Austerity, COVID-19 and the Fetishisation of Sacrifice

“We have to balance controlling the virus with re-opening the economy” goes the mantra.

As discussions of COVID-19 turn towards economic recovery, a false dichotomy has taken hold in the discourse — that “the economy” and public health are somehow a zero-sum game; that in order to save the economy, we must accept some level of physical risk or sacrifice. While this idea is patently and demonstrably untrue to anyone with a basic idea about how economies work, and while the moral insanity of this position has been covered widely, it is a narrative that has nonetheless taken a stronghold. And we’re buying into it.

Have a chat with anyone online, among friends or in the queue at Asda and someone will inevitably mention the need to start re-opening businesses to avoid economic catastrophe. It’s become almost tedious lockdown small talk by this point. Mention that that there can be no economic health without public health first and be prepared to be told you don’t understand the scale of the issue; highlight that opening too early will almost certainly come at the cost of further loss of life and prepare to hear a narrative about how austerity will be worse.

Of course, the argument about austerity isn’t unfounded – austerity is an enormous killer and future measures in the wake of COVID-19, especially at the hands of the current Tory administration, are likely to be devastating to many of our most vulnerable communities. But austerity is a political decision, lest we forget, and we absolutely don’t have to make that choice. Governments have agency to set priorities and their options are categorically not limited to either economic or public health (despite what many commentators seem to think).

It is patently not the case that economic, public or environmental health are mutually exclusive, as many experts and analysts have already outlined better than I ever could. Cliched as it might be to say, there really is no economic health without public health. Beyond that fact I’d go so far as to say that most people would also probably agree that any economic system that forces people to choose between “the economy” and human or environmental wellbeing is one with some pretty serious problems at its core. Yet still the narrative persists that we have to accept death now from covid or later via austerity in the name of said “economy”, without a hint of irony or uproar. Why?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the narratives formed out of austerity itself. While a very different crisis in numerous ways, there are lots of strong similarities between 2008-2010 and today in terms of the how we discuss recovery, predominantly around the theme of sacrifice. In the decade of austerity that followed the 2008 crash, we were conditioned to believe that “making hard economic choices” was in some way honest or grown-up. Our media and Very Sensible Commentators duly fetishised the brave, grave swingers of the axe and we accepted that we must be prepared to make sacrifices, however difficult, if our economy was ever to recover.

The Conservatives have since spent the last decade winning elections on various versions of that narrative, despite its enormous failings and death toll among particularly vulnerable groups, such are the depths to which its rotten roots have sunk in our collective psyche. As a result of this decade of fetishisation, the same narrative has thus been very easy to plant in the current crisis. We have now been hard-wired in many ways to associate recovery with sacrifice and we’re all already ready to tighten our belts, thinking we know what needs to be done. But recover what, and at what cost?

Rather than mindlessly repeating this fetishisation, today we should in theory have the benefit of hindsight. We understand what austerity does and that it ultimately does not work (at least for the things we’re told we need it for). It doesn’t work for “the economy” and from a public health perspective it is absolutely catastrophic, increasing suicides and decimating public health services. We also know that COVID is a health crisis first and foremost, and openly accept that restarting “the economy” too soon will lead directly to more deaths. Austerity is the very last thing any of us should be prepared to accept right now, knowing that it is fundamentally ideologically driven and by no means inevitable.

Yet again, still, we have this warped discussion about whether we want death now or later with a straight face, as if talking about letting your granny die to boost GDP by a bawhair of a fraction of a per cent is normal, grown-up or admirable. This is the lasting impact of the austerity narrative and the wider false dichotomy perpetuated thereby: that, regardless of the nature of crisis, economic recovery requires deep sacrifice, be that environmental health as in the last few decades, social services post-2008 or public health today.

Reality of course is that an economy that doesn’t cater to its citizens in these areas first is one that isn’t really worth its salt. Any ideology that forces us to choose between growth and death is one that is not fit for purpose (which feels absurd even having to say). This is why the new economic wave towards wellbeing, environmental and health priorities over things like growth and GDP as key measures is so important: it marks a pivot of thinking that shows a real grown-up understanding of how complex and holistic our economic systems are, how intrinsically politically driven they are, and how fundamentally connected to real human outputs they need to be to survive and flourish, especially after the pandemic. It’s not life we need to sacrifice. It never was. It’s our outmoded, one-dimensional economic paradigm that needs to go.

Bringing in these new ideas for many will mean first unlearning those lessons about sacrifice and recovery that have been drummed into us since 2008. We have to be able to adjust and accept that growth, GDP etc in and of themselves are largely worthless if not operationalised to serve the health, wellbeing and needs of people and planet, rather than the other way around. This is especially critical in the wake of COVID-19. Any recovery that continues to centre “traditional” economic order as the key metrics of success, that resurrects those cynical austerity narratives that tell us to sacrifice everything in their name, is doomed to fail on the metrics that actually matter. It’s on us to write a new economic narrative: one based on evidence, and that is supportive, compassionate and genuinely fit for the future.

When people say that we have to choose between public and economic health, they are not being grown-up or making honest, difficult decisions. They’re admitting that their economic ideology is fundamentally incapable of keeping people safe and healthy. It’s time to stop talking about sacrificing quality of life and instead talk about sacrificing an outmoded, unfit economic system. The old orthodoxy has failed. The real grown-up discussion now is what we build to replace it.

Comments (13)

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  1. Axel P Kulit says:

    Good article.

    I suspect that the attitude of sacrifice being needed, apart from being used to justify more austerity for everyone except the fact cats at the top, is to be found in puritanism with the idea that we are meant to suffer in this world in order to be happy in the next, and further back, in the biblical idea of the garden of Eden.

    I can see Westminster positioning the period just before Covid 19 as a paradise lost to be regained only through austerity and sacrifice for everyone else.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    The major fear behind the push to restart the economy-as-was is presumably that people will increasingly realize that they can get by fine without all the kinds of things marketed at them, whilst the things they really need and lately have come to value are typically produced by exploitation of people and environment. Meanwhile, the contribution of extremely overpaid managers etc. goes largely unmissed.

    I would say that a certain form of environmentally-focused, global public healthy+wellbeing ‘austerity’ is required, but it is more to do with cutting off excess and reducing the kinds of damage that our economy-as-was does. Where to draw the line of what is excess can be debated, but it can and should become the new social anathema, even in the UK with its appalling role models in top slots. There will have to be some backlash against the ideologies of desire.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      I agree with you in principle but as you say the devil lies int he details. However, as examples, diamond encrusted mobile phones and pens should perhaps be regarded with horror.

      Part of the problem here is that Capitalism needs growth to survive. This means, as far as I can tell, Either finding new markets or innovating to exploit an existing market further. It also means sending goods in a circle. I am told that gold mined in Asia is sent to Europe, made into Jewellery and the jewellery is sent back to Asia where it is sold. Some years ago, and I cannot find the reference fish caught in the USA were flown to Japan to be made into sushi then flown back to the USA.

      We will not get rid of the urge to buy (or make) and sell at a profit. I think the question is how to turn that urge into something that promotes global health and wellbeing.

      I recall a science fiction story/novel where machines produced so much everyone had to consume vast amounts of stuff and the rich were those who were allowed to consume less. This will never happen of course but a public deprecation of conspicuous spending could help.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Axel P Kulit, well, it is not just higher-end luxury goods, it is also the mass production of stuff forced upon people for marketing purposes. There was a striking example of this kind of dangerous and completely unnecessary excess highlighted in an episode of BBC’s War on Plastic, covering a campaign by two girls to get burger chains to stop churning out plastic toys with their meals. This is what Newsround reported:
        So no stoppage or reduction from McDonalds, only a vague offer of recycling.

        I am not sure that profit is a basic human drive, although making things might be. In an increasingly digital world, new products can consume virtually nothing in resources, and global idea communisms are the most successful and effective model when it comes to building systems like the Internet, whose stack is based on open and royalty-free software and technology standards. If you analyse what kids actually do with the tools, I think you will find they share rather than sell to each other.

        1. Axel P Kulit says:

          “I am not sure that profit is a basic human drive, although making things might be”.

          I agree making things is an important drive. We also like recognition of our efforts and money then profit became a good surrogate.

          Merchants have been with us ever since cities grew and people needed things not available in the nearest market town. Some got rich. Many were vilified. They provided a service.

          “In an increasingly digital world, new products can consume virtually nothing in resources, and global idea communisms are the most successful and effective model when it comes to building systems like the Internet, whose stack is based on open and royalty-free software and technology standards. If you analyse what kids actually do with the tools, I think you will find they share rather than sell to each other.”

          If there were no profit in it nobody would have built the first computer let alone the hardware structure on which the internet rests. I find it hard to envisage a society that could have built this infrastructure ( or even produced digital film cameras) where money/profit was not a motivator.

          Kids do share what they make but generally I understand, this is not spontaneous and they have to be taught to share. I am talking about nursery school here.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Axel P Kulit, the Internet originated from military work. The World Wide Web originated from a plan to share scientific information. Email and texting originated from a human motivation to communicate. Early developments in computers and programming (Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace) were intended to augment human abilities. All commercial attempts to build an Internet have failed. The technologies used in modern smart phones were developed by public funded research. The idea that the profit motive drives invention is a myth. In fact, it is typically the opposite: James Watt was a notorious patent-squatter who held back the development of steam engines so he could make a profit on his own design.

