Earlier today an invite to a conference entitled ‘The Right to Truth, Justice and Reparation in Latin America’ popped up in my inbox. Quite a long time ago – a previous life it seems – I was a Latin-Americanist, with a specialisation in Chilean memory politics.
In my work studying the effects of Chile’s 2004 Truth Commission about Torture I highlighted the way in which the Truth Commission had changed popular understanding of the facts: whether or not torture had actually happened; but did not affect the more generalised narratives of the dictatorship: the stories people told about the past, and the ways in which they situated themselves in those stories.
I came to this distinction between fact and narrative through my reading of all available mainstream newspapers before, during and after the torture commission, as well as through in-depth interviewing of relevant actors. I found that the establishment-sanctioned understanding of torture had gone, to paraphrase, from ‘a couple of communists beating each other up’ to ‘a systematic attempt on the part of the state to annihilate the human dignity and identity’ of at least 30.000 victims.
What had not changed, however, was the understanding of the 1973 coup as being ‘not good but necessary’: Pinochet and the repression and austerity he imposed were seen as having been necessary for the economic development of the country. Torture as a historical fact had changed, but the wider narratives that these episodes of torture slotted into had not changed.
It strikes me that this distinction of fact vs. narratives is quite useful when thinking about austerity politics in Europe and the UK today: it feels that we are seeing far more of the latter, with scant attention paid to the former. This is a pity, as it is well understood that people tend to really change their minds not due to facts, but due to stories, human-interest tearjerkers winning over stats every time.
We are in the paradoxical situation where George Osborne’s good housekeeping argument – if your household were in debt you would not spend more – and Ian Duncan Smith’s seemingly fictional families where “three generations […] have never worked” have more political currency than, say, the news that Reinhart and Rogoff’s academic justification for austerity has been completely discredited, even by the authors themselves. Even though Reinhart and Rogoff have personally corrected their error, Osborne today told ‘The Today Programme’:
“We need more time to dispute your complete dismissal of the work of Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. They made a very substantial contribution to our understanding of the impact of banking crises on economies”
Last week, the RSA played host to two very interesting talks about Austerity, each emphasising how their facts ran counter to the political narratives used to uphold the unprecedented levels of austerity that we are seeing in the UK today.
Mark Blyth spoke of the historical intoxication with the idea of Austerity from Locke onwards, which was widely accelerated throughout the 1980s with the rise of ‘absurdly mathematical economics,’ which hinged on mathematical models that ‘collapse under the slightest pressure’. He argued that leaders such as Osborne and Merkel were now ‘boxed in’ by austerity politics: having argued this far, this hard, Blyth holds that Osborne probably knows austerity ‘is pants’ but he cannot turn around and say ‘sorry guys, my bad’: it would be political suicide.
— Gaia Marcus (@la_gaia) May 23, 2013
David Stuckler argued – pithily – that austerity kills, and that the supposed benefits of austerity have not materialised. To cite the hard case, in Greece we have seen a 200% rise in HIV infections, the return of previously eradicated diseases such as malaria, and a 60% increase in suicides; the UK has also seen a rise in ‘economic suicides’ and increased TB, and we are yet to see the full impact of cuts.
— Dawn Foster (@DawnHFoster) May 22, 2013
Beyond country by country examples, Stuckler pointed to how the IMF held that they had “underestimated the negative effect of austerity on job losses and the economy”.
— Mairi Ryan (@Mairi) May 22, 2013
So having given you all my facts, I turn full circle. If the facts point in the opposite direction of the accepted narratives, what can be done? We can now hold that the fear of political suicide is leading to actual real economic suicides; we can hold that a scantly evidenced, ideologically based attack on the nature of the state is having dire effects on its citizens. But this is my reading of some available facts, and you will agree or disagree depending on your personal stance on the economy and the state: other people’s data is easy to discredit.
In my work in Chile I found that the only time that people’s narratives had changed around the dictatorship was when they themselves had been personally affected. Does this mean that we all have to suffer job losses or health deterioration; will we all have to have a nasty brush with ATOS or suffer the ill-effected of half-baked privatisation first-hand?
Both Stuckler and Blyth have a suggested rule in common: first do no harm. When I was studying my memory politics the damage had already been done. Austerity politics is being streamed live, and the facts are stacking up. What stories can we start telling in order to make ‘doing no harm’ the politically expedient option?