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Fuck austerity.

The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth .... The storm will not abate until [there is a] just distribution of the fruits of the earth.

Martin Luther King, Jr

WE ARE CONTROLLED BY OUR METAPHORS. And metaphors are peculiarly the business of English professors. One metaphor that calls for scrutiny is "austerity," a metaphor with powerful political meaning.

But that meaning has a historical context, and no New Historicist would ignore it. Since the 1970s, there has been a historic increase of the capacity to create goods and services, an expansion hardly equaled in human history (including the capacity to deal rationally with ecological and energy crises). But ironically, the gains have virtually all been absorbed by the few, while more people work harder, longer, for less: less for more people--more for a few people. The majority must accept less, as the creative/productive power of society expands. Inequality is not reversing--it is accelerating. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes: "Between 1980 and 2009 the top 20% saw their household market income increase by 38.4% while the middle 20% saw their household market income decrease by 0.3% and the bottom 20% saw their household market income decrease by 11.4%" (again, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, "Market incomes are household incomes from all sources before government income supports and income taxes are taken into account"). Canada's richest 1 percent (246,000 Canadians) increased income by 32 percent from 1997 to 2007, whereas in the 1950s and 1960s their share grew 8 percent. In 2005, the richest 10 percent had 58.2 percent of net worth, the remaining 90 percent had 41.8 percent--3.2 percent for the bottom 50 percent. Canada's richest pay less and less tax: the top .01 percent in 1943 paid 71 percent, in 1970 48 percent--in 2000, 33 percent. Corporate tax rates fall while tax havens burgeon. Canada has no inheritance tax on the top 1 to 2 percent. In the U.S., "The median worker saw an increase of just 5.0 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite productivity growth of 74.5 percent" (Economic Policy). "As the rich become more and more dominant, they increasingly call the shots and allocate the rewards" (McQuaig xxvi), and what the rich demand is "austerity"--more of what we've been getting. That is, less. Look at our students: "Skyrocketing tuition fees and the prevalence of loan-based financial assistance have pushed student debt to historic levels" (Canadian Federation of Students).

This is the context of "austerity." "Austerity" means "cuts." Cut pensions, cut wages, cut health care, cut education, cut jobs, cut/privatize public services. Cut democracy. Via Orwellian magic, austerity no longer harms people ("cuts")--"austerity" is virtuous, essential, beneficial. Thus emerges the "austerity narrative": working people have been indulged, permitted to have pensions, medical care, education, causing nations to live beyond their means--now they must be "bailed out." Now the adults must clean up the mess. The "austerity narrative" is on the same plane as the popular Little Red Hen or Aesop's grasshopper-and-ant fable. Virtuous owner-investors prosper--but labour's greedy desires contradict reality.

"Austere" derives from the Latin austerus: "severe." The OED's earliest example is Richard Rolles's 1340 description of Christ as severe judge. Interestingly, its usage has hardly changed: an authority figure treats subordinates harshly. The word fuses two strands of meaning: rectitude, strictness, self-control--an intensification of "restraint"--combined with reduced living conditions. "Austere" thus fuses zealous righteousness, even fanaticism, with physical deprivation. An interesting combination. It recalls slogans favoured by rightist regimes, say Vichy France: "Work, Family, Fatherland."

The word "austere" conjures up monastic imagery of effort, discipline, and moral superiority. An "austere" person puts higher things first, unlike lesser, impulsive people. Picture Mr Spock. No emotion, no illusions--and no indulgence. It is impossible to imagine a child who is "austere"--"austere" is for adults. An "austere" individual is fully adult, unlike children, who cannot control desires. In the austerity narrative, workers are children. Those who impose "austerity" are adults, acting on moral imperatives, on logic--not emotion. They represent what Freud called the "reality principle," whereas the "pleasure principle" is for children/workers. (The austerity narrative affects the university, too: administrators are visualized as adults--faculty as children. Faculty lack the discipline that superior administrator/adults must impose.) Since necessity demands austerity, the 1 percent--the "adults"--must "stick to their guns"--must continue to cut, although the cuts do not cut them or the banks and corporations that enrich them. Their interests are above question.

Ironically, austerity does not do what it claims to do. What austerity achieves is unemployment and social devastation (see Oxfam). And something else: it enhances the power of the powerful. Thus austerity is not some severe saviour. It shifts income upward. It is a means of "disciplining" those who work for a living (as opposed to those who own for a living). To the 1 percent, "solving" the economic problem means enhancing their power. This is the logic of the market system itself, as in the game Monopoly, where one player accumulates everything, and the others nothing, and in so doing wastes the talents of countless individuals, including so many of our students. Capital must constantly increase profits or it goes into crisis. By its own logic, no increase to profits is enough. It is a predatory system; it destroys the environment--and the people--that supply it.

Most English professors have little understanding of these issues, as in some protected bell jar. But people are starting to be afraid. The future looks worse, not better. Education is justified strictly as a means to profits for corporations. Arts education is devalued. Student debt rises as student prospects degrade. As the economic crisis of capital deepens, society drifts toward a fascist-type "solution." "Austerity" demands duty and self-sacrifice, but, as in the logic of fascism, it requires force in order to enforce.

English is all about imagining alternatives--how about a new metaphor?

Works Cited

Brooks, Neil, and Linda McQuaig. The Trouble with Billionaires. Toronto: Penguin, 2011.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "The 99% vs. The 1%." www. 25 January 2012.

Canadian Federation of Students. Submission to House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. August 2012. Fin_Cmte_2012-National-En.pdf.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Trumpet of Conscience: The cbc Massey Lectures. New York: Harper, 1968.

Oxfam International. "A Cautionary Tale: The True Cost of Austerity and Inequality in Europe."

Economic Policy Institute. "A Decade of Flat Wages." publication/a-decade-of-flat-wages-the-key-barrier-to-shared-prosperity-and-a-rising-middle-class/

Mervyn Nicholson

Thompson Rivers University

* Thanks to Len Findlay for this phrase.

MERVYN NICHOLSON is author of Male Envy: The Logic of Malice and 13 Ways of Looking at Images: Studies in the Logic of Visualization, in addition to numerous articles in journals such as Monthly Review and The Journal of the History of Ideas. His newest article is "Class/ic Aggression in Children's Literature."
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Author:Nicholson, Mervyn
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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