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We're All in This Together: The Half-Truths of the Age of Austerity

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2011 saw one phrase become increasingly popular across the globe. You would have to have your head in the sand or your fingers permanently in your ears to miss it.

'We are all in this together'.

It's usually uttered by our leaders when they are telling us that we have to tighten our belts, stop using our credit cards, or that - given the financial situation - we can't expect the same kind of public services that we have become increasingly used to.

Given that this phrase is often trotted out by world leaders who are multimillionaires in their own right, the notion that we are 'all' in this together seems somewhat unlikely. A fiscal contraction for someone with millions in the bank is going to be approached with far less pain than someone who has little to start with.

Yet there is a grain of truth in that overly used phrase - at least for a growing majority of people in what have until now been the affluent western economies.
Consider the following facts:

· Half of all US citizens live in poverty: a truly shocking statistic from the world's richest nation.
· In the UK, one in one hundred families is facing eviction from their home.
· In Greece, many public sector workers are either facing unemployment or drastic cuts in their salaries of around 25%.
· And in Ireland, despite austerity measures that saw similarly drastic reductions in pay and a sharp rise in unemployment, the credit agency Moody's has downgraded Irish bank debt to junk status, reflecting concerns that Ireland is unlikely to be able to ride out the crisis.

As we enter 2012, a growing majority of people are living close to the breadline - and in some cases are living beneath it. This contraction in living standards is not something that we in the western world have experienced for a long time. At the same time, huge bonuses continue to be paid to those working in the financial sector, and many are rightly asking why they should be taking a hit when others are not.

So if some are in it more than others, what glimmers of hope might there be for 2012?
One of the events that will unite the world is the Olympic Games to be held in London. This promises to be exciting for many of us and will certainly provide a lift from the gloom of austerity. But despite all the razzamatazz, the music and the thrill of competition, there will still be homeless families on our streets, children living in poverty and many individuals without jobs or the hope of finding of a job.

The danger of the Olympics is that it offers a convenient distraction from the fact that our societies are not dealing equitably with the realities of fiscal contraction.

To seek a distraction from bleak times is understandable. But those of us in social democratic parties need to find ways of drawing upon the experiences of the growing number of people who are at the tough end of austerity in order to establish the momentum that will lead to a different kind of society. Given the numbers, it is difficult for governments to marginalise their experience, or for the majority to forget them. After all, 'the majority' are those who are struggling to make ends meet. And many of these are lower paid workers.

For political leaders concerned to protect the interests of the minority, a tried and tested method is to seek to create divisions within the hard pressed majority. The increasing rhetoric concerning the benefit scrounger at a time when unemployment rates are rising is one way in which this is currently being done.

Solidarity not division is needed if the language of austerity is to be effectively challenged.
We might start by questioning some of the assumptions that have grown up over the last 20 or so years of relative affluence. We might ask who benefits from the growing gap between rich and poor. We might consider the ways in which all might benefit from less economic disparity: less crime, less mental illness, less fear. We might consider the benefits of creating a society where all have a stake in its success. Such societies do exist, and we need only look to Scandinavia for some possible ways forward.

If we are bold enough in our thinking and our solutions we might be able to create something where we really are 'all in it together'. Rather than those words being used to soften us up for a bleak future, they could instead stand as a slogan for the coming together of the majority to create a better future for all our people.

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