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 [End Page 25] 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.” [End Page 26]
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...