Solidarity during the austere age

Aditya Chakrabortty, writing for the Guardian, considered Sweden’s recent and surprising troubles:

More than 20 cars torched in one night. School classrooms gutted by fire. Fifty far-right extremists chasing immigrants around a suburb.

You probably haven’t seen much about it in the papers, but for the past week Sweden has been racked by rioting. The violence began in a suburb of Stockholm, Husby, and spread around the capital’s edge before other cities went up in flames. Police have been pelted with stones; neighbourhoods have turned into no-go areas, even for ambulances. Such prolonged unrest is remarkable for Stockholm, as those few reporters sent to cover it have observed. Naturally enough, each article has wound up asking: why here?

It’s a good question. Don’t surveys repeatedly show Sweden as one of the happiest countries (certainly a damn sight cheerier than Britain)? Isn’t it famous for its equality, its warm welcome to immigrants? Whatever happened to Stockholm, capital of progressivism, the Mecca towards which Guardianistas face for their daily five minutes of mindfulness?

We all know the cliches, but the reality is they no longer fit the country so well. Whether it’s on the wealth gap, or welfare, or public services, Sweden is less “Swedish” than it has ever been. As in other continental capitals, the Stockholm version of the “European social model” is an increasingly tattered thing, albeit still appealed to by the political elites and still resonant in the popular culture. But the country seized by turbulence last week is becoming polarised, and is surrendering more of its public services over to private businesses (sometimes with disastrous effects). Those riot-scene correspondents ought not to be asking: why here? A better question, surely, is: if such instability can happen here, what might unfold elsewhere — including Britain?

Rioting has occurred in other OECD countries. Most notably, they took place in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and Turkey since the onset of the Great Recession. The United States also produced the peaceful Occupy Movement, which the various governmental bodies suppressed with rioting police forces. The causes of unrest are the same across Europe and in the United States: Growing inequality, social polarization, austerity and, in some instances, economic stagnation. Sweden is a special case, as Chakrabortty avers. Its welfare state was notable for its commitment to collective security and to economic growth. The Swedish economy continues to grow. But the Swedes are slowly jettisoning their commitment to collective security, to solidarity. This is when the authorities need the police to keep order. This is when the democratic class struggle becomes class warfare.

Neoliberalism is an ideology and a compulsion

The symbol of the Euro in front of the Europea...

Mike Whitney and Dean Baker argue that those leading the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund (The Troika) find it difficult to experience the world but through the lens of their idiotic economic theory. Baker had the recent opportunity to observe the Troika in action. He drew this conclusion:

There is no economic reasoning behind the troika’s positions. For practical purposes, Greece and the other debt-burdened countries are dealing with crazy people. The pain being imposed is not a route to economic health; rather it is a gruesome bleeding process that will only leave the patient worse off. The economic doctors at the troika are clueless when it comes to understanding a modern economy.

Mike Whitney’s analysis affirms Baker’s assessment. Whitney notes that, “If Greece’s €130 billion loan was going to be used for fiscal stimulus, then it might be worth the commitment. Because that kind of money could put a lot people back to work and kick-start the economy fast.” Yet…he continues by observing:

But the loan isn’t going to be used for stimulus. It’s going to be used to recapitalize the banks and pay off creditors, neither of which will do anything to boost activity or create jobs. So, why bother? Why dig an even deeper hole if it achieves nothing? If that’s the case, then Greece should just default now and start rebuilding the economy ASAP. There’s no point in putting it off any longer.

Indeed, why would Greece accept the bitter medicine dispensed by the European Union?

The troika (the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund) is demanding another €3 billion in spending cuts even though unemployment is tipping 20 percent and the economy shrank 7 percent in the last quarter. What sense does that make? You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that Greece won’t reach its budget targets if tax revenues continue to fall because everyone’s either been laid off or taking a pay-cut. It will just make a bad situation even worse. But the troika doesn’t worry about these type of things. They don’t care that their lamebrain economic theories have failed miserably so far, or that their austerity measures have been a complete flop. They just keep plugging along making the same mistakes over and over again, impervious to the criticism of reputable economists, oblivious to the abysmal results, they remain steadfast in their commitment to belt tightening, sure that a strict diet of breadcrumbs and water is the best way to nurse an ailing economy back to health. It doesn’t bother them that the facts prove otherwise.

An austerity politics entails personal suffering for many people. It immiserates them by design. This effect is considered a feature of an austerity regime. And the Greeks have already suffered, as we know. But an austerity politics also makes little sense during a recession. It is a policy regime a crazy person recommends.

