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Reimagining Austerity


Though their conclusions are specious, the proponents of economic austerity programs are in one crucial respect entirely correct: the present economic system is dysfunctional and, as such, requires a radical transfiguration. Indeed, as it ceaselessly spews toxins into the skies and seas, it is only becoming more evident that this economy is, among other things, a great source of danger to us all. Along with the growing dead zones of the oceans, and the spreading war zones accompanying the resource depletion intrinsic to our political-economy, we are also daily savaged by the far more mundane, though just as endemic, pathologies of cancer and obesity epidemics, widespread malnutrition, and countless car wrecks and occupational hazards, along with the many other institutionally-created harms that our economy reproduces – its daily tons of ground beef, bacon, paper coffee cups, and other innumerable, though far less visible, toxicities.

And though proponents of austerity measures contend otherwise, it cannot be reasonably maintained that the austerity measures being imposed on national economies throughout the world do anything at all to ameliorate these actual harms we collectively face. On the contrary, insofar as they increase economic production, waste, pollution, and widespread precarity, these austerity programs only exacerbate our actual – as opposed to our merely apparent – problems.

To be sure, because they require perpetual economic growth, it must be conceded that what their boosters propose are not in any meaningful sense even austerity programs at all. For rather than sacrificing anything, the wealthy classes are only engorging themselves further on opulent luxuries. And the laboring people, meanwhile, daily bombarded by advertisements and disinformation, are encouraged to spend ever more on poisonous, disposable garbage.

Among the symptoms of general environmental degradation attending this economic pathology, even our most vital resource – fresh water – is throughout the planet being destroyed. Hardly an anomaly, this as an entirely foreseeable consequence of this economy’s normal functioning. And as aquifers the world over are being pumped dry, and tons of pesticides and other pollutants are daily discharged into the hydrosphere as a result of market forces, and climatic changes wreak havoc on snow packs, among other sources of water, the situation is only worsening. As the United Nations estimates, by 2025 nearly 2 billion people “will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.” Instead of confronting this crisis, which is already unfolding in much of the world, mainstream political-economic thought engages only in exercises in denial, dissimulation, and speculation in the burgeoning water market.

But these quantities of pollutants that are poisoning our water – and all of our bodies besides – are but one effect of a general design whose index of value is markedly divorced from the actual well-being of people – one that, for example, demands that most people receive inadequate levels of necessities (like sleep, and water, and food) in order to satisfy the indolence and utter inausterity of a relative few. In spite of all this, as mentioned above, the proponents of austerity do raise an important point. Standing on the precipice of ecological holocaust, we really ought to embark upon an austerity program. For it to alleviate, and not exacerbate, the serious harms we all confront, however, it must be an austerity of a radically different type than those under our current hegemons’ consideration.

Rather than privatizing such things as public schools, water supply systems, and other publicly owned enterprises – which are only ever pretexts for the aggrandizement of the wealthy – a critical austerity would instead halt altogether the far from austere economic practices proven to be polluting and otherwise destroying the planet. Indeed, because the overall costs they exact are far too high, those industries found to be not only unnecessary, but hostile to human and environmental health as well, should be phased out of existence entirely.

So, for example, since the fast food industry, along with the disposable paper and plastic container industries, produce harmful products, they should be shuttered. Many, of course, may find such a view of austerity unsavory. However, just as at one time in history people found it necessary to make sacrifices by slaughtering animals, today it is necessary to make sacrifices by not slaughtering animals. Beyond its cruelty, and its attendant environmental harms, the intensive demands on grain and water supplies required to feed these animals imposes a tremendous strain on our ability to satisfy our collective food requirements.

Moreover, if billions of people throughout history, and today as well, have found it possible to forsake the slaughter and consumption of cows and pigs, among other animals, because of the proscriptions of their faiths, our knowledge of the concrete harms attending these practices ought to lead us, though for different reasons, to comparable interdictions.

Another significant source of harms is the energy industry. Any meaningful notion of austerity should not only curtail the tremendously wasteful overuse of energy, and the damage it causes, but would impose a moratorium on the destructive extraction of resources as well. Of course, the elimination of harmful industries, such as those named above, whose purpose is the generation of profit rather than any salutary use, will no doubt contribute a great deal toward the reduction of the harms accompanying the present modes of energy production.

Perhaps the most harmful industry of all, though, is the military industry. And while the transformation of the military industry will no doubt be met with a great degree of resistance, it must nevertheless be accomplished in order to realize an austerity program worthy of the name. Rather than viewing the military as an obstacle to austerity and a reasonable economy, however, we ought to recognize that the military has the potential to contribute greatly to the implementation of just such an austerity program.

Beating its spears into pruning hooks, so to speak, the military could be employed in building public transportation systems to replace the automobile industry, salutary, publicly-controlled energy systems, and communications systems, as well as retrofitting sewage and waste treatment facilities, and other infrastructural projects like the construction of schools and community health clinics. Furthermore, the military could be directed to clean up the monumental mountains of toxic garbage littering the world and swirling about throughout the seas.

With the elimination of all of these industries, and the jobs attached to them, people will no doubt inquire as to how they will be expected to pay for food, and rent, among other things. The simplest solution to this problem is by the adoption of a basic income law. Because the entire purpose of such an austerity program is to mitigate harms, it would be absurd to propose that people incur harms to their health in effectuating such austerity. As such, a basic income must be available to all people – irrespective of whether or not they work – to pay for rent, food, transportation, communications, and other things necessary for optimal health – at least, that is, until a more democratic economic system is devised.

Concededly, many will be less than thrilled by the prospect of having restrictions imposed on their ability to consume all of the bacon that they want, and to drive around in their cars to their hearts’ content, jet about the planet at will, drill oil wells wherever they like, and extract rent from the tenants of the world. But this is, after all, an austerity plan that’s under discussion.

For those who will argue that such an economic program would require an impossibly difficult political fight, we would do well to pay attention to the words of the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, who informs us in his Art of War that, while it is good to win a battle by fighting, it is best is to win without fighting at all. To this end, and with all due respect to Walter Benjamin’s insight concerning the engine of history, we don’t need to pull the emergency brake on this runaway train of an economy so much as we need to endeavor a more modest, practicable thing – to remove our collective foot from the gas pedal – to rest it, before its engines trash the rest of the planet, and we all choke to death in the gas chamber we’ve made of the world. And if, as countless thinkers and jurists have insisted since the time of Cicero, the health of the people really is the supreme law, then the law must recognize not only the legitimacy, but the physiological necessity, of such a type of critical austerity as well.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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