Austerity, Adjustment, and Social Genocide: Political Language and the European Debt Crisis
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is a sample analysis from my upcoming book on the global economic crisis and global resistance movements. Please consider donating to The People’s Book Project to help support the effort to finish this book.
Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
Political language functions through euphemism, by employing soft-sounding or simply meaningless words to describe otherwise monstrous and vicious policies and objectives. In the European debt crisis, political language employed by politicians, economists, technocrats and bankers is designed to make policies which create poverty and exploitation appear to be logical and reasonable. The language employed includes the words and phrases: fiscal austerity/consolidation, structural adjustment/reform, labour flexibility, competitiveness, and growth. To understand political language, one must translate it. This requires four steps: first, you look at the rhetoric itself as inherently meaningless; second, you examine the policies that are taken; third, you look at the effects of the policies. Finally, if the effects do not match the rhetoric, yet the same policies are pursued time and time again, one must translate the effects as the true meaning of the rhetoric. Thus, the rhetoric has meaning, but not at face value.
The debt crisis followed the 2007-2009 financial crisis, erupting first with Greece, then Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain, and threatens even to spread elsewhere. Of those mentioned, only Italy has not received a bailout. Though whether “bailed out” or not, Europe’s people are being forced to undergo “austerity measures,” a political-economic euphemism for cutting social spending, welfare, social services, public sector jobs, and increased taxes. The aim, they are told, is to get their “fiscal house in order.” The people protest, and go out into the streets. The state responds by meeting the people with riot police, batons, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. This is called “restoring order.”
The effects of austerity are to increase poverty, unemployment, and misery. People are fired from the public sector, welfare and social benefits are reduced or lost, retirement ages are increased to keep people in the work force and off the pension system, which is also cut. Cuts to health care and education take a social and physical toll; as poverty increases the need for better health care, that very system is dismantled when it is needed most. Taxes are increased, and wages are decreased. People are deeper in debt, and destined for destitution. The objective, we are told, is to reduce public spending so that the government can reduce its deficit (the yearly debt).
In Europe, austerity has been the siren call of all the agencies, organizations, and individuals who represent the interests of elite financial control. In March 2010, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) suggested Europe undertake a program of austerity lasting for no less than six years from 2011 to 2017, which the Financial Times referred to as “highly sensible.” In April of 2010, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) – the central bank to the world’s central banks – called for European nations to begin implementing austerity measures. In June of 2010, the G20 finance ministers agreed: it was time to enter the age of austerity! German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European midwife of austerity, set an example for the EU by imposing austerity measures at home in Germany. The G20 leaders met and agreed that the time for stimulus had come to an end, and the time for austerity poverty was at hand. This was of course endorsed by the unelected technocratic president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. The unelected president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, also agreed, explaining in his unrelenting economic wisdom that austerity “has no real effect on economic growth.” Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), also hopped on the austerity train, writing in the Financial Times that, “now is the time to restore fiscal sustainability.” Jaime Caruana, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) stated in June of 2011 that the need for austerity was “more urgent” than ever, while BIS chairman, Christian Noyer, also the governor of the Bank of France (and board member of the ECB), stated that apart from austerity, “there’s no solution possible” for Greece.
In April of 2011, the two president of the EU – Barroso and Van Rompuy – felt it was necessary to clarify (just in case people were getting the wrong idea), that: “Some people fear this work is about dismantling the welfare states and social protection… Not at all … It is to save these fundamental aspects of the European model… We want to make sure that our economies are competitive enough to create jobs and to sustain the welfare of all our citizens and that’s what our work is about.” However, the following year, the new European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi (former governor of the Bank of Italy), stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that, “there was no alternative to fiscal consolidation,” meaning austerity, and that Europe’s social contract was “obsolete” and the social model was “already gone.” However, Draghi explained, it was now necessary to promote “growth,” adding, “and that’s why structural reforms are so important.”
