Austerity American Style Part 17- An American Invention

image: austerity

How Austerity Ripped the World Apart
How the Worst Idea America Ever Had Came to Rule the World

By Umair Haque
December 8, 2018

There’s a force that’s ripping the world apart. Slashing through democracy, the future, and society. Reducing the planet to a smoking, melted wreck. Around the globe, people are revolting against it. In Paris, anger against this force has united the left and right into the gilets jaunes - at least for the moment. Perhaps that revolt will go the way of the British one, Brexit - and descend into paranoia, hubris, and self-destruction - only time will tell.

The force that’s ripping the world apart is austerity. But austerity - a term we use all too casually - deserves to be thought about a little more deeply, which I want to do in this essay. Austerity is an American invention - and funnily, strangely, sadly, today, the world is becoming Americanized because it chose austerity, when it should have chosen precisely the opposite - investment, support, nurturance, care. Britain, Europe, and even Canada - all these societies are now beginning to experience precisely all the same problems as America, hostility between neighbours, enmity to historic allies, extremism, folly, despair, rage, stupidity, superstition, selfishness, greed, violence - all the predictable, catastrophic effects of austerity. When you choose what made America collapse - where should you expect to end up but collapsing like America?

Austerity simply means a lack of investment by societies in themselves, in people, in public goods. Things like healthcare, education, transport, energy, retirement, decent jobs, incomes, savings. The problem is that all those things are what underpin the stability of societies, by ensuring that prosperity is something that is realized by all - not just something greedily seized by a tiny few. But Ill come back to all that. It’s obvious to say that this age of austerity is in a superficial way the result of bank bailouts, which foolish governments though left countries bankrupt (they didn’t). But that is only the beginning of the untold story of austerity.

We don’t often think about it, but Austerity is an American invention. So much so that Americans have never really experienced anything but austerity. America has never invested in itself as a society - building robust public goods, like a national healthcare system, transport network, retirement system, safety nets, and so on. From the time of Jefferson to Reagan to Obama, America has been a society in which people have been told to compete viciously against one another - instead of simply providing each other the things they are competing for, healthcare, retirement, income, jobs, and so forth. Compete with each other! Never invest in each other! That is the rule by which America has always been governed. The results, today, are plain to see: they have been catastrophic. The average American lives a shorter, poorer, meaner, dumber life than anywhere else in the rich world, beset by gruesome and bizarre dilemmas, like his life savings, or his life, when hes ill. Basic medicines like insulin cost up to a thousand times what they do in other societies - - while Americans are forced to watch their kids be massacred at school. All those are effects of a society of competition for the things people should cooperate to freely provide one another. Yet because Americans have never experienced anything but that, which is to say they have been brainwashed into believing austerity is the only way life and society can ever be - they are left unable to conceive of a way out of their own ongoing collapse.

Now, austerity was invented by America as a result of its toxic, terrible legacy of slavery and segregation. Americans do not want to admit it - the truth is too much to bear - but America was an apartheid state until 1971. The problem is that an apartheid state cannot invest in itself - what reason does it have to build healthcare systems for all? Instead, it invests in useless things, which genuinely improves nobody’s life - secret polices, barriers, walls, mechanisms of repression and separation. So because America was born in slavery, it evolved into austerity - which simply means that it could never really invest in itself. Trumpism was the ultimate expression of that legacy - kick those filthy subhumans out!! I will never invest a penny in their healthcare, stability, retirement, or rights! They are not even people!! But then you will never have much of your own, either. Bang! That way lies social collapse. At root, austerity is Social Darwinism by any other name - which is also exactly the mentality of a slave owner. But a society is made of people - and a democracy is made of free and equal ones. When it turns into a bitter battle of predators and prey - it collapses.

Now, the wrinkle in the story is this. The world should have understood all this ח and rejected Americas worst idea in disgust and repulsion. But it didnҒt. In fact, it embraced it. Somehow, austerity came to be embraced even by European social democrats. Even by the British Labour party. In fact, at this juncture, the only society which really rejects austerity is China  and while we might object to political aspects of Chinese growth, the fact is that investing heavily in society has led it to become a major force in the world today. But I digress.

Why was austerity embraced even by European and British social democrats - who should have been its most natural and fierce opponents? The answer to that lies in the ideology behind austerity, which is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism essentially says that nothing - nothing -in a society should be a truly public good. Everything = every single thing in a society, from jails to schools to libraries to parks to power plants - should be privately owned, and run for maximum profit.

Now, a concerned reader might ask: what kind of an illiterate fool would think that? The answer is: American economics makes it sound very smart and intelligent to answer every concern possible about life, society, and being with just that, even if - as now - the planet is melting down. It is built on three crucial assumptions. First, that “markets will regulate themselves."Second, that “social investment, governments, can never do anything good or positive” for anyone, period. Third, that “people are atoms of desire, balls of raw appetite, who should only ever be purely, aggressively, one-dimensionally self-interested.”

(Now, the interesting question is: are these assumptions true? The answer is that they are not. We don’t have to look much further than the history of the 20th century, because its three great lessons - learned after World War II  are precisely the opposite of these three foolish American ideas. Market do not regulate themselves ח that is how the Great Depression came to be. Governments are the only actors who can provide the things that markets cannot, and those things are what raise peoples living standards the most җ like healthcare, transport, retirement, safety nets. People are not just little balls of insatiable greed - they are human beings, who desire decent lives, resonant in meaning, purpose, belonging, justice, fairness, truth, stability, freedom. If societies don’t step in to provide those things, which markets never have and never will, then the result will be rising extremism and fanaticism. People will turn away from democracy, and towards authoritarianism and fascism, just as they did in the 1930s. The result will be social implosion = and America, ironically enough, is the example which proves the folly of its very own thinking.)

And yet American economics wasn’t interested - in the slightest - in thinking about all the above. It simply ignored the great lessons of the 20th century, out of hubris, arrogance, and more than a little exceptionalism. It didn’t even bother studying its own collapse. If we think about it, in fact, American economics was simply restating America’s grim and foolish history - this time as answers to every single issue of socioeconomy - as a proud model to follow for the world. The three assumptions above, after all - markets are perfect! governments are the worst! hands off my property!! more of my own property is the only thing i care about!! - are nothing other than the logic of a plantation-owner, of a slave-master. They cannot be the logic of a person who considers themselves a free and equal citizen of a democracy, if you think about it.

So American economics presented the world a pure distillation of Americas epic mistakes, a windowinto the mind of a society founded on slavery and hatred and subjugation, not freedom and justice and equality - and told the world it was the way to prosperity. The world was dumb, naive, gullible enough to swallow it. Much of it, anyways. LOL. How come no one thought this through?

This bizarre and foolish illogic, which would come to be known as neoliberalism, an eerie restatement of Americas history of slavery and segregation, came to rule the world. A whole generation of European social democrats, in particular, came to be its defenders and champions 0 ironically, weirdly, strangely. How? Why? The answer is probably that by this point neoliberalism was something like a full blown ideology. It was easy to believe childish fairy tales like Facebook would replace democracy and apps would become a nations healthcare system. Easier, at any rate, than actually thinking about the world. Europe’s social democrats remained so only in name, to a large degree - in truth, many were ardent neoliberals, who glorified, lionized, and admired America, never having visited its ruined towns, its wrecked cities, its abandoned villages, never having seen its destroyed lives and shattered future. A comforting fable is always more seductive than a difficult truth.

What do you suppose the effect of believing in the ideology that America created - which brought it to its knees, had caused America to never become a modern society, to end up collapsing before it modernised - might be in the rest of the world? Pretty obvious, no? It would probably make you end up like that, too. Believing American logic would lead to you ending up just like America.

And that is precisely what we see, for example, the world over. In Europe and Britain and Canada - thanks to the disastrous mistake of choosing austerity over investment, these societies are now wracked by the same maladies that ripped through America, imploding it from within in just a few decades. Inequality, and the frustration and resentment it breeds. Rising poverty, rising insecurity, rising injustice. A lack of decent jobs, immobility, inopportunity. The concentration of power and profit amongst the most predatory. A massive failure of social contracts. Mistrust and hostility and a loss of faith in the future. A sense of fury and disgust at it all. Middle class stagnation, and working class fury. The rich, who’ve become ultra-rich, laughing at it all, and profiting all the more, as societies turn to extremists for hope, where there is none to be found in the establishment - because it goes on proposing different flavours of austerity.

These societies are - to different degrees - on the verge, or at least the path, of becoming mini Americas. They are ending up in exactly the same place as America, on the same path now: torn apart by extremism, stupidity, greed, despair, folly, selfishness. Those are precisely all the things which many American institutions, like its political parties, its thinktanks, its famous intellectuals and pundits, still cherish and prize. But they are false beliefs - mistakes. They are the toxic residue of the age-old philosophy of cruelty and supremacy which has always defined America. Austerity is Social Darwinism by any other name, And the problem is that this century must be built on something nobler, truer, and wiser than cruelty for supremacy’s sake. Do you really want to end up like America? That is the question no one has really asked Brits, Europeans and Canadians. But it is exactly where austerity leads.

(In Britain, for example, it was places hardest hit by austerity that voted most for Brexit. That is precisely the pattern of American collapse - and it is spreading to Europe, too, where, for example, in Italy and Germany, we see precisely the same dynamics playing out. We see it beginning in Canada, too - in Ontario and Quebec both.)

Austerity doesn’t solve a single problem that a society has ever had. Inequality, a lack of opportunity, decline, a shrinking middle, crime, the decay of the rule of law, corruption - name a single social problem that a society can ever have, and you will soon see: austerity is a fiction in the sense that it has never, and can never, solve any of these problems. In fact, the greatest lesson of history is exactly the opposite of austerity. Progress in the world did not come to be at all until people began to invest in each other, in their own educations, health, longevity, intelligence, in things like universities, labs, hospitals, parks, roads, town squares. Instead of timidly handing their labour, their money, time, and energy, over to their masters, whether they were called lords, kings, tyrants, emperors, or capitalists.

For exactly that reason - because it cannot solve a single social problem that has ever existed - quite naturally, austerity doesn’t solve any of the great problems the world has today. Inequality, mistrust, stagnation, climate change - these are the big four problems of the 21st century. But austerity makes each one not just worse - but in fact impossible to solve, because the only way to solve these problems is through intense, broad, enduring social investment. Whether in clean energy, or in green management, or in better healthcare and retirement systems, or the jobs that doing all that would bring.

And so austerity is ripping the world apart. It ripped Britain from its friends and partners. It ripped social democracy from the EU. It tore through an age of stability and prosperity. It is tearing ally from ally, neighbour from neighbour, country from country, society from society, union from union. That is because it is making it impossible to solve real problems - and so those real problems have all gotten worse, since that is austerity’s true effect. As those problems get worse, people regress to their primal selves, huddling together in tribes, uttering superstitions, cursing their neighbours, bowing before totems, seeking safety from the very flood that they were told would water their gardens. What else can they do?

Hence, thanks to austerity, the world is turning American now. Britain and Europe and even Canada are beginning to be wracked by just the same problems as America җ division, hostility, outrage, extremism, inequality, rage, hopelessness, authoritarianism, stupidity, the self-destructive behaviour that arises when people become martyrs out of frustration with a broken social contract. Many poorer countries are already on the way to following their lead.

But ending up ruined, just like America, is just the perfectly logical effect of choosing the same astonishingly ignorant ideology that ruined America to run your own society, too. Neoliberalism is literally ignorant of historys greatest lesson. It thinks prosperity comes from austerity җ when in fact, the only lever of human prosperity in the long run has ever  ever, what turned feudalism into freedom ח been people investing in one another. That shattering level of ignorance caused America to never become a modern society, to end up collapsing before it modernised  but now it is causing the world to follow Americaגs lead now, too.

And so the question for the world these days is: can it understand even an inkling of the above? Nobody should end up like America. Not even Americans deserve to be in the terrible, bizarre, tragic situation they are in, really. But they have yet to fully reject the philosophies of supremacy and violence hidden prettily inside the neoliberal dream - and that is why America goes right on collapsing.

The more societies that become Americanized - the more unstable, dangerous, and self-destructive this century will become. Can you imagine a world full of little Americas? A world full of Americas? It would never solve climate change. It would cheer while the planet melted down. It would never solve inequality - it would simply abandon people to die. It would never go anywhere but right back into the dark ages. If you just shuddered - now you understand the stakes.