Austerity is a word we don’t hear much in the United States, as business elites, politicians and the corporate media avoid saying it at all costs. Instead, they talk at great length about “deficits,” “out-of-control spending,” and the need for all of us to “share the pain.” This is a convenient dodge and an intentional one, for it shifts attention away from the Super Rich and the unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth we’ve experienced in the last forty years.
People in the rest of the world, as well as people of color here, by contrast, are all too familiar with austerity. They’ve been force-fed in large doses over many years, largely to the benefit of U.S. investors and often literally at gunpoint. Though each case varies, the general scenario is similar: to qualify for much-needed, high interest loans, states around the globe cut social programs, submit to privatization of public services, bust unions and slash wages while loosening regulations that protect the environment and workplaces.
The results invariably are the further impoverishment of the vast majority, greater profits for investors and an increase in the purchase by states of the weaponry required to quell the social unrest that generally follows (weaponry the U.S. is all too eager to supply). Never mind the misery of large swaths of the populace, the violent repression of dissent, overflowing prisons or all those dead bodies; to business elites, all are acceptable offshoots of profit-taking. Name a country in the global South and it has almost certainly been through this ringer, often more than once and sometimes with no end.
Now the same phenomenon is being inflicted on the people of the industrialized North, beginning with Europe, which was hit earlier and more harshly than the United States. With few exceptions, the people of the nations of Europe have experienced a decline in recent years in their living standards, all except for corporate and banking elites, who are wealthier than ever. Since the fall of Communism, Eastern Europe – to cite just the most extreme case – has become a huge new source of highly profitable investment opportunities for global capital, and the resulting pauperization of that part of the world has, for now, shattered the dreams of 1989-90.
The U.S. is no longer immune to austerity and President Obama’s decision to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits is only the latest blow. As living standards for most of us fall ever lower, the richest of the rich grow ever richer, far richer than any ruling class has ever been. Austerity is and will continue to be a truly bipartisan affair and liberals who think the Democrats are a significant alternative and right-wingers who believe the Democrats have been taken over by Marxist-Leninists would do well to consider that 1.) more wealth was redistributed from the 99% to the Super Rich under Clinton than Reagan and 2.) President Obama, with his cohort of Goldman Sachs advisors and GE executives, is carrying out virtually the same policies as his predecessor.
For much of the 20th century, a large portion of the U.S. population was shielded from the ravages of global capitalism and believed they had a stake in empire. Though those illusions are rapidly being shed, many turn not to resistance but to narcotics such as alcohol, pornography and sports; more ominous is the state’s incessant and intimidating call to rally around the flag in opposition to this season’s bogeyman – Saddam Hussein, Qaddaffi, Chavez, bin Laden, Assad, Milosevic, Aristide, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Un, and on and on and on.
The most effective and dangerous ploy, however, is the Super Rich’s trick of fomenting divisions within the populace where they might otherwise be united. Thus we get the hilarious spectacle of welfare queen Michelle Bachmann, a long-time recipient of large agribusiness handouts, rallying a segment of the population by railing against benefit programs for the poor and working class, her words received by the intelligentsia with grim seriousness rather than the derision they warrant.
From the Arab Spring to the ongoing and frequently massive demonstrations in England, Portugal, Spain, Greece and other countries in Europe to – perhaps most significantly – the Bolivarian Revolution sweeping Latin America, the dictates of the business class have been met with extraordinary resistance. Domestically, vibrant organizing in communities of color along with Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds of offshoots are leading the way. The tasks now are to revitalize the Occupy spirit, expand resistance and strengthen solidarity with people around the world who are fighting the same battle we are. Those are not easy tasks but the alternative – the rise in human misery to previously unimaginable levels – is increasingly becoming reality.
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who has written for Z Magazine, The Indypendent, Counterpunch and many other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]