At times, I do marvel how antiseptic, bland even, that the language of the most wretchedly villainous documents can be.
Last week, the European economic research team with JP Morgan, the global financial giant, put out a 16-page paper on the state of play of euro area adjustment. This involved a totting up of what work has been done so far and what work has yet to be done in terms of sovereign, household and bank deleveraging; structural reform (reducing labour costs, making it easier to fire workers, privatisation, deregulation, liberalising ‘protected’ industries, etc.); and national political reform.
The takeaway in the small amount of coverage that I’ve seen of the paper was that its authors say the eurozone is about halfway through its period of adjustment, so austerity is still likely to be a feature of the landscape “for a very extended period.”
The bankers’ analysis probably otherwise received little attention because it is a bit ‘dog bites man‘: Big Bank Predicts Many More Years of Austerity. It’s not really as if anyone was expecting austerity to disappear any time soon, however much EU-IMF programme countries have been offered a relaxation of debt reduction commitments in return for ramping up the pace of structural adjustment.
The lack of coverage is a bit of a shame, because it’s the first public document I’ve come across where the authors are frank that the problem is not just a question of fiscal rectitude and boosting competitiveness, but that there is also an excess of democracy in some European countries that needs to be trimmed.
“In the early days of the crisis, it was thought that these national legacy problems were largely economic: over-levered sovereigns, banks and households, internal real exchange rate misalignments, and structural rigidities. But, over time it has become clear that there are also national legacy problems of a political nature. The constitutions and political settlements in the southern periphery, put in place in the aftermath of the fall of fascism, have a number of features which appear to be unsuited to further integration in the region. When German politicians and policymakers talk of a decade-long process of adjustment, they likely have in mind the need for both economic and political reform.” [Emphasis added]
Yes, you read that right. It’s in dry, banker-ese, but the authors have basically said that the laws and constitutions of southern Europe are a bit too lefty, a product of their having been written by anti-fascists. These “deep-seated political problems in the periphery,” say authors David Mackie, Malcolm Barr and friends, “in our view, need to change if EMU is going to function properly in the long run.”
You think I’m perhaps exaggerating a smidge? They go into more detail in a section describing this “journey of national political reform”:
“The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left-wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism.”
All this is a load of historical horse-lasagna anyway. Italy for example never went through a process akin to Germany’s denazification, and in Spain, the democratising king, Juan Carlos, played a major role in the transition. Only in Greece and Portugal were there popular socialist insurrections that resulted in or contributed to the overthrow of the regimes: the Athens Polytechnic Uprising played a key role in the Metapolitefsi or ‘polity change’ (although much, much more than the crushed student protests were involved here, including a failed coup d’etat and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus), and in Portugal a proper left-wing rebellion, the Revolução dos Cravos or Carnation Revolution, brought down the Estado Novo regime. Although it is true in the case of the latter three countries that their late-in-the-day construction of welfare states in the 70s and 80s was largely carried out by social democratic forces, the architects of the Italian post-war state were the Christian Democrats, who dominated government for 50 years.
“Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labour rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis. Countries around the periphery have only been partially successful in producing fiscal and economic reform agendas, with governments constrained by constitutions (Portugal), powerful regions (Spain), and the rise of populist parties (Italy and Greece).”
Let’s parse that paragraph, shall we? Weak executives means strong legislatures. That should be a good thing, no? Let us remember that it is the parliament that is sovereign. The executive in a democracy is supposed to be the body that merely carries out the bidding of the legislature. There is a reason why liberal democracy opted for parliaments and not a system of elected kings.
Oh, and we want strong central states. None of this local democracy nonsense, please.
JP Morgan, and presumably the EU powerbrokers they are ventriloquising for, finally are being honest with us: they want to do away with constitutional labour rights protections and the right to protest. And there has to be some way to prevent people electing the wrong parties.