            Of course, once these technologies arise, commercial exploitation may create benefits, and disbenefits, on top.

          2. Axel P Kulit says:

            On a smaller scale the Waterman fountain pen (c 1883) was revolutionary in its time and invented by Waterman’s former boss who walked out of his business. Waterman was a salesman who made a small change and then a successful business from it. Later his nephew turned the business into a multinational and thousands of inventors created innovations which they patented and profited from. As far as I know there was no government money involved.

            The first typewriters were created without public funds. The inventors then launched companies to monetise their invention.

            Gutenberg, I believe, intended to make money but failed to do so. Someone else managed that after he went bankrupt (the term was not used then I think).

            Throughout history a lot of inventions are the result of inventors finding patrons who wanted fame and/or fortune from their inventions ( art is a related but different matter)

            Your argument makes some sense of you look on the state as a patron in the cases you mention.

            It is also possible that progress from state funding is a peculiarity of our age or simply that the funding needed was too large for private enterprise.

            There have been some inventors gave away their inventions – Salk and the polio vaccine come to mind.

            To say as you seem to be saying that progress comes as a result of public funding is as accurate as saying that it comes solely from private enterprise.
            I submit that in the case of private enterprise the profit motive and the desire to create something ( a business) tend to go hand in hand.

            There is scope for research here if my time and energy coincide, but it may be too big for one person to untangle what s happening.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Axel P Kulit, well, the acid test of the day is how to best promote the development of a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Should companies compete with each other in the dark, hoping for the big pay-out (and massive bonuses) for the ‘winners’; or should all information be shared and a collective effort be prioritised? Actually, it was the well-documented failure of the market that led to the founding of organisations like CEPI, ” because there is no market incentive to produce vaccines against epidemics like Lassa or Ebola” according to Professor Peter Piot:
            I am familiar with some areas of the history of ideas, and the profit motive just does not appear. The history of philosophy is notable for this. Creative careers are often the alternative to money-maker careers, as clearly demonstrated in ultra-capitalist South Korea. Until Edison, I think you would be hard pressed to find notable examples of the entrepreneur-capitalist. Indeed, I think it is a terrible slur on the vast majority of people who have developed and applied their thinking to improve the world in some way, to assert that they had some pecuniary interest at heart.

            The research, as summarised by Daniel Pink in his work on Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, suggests that mastery, autonomy and purpose are what really moves most people. And he started out as a believer in dangling the cash carrot, he say.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    Surely the “Economy” was epitimised by the Leicester swet-shops which did not shut down, but reflect what we should all aspire to in the new (old) normal.
    A healthy Scotland will be a wealthy Scotland (new soundbite, patented yet)

  4. Richard Easson says:

    Surely the “Economy” was epitimised by the Leicester swet-shops which did not shut down, but reflect what we should all aspire to in the new (old) normal.
    A healthy Scotland will be a wealthy Scotland (new soundbite,not patented yet)

  5. Rich says:

    Thank you , Fraser . Surgically done .

  6. R. Eric Swanepoel says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, but would add that exactly what any ‘lockdown’ means needs to be carefully considered, so it’s not simply a question of lockdown vs economy (as measured by GDP). I know of someone with severe toothache who couldn’t get a dentist’s appointment. He died. There are also many who have suffered significant mental/emotional distress, at least partly due to the lockdown, and some have committed suicide. If PPE had been widely available to dentists and all key workers from the outset, then perhaps we would not have needed to shut down important elements of society.

    Obviously, a sensible and holistic economy/government, guided by metrics/goals other than the outdated and highly counterproductive one of endlessly growing GDP, would take all these things into account, alongside the more obvious direct morbidity and mortality resulting from COVID-19. We must have an economy based on human health and wellbeing, as well as the health and wellbeing of the biosphere, of which we must never forget we are a part (which is why I am not keen on the distancing/externalising word ‘environment’).

    Appreciation/stewardship/protection of the vast complexities/intricacies of the biosphere should be based on intrinsic values, not on half-baked, hubristic mechanisms which carve up and commoditise elements of it as investment opportunities, effectively subordinating them to the pathological exigencies of the short-term profit-obsessed world of financial speculation: extrinsic values on steroids. That is why the ‘natural capital/ecosystem services’ approach appears to me to amount to an extremely misguided and dangerous counsel of despair: if we can’t beat them (the economy based on endless GDP growth, the financial sector…) then we have to join them, and appeal to their values. No, no, no! Feeding a dragon is never going to end well.

    I compiled some resources on the natural capital approach here:

    1. R. Eric Swanepoel says:

      I should also have said explicitly that the ‘natural capital/ecosystem services’ approach is an example of privatising the global commons.

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