Austerity Agenda and The Body Politic I

I would like to pose the question: Why do so many people believe in the Austerity Agenda?  As Paul Krugman, David Atkins, Dean Baker, and others continually point out, austerity doesn’t work: bare-bones public budgets fail to make the necessary investments in education, infrastructure, and other public goods that societies need to for a decent quality of life – especially during recessions when the small government model lacks counter-cyclical capability.  History shows that Keynesianism leads to better economic outcomes.  Furthermore, large welfare states attend not only elevate the poor but the middle class too, securing their security and social mobility.  Since the lower and middle classes benefit most from big-government social democracy, one would expect a majority coalition to support it.


But budget-cutting austerity is all the rage.  Now one might say that despite the actual record, austerity economics is widely believed because the right promotes it with their massive media machine, and that’s true.  But why do so many people buy into the austerity argument itself?  Why is it such a zombie idea when it is so self-defeating for most people?  Why do they accept in the first place the argument that government spending must be cut during a recession (rather than, say, raising upper income taxes), and that they must just accept reduced income, benefits, security, quality of life, and power?  Why is the neoliberal dogma of austerity so tenaciously enforced by the IMF around the world, despite its historical track record of economic failure?

I will argue that many people accept the austerity agenda so readily because their thinking is guided by a mistaken metaphor, a variation on the ancient analogy between the state and a person.  People have a tendency to think that the budget of a government is the same as the budget of an individual, and this is reinforced by their own daily experience of having to live within their means.  That logic tends to drive deep thinking about budgeting, too often even for those who intellectually know that there are differences between personal and governmental finance.  The point for today is that our experiences of our personal finances metaphorically shapes how we think about government finances; we carry over the logic of our wallets into our conclusions about the national treasury, when they are in reality quite different.

Metaphors are important and shape how we conceive of and interpret the phenomena of the world.  Much modern philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science point out that language and thought are fundamentally metaphoric.  Metaphors are far more common in language than people usually admit, and they fundamentally structure how we think and thus what choices we make and how we act. Nietzsche summed it up well:

“What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and fixed to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

We use metaphors constantly, we take them seriously, they form our thinking, and we take most of them for granted so deeply that they are invisible to us: we call them dead metaphors, which is itself a metaphor, although one that makes it seem like the pattern of a metaphor has lost its power, when in fact our thinking about the subject is still structured by it.  Consider the subject of time, which is a very abstract concept and something that we have difficulty describing in raw terms.  We nearly always discuss time by using the language of spatial metaphors: we say time is “linear,” it “flows” like a “river,” or we describe it as a “journey” having a direction and destination.  Indeed, it would be impossible to conceive of the Western linear model of time without these spatial metaphors, yet that linear model has influenced vast amounts of our culture.

Societies and states are very complex abstractions too, and we have many metaphors for them.  These political metaphors affect how we think and can indeed determine our ideologies: George Lakoff has done excellent work describing how liberals and conservatives have different metaphors of the family that drive our political conflict, with conservatives adhering to a “Strict Father” model and liberals a “Nuturing Parent” model.  One of the oldest political metaphors is the metaphor of the body politic, in which government is likened to an individual body or person.  The first instance in Western culture is called the Fable of the Belly, in which an ancient Roman patrician convinced an army that rebelled because the Senate lied to them about debt relief to rejoin the city.  He told them that Rome was a body with the Senate as the stomach; and although it appeared to just sit there and greedily absorb the food that the rest of the body labored to give it, in truth it nourished the whole body.  If the other parts of the body refused to feed it, the whole would die.  Thus organic politic metaphors from their earliest use was used to justify and maintain class society – and, interestingly, was at the center of a political dispute over debt.

Typical medieval bodies politic were very anatomical, with the king at the head (giving us the phrase “head of state”), the knights were the arms that held sword and shield, scribes were the intestines that distributed goods throughout the body, and peasants as the legs as feet that supported the whole with their efforts.  But there are many variations: organic metaphors are used to discuss the “health” and “strength” of society: Socrates likened a decadent, resource-hungry society to a gluttonous, unhealthy body.  Networks of telegraphs and roads have been described as the circulatory and nervous systems of society, and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is another variation.

Some criticize organic political metaphors as authoritarian, but they aren’t inherently that; it depends on how they are used.  Hobbes used his body politic to justify the rule of a singular sovereign monarch, just as a single head rules an actual body, and twentieth-century fascists put the body politic to totalitarian purposes by shrinking individuals citizens to mere cells of the body that could be sacrificed for the good of the state, just as a piece of skin might be sloughed off.  But a close and carefully reading of Rousseau reveals that he created a democratized and communitarian version by understanding that the democratic channels of voting and communication in a well-ordered republic were akin to the nervous system of an actual body that communicated the needs and pains of the body to the administrative head, so that they might receive proper attention.

All these variations on the theme of the social being like an individual have been taken very seriously in their own times, fundamentally affecting political thinking and conflict in the past.  Indeed, in the high Middle Ages wars were fought between princes and popes over who was the proper head of the political body, and as my brief survey of its history indicates, it has certainly been used to support hierarchy and class privilege in the past.  We are influenced by the metaphor between the state and individual too, even when we don’t recognize it, because people believe that a government’s budget is just like an individual’s budget; and, because a common person usually has to cut back on spending when they get into financial trouble, the logic of the metaphor makes people first think that the best response to government financial trouble must also involve spending cuts.  In short, the “personal pocketbook” metaphor for government budgets has an inherent bias towards the austerity agenda.  Next time, I will discuss the differences, and explain why government budgets are not, in reality, like personal budgets. Its only a metaphor, and not a very good one.

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