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Journalists frequently invoke the language of sacrifice when describing the consequences of the austerity measures currently being implemented in Britain and across much of Europe. Similarly, politicians have long recognized the rhetorical force of the word ‘sacrifice’, but they often find more subtle ways of embedding the language of sacrifice within speeches by fusing their rhetoric with sacred symbols and ideals which derive their power from longstanding notions of national identity. Thus national symbols that have traditionally garnered powerful sentiments of loyalty to the state are rhetorically translated into an implied sense of fidelity to the prevailing political ideology of the present. In his recent speech at the opening of Parliament, David Cameron made a quick transition from acknowledging fallen British soldiers who “have made the ultimate sacrifice” while fighting in Afghanistan to applauding the government for cutting the national deficit by a third. The implication seems to be that, like the good soldiers who died for their country, British citizens must also be willing to make great sacrifices in order to secure the economic future of their nation. By juxtaposing the deaths of British soldiers with the supposed success of his economic policies, Cameron unwittingly reveals the extent to which the sacrificial rhetoric of austerity is invariably associated with very real human costs. In terms of the UK government’s current policies, these costs are directly linked to an erosion of socio-economic rights in Britain.

The erosion of socio-economic rights that is currently underway is perhaps difficult to detect in the political discourse of austerity because its rationale is framed within the language of economic recovery. In recent speeches, Cameron has continually referred to the need for Britain to regain its competitiveness in the global marketplace. Improving Britain’s competitiveness means making it into the sort of place where corporations and investment firms want to do business. Two of the most direct ways of accomplishing this aim are cutting corporate tax rates and creating what is often referred to as a ‘more flexible labour market.’ Although economists may suggest that there are complex theoretical and mathematical contingencies underlying these institutional policies, the sacrificial logic of these two issues is not difficult to ascertain. Within the so-called developed economies of the West, corporations do not equate to the job producing powerhouses of manufacturing that once drove the industrial economy. The most profitable industries are banking and finance, and thus corporate tax breaks equate to lightening the tax burdens for the very institutions that played a significant part in bringing about the financial crisis in the first place.

Creating ‘a more flexible labour market’ is essentially economic jargon for reducing the employment protection legislation which ensures that employees are treated fairly and paid appropriately. A recent report from the OECD suggests that changes to employment protection legislation which make it easier for employers to terminate jobs should be accompanied by the development of public policies such as job-search assistance programmes and unemployment benefits that help to minimize the social impact of unemployment. A combination of public spending cuts and loosening of employment protection legislation has contributed to even greater economic uncertainty for many workers in Britain. If the current government’s policies are implemented, Britain will be according to one perspective a better place to do business, but it will be a rotten place to work.

As it stands, the conflict between society’s commitment to social welfare and the maintenance of the financial services industry is at the forefront of political debates in Britain and across the globe. And although it seems that these debates are more fierce than ever, from the earliest times the pursuit of money has had a polarizing effect upon society not simply because it goes hand-in-hand with the attainment of social status, but perhaps most importantly because the accumulation of wealth is also a means of securing political power. In his pseudo-historical novel Picture This, Joseph Heller explores the inherent antagonism that exists between the culture of speculative investment and the pursuit of the public good. In Heller’s own vitriolic fashion, the novel’s narrator describes the sociological and cultural consequences of the invention of money:

With the invention of money by the Lydians in the seventh century before Christ the possibility of profit spread, and as soon as there was profit, there were people who wanted to make it, more than they wanted to make anything else. And whenever there is more money to be made from money than from anything else, the energies of the state are likely to be devoted increasingly to the production of money, for which there is no community need, to the exclusion of those commodities that are required for health and well-being, and contemplation. . . . There will be many who flourish in this environment of finance, and a great many more who can go straight to hell (1989, 55–56).

Contrary to the fundamental doctrine of economic liberalism which maintains that in the free market everyone is a winner, Heller’s narrative highlights the ways in which the pursuit of monetary wealth within a society has a tendency to draw the energies of the state away from matters of social well-being and redirect its political energy towards the maintenance of financial institutions. The speculative activities that pervade the ‘environment of finance’ result not only in a highly unstable economic basis for society, but the inevitable costs associated with these activities, in the end, come at the expense of public funds formerly dedicated to the welfare of the state. Thus, according to Heller’s account, the ‘environment of finance’ that is made possible through the invention of money is not only presented as a risky basis upon which to build a nation’s economy, but most importantly, such speculative activity  has a deleterious effect upon the socio-economic rights that are essential to a civil society.

The literary critic Ian Gregson suggests that a pervasive theme in Heller’s work is the “impact of institutions on what is conventionally taken to be ‘the individual’—how thoroughly the supposed autonomy of that individual is compromised by far larger political and cultural forces”(2008, 31). In Picture This, the narrator’s suggestion that those who do not flourish in a world dominated by the uncertainties of the environment of finance “can go straight to hell” could be considered more than merely a crass turn of phrase. In reality, those who end up the casualties of market forces not only suffer financially, but they also suffer a loss of political and social agency in a culture where wealth has become a measure of personhood. Falling off the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder is tantamount to a descent into hell. Meanwhile the financial institutions and administrative overseers who facilitated these exchanges have only been subject to legal action in a handful of extreme cases. Their redemption, it seems, is predicated upon the fact of their irreplaceability—the environment of finance assumes the status of a self-perpetuating system that constantly seeks to transform every loss into a gain by shifting the sacrificial costs of its own existence onto a substratum of society to whom it bears no binding moral obligations.

Since the beginning of the credit crisis in 2008, austerity measures targeted at reducing public spending and supposedly stimulating economic growth have resulted in a substantial erosion of socio-economic rights in Britain and throughout the European Union. In his 1974 study of Third World socio-economic development and political ethics, Peter Berger claims that “The history of mankind is a history of pain” (1974, 163). And he describes the principles that guide politicians in the development of economic policy as a “calculus of pain.” Decisions that often result in actual physical and psychological trauma are considered “in terms of costs and benefits, of input and output.” According to Berger, “Such analysis is typically very technical, and generally borrows concepts and techniques from economics, even where non-economic phenomena are involved” (1974, 164). Most importantly, he points out the rather obvious but nonetheless crucial fact that underlying the economic data on unemployment and income distribution there is the reality of human suffering and death.

In a recent study of the impact of austerity on public health inequalities, researchers concluded that “the burden of budget cuts is falling most greatly on disabled, low-income and unemployed persons”(Reeves et al. 2013). Focusing primarily on already economically depressed parts of the United Kingdom, the study reports a substantial increase in suicide rates which correlates with increased rates of unemployment particularly among public sector workers. It also predicts that changes to disability allowances and housing benefits will have a detrimental effect upon individuals who are already among the most economically deprived in Britain. Consequently, the study concludes that “austerity policies can be expected to impact health in several ways, each difficult to reverse or avoid in the absence of strong social safety nets” (Reeves et al. 2013, 4). These findings point to the real costs underlying the sacrificial rhetoric of austerity. The socio-economic rights which have arguably served to define Britain as a civil society are currently under threat, but it remains to be seen whether or not the nation will seek a viable alternative to the risky sacrificial games that must be played in the ‘environment of finance.’ Reflecting upon the internecine conflicts that plagued Western Europe in the 16th century, the narrator of Picture This notes that “If they were fighting over money, Aristotle could have told them that it was not worth the struggle” (Heller 1989, 186). If money alone is not worth the struggle, then perhaps it is time to ask Aristotle what is.

Works Cited:

Berger, Peter L. 1974. Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gregson, Ian. 2008. “Joseph Heller’s Allegories of Money.” In Character and Satire in Post War Fiction, 31–53. London: Continuum.

Heller, Joseph. 1989. Picture This. London: Pan Books; Picador.

Reeves, Aaron, Sanjay Basu, Martin McKee, Michael Marmot, and David Stuckler. 2013. “Austere or Not? UK Coalition Government Budgets and Health Inequalities.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (September 11)