By Johan De Rycker
As the Eurozone crisis hogs the headlines again, BBC’s Newsnight’s take last night on “Austerity” highlighted how important language is in persuading the people to back or sack their governments. Only last week Cameron’s government starkly replaced the word ‘austerity’ with ‘efficiency’ not because of any policy change but because some words are simply too difficult for the demos.
A couple of weeks ago, Arnon Grunberg, a brilliant Dutch novelist with a column in ‘De Volkskrant’, said “Austerity” would be relegated to a footnote in history, just like “Glasnost” in order to please the people. He said: “Politicians should have known that, like love, capitalism lives by the grace of desire only. A desire that feeds acutely on instant satisfaction. In other words: by continuously spending money that isn’t there.”
Pleasing the people is the issue troubling Michael Portillo in his take on the Euro crisis. He ended his last programme two days ago on the BBC (May 14th 2012) saying: “What Democracy has ultimately come to is that politicians outbid each other with promises that have to be paid for in the future.”
Nothing is new
What happened quite often during early Athenian democracy was that votes inspired by the moment were reversed 24 hours later on several occasions in the 5th century BC, because only when it was too late did the Athenian Assembly repent of its harshness (and rather hypocritically accused the main speakers of ‘forcing’ the people to act the way they did).
Today, 24-hour news provides instant voter ‘satisfaction’ as a way of getting a grip on what is going on. Round-the-clock news provide the information overload which leads to “Mad Now Disease” in which politicians outbid each other both in the wonder of their promises and the sweetness of the language.
As one of my students put it: “Forget Marx’s “Religion is the Opium” … just follow our constant onslaught of ‘so-called’ news, and get addicted to that. We wish you a lot of ‘Austerity’ for the moment – as long as it isn’t ours of course – and given that you’re already getting tired of that framing…welcome to ‘Efficiency’ or ‘Growth’, or to any other word that we’ll find useful in our next round of deep insight focus groups for our next democratically representative – obviously paid for think-tank.”
Perhaps, some commentators have finally read the lessons of behavioural economics and know by now that we dislike short-time losses more than we like long-term gains. So, time to reframe that “Austerity” thing, no?