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.