According to Richard Seymour (2015), current European austerity politics ought to be regarded not as a temporary period of economic rationalization during crisis but rather as a shift toward a new political economic paradigm. This new paradigm is to be driven by a rhetorical commitment to “worker flexibility” and “labour market competitiveness”—both euphemisms for a long-term decline in the value of European salaries and an overall context of bottom-to-top economic redistribution. A further defining aspect of austerity in Europe is the condition of financialization, meaning that mantras of “living within our means” typically define the parameters of sensible governance yet often take the form of shifting public debt onto private households, as capital accumulation becomes increasingly driven by banks leveraging household debt to fund trading on financial markets (see Lapavistas and Flassbeck 2015).
During this phase of political economic congealing, it is possible to observe all sorts of rhetorical narratives designed to accommodate new stark realities and occlude a more critical economic analysis. For example, Fintan O’Toole (2015), a leading analyst of Ireland’s capitalist predicament, puts it as follows: “We don’t live in a country; we live in a narrative, a tale with no more truth content than Cinderella and considerably less than ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’” And so, rather than encounter the European financial crisis as a set of economic analyses, Europeans today encounter a thread of populist narratives and morality tales that frames the imposition of harsh austerity as just dessert. Learning from Varoufakis’s ill-fated attempts, we can see that economic debate is arguably the most naïve strategy of all; he recounts his experiences with the European Council of Finance Ministers: “there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments … you’re just faced with blank stares … You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem” (see Lambert 2015). The prevailing morality tales concerning dishonest Greeks, hungover Irish, austere Germans, and so on design a discourse that clearly identifies the guilty party and implies the appropriate punishment. How did we arrive at such hegemony of anti-intellectual narrative and antitheoretical economic analysis?
In Ireland, arguably a birthplace of the new Europe, inasmuch as the state experienced a severe recession followed by bailout and austerity with conditions externally opposed, we encounter this tendency toward narrative, metaphor, and extreme exaggeration. For example, an Irishman recently told me that the precrash era ought to be regarded as one in which the Irish were permanently “in the sweet shop,” shamelessly gorging themselves. In such narratives, the Celtic Tiger is to be remembered as a gross average and not a period of widening inequality. For example, an Irish Independent article entitled “14 things you won’t believe the Irish did during the Celtic Tiger” (Cullen 2013), informs us, “Back in the ‘good times’, Irish people were not only offered tea and water in the hairdressers but also had the option of champagne,” among other stories of hyperdecadence concerning gymnasia with chandeliers and helicopter rides to first communions. Indeed, as Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny explained in his address to the World Economic Forum, the crisis arose because the Irish “went mad,” as though the stupidity at the heart of an economic collapse was encoded within a national character and reproduced through everybody’s behavior. This is a recurring explanation; Cathal O’Loghlin, former assistant secretary to the Department of Finance and IMF director, explained “we are all culpable for the excess … it is a delusion to believe that ordinary citizens contributed nothing to the current difficulties.” John McManus, business editor of the Irish Times, stated, “The extent to which everybody in the state bought into the property boom makes it hard really to single out one or two individuals without making them more than scapegoats … we all bought into the property market story” (both cited in Mercille 2015: 73, 64, my italics added). Similarly, Christian Pauls, German ambassador to Ireland, announced, “Basically, you got carried away on this new found prosperity,” and can be paraphrased as declaring that Ireland had a “party” and now has to “pay for it” (Delaney 2012).
The German ambassador’s metaphorical fathoming of the crisis, “you had a party,” intersects neatly with the stereotype of the drunken Irish. We see numerous such references to a national “hangover”: for example, “Hangover sets in after Celtic Tiger credit binge” in the Irish Examiner (2013), The Financial Times (2014) explains, “We’ve woken up with a hangover and a mouth ulcer,” while the Daily Telegraph (2010) declared in the early stages of the Irish bailout, “The party’s over, the detritus is everywhere and the Irish people are holding their heads and blaming themselves and all the other partygoers for their monumental hangover.” The article concludes that the Irish, “as a Catholic people … understand guilt, and the Irish know they contributed to their own downfall through greed, recklessness and overindulgence.”