The upshot: The government of Greece, if it were rational, would take the Argentinean path to recovery. Country debt and risk are not perpetual prison sentences. If Greece were to take this path, it would default on its obligations and exit the European Union (advocated here). It ought to do so because its current predicament and the proposed — or imposed — ‘remedy’ for it will only serve to transfer wealth to the financial institutions holding Greece’s debt and, of course, to plunder the country of those assets worth owning (discussed by Michael Hudson here). Greek “have-nots” have and continue to protest this imperial imposition on their country. It is rational for them to do this just as it is rational for the Greek government default on its financial obligations and jettison the Euro.

Related articles

The consequences of an asuterity politics

Greece under the yoke

English: Various Euro bills.

Reuters reported that:

Greece must surrender control of its budget policy to outside institutions if it cannot implement reforms attached to euro zone rescue measures, the German economy minister was quoted as saying on Sunday.

The fact that the German Economic Minister made this already credible statement indicates that Greece lacks control over its budget. The issue at hand is whether the European Union would exercise direct or indirect control over the Greek budget, not whether Greece would control its own budget.

Quote of the day

Serge Halami of Le Monde Diplomatique appropriately compared the recent European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (“the troika”) intervention in Greece’s affairs to the Soviet Union’s termination of the Prague Spring:

For people in countries suffering under austerity measures, the history of Europe provides some outstanding examples. In some ways, recent events in Athens recall Czechoslovakia in 1968: the crushing of the Prague Spring and the removal of the Communist leader Alexander Dubcek. The troika has played the same part in reducing Greece to a protectorate as the Warsaw Pact did in Czechoslovakia, with Papandreou in the role of Dubcek, but a Dubcek who would never have dared to resist. The doctrine of limited sovereignty has been applied, though admittedly it is preferable and less immediately lethal to have its parameters set by rating agencies rather than by Russian tanks rolling over the borders.

Having crushed Greece and Italy, the EU and the IMF have now set their sights on Hungary and Spain.

Both interventions were intended to undermine democratic accountability in a peripheral state. Both, by the way, were successful.

Quote of the day

Michael Hudson wrote:

The easiest way to understand Europe’s financial crisis is to look at the solutions being proposed to resolve it. They are a banker’s dream, a grab bag of giveaways that few voters would be likely to approve in a democratic referendum. Bank strategists learned not to risk submitting their plans to democratic vote after Icelanders twice refused in 2010-11 to approve their government’s capitulation to pay Britain and the Netherlands for losses run up by badly regulated Icelandic banks operating abroad. Lacking such a referendum, mass demonstrations were the only way for Greek voters to register their opposition to the €50 billion in privatization sell-offs demanded by the European Central Bank (ECB) in autumn 2011.

Hudson follows this passage by making a case for the euthanasia of the rentier class (Keynes) and for fiat money. To be sure, his solutions are as politically improbable as they are humanly necessary.

A note on the obliteration of the ‘responsible’ left in Europe and the United States

Serge Halimi rightly points out that:

The Occupy Wall Street protests in the US are also directed against the Street’s representatives in the Democratic Party and the White House. The protesters probably don’t know that Socialists in France still consider Barack Obama exemplary, since, unlike President Sarkozy, he had the foresight to take action against banks. Is there a misunderstanding? Those who are unwilling or unable to attack the pillars of the neoliberal order (financialisation, globalisation of movements of capital and goods) are tempted to personalise the disaster, to attribute the crisis in capitalism to poor planning or mismanagement by their political opponents. In France it’s Sarkozy, in Italy Berlusconi, in Germany Merkel, who are to blame. And elsewhere?

Elsewhere, and not only in the US, political leaders long considered as models by the moderate left also face angry crowds. In Greece, the president of the Socialist International, George Papandreou, is pursuing a policy of extreme austerity: privatisations, cuts in the civil service, and delivering economic and social sovereignty to a ultra-neoliberal “troika” (1). The conduct of the Spanish, Portuguese and Slovenian governments reminds us that the term “left” is now so debased that it is no longer associated with any specific political content.

The current French Socialist Party spokesman explains the impossible situation of European social democracy very clearly: in his new book Tourner la page, Benoît Hamon writes: “In the European Union, the European Socialist Party is historically associated, through the compromise linking it with Christian democracy, with the strategy of liberalising the internal market and the implications for social rights and public services. Socialist governments negotiated the austerity measures that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund wanted. In Spain, Portugal and Greece, opposition to the austerity measures is naturally directed against the IMF and the European Commission, but also against the socialist governments … Part of the European left no longer denies that it is necessary, like the European right, to sacrifice the welfare state in order to balance the budget and please the markets. … We have blocked the march of progress in several parts of the world. I cannot resign myself to this” (2).

Others think the debasement is irreversible because it is connected to the gentrification of European socialists and their lack of contact with the world of work.

The upshot: Leftist reformers in Europe and America’s legacy parties will never implement radical and desirable reforms unless large and active movements compel them to do so.

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