The ‘Resilience’ of ‘Austerity’: Behind the Hype of Buzzwords

It is not a simple task to convince a government – especially in developing countries where the need for prosperity and better income distribution is dire – to shoot its own foot by adopting growth-thwarting, job-losing “stabilisation” policies.

For this reason, back in the 1990’s promoters and advocates of the Washington Consensus employed a whole lexicon of catchphrases and buzzwords to build a moral-sounding, all-enveloping discourse in which to couch a hard kernel of neoliberal recipes.

Despite Prof. Stiglitz’s assertion, at the time, that “there is no standard terminology for these sets of doctrines“[1], the fact is that the glossary of ‘fiscal responsibility’ (entailing fiscal ‘adjustment’ and, later ‘consolidation’), ‘deregulation’, ‘trade liberalisation’, ‘privatisation’, ‘reforms’ (tax ‘reform’, pensions ‘reform’), ‘flexibility’ (as in “labour-market flexibility”) was consistently and continuously used by policy makers, mainstream economists, market analysts and assorted pundits through the years, and went a long way to persuade politicians and public opinion to subscribe to their “well-meaning attempt“[2]to build and disseminate a neoliberal policy agenda.

A quarter of a century on, those policies are still riding high with the political and financial Establishment all over the world, although awareness of their consequences in terms of unemployment and worsening income distribution, particularly (though not exclusively) in developing countries, has been steadily growing.

With orthodox economic policy being relegated to the backburner, albeit temporarily, by the need for emergency government action in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008-09, a revamping of the ‘stabilisation’ discourse became the order of the day.

That sternest of Protestant moral virtues, ‘austerity’, was given various concurrent meanings[3] and co-opted to drive home the neoliberal policy agenda’s commonsensical “no pain, no gain” rationale. From official government documents to television newscasts, from specialists’ reports to doorstep canvassing, explanations and, chiefly, exhortations to economic ‘austerity’ were everywhere to be found over the past few years.

But the addenda and corrigenda to the neoliberal lexicon extends far beyond this. Indeed, its rewrite is currently in full swing. A new paper by Romain Felli, of the University of Geneva, titled The World Bank’s Neoliberal Language of Resilience, offers detailed insight on how the notion of ‘resilience’ has been steadily incorporated into the World Bank’s discourse.[4]

Two key aspects of Prof. Felli’s work make his article well worth reading. First, it reveals the conceptual evolution of ‘resilience’ from a parameter that could be observed (and measured, as in the notorious string of “stress tests” conducted on financial institutions in the immediate post-crisis period) into a quality or property that can be built or achieved.

Second, the paper shows how, quite beyond its by-now commonplace meaning in a financial context, ‘resilience’ is being increasingly applied in very diverse and often unexpected contexts, such as unemployment studies, development policy, as well as natural risks and disasters, and socio-ecological systems.

The paper also highlights how ‘resilience” is being ascribed to quite different entities (human beings, territories, ecosystems, institutions, infrastructures, etc), while pointing out that it “tends to be imbued with normatively positive values“.

Felli’s work should prove useful to all those who want to be able to strip away the layers of subjective, moralising discourse that often envelop neoliberal proposals and agendas that, today more than ever, must be made to lay bare their objective and scientific underpinnings.

[1] STIGLITZ, J., in Economic Science, Economic Policy, and Economic Advice, p.58, Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics on “Knowledge for Development.” Washington D.C.: The World Bank. April 20 and 21

[2] KOLODKO, G., in Ten Years of Postsocialist Transition: Lessons for Policy Reforms, p.10, Policy Research Working Paper n. 2095, Washington D.C.: The World Bank. April, 1999.

[3] ANDERSON, B. & MINNEMAN, E., in The Abuse and Misuse of the Term “Austerity”: Implications for OECD Countries, OECD Journal on Budgeting, Volume 2014 Issue 1.

[4] To be published in a special issue of Research in Political Economy, vol. 31, 2016, pp. 267-295, “Risking Capitalism”, guest edited by Susanne Soederberg.n.