Should austerity be the preserve of the privileged?

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought”. This rather poignant line by P.B. Shelley, the 19th century English Romantic poet, was definitely not meant to describe tales of austerity of our times. Yet, some of the most telling stories related to this phenomenon point to a similar narrative.

On the face of it, economic austerity is all about cutting down excess expenditures – at government and individual levels. It calls for making difficult choices and avoiding the avoidable. Yet, behind each measure of state austerity, in a largely capitalist set up that exists today, there is a sad tale of unbridled greed, financial mismanagement and the tyranny of the haves against the hapless have-nots.

The aftermath of this injustice manifests differently in different parts of the world. In Morocco, for instance, labor unions recently staged nationwide strike opposing the government’s austerity measures. The anger was directed against pension reforms that would increase the retirement age, as well as subsidy cuts that have led to hike in basic commodities prices.

While multinational banks splurge in billions on complex derivatives and financial instruments farmers, even in developed countries, face dilemma over which crop will lose the least money

Ehtesham Shahid

In Greece, farmers gathered in large numbers recently to express anger over another round of austerity measures. Some of them even chose to pour milk on the national highway in protest against planned tax rises and pension reforms. They blocked key roads and border crossings for weeks and threatened to stage a blockade of the government district in downtown Athens.

Ireland is an even more curious case as its poorest have been hit the hardest due to austerity measures. The election trends emerging from the country suggest that austerity will be rejected once again in Europe as the ruling coalition is set to lose majority. That the nation will face political instability is indeed collateral damage.

What could happen in Ireland has already happened in faraway Jamaica, where the opposition labor party has won as voters have rejected austerity.

Rural equilibrium

The common link among all these stories is that things have consistently been allowed to go out of hand, leading to unrest, and ultimately toward course correction. Reports of the working class rejecting austerity measures and taking to streets to register protest have surfaced for ages. That they invariably emerge from seats of power in the urban world is in itself food for thought.

The moot point though is why we need austerity measures to begin with? Isn’t that admission of guilt at one level, i.e. the result of some discrepancy somewhere? By definition, austerity measures should apply to one and all, which is usually never the case. So if excesses have been committed by a handful, how would collective punishment undo the damage?

On the contrary, such measures only aggravate matters especially if an innocent struggling for survival is punished for someone else’s intransigence. Haven’t we witnessed this over and over again during the financial crisis? Doesn’t that call for greater participation of the have-nots in the decision-making process?

It may be easy to get into an argument over whether the rural rich is the same as the urban poor when it comes to implementation of such measures. But before such an equilibrium is sought, isn’t it necessary to first question whether social and economic equality is being sought by the systems we are all accustomed to.

While multinational banks splurge in billions on complex derivatives and financial instruments farmers, even in developed countries, face dilemma over which crop will lose the least money. It is this inequality that breed the saddest thought.

While Shelley’s verse was beautiful, the tales of austerity we witness today aren’t the sweetest.
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Ehtesham Shahid is a Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:50 - GMT 06:50
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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