THERE is growing concern about the potential for Artificial Intelligence to be used to spread misinformation and undermine democracy. But what if some of the most damaging misinformation has become an integral part of our national conversation?
Austerity, a policy adopted by Conservative Chancellor George Osborne in 2010, is an economic approach which has been comprehensively debunked as a theory, and shown to be extremely damaging and counterproductive in practice.
In 2015, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote: “It is rare, in the history of economic thought, for debates to get resolved this decisively. The austerian ideology that dominated elite discourse five years ago has collapsed, to the point where hardly anyone still believes it. Hardly anyone, that is, except the coalition that still rules Britain – and most of the British media.” Yet eight years later, not only have the Conservatives continued to practice austerity, the Labour leadership has begun talking about ‘tough decisions’ and ‘no money left’. Respected economists have condemned this, with one dubbing it, “the economics of the kindergarten”.
Many people may not realise just how lethal austerity has been for the people of the UK. In 2022 researchers concluded that, prior to the pandemic, over 300, 000 deaths in Britain could be attributed to the UK government’s austerity measures. Researcher Dr David Walsh, stated: “These figures are not only shocking but shameful. And we must remember that these are more than just statistics: they represent hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been cut short, and hundreds of thousands of families who have had to deal with the grief and aftermath of those deaths. The tragic thing is that these deaths did not have to happen. In the words of the United Nations, in a society as wealthy as the UK, ‘poverty is a political choice’. The UK Government needs to understand the damaging impact of austerity and respond with policies that put us back on the path of improving, not worsening, life expectancy for all.”
Prof Ruth Dundas, Professor of Social Epidemiology added: “This study shows that in the UK a great many more deaths are likely to have been caused by UK Government economic policy than by the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to reverse the austerity policies and protect the income, and therefore the health, of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.”
And of course when the pandemic hit, austerity had left our public services ill-equipped to cope, resulting in who knows how many more avoidable deaths?
So we know that austerity is an economic approach which doesn’t work and is extremely harmful. It has caused so many deaths and blighted so many lives, it could be argued that continuing to implement it would be ‘social murder’ as defined by Friedrich Engels.
And yet, in UK politics, austerity just will not die. Why is that? Is it that our media is owned and dominated by non-domiciled billionaires, and for them, austerity works very well? Austerity is effectively a continuing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Thirteen years of it has seen the wealth of UK billionaires triple, while the bottom fifth of the population now have the lowest share of total income since records began in 1977.
So for the billionaires who own our media, austerity has worked very well. And because they set the news agenda, and supply the information on which most people form their opinions, our politicians seem terrified of challenging this approach, and thus attracting their wrath. Jeremy Corbyn’s fate illustrates what happens to politicians who dare to do so. As Peter Oborne wrote in 2020: “Lie after lie was told about Corbyn, day after day, month after month. For the last four years very few journalists have bothered to do their job to fact-check the claims and report fairly on him.”
With a commercial media so dominated by vast private wealth, one would hope that this is where the BBC would come in, to balance and even challenge the dominant pro-austerity narrative. Sadly, this has rarely been the case.
In 2020, following a complaint from 24 leading economists, the BBC commissioned a review of its coverage of public spending, government borrowing and debt. One of the review’s main findings was: “Some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realise this can be contested and contestable.” Also: “Too often, it’s not clear from a report that fiscal policy decisions are also political choices; they’re not inevitable, it’s just that governments like to present them that way. The language of necessity takes subtle forms; if the BBC adopts it, it can sound perilously close to policy endorsement.” The review identified the problem, but very little seems to have changed in the BBC’s output.
So we have had 13 years of a discredited and deeply damaging economic approach being heavily promoted and going largely unchallenged. The nonsensical concepts of, ‘the nation’s credit card’, or the national finances resembling a household budget, have been internalised by much of the population. Even as super-rich individuals and corporations get ever richer, some people seem resigned to a steadily declining quality of life, because they have been persuaded that anything that would make life better is ‘unaffordable’.
But whenever a politician says we can’t afford something, that is a political choice. Think of the tens of billions that appeared almost overnight for (often extremely dubious) PPE contracts, Test and Trace, furlough schemes etc.
Do we imagine that if Britain was suddenly at war with another country, the government would say we can’t afford to fight? Of course not. So why not declare war on poverty, ill health, crumbling public services and environmental degradation? Why not fight that battle? A well-educated, healthy, secure, and hopeful population is what we should be aiming for, not ‘balancing the books’.
After the Second World War, when the UK’s debt to GDP ratio was so much higher than it is now, a Labour government spent what was needed to build the foundations of a good society – decent council housing, the NHS, and the welfare state. The result was a more prosperous country. The challenges facing us now – the climate emergency, growing poverty, crumbling public services – also require big and bold investments, which would pay dividends in so many ways. The alternative is the spiral of decline which we now see all around us.
The choice not to eradicate child poverty or properly pay NHS staff is just that – a choice. The idea that austerity is necessary or inevitable, or even effective, is misinformation. And this misinformation is more dangerous because it’s so pervasive, accepted and promoted by trusted sources. But it is wrong. The alternative, investing in people and public services and green infrastructure is beneficial, economically sound, and morally right.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden