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Austerity’s Hidden Purpose

Even if everyone agreed that printing another trillion dollars to finance a basic income for the poor would boost neither inflation nor interest rates, the rich and powerful would still oppose it. After all, their most important interest is not to conserve economic potential, but to preserve the power of the few to compel the many.

ATHENS – Back in the 1830s, Thomas Peel decided to migrate from England to Swan River in Western Australia. A man of means, Peel took along, besides his family, “300 persons of the working class, men, women, and children,” as well as “means of subsistence and production to the amount of £50,000.” But soon after arrival, Peel’s plans were in ruins.

The cause was not disease, disaster, or bad soil. Peel’s labor force abandoned him, got themselves plots of land in the surrounding wilderness, and went into “business” for themselves. Although Peel had brought labor, money, and physical capital with him, the workers’ access to alternatives meant that he could not bring capitalism.

Karl Marx recounted Peel’s story in Capital, Volume I to make the point that “capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons.” The parable remains useful today in illuminating not only the difference between money and capital, but also why austerity, despite its illogicality, keeps coming back.

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