Since the onset of the current global financial crisis, the main policy of European Union member states to engineer a recovery has been to cut public spending. Accordingly, Europe finds itself in an age of austerity with ever-increasing cuts to welfare benefits, social programmes, and funding for public institutions. Austerity has shown itself to be an extremely durable policy and has survived the fact that it has failed to engineer an economic recovery whilst having considerable negative social effects on communities.
In this essay, it is argued that public support for austerity is bolstered by the prevalence of neoliberal values in European culture. By internalising values such as competition and individual responsibility, citizens are receptive to austerity. Here, the policy is framed by its proponents as a means to make individuals less reliant on government handouts and instead work hard to succeed in a free-market economy.
The implementation of austerity coincides with the dominance of an ideological agenda that legitimizes the use of taxpayers’ money to bail out banks – without these coming into public ownership. At the same time, attention is deflected away from the role of financial and corporate elites in the lead-up to the Eurozone Crisis.
Public opinion on austerity is largely shaped by the type of information which is disseminated to citizens. The power of austerity is thus strengthened by the fact that the discourse of actors such as politicians, television broadcasters, newspapers, and think tanks is strongly influenced by the increasing strength of neoliberal values in European culture. Thus, despite the welfare state being a constituent part of European society since the late nineteenth century, the dominance of the neoliberal narrative, which frames those who rely on benefits as lazy and irresponsible, enhances public support for cuts to social spending. In fact, citizens not only accept, but actually reinforce austerity by demonizing those who rely on benefits whilst also giving legitimacy to the governments implementing the policy.
The challenge for anti-austerity movements is to break the monopoly that the pro-austerity camp has on the information which is disseminated to citizens as well as cultural perceptions of those who rely on the welfare state. Consequently, it is essential to mobilize citizens by challenging the common sense that the Eurozone Crisis was caused by public spending. This also involves combating the assault of the pro-austerity camp on the welfare state and those who receive benefits. The mobilization of communities against austerity can be achieved by initiating an information campaign which succeeds in making the negative effects of austerity more tangible to citizens. By linking local issues such as the closure of community centres and increasing dependence on food banks to higher political processes, it is possible to mobilize citizens against austerity.