Sep 22nd 2017

Austerity's enduring appeal has ancient roots in asceticism

by Sarah Macmillan

Teaching Fellow in Medieval Literature, University of Birmingham
File 20170921 8233 1w3ioue British Library

The recent easing of the public sector pay cap suggests that the government is beginning to respond to widespread concerns about the social and economic costs of austerity. Yet despite this turn, the proposed rises remain below real-terms inflation. Plus, the need for continued austerity is justified in terms of being “fair” to those who must pay for wage increases as well to as those who will receive them.

Despite increasing opposition, austerity remains a potent force in politics today. This should not surprise us. The modern narrative of austerity has a long cultural history, which we can trace from medieval religious writers to 20th century philosophers.

Part of austerity’s appeal is that it justifies present suffering through the promise of future prosperity. No matter what the arguments against austerity, from past and present economists, the huge cost for public services is somehow seen as a price worth paying. Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, insists that “we must hold our nerve … and maintain our focus resolutely on the prizes that are so nearly within reach”.

This language is telling. It is part of an ongoing narrative about how restraint and self-denial are good for you. This perceived moral value is not without precedent. Historically, there have been numerous cultural manifestations of austerity that shed light on its enduring appeal and the rhetoric associated with it.

Morally correct

Austerity is closely related to the ancient concept of asceticism, the art of abstinence practiced by Greek and Roman philosophers, continued by medieval religious writers, and made famous by the theorist Max Weber in his 1922 book Economy and Society. Asceticism has many definitions, usually equating a simple life to a moral one. It is often seen as religious, an ideology based on the fact that present self-denial will enable future liberation from want.

Biblical scholar Richard Valantasis puts this in very positive terms, calling asceticism the “dream of being a better person” in his book on the subject, The Making of the Self. But Weber extends the religious and philosophical dimensions of asceticism to economics when he argues that capitalism is inherently ascetic, suggesting that it thrives through self-restraint and hard work.

Weber equates asceticism and rationality; austerity, he says, is both sensible and logical, and it provides the individual with inward fulfilment. Thus, when governments pursue austerity policies and accuse their opponents of being selfish and wasteful, they draw on a cultural narrative that views self-denial as ethically, morally, and even spiritually, correct.

This is certainly the language that former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, used in June 2010 when austerity was first introduced in the UK. His emergency budget valorised austerity as moral:

It pays for the past. And it plans for the future. It supports a strong enterprise-led recovery. It rewards work … Yes, it is tough; but it is also fair.

Promise and purpose

The idea that austerity is “tough” but good for you echoes ascetic ideals clearly. Asceticism is a formative process as it shapes an individual through hard work (in Weber’s view) and gruelling self-denial (in the view of medieval writers). The fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria – a father of the Christian church – characterised the moral life as one of renunciation and suffering. He also praised discipline and labour as virtues that will lead to pleasing God, and ultimately to the rewards of heaven.

Iconic: Athanasius of Alexandria. wikimedia

The story of present suffering leading to future prosperity therefore weaves concerns about one’s current struggles into a grander narrative of purpose. It gives an unstable life meaning through discipline, and according to the cultural critic Geoffrey Galt Harpham, leads to understanding of oneself, one’s community, and one’s place in the world.

These ascetic ideals remain imbued in Western cultural thinking and suggest why the narrative of modern economic austerity has stuck for so long. Austerity provides a sense of purpose, of striving for achievement, and of self-control. This is evident in the way that austerity is sold to the public – hence Hammond’s comment:

After seven long and tough years, the high-wage, high-growth economy for which we strive is tantalisingly close to being within our grasp. It would be easy to take our foot off the pedal. But instead we must hold our nerve.

By using the language of shared experience, shared struggle, and shared results, austerians attempt to construct a collective identity that unites people in their vision. The fact that austerity affects people in drastically different ways is secondary to creating the sense that we are striving for a common good. In the Middle Ages it was promoted to give spiritual meaning to physical deprivation. Today it does the same for economic hardship.

There is nothing wrong with the ideals of asceticism per se. Self-control and self-restraint are admirable qualities and have been praised throughout history. The problem is when these qualities are evoked on a national scale to justify economic self-harm.

The Conservatives’ loss of their majority in the most recent election suggests that those experiencing austerity might be beginning to turn against it. But those for whom austerity provides a powerful sense of rational order, a coherent narrative that makes constancy out of instability, and an economic purpose with the allure of morality, are unwilling to abandon it.

The narrative of austerity resonates strongly because of its history. We now require a powerful counter-narrative to promote the positive benefits of investing in public services and communities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

If you have something to say that you want to say on Facts & Arts, please

Write to the Editor, or write a comment in the comments section.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."