Thus, “austerity packages” will then prepare the state and economy for the next phase, which, we are told, would make the country “competitive” and create “growth.” This is how the country would pay off its total debt, which deficits merely add to. This process is called “structural adjustment” (or “structural reform”) and it requires “competitiveness” to facilitate “growth.”
As we can loosely translate “austerity” into poverty, we may translate “structural adjustment” into exploitation. After all, nothing goes better with poverty than exploitation! How does “structural adjustment” become exploitation? Well through competitiveness and growth, of course! Structural adjustment means that the state liberalizes the economy, so everything is deregulated, all state-owned assets are privatized, like roads, hospitals, airports, rivers, water systems, minerals, resources, state-owned companies, services, etc. This, as the story goes, will encourage “investment” in the country when it “needs it most.” This idea suggests that foreign banks and corporations will enter the “market” and purchase all these wonderful things, explaining that they work better when they are “competitive” in the “free market,” and then with their new investments, they will create new industries, employ local people, revive the economy, and with the “trickle down” from the most productive and profitable, all of society will rise in living standards and opportunity.
But first, other “structural adjustment” measures must be simultaneously employed. One of the most important ones is called “labour flexibility.” This means that if you have protected wages, hours, benefits, pensions… well, now you don’t! If you are a member of a union, or engage in collective bargaining (which has at its disposal the threat of a strike), soon you won’t. This is done because, as the story goes, wages must be decreased to increase the competitiveness of the labour force. Simply put, if less money goes into labour during the process of production, what is ultimately being produced will be cheaper on “the market,” and thus, will become more attractive to potential buyers. Thus, with lower wages comes greater profits. ECB president Mario Draghi himself emphasized that the “structural reforms” which Europe needs are, “the product and services market reform,” and then “the labour market reform which takes different shapes in different countries.” He added that the point was “to make labour markets more flexible and also fairer than they are today.” Isn’t that nice? He wants to make labour markets “fairer.” What this means is that, since some countries have protections for various workers, this is unfair to the workers who have no protections, because, as Draghi explained, “in these countries there is a dual labour market: highly flexible for the young part of the population… [and] highly inflexible for the protected part of the population.” Thus, “labour markets at the present time are unfair in such a setting because they put all the weight of flexibility on the young part of the population.” So to make the labour markets “fair,” everyone should be equally exploitable, and thus, equally flexible.
Labour flexibility will then help “specialize” your country in producing one or a few select goods, which you can produce better, cheaper, and more of than anywhere else. Then your economy will have success and the lives of all will prosper and grow… just not their wages. That is left to the “trickle down” from those whose wages are increased, the corporate, banking, and government executives and managers. That is because they take all the risk (remember, you are not risking anything when you passively accept your wages and standards of living to be rapidly decreased), and thus, they should get all of the reward. And because their rewards are so huge, large scraps will fall off of their table and onto the floor, which the wage-slaves below can fight over. By the laws of what I can only assume is “magic,” this will eventually lift the downtrodden from a life of poverty and labour and all will enjoy the fruits of being in a modern, technological, democratic-Capitalist paradise! Or so the fable goes.
The actual, predictable, and proven results of “structural adjustment” aimed at achieving “growth” through “competitiveness” is exploitation. The privatization of the economy allows foreign banks and corporations to come in and buy the entire economy, resources, commodities, infrastructure and wealth. Because the country is always in crisis when it does this, everything is sold very cheaply, pennies on the dollar kind of cheap. That is because the corporations and banks are doing the government and people a favour by investing in a country which is a large risk. The money the state gets from these sales is recorded as “revenue,” and helps reduce the yearly debt (deficit). The result for the people, however, is that mass layoffs take place, commodity prices increase, service costs increase, and thus, poverty increases. But privatization has benefits, remember; it encourages “competitiveness.” If everything was privatized, everyone would compete with each other to produce the best goods for the lowest costs, and everyone can subsequently prosper together in a society of abundance.
