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Revolutionary austerity? Austerity and degrowth are not identical. One is a strategy to restore rates of capital accumulation and defend the wealth of the upper classes through slashing the welfare spending on which workers and people living in poverty depend. The other is a strategy that erodes the power of capital by relieving the rich of their fortunes and prioritising the welfare of the poor. However, some ambiguity exists. An example can be found in the work of the prominent degrowther Giorgos Kallis.

Kallis is for debt forgiveness, not creditor power. He rejects austerity politics in the usual sense of the term: a politics of rigorously pruning state expenditure, plunging the poor into destitution.

Yet he lauds the revolutionary austerity of the 1970s Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer. In Kallis’s gloss, it is the “personal austerity that real revolutionaries of all times have practiced in their personal lives”. Defending Berlinguer’s austerity, he remarks, does not make one a Thatcherite. “On the contrary, what is Thatcherite is the liberal assumption of a god-given right of each and everyone to mobilize all resources in pursuit of their individual (or collective) goals. According to this ingrained liberal view, we cannot tell people that we could perhaps live better with less, because it’s a god-given right to want more and more. What is more revolutionary instead than Gandhi’s plea to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’?”

Two problems with this analysis stand out. First, in his Gandhian plea, Kallis himself recapitulates the “ingrained liberal view” that consumer demand is the force that shapes economic life. This obscures the power structures of capitalist society – an occlusion that helps explain why Gandhi received support from India’s industrial magnates. Second, Berlinguer’s austerity programme was a component of his party’s historic compromise. The premise was that radical change inflames dominant interests, and hence leftists should tamp down social struggles and instead construct alliances with the parties of army, business and church. In a 1977 pamphlet, Austerity: Opportunity to Transform Italy, Berlinguer demanded a “rigorous pruning of the state”. This was a language that Thatcher could indeed understand.

– Gareth Dale

34 Resurgence & Ecologist

November/December 2019

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