This narrative of universal blame exists notwithstanding the reality of the Celtic Tiger era as a period of widening social inequality, high inflation, and high costs of living. As Maurizo Lazzarato (2015: 40) put it, “If newspapers, experts and politicians are to be believed, everyone is at fault (workers, retirees, the unemployed, the sick, welfare beneficiaries, etc.), everyone except financiers and bankers … The crisis has revealed a new and terrifying version of ‘groupthink’ whose main consequence is the repression of the real.”
The same basic phenomena is observable throughout Europe. When asked where the billions of public money had gone, Greek Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos responded, “We ate it all together” (Douzinas 2013: 64). Indeed, former Greek Premier Papandreu maintained a narrative of collective dysfunction; “our basic problem is systemic corruption,” he told an EU summit in 2009 (Financial Times 2009), implicating the entire population in a narrative of cheating Greeks. Just as per the Irish case, we see the formation of a narrative of guilt that implicates the entire nation, assumes a gross average that denies class disparity, obfuscates a critical political economic analysis, and sets the scene for a deep national austerity program.
In these morality narratives that emphasize sin, guilt, and punishment, we observe a “financialized gaze” that allows us to ethically evaluate conduct. Arguably a core weakness of the British Labour Party’s 2015 election campaign was an inability to convincingly distinguish between “good” public debt and “bad” public debt within a consensus designed around the negative frame of “overspending.” As one irate voter told Ed Miliband in a live television debate: “The facts speak for themselves. You stood there and said that you didn’t overspend. If I get to the end of the week and I can’t afford to buy a pint, I’ve overspent.” Again, we see the rhetorical functioning of the imagery of working-class immature excess equivocated to condemn an entire program of government, and we observe the figure of the Labour politician unable to marshal a compelling counter-narrative, as the audience applaud their way toward greater austerity.
Lauren Berlant states (see Helms and Vishmidt 2010) that a more progressive politics “would refuse to do the speculative work of policing and foreclosing each other that lets the state and capital off the hook for exhausting workers and pressuring communities to clean up their act, not be inconvenient, and to be sorry that they tried to live well.” While we may hold little optimism for the possibility of objective and just economics, Berlant reminds us that we must not reproduce this model of seeing each other as the subjects and the objects of a financializing gaze. Even worse, we cannot allow this gaze to adopt a nationalist dimension. That we see a rush to participate in such narratives is perhaps the most depressing spectacle of all.
Alan Bradshaw is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Visiting Senior Lecturer in the Politics of Consumption at Stockholm University.
Barber, Tony, and Kerin Hope. 2009. Papandreu says Greece is corrupt, Financial Times, 12 December.
Cullen, Clare. 2013. 14 things you won’t believe Irish people did during the Celtic Tiger, Irish Independent, 10 December.
Delaney, Eamon. 2012. Now we’re paying for ignoring this frank ambassador, Irish Independent, 3 June.
Douzinas, Costas. 2013. Philosophy and resistance in the crisis: Greece and the future of Europe. London: Polity.
Edwards, Ruth Dudley. 2010. Ireland’s party is well and truly over: now it’s hangover time, Daily Telegraph, 3 October.
Helms, Gesa, and Marina Vishmidt. 2010. Affect and the politics of austerity: An interview exchange with Lauren Berlant. Variant 39/40.
Irish Examiner. 2013. Hangover sets in after Celtic Tiger credit binge, 7 January.
Kuper, Simon. 2014, Which way is Ireland going?, Financial Times, 21 November.
Lapavitsas, Costas, and Heiner Flassbeck. 2015. Against the Troika: Crisis and austerity in the Eurozone. London: Verso.
Lambert, Harry. 2015. Exclusive: Yanis Varoufakis opens up about his five month battle to save Greece. New Statesman, 13 July.
Lazzarato, Maurizo. 2015. Governing by debt. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).
Mercille, Julien. 2015. The political economy and media coverage of the European economic crisis: The case of Ireland. London: Routledge.
O’Toole, Fintan. 2015. Who will dare say out loud “emperor has no clothes”?, Irish Times, 1 July.
Richard Seymour. 2015. Against austerity: How we can fix the crisis they made. London: Pluto.
Cite as: Bradshaw, Alan. 2015. “European austerity and collective blame,” FocaalBlog, 12 August, www.focaalblog.com/2015/08/12/alan-bradshaw-european-austerity-and-collective-blame.