May 2013        

Irish austerity: Change of words but not of policy

Towards the end of April there was a flurry of media comment, not only in Ireland but throughout the European Union, that there was to be a major rethink or reappraisal of the “austerity” strategy being imposed by the EU and its national allies.
     In a carefully choreographed series of interviews, the ruling elite were attempting to give the impression to the peoples of Europe that they had come to the conclusion that austerity had gone too far.
     First off the blocks was the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, with his remark that austerity policy “has reached its limits.” This was quickly followed by the German minister of foreign affairs, Guido Westerwelle, who stated that “one cannot buy growth with new debt . . . Fiscal consolidation and growth are two sides of the same coin,” while the chief political representative of German big business showed what was really going on when she said she prefers the term “balancing the budget” to “austerity,” which sounds “like something truly evil.”
     So the policy of austerity is not the problem but rather that they need to call it by another name in order to remove the negative connotations. Sure who could possibly be against balancing the books? Don’t families try to do that every day of the week to put food on the table and pay the electricity bill?
     The strategy has not changed, nor will it change, with media reports that a number of senior politicians in Germany have voiced concerns over France’s lack of economic progress, with the leader of the CSU parliamentary group, Gerda Hasselfeld, arguing that “from my point of view, the necessary reforms are not being as courageously tackled as they ought to be.”
     What they mean by “reforms” is stripping public services and privatising them. They wish to privatise as much of the public economy as possible as quickly as possible, such as An Bord Gáis, Coillte, the ESB, transport, ports, etc.
     The ruling elements want to take maximum advantage of the crisis to reduce labour costs, to reduce (if not eliminate) workers’ rights, to extend the working week as well as the retirement age, and to do away with statutory entitlements.
     Austerity is working, on many levels. It is the main vehicle for the transfer of wealth upwards from working people to the wealthy; it justifies the growing assault on workers’ rights and the wholesale privatisation of public assets; it is the stick for beating workers with.
     Sometimes the truth will out, and the real strategy of the ruling elite temporally emerges from all the fog created by their media. Maurice Cowling, a leading right-wing intellectual force in British Tory politics, put it honestly and clearly. “If there is a class war—and there is—it is important that it should be handled with subtlety and skill . . . It is not freedom that Conservatives want: what they want is the sort of freedom that will maintain existing inequalities, or restore lost ones.”

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