Austerity and the politics of fear

There’s a deeper psychological play at work in the current response to our economic situation, one which threatens countless families and individuals across the province and which is actively being used to counter human potential.

Fear is one of the most powerful forms of political manipulation. Combined with feelings of guilt—particularly surrounding indebtedness—it can be used to counter social movements, ensure the continuing power of the corrupt, distract from rational dialogue, and stall effective policy.

This point is not lost in Newfoundland and Labrador, where deeply psychological uses of power are at work today in the Liberals’ imposition of austerity measures. Our province’s history shows over and over again the use of fear and indebtedness by ruling class elites to keep everyone else in line. Whether during the use of the truck system which once kept N.L.’s population perpetually indebted, or more recently via the threat of ‘returning’ to being a have-not province, fear remains a tool decision-makers use to keep people from asking challenging questions, and more importantly from experiencing the unity, confidence and empowerment necessary for us to keep government in line and operating always in the best interest of the people. 

This fear is ever present when politicians put forth the idea that if we don’t follow certain paths—ones which are all too often already recognized as being detrimental to an economy’s well-being—then we will return to ‘have not’ status, or we will risk losing the gains that have been made in this province in recent years. Of course the more complex questions about our provincial status, the ones many politicians and powerful interests do not want us to ask, are who is ‘have’ and who is ‘have-not’, and how do we protect ourselves from forces such as market volatility in the future?

 Political leaders often enforce and legitimize poor policy decisions with the assertion that they are necessary…

The ‘fear’ here is subtle but highly effective: Institutional problems that have led to the economic situation we face are blamed upon those who bear no responsibility for causing the problems, and those who are blamed are told to accept that blame for fear of the collapse of the institutions responsible. In this context the government’s constant hammering home of the message that ‘if we don’t do X, then horrible Y thing will happen’ is quite simply a form of psychological manipulation, perpetuated by the powerful and influential people who are supposed to be responsible to us but are instead perpetuating institutional faults at our expense. 

The arguments made by those with political power can seem rational, even moderate, but what is important is the psychology lurking behind the arguments. Political leaders often enforce and legitimize poor policy decisions with the assertion that they are necessary; the threat of bond agencies downgrading our province’s credit rating can offer an excellent excuse for an unjust budget, for instance. Industry can sing sweet songs of prosperity with one hand, and with the other hand threaten retaliation for any exercise of control over our own resources and destiny. The wealthy can claim they have already paid their dues to society, and that their quality of life shouldn’t be disturbed to the same degree as those living with less, and much less.

We know that the current austerity policies of the provincial government were preventable, and are still now avoidable. More to the point, these policies will not stop an economic situation such as ours from developing again. We could affect meaningful policy change — for instance, to reform the personal income tax for those earning the most in our province to resemble the more progressive taxation schemes of other provinces, and to utilize a progressive, not regressive, levy that does not target the poor. But our government refuses.

Caution vs. fear

There’s an important difference between fear and caution: a situation can be dire, the implications potentially disastrous, but the policy response can be based upon critical thinking, keeping the long-term benefit of society as a prime objective. Policy might need to be radically changed, but this can be done in way that creates a long-term roadmap. This is caution – the simultaneous acknowledgement and control of fear so as to figure out the specifics of complex problems and solutions.

By contrast ‘blind fear’ can be utilized very easily to distract from understanding all of the possible solutions to a problem, and it preys upon our assumptions of what we expect the solution would be, rather than what those solutions actually are. Blind fear is a very good way to stifle effective policy-making, because instead of analyzing a problem to find out what (and who) has actually caused it, such fear causes us to turn on each other.

Instead of meaningful policy change to solve our economic crisis the everyday citizen is blamed, told they are hypocrites when they protest because they voted in the parties responsible – even if the party in question has lied to and betrayed them

Personal reform and self-improvement can be admirable, but these are largely ineffective without institutional reform, and calling for the institutional reform does not make someone a hypocrite. For instance, taxation can be used as a way to improve an economy if it is progressive and helps to encourage equality of opportunity and the greater benefit of society instead of reinforcing monopolies.

The political citizen and human potential

A healthy and sustainable long-term future plan requires strong social programs, progressive taxation, accessible education, support for small business, the localization of economic gains within communities, and an end to the tyranny of monopolistic interests. It means an end to idealistic fantasy that leaving complex systems unaccountable to those they impact most will magically work out for the general benefit of society.

There are plenty of people who want nothing more than to provide for themselves and their families. Yet this is not enough in and of itself to change our political and economic situation. To truly change things we must be more than just ethical consumers and regular voters who exercise their right every few years to elect a ‘new’ government. To truly change things we must be political citizens who do not wait for an election to make our voices heard. We must act to create institutional change, to reform large scale policy as much as our own personal actions.

 To truly change things we must be political citizens who do not wait for an election to make our voices heard.

The problem is not that the good do not exist. The problem is that the good are divided by those whose primary interest is self-benefit. Hatred, guilt, greed and fear are all political tools utilized by corrupt and self-serving interests within society to prevent those who wish to do the right thing from working together. But human nature is as much capable of compassion and self-sacrifice as it is greed; that we are too often taught to abandon the former is an unjustifiable act against human potential. 

As Jon Parsons wrote recently for The Independent, in the fight against austerity there is a need for broad-based solidarity, for empathy with the struggles of others.

I do not hate the political leaders who at this very moment are willfully making life unbearable for countless families and individuals, I pity them. Their small-mindedness is a weakness, not a strength, that most of them are unlikely to ever overcome.

Rather than play the political game it is far more effective to largely break with it, to engage with political leaders only on our own terms, not theirs. We need a new politics focused on issues, public engagement, and the preservation of human dignity and rights. We need to encourage, from birth onwards, the sort of critical thinking and human decency which would have avoided this economic mess from ever having occurred in the first place.

Money can speak very loudly, but the most invasive tool the powerful have is not physical or monetary — it is the fear we have within ourselves. And the last thing those with power want is for people to shed themselves of that fear.

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