which, say some, line to road to hell]. Why is austerity a metaphor? For what? Why is it used instead of others?

    Aditya – I disagree on the TV in basti image. This was and is a constant refrain from policymakers, and basti residents themselves. Its true that the poor are simultaneously being pushed to spend but how their expenditure is read [“wasteful”, “irresponsible”] is still very much part of the story by which their rights claims are managed. If you see the current debate on cast transfers as development mechanisms, the whole crux of the silenced conversation there is about whether the poor can be “trusted” to do the “right” things with cash! the TV in basti example comes up every single time in these meetings.

    I think this is always my bent within political economy – that the big structures do clank along perhaps, but their lubrications are everyday words and political strategies. Big structures come unhinged at single joints just like little ones. The revolution is also a war of words.

    For a far easier version of this post, for example, just try re-writing it in your head about the metaphor of the “world-class city”. that one is simply more naked, but the principle holds.

    1. Dear Gautam,
      I’m going to try and keep this brief so please hear me out.
      1.It is disturbing that all the queer characters you see on television, whether it is Karan Johar’s Dostana, Bobby Darling, the guy from Jassi Jassi, Bigg Boss… they’re all a joke. They are walking punchlines. And it silently kills me that this is all most of India gets to see of gay people (assuming most of India is straight). It’s not a joke and every time someone makes fun and says “oh, I’m only joking” its saying that a relationship between a boy and another boy is not serious or genuine, like it is fake or less than that between a boy and a girl. We all know that bigotry doesn’t just reside in some random people who commit hate crimes, its every time they snigger at a flamboyant gesture. And these cats aren’t jailbirds but people you sit and eat lunch with at your workplace.
      I don’t know if Nigah or any other group deals with media but visibility matters. If people actually saw something else, they would feel differently about it. This is like the 90’s and what Lalu did with Bihar. He made the entire state a laughing stock; the Bobby Darlings are the resident Johnny Walkers.
      I’m going to write a (sincere but restraint) letter to Aamir Khan. In the event that said venture is not successful, will Nigah please try (I’m sure it is already) and start cutting deals with casting couches to get other kinds of homosexual people on screen.
      2.People turned up in the thousands to celebrate what happened this year, and it would be disheartening to say the least if one thought the entire parade was composed of queer people or that the recent Nigah festival only had gay people gather together. Sunil (Gupta) was introduced as just Sunil, and I get that he is part of the movement for a long time, but with this familiarity, it immediately excludes everyone else. I don’t propose that people feign complete ignorance of each other at events but I suspect that this community has started to pit itself against the straights. For example, some time back my best friend went to an art summit that gathered around LGBT issues, and when she wanted to ask a question, she was told in so many words by a leading figure in the Art/Queer world (it’s a cesspool at this point) that she is not gay, so she does not have a say in the matter. I know other people who feel the same, I do too and it is not individual acts of snubbing as much as a tacit ethos that goes something like “the straights shunned us for so long, now we will banish them from our kingdom”.
      I understand that there is anxiety about turning hetro-normative, and completely loosing yourself in the mainstream or whatever and we all take what the past has made of us, minority status is a way of staking your place in the world, banding a community together…blah blah…we’ve read Jeffrey Weeks… I know that gay rights are not about straight people we now need to reach out to others. I see the same faces again and again at these fests but there is a large section of straight people who are with you in this movement.
      Our mother dragged my sister and I to the fest this time and you were really really fantastic. She said you were as good as Jerry Seinfeld. *insert BIG Smiley here*
      Also, great writing on urban landscape; was working on postcards of Delhi from 19th century and generously lifted ideas-so thanks.
      There is a lot of great writing on memory and landscapes.

  5. At one time soon after independence India used to be described as a poor country with teeming millions in poverty and its politicians were also considered poor and deprived- compared to the developed world leaders.
    In due course politics became the prominent method of gaining material wealth and the wise ones became leaders and in the process multiplied their family wealth and also legitimized it. Now they realize that a great part of the population still remains poor and in conditions worse off than when they gained independence. And these people happen to form a substantial vote bank and with modern methods of awareness and education their (the political class) lavish lifestyles may get exposed – thus they would no longer get any votes from the poor.Hence to disguise activities and ensure that not too many are attracted to this lucrative business they have adapted this austerity sham that has no meaning. Because if there are expensive club class seats going vacant and yet if politicians travel by economy class then they are creating a loss to the airlines by occupying economy class seats which could have been taken up by someone less fortunate.

  6. Great piece, Gautam. A few thoughts.

    Austerity redux has an important place in our political aesthetic.Rahul Gandhi’s chair car journey on the Shatabdi and SM Krishna’s 25 hour commercial flights to Central Asia use discursive space that would otherwise be devoted to minute updates of the Sensex, Housing Sector Shining again (today’s HT) or indeed, Anoushka Shankar’s blackmailer.

    In part, the UPA’s very public abstinence drive seeks to preempt popular resentment that may stem from a bad monsoon, and increasing poverty and inequality. But these seemingly superficial stands are signal events; because they mark a return to aesthetic choices that were markers of the political class until the late 1980s. Post liberalisation such notions were more often scoffed at, as the ante-deluvian values of our mixed economy.

    The value of these choices today are (at least) twofold: First, a public pledge to the abstinence aesthetic by politicians reinforces and reminds people of the far deeper structural changes our polity requires. The failure of the ‘India Shining’ campaign has left some learning. Second, as the LSE’s ‘happiness’ economist Richard Layard found, “To be precise, if my income increases, the loss of happiness to everybody else is about 30% of the gain in happiness to me.” It’s an idea that has gained enough traction for both the UK’s major political parties to take it up, perhaps because the UK’s Gini coefficient of 36 is surpringly closes to India’s levels of income inequality – a Gini coefficient of 36.8.

    Deep wounds need deep healing, but balm soothes the immediate pain.

  7. Dear Karuna,

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. Herein lies the crux though. You say:
    “But these seemingly superficial stands are signal events; because they mark a return to aesthetic choices that were markers of the political class until the late 1980s.”

    Do they [mark a return]? and were they [the markers of a political class]?

    I have no answer to this — the question is asked genuinely. So here is some thinking out loud that I’d love to hear thoughts on: There is a nostalgia that in these times of conspicious consumption seems to be to be heightened. The narrative of this nostalgia is of the austere socialism and respectable consumption of the mixed economy, the relevant “olden days” in this case.

    Can we hanker to that austerity? rather, should we? It marked a time when [for some] respectability on a budget was possible. [a caveat: I’m talking entirely about middle classes and up here because to me the austerity debate is, at this point, about them]. Ambition and wealth were cordoned off, but so was the one thing that today one is not just allowed but encourage to take: risk.

    It is the fact that risk is an everyday reality celebrated in the new economy that makes the austerity debate to me not a signal event but simple another kind of management. Because austerity cannot really function as a meaningful metaphor of any change at a time of risk. You cannot ask austerity of people after having already created a system where they have loans and not savings, stocks and not fixed deposits, and brands rather than goods. you cannot ask austerity of government after having leveraged out public services [that actually allow people to live with dignity on a budget] to the market.

    Mr Wagle of Wagle ki Duniya never had a risk portfolio. For him, being middle class meant, to quote Mukul Kesavan from my morning auto’s reading material, “a small house or flat with electricity, enough food to eat and an ironed shirt.”

    The flip side of this, of course, was that this was enough to be respectable. My point isnt to compare whether conspicuous consumption is better or worse than constrained consumption, my point is that austerity has to have a meaning that is relevant for a particular moment and particular political economy. The UPA’s austerity drive is, to me, not the signal event it needs.

    This doesn’t also mean that it doesn’t have value. I think, perhaps, what we can use it for is to think about what “respectability on a budget” can mean today and how possibly to realise it. To make it into a signal event.

  8. Dear Gautam and Nandy,
    Interesting comments! I would like to add something that may not be directly be connected with the austerity. That is the issue of middle classes and jingoism/obsession and consensus with security. The congress party/UP and even the Left seems to have a consensus that there should be no compromise on national security and terrorism. Its all very well for rahul/sonia gandhi and their party propagate that simple living, giving up personal security (chidambram) but they will dare not raise the issue of cutting defence budget and personnel and reallocating that money for more productive purposes like education and health. I think this consensus and obsession with security is something which should be bought in with the debate on austerity.

  9. Dear Seher,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with much of what you’re saying and the cautionary notes are well sounded. A couple of things though: I think that Nigah and other queer spaces in Delhi, at least, have fought for a long time to be queer and not gay precisely in the sense that you are saying: that we were never about just a collective of technically homosexual people but were talking about sexuality. Our spaces are meant to be open to all, as is the idea of queer politics, regardless of their sexual preference at any moment of time.

    this is partly because the fear of normalisation is not a fear of heterosexuality, but of heteronormativity. Those are two very different things – the reason [i believe] many ‘straight’people have stood by us ‘gay’people in mvoements and marches is because sexuality is an issue for all us. The ideal, mythical family of composed of a couple with the same caste, class, religious and ethnic backgrounds excludes just as many straight people as it does gay people. A dalit-brahmin heterosexual couple is as queer as two men in that many parts of our society will try and penalise this couple, and think them unnatural, wrong, and morally perverted.

    so, in short, we all must keep trying to push the bounds of normative sexuality as people with multiple sexualities, not just as gay and/or straight people.

    There are many slips, and the introduction of Sunil casually is one, and that, you’re right, must not be done.


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