What actually takes place is that multinational corporations and banks, which already own most of the world’s resources, now own yours, too. This is not competitive, because they are ultimately all cartels, and collude together in exploiting vast resources and goods from around the world. They do compete in the sense of seeing which one can exploit, produce, and control more than the other. But at the bottom of this system, everyone else gets poorer. This is called “competitiveness,” but what it actually means is control. So if the economy needs to become more competitive, what is really being said is that it needs to come under more control, and of course, in private corporate and financial hands.
State owned industries are simply closed down, employees fired, and the product or resource which that industry was responsible for producing is then imported from another country/corporation. A corporation takes over that domestic good/resource and then extracts/produces it for itself. But this requires labour. It’s a good thing that the labour force has had its back broken through austerity and adjustment, because now there are no protected jobs, wages, hours, unions, or workers’ rights in general. Thus, the population is free to be exploited for long hours and minimal wages. This makes what they are producing to be cheaper, and thus, more “competitive.” This can become extremely profitable for corporations and banks which took all the risk in this entire process (remember: you don’t count; you had very little to begin with, so you lost very little. They have a lot, and thus, a lot more to lose. That’s what risk means). If workers attempt to form unions or organize and demand higher wages, the corporation can simply threaten to close down the plant, and move the jobs to somewhere else with a more “flexible” labour force. Or, the corporation could simply hire local immigrant populations (or ship in others) and pay them less for more hours, and leave you without any jobs. This is called “labour flexibility.” Labour flexibility translates as cheap labour: to bring everyone down to an equally low level of worker standards, and thus, to encourage “utilization,” which means exploitation.
In the ‘Third World,’ this has been best achieved through what are called “Export Processing Zones (EPZs),” a term used to describe a designated area outside of state control in which corporations may establish factories to freely exploit labour as they choose. Commodities are shipped in, goods are produced in the EPZs, from where they are then exported abroad, free of pesky national taxation and regulation. Ultimately, EPZs are mini corporate colonies. In late May of 2012, it was reported that Germany was looking for “alternatives” to its exclusive focus on austerity, and subsequently came up with a six-point plan for “growth.” One of the most notable points from Berlin was to establish “special economic zones to be created in crisis-plagued countries at the periphery of the euro zone,” as “foreign investors could be attracted to those zones through tax incentives and looser regulations.” Essentially, they are EPZs for the eurozone. The plan also calls for establishing trusts which would organize the sell-off of state assets in massive privatization schemes. Further, what is needed, according to Berlin, was to establish a “dual education system, which combines a standardized practical education at a vocational school with an apprenticeship in the same field at a company in order to combat high youth unemployment.” In other words, no more academic or intellectual education for youth, but rather “vocational” or labour-oriented education, to not allow the expectations of the youth to rise too far, and to simply prepare them for a life of ‘work’ by attaining the necessary vocational skills. And of course, the plan for “growth” from Germany also includes more efforts at establishing “labour flexibility,” which would include “a loosening of provisions that make it difficult to fire permanent employees and to create employment relationships with lower tax burdens and social security contributions.” In other words: make it easy to fire workers, have lower wages, and eliminate benefits.
Economists and politicians often talk about the need to “utilize labour flexibility to increase competitiveness and achieve growth.” What they are really saying is that they need to exploit cheap labour to increase control and achieve profits and power. Lucas Papademos was installed (unelected) as the “Technocratic” prime minister of Greece in November of 2011, in order to “help” Greece undertake the mandatory “reforms.” Papademos was the perfect candidate for the job: he was an economist educated in the U.S., served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, was chief economist at the Bank of Greece, he became Governor of the bank in 1994, where he oversaw the conversion of Greece into the euro, and in 2002, he joined the European Central Bank board, where he became a Vice President under Jean-Claude Trichet.
