Austerity as a failed experiment

Austerity is a failed experiment, it is an elite narrative that informs a set of policies whose outcomes are not yet fully known - they are contingent, contested and uncertain.

Johnna Montgomerie
19 May 2016

Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.

As we approach a decade since the 2008 financial crisis now is the time to critically evaluate its political, economic and social consequences. From this distance we can recognise the scale and scope of the financial crisis and how it fostered a much deeper political and economic crisis in the UK that is mirrored across Europe. From this vantage point we can recognise the Austerity agenda emerging in the wake of the crisis and conceptualised in different ways: as political ideology, as coherent narrative and political strategy as well as a policy programme with clear objectives and recognizable outcomes. There is no consensus on whether the UK ever recovered from the crisis; less still that the UK economy is capable of recovering on its current trajectory. Strong political support for financialised growth ensured a failed response to the crisis, which consequently resulted in the UK economy taking longer to recover from 2008 financial crisis than from the 1929 Great Depression. Public policy commitments to Austerity compound economic fragility by advocating the simultaneous deleveraging (paying down debts) of both the public and private sectors. Austerity-led recovery is elusive, forecast in the medium-term but always revised down.

This series seeks to expose the ‘hidden’ costs of Austerity-led recovery and this article contributes to this by articulating why and how Austerity is a failed experiment. This begins with acknowledging the well-established weakness of the dominant economic framework used by political elites, policy-makers, and media commentators to evaluate the relative success of the UK economy. Feminist political economy offers a methodology for unpacking how macroeconomic inequalities are made and re-made through the social foundations of the economy allowing us to ‘see’ the hidden costs of recovery. As contemporary economics begins to acknowledge the unequal relationships that sustain market failure, feminist political economy already conceptually captures the different scales of economic activity at the household, but also the community, level which provides an important advantage when seeking to make definitive claims about an on-going economic experiment.

What is revealed is a deeply political, yet ultimately incoherent, process of the state attempting to remake society in order to solve financial market failure. This article puts forward the overarching interpretive frame of Austerity as an elite narrative of the post-crash UK economy, in order to make visible its explicit failures. Using a feminist political economy analytical lens allow us to see how austerity fails to impose a reproductive fix for the productivity gap created by unfettered financialised expansion.

Unpacking both the idea and practice of Austerity walks a very tight analytical rope because the outcomes are still unfolding. Seen through different frames Austerity appears as a coherent object of analysis either as a powerful political narrative or a set of policy objectives. Standard political economic frames assess Austerity either by ascertaining if policy objectives are, or could be, achieved, or by analysing its uneven distributional outcomes. Cultural political economy frames focus the ideological power of Austerity to shape political and societal understandings of economic crisis requiring collective sacrifice. Digging deeper into the political communication strategy of the ‘Austerity Story’ we can observe a clear narrative frame that articulates a coherent version of the post-crash economy: (a) the UK’s huge public sector debt was caused by the previous Labour government’s reckless overspending and now the nation is broke; (b) cuts to government expenditure are needed to restore fiscal credibility, to secure financial market confidence and bring back balanced economic growth; (c) welfare reform will eliminate the ‘skivers’ that continue to live off state benefits paid for by taxes of the ‘strivers’ who work hard for their families. This form of political ‘messaging’ is successful precisely because: “[I]t is consistent, memorable, uses vivid images and emotional metaphors, and is simple enough to be understood and retold” (nef 2016).

The power of political story telling is not just what is told, but also what is strategically not told: the ‘cause’ of huge public sector debt inherited by labour – the financial market crash; and, who ‘pays’ the direct and indirect costs of the financial sector bailout. Since 2010 the Austerity story has been an on-going political communication strategy supporting a national policy agenda; it successfully made sense of the post-crash economy to advanced profound reordering of state provisioning for society. What is untold in this story is that public support for the financial services sector is on-going since 2008 and this is, arguably, the underlying cause of on-going macroeconomic fragility.

However, one striking fact disrupts our understanding of Austerity as a coherent object of analysis: during the 2015 election debate the most googled search was ‘What is Austerity?’. It is important we consider the implications to academic analysis of that fact that ‘Austerity’ is a word that many politically engaged people do not understand. Austerity, as idea, ideology, policy, cultural ethos and basically the business of politics since 2010 is not easily understood by engaged citizens while being common parlance within political, economic, media and academic networks. This suggests academic research into Austerity gives it more coherence than exists in everyday practice. Therefore, it is more accurate to suggest Austerity is an articulation of the elite’s vision for the post-crash UK economy; not a widely held political belief or understanding of a policy platform. In other words, the power of Austerity is not simply to impose a political agenda, rather its power is to forge common-sense metaphors that communicate political ideas that inform ‘meaning-making’ in everyday life. Of course understanding the effects of Austerity is made difficult by the practical problem of figuring out how to assess the outcomes of a political narrative when it's being enacted in real-time policy practice. To do this we must overcome the bias to coherence created by assuming policy outcomes are certain and, instead, conceptually frame Austerity as an ‘experiment’. Austerity is an elite narrative that informs a set of policies whose outcomes are not yet fully known - they are contingent, contested and uncertain.

Evaluating Austerity as an experiment makes visible the hidden socio-economic dynamics that constrain and resist what is assumed to be the UK government’s coherent politics of fiscal consolidation in the wake of the global financial crisis. As Pearson and Elson emphasise economic growth does not automatically translate into a distribution of that wealth, despite government assertions to the contrary: recovery for some is not recovery for all. Widespread recognition of the problems caused by deepening inequality, whether it is in terms of income or wealth are intensely gendered which makes it part of deeper social and structural inequalities: this is precisely why Austerity is experienced unequally across society. Feminist analysis of Austerity show empirically how women disproportionately bear the cost of economic crisis. Moreover, this frame makes visible how Austerity renews a form of Victorian values that rearticulates values of the private household or ‘home’ in order to directly target state provisioning for social reproduction for cuts and reform measures. In particular, Austerity politically exploits the unpaid reproductive labour – carried out overwhelmingly by low-income women – by downloading reduced access to welfare services and falls in income onto households and, by extension, communities. This has affected many people’s ability to reproduce their livelihoods and meet their needs, thus deepening an already existing crisis of social reproduction.

It is the feminist political economy lens of social reproduction, in other words the work of producing labour power and sustaining life, that makes visible the different spheres, scales or places where this work occurs – e.g. the home, the school, the community – by understanding them as activities and relationships not established categories capable of easy abstraction. Social reproductive activities, whether acknowledged in national accounts or remunerated as paid labour, constitute work that is of value in economic terms because of its necessity as the social foundations of any macroeconomic economy. This is important because the household has long been a blind-spot in economics as well as political economy because it is treated as a ‘black-box’. In practical terms this means the household is treated as either a singular entity or undifferentiated unit of analysis that leads to well-known problems of aggregation and functional equivalency. The former refers to an inability to move from methodologically individualist notions of rationality or behavioural preferences to the level or scale of the household; the latter, to how macroeconomics conceives the household as a simple ‘pass-through’ mechanism for flows of goods and services in the national economy. Addressing these long-standing issues of how to account for the household drives reform of traditional national accounts measures to include new concepts like ‘well-being’. For feminist political economy, developing a household-level analysis corrects current economic frames that do not account for the collective management of economic resources, the consumptive dynamics of household, the unpaid labour in the home, volunteering in the community, or any of the care work required to reproduce the economy and society. Understanding this helps to explain the process that allow the intensification of inequality causing stagnant macroeconomic growth by actually engaging with the economic activities that take place at the scale of the community or the household as the ‘unseen’ foundations of what is typically framed as the national economy.

Framing Austerity as an experiment offers an important analytical counter-weight to the standard political economy framing of the post-crash period using established macroeconomic categories to interpret the relative success or failure of general policy platform. Focusing on the ‘big end of town’ assumes a level of coherence to elite policy making that unwittingly ignores Austerity’s incoherence in the ‘small end of town’. Creating an analytical space for the everyday to analyse the political economy of Austerity requires using a gender lens to observe the unequal distribution of costs and benefits of enacted policies but also the confused, contingent and contested ways in which Austerity is not enacted. Evaluating Austerity as a political experiment created in response to the observable failing of financialised expansion allows us to account for how its policies fail in clear ways which, in turn, shape how Austerity is politically articulated and communicated by elites. Using established gendered methodology of feminist political economy provides the means to seeing what is hidden and telling the untold story of the failures of the Austerity experiment.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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