Austerity: the grim truth (including lessons from the Persian Empire)

And so, in this series of anti-Tory blogs, to the monstrous, never-ending policy of austerity. But first a deviation to set the scene. Stick with it.

The Persian empire, the first and arguably the greatest of the Levant, arose spectacularly from nomadic tribes. It was highly successful as an integrated, administrative system. Its spread covered Egypt and Macedonia in the West, to the Caucasus in the North, and down to modern day Afghanistan. Much of its stability was based on a prudent mix of cultural tolerance with militaristic command-and-control. Having conquered Egypt, initially with ruthless bloodshed, for example, Cambyses (father of Cyrus the Great) had himself installed as a Pharaoh, in Egyptian costume and honouring Egyptian gods. He elevated the Egyptian courtier, Udjahorresnet, as his favoured local administrator (the Satrap), and left Egyptians to their religious and cultural practices.

But there was a ‘glue’ that held this diverse empire together, beyond brute enforcement. This was the strict balance between Truth (Arta) and the Lie (Drauga). What lay within the protective walls of the empire, what bound its diverse peoples and cultures together, was adherence to ‘the Truth’, manifest and embodied in the ruler, the Great Khan. Beyond its borders lay those who had succumbed to the Lie and who propagated it. This was more than an act of obedience and loyalty. Truth had a metaphysical significance – something like the Greek concept of ‘virtue’ in the well-balanced, ‘virtuous’ society in which all knew their role and enacted it to its best. Truth signified a society with an ‘X-factor’ that protected it from corrosion and despair, that kept it on the path of continuity and renewal. Religious belief (worship of the god Ahuramazda) was based on Zoroastrian principles of ‘good thoughts’, ‘good words’, and ‘good deeds’.The Lie, on the other hand, had demonic properties, along with a viral tendency to infect and spread ‘badness’, to undermine and displace this commitment to a virtuous life. The Truth is what binds us together as one; the lie threatens to cast us into dispute and chaos.

This elevation of the loyal/disloyal duality to the status of a metaphysical principle is, of course, reproduced throughout history. Most obviously, perhaps, in the Catholic church which defended its truth against the ‘lie’ of Galileo, for example, and Copernicus, and which routinely burnt people at the stake who manifestly carried the virus of ‘the lie’ within them. Autocrats and dictators use it, though they may have no need of them where they have an Inquisition, or a STASI or a KGB or Religious Police. But revolutionary regimes typically adopt ‘the Truth’ and ‘the Lie’ as a secular system of belief. It was not enough in Mao’s China to be materially loyal to the State – you had to believe Communist principles to your bones, as it were – or else you were to be re-educated. In autocratic, revolutionary regimes it is not enough comply with political discipline, one must adopt its faith, allow it into your mind and heart.

We have it right now, in Britain. It is the great, global narrative of debtand austerity, the revolution of the wealthy against the poor and the middle classes, the redemptive movement to restore wealth from its dispersal as welfare, back to its rightful owners. Those who embody greed as a virtue. We who deny debt are the viral ‘liars’ who threaten to tear asunder the fabric of society – we are “deniers”. The ‘Lie’ (debt denial) is a position against the new moral order – the revolution must be part of our faith system – we must believe in austerity. In this way, the Conservative ruling classes embrace the working classes with their paternalism – “we are all in this together”. Even though it should be clear, by now, that the interests of Conservative parties are diametrically opposed to the interests of working people. It is in the interests of the wealthy to nurture the accumulation and concentration of private wealth; it is in the interests of working people to limit private wealth and to collectivise it for the good of all.

In fact, as Barry Kushner and I showed in our book, Who Needs The Cuts: Myths Of Economic Crisis, there was no strong case for austerity in 2010 when it was announced by George Osborne (as turbo-charged Thatcherism), and there is no case now. Well-managed debt is the driver of economic growth. In a grotesquely Orwellian, but historically familiar way, the ‘Truth’ of austerity, giving it the status of a moral imperative, is, itself, the Lie.

But under this revolutionary regime there is not even an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ at all. There is only ‘us’ – the ‘us’ that stands against the Lie. In the UK, the Labour Party is claimed not to be a legitimate heir of government. In a profoundly anti-democratic way the Conservatives do not argue against Labour as a party in opposition, but as a force that follows ‘the Lie’ and which is a threat to the very fabric of society. They recognise no virtue in the Labour Party – it is not a political option, it can have no place within the walls of a virtuous society loyal to the Truth. In a shameful display of contempt, Tory rhetoric places Labour outside the walls of democratic society. In the revolutionary circus that is UK politics right now, this cynical switch of truth/lie is a corrosive acid. Austerity is a grim truth, indeed.

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