In a 2005 interview with the Financial Times while he was Vice President at the European Central Bank (ECB), Lucas Papademos said that European “growth” potential was looking good, but added: “There is a risk that, unless there are changes in policies – more reforms in labour and product markets – as well as in the behaviour of private economic agents, this [growth] range may have to be revised downwards.” He explained: “the main way that potential growth could increase is through policies that boost productivity growth and raise labour utilization by increasing the average hours worked and the participation rate in the labour market and by making this market more flexible and adaptable.” In May of 2010, Bank of England governor Mervyn King stated that the eurozone needed “structural reforms, changes in wages and prices in the countries that need to regain competitiveness.” Former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet had also emphasized that what was needed was a program of fiscal austerity, “accompanied by structural reforms to promote long-term growth.” In other words, what was needed was impoverishment, accompanied by exploitation to promote long-term profits.
The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the Euro-area bailout fund, was headed by a man named Klaus Regling. In an article he wrote for The Banker, Regling emphasized that funds from the EFSF would come with conditions, including of course, austerity measures, but also, “structural reforms, such as modernizing public administrations, improving labour market performance and enhancing the tax systems, with the aim of increasing a country’s competitiveness and growth potential.” In other words, the conditions imposed on countries receiving a bailout would amount to an impoverishment program (“austerity”), combined with increased exploitation (“structural reforms”), through privatization of state industries and assets (“modernizing public administration”), creating a cheap labour force (“improving labour market performance”), extracting all remaining domestic wealth (“enhancing the tax systems”), designed to increase control (“competitiveness”) and profits (“growth”).
Mario Draghi, as president of the ECB, called for a “growth pact” (or a “profit pact”) for Europe, to go alongside the “fiscal pact” (or “poverty pact”). This received quick endorsements from France’s new president Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, and José Manuel Barroso. Merkel was sure to emphasize, however, that growth would be “in the form of structural reforms.”
The combination of “fiscal austerity” and “structural adjustment” are generally referred to as a “comprehensive structural adjustment program” or a “restructuring of the economy.” This language is important to understand because “restructuring” as a word is used to describe two processes: one, is that it is what is needed to prevent a country from defaulting on its debt and to return the country to a period of growth; and, on the other hand, “restructuring” is used to describe what takes place after a country defaults. The words in both situations are the same, and so are the policies, though in a default they are inflicted more severely. The very process we are told we must undergo to prevent a default, is the very same process that we undergo after a default. Thus, the combination of fiscal austerity and structural adjustment is, in actuality, a slow and painful default.
This combination of austerity and adjustment amounts to a program and effect of social devastation. Thus, the words “structural adjustment program,” “restructuring,” and “default” in actuality translate into social genocide. These three terms provide further insight into their use: the class system is what is being restructured, as middle classes are wiped out and pushed into poverty, the poor are made destitute, and the elite become concentrated and in total control; the political and economic system is being adjusted to fit this restructuring; and the promise that people everywhere were told, that their leaders and society exists to serve their interests, is what is being defaulted on. The state does not default; it is the ‘social contract’ that is defaulted. Just as Mario Draghi told the Wall Street Journal, “the European social model has already gone… Fiscal consolidation is unavoidable in the present set up, and it buys time needed for the structural reforms.” Thus, social genocide.
As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism,
question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” But there remains intent and meaning behind the words that are used. When we translate the political language of the European debt crisis, it reveals a monstrous agenda of impoverishment and exploitation. Thus, we also see the necessity of political language for those who use it: one cannot argue openly for programs of impoverishment and exploitation for obvious reasons, so words like “fiscal consolidation” and “structural reform” are used, because they are vague and obscure.
Ultimately, one can get away with saying, “we need a comprehensive austerity package augmented by structural reforms, such as labour flexibility, designed to increase competitiveness and facilitate growth,” as opposed to: “We need to rapidly impoverish our populations, whom we will then exploit to the fullest, such as by creating a cheap labour force, which would increase elite control and generate private profits.” Such honesty and bluntness would lead to revolt, so, political language is used instead. In Europe, political language is part of a ‘power dialectic’ which supports policies and agendas that aim to take more for those who already have the most, and to take from all the rest; to impoverish, exploit and oppress; to plunder, profit and punish.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
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