A brief history of austerity

December 14, 2014 2 Comments


John Naughton observed the other day that neoliberal economists and their current weapon, austerity, have gained an unassailable intellectual hegemony. To claim that austerity is self-defeating and should be stopped is to be regarded as either foolish or mad.

Ed Miliband, leader of a political party that was established – absurd idea! – to represent ordinary working people in Parliament, is as enslaved as anyone to the dominant idea. His recent speech confirming his adherence to the austerity ideology send the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle into ecstasies of delight. Kettle reckons the speech will restore Labour’s electoral fortunes. It seems equally likely that it will send them into terminal decline. Kettle fails to explain why people already under serious pressure should vote for yet more of it.

How did we reach this point? Why are we in such thrall to austerity? For that matter, what is austerity, and what are its roots?

‘Austere’ is a word derived via the French from Latin, and before that Greek. The root Greek word is a verb meaning ‘to dry’ and the idea seems to be the unpleasant taste of dryness on the tongue. Already, though, the word carried human and moral connotations, of plainness and severity. The people who personified those qualities in antiquity were the Spartans, who, for reasons that still puzzle historians, seem to have deliberately obliterated their early, artistically rich culture in favour of a harsh and brutal regime aimed at a single goal, military excellence. Their ultimate austerity ideal was death in battle: mothers were said to tell their departing sons to come back either with their shield, or on it.

Steve Bell cartoon, 28.06.2012

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the English word ‘austere’ first appears in the fourteenth century, already laden with its behavioural sense. The Wycliffe Bible has the sentence in Luke, ‘I dredde thee, for thou art an austerne’ – a common reaction today when George Osborne makes an appearance on television. Here and in most of the early examples the connotation is negative, but later a more complimentary meaning attached to the word, especially after puritan and anti-catholic feelings took hold. Now austerity suggested simplicity of style or character, a freedom from irreligious luxury and extravagance. The historian Thomas Macaulay could afford to look back and pillory the puritans: ‘To these austere fanatics a holiday was an object of positive disgust’. Taken to extremes austere practices could be used to inflict pain on the self: Jeremy Taylor talks in 1649 of ‘those austerities which Baals Priests did use … an ignorant faction that went up and down villages whipping themselves’. This is the kind of behaviour that no doubt inspired the cartoonist Steve Bell to depict Osborne as a black leather-clad sado-masochist.

Simon Stylites

All religions have had their austere wings. They’re usually labelled ‘ascetic’, and often take the form of allegedly purer, more authentic versions of churches that have been led astray from the true path by corruption or self-indulgence. The Christian hermits of the Near East went to great lengths to punish themselves in the cause of purity and abstinence, choosing to live in desert caves in Egypt like St Anthony, or even standing alone on the top of pillars, like Simeon Stylites.

Austerity has always had its political uses, too. The Roman Republic was always passing sumptuary laws to outlaw excessive banquets and dress. Mussolini, the new Roman Emperor, followed suit. The New York Times reported from Italy on 15 June 1923, ‘Members of the Fascisti … are prohibited from participating in banquets because “banquets are detrimental to the dignity of the Fascismo, which must be inspired by austerity”‘.

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And taste, of course, can be positively austere. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his neoclassical pomp, said in 1781, ‘Sculpture is formal, regular, and austere; disdains all familiar objects, as incompatible with its dignity’. The Grecian Revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries represented a deliberate extirpation of architectural ornament in an attempt to return to the imagined ideal plainness of the classical Greeks, and in the inter-war period there was an international vogue for ‘stripped-down’ neo-classical buildings. The musician and critic Constant Lambert wrote in 1934, ‘The blues have a certain austerity that places them far above the sweet nothings of George Gershwin’.

But of course it’s in the ‘dismal science’ that austerity holds sway today. The wise words of John Maynard Keynes in 1937, ‘The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity in the Treasury’, have been comprehensively forgotten, and the neoliberal consensus that first came to power in the early 1980s is as strong as ever.


Back in the post-war era, when the economy was in a far more fragile state than it is today, austerity was real and ubiquitous – David Kynaston called his account of the period between 1945 and 1951 Austerity Britain – and it meant rationing and all kinds of privation. There were plenty of euphemisms then for what people had to make do with, ‘utility furniture’, for example. What was different then was that there was a very widely shared confidence that a better future could be built, one that would benefit everyone, not just the few. A new National Health Service would at last remove the fear from falling ill, and William Beveridge‘s ‘giant evils’, squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease, would be slain through a scheme of social security.

Today such optimism seems naive. The health service, in England at least, is marketised and semi-privatised. Social security has been turned into US-style ‘welfare’, miserly handouts for the undeserving poor, complete with deliberate delays and punitive sanctions. To survive its cruelties many must resort to the indignity of food banks, the only booming industry outside of the City. Public services are drained of cash and some of them left to die. Incomes for all but plutocrats are still declining. Inequalities in wealth therefore grow ever wider, with virtually no inhibitions on the rich (Britain is itself a gigantic tax haven), and austerity as the deliberate mechanism to impoverish the already poor and to remove the remnants of collective protections.

‘We’re all in this together’, said George Osborne in 2009. He recently had the gall to repeat the phrase. It must stand as one of the most egregious untruths of our time. The banquets of Osborne’s people continue, with no noticeable reduction in the size of the helpings. Austerity has failed to knock on the doors in Chelsea and Belgravia.

If politicians – other than the Greens and some nationalists – are incapable of mounting a challenge to the austerity hegemony, is there a Maynard Keynes of today who could do so? It hardly seems likely. In the universities neoliberal domination remains almost complete, despite protests from economics students that they’re being fed a monotonous diet of conservative orthodoxy. Mainstream economists seem to have learned virtually no lessons from the global banking failure, and only a few are willing to point out that the ostensible aims of austerity, to reduce government deficit and restore economic well-being, are not being achieved through austerity policies.

That leaves the rest of us, ordinary people, the only ones capable of resisting what seems a never ending age of austerity. George Osborne promises a lot more, with further and harsher cuts in public spending, if he wins the next general election. Asperity or cruelty would be better nouns than austerity to describe this. Unless as a people we can find some other path, we seem to be well on our way back to the ‘dredde’ of austerity that was so common in the 1380s and the 1930s.

Comments (2)

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  1. Alun Burge says:

    Utility furniture had a limited range but was of the highest quality and designed by the best in the business. My mother considered it a guarantee of quality. I still have a piece of my parents 1940s bedroom furniture which I continue to use…

  2. David Jones says:

    An interesting piece, especially in present times when the chancellor is “splashing the cash”, well at least for the time being.
    I’ve read Kynaston’s book, and am currently on “Family Britain” a rather exhausting account of the 195Os when by present standards there was still plenty of austerity.
    Regarding furniture, my parents’ austerity bedroom furniture lasted a very long time, but that was probably more to do with my father feeling that there were more important things on which to spend money.
    Austerity sounds so much better, and more moral, than the more apt “inequality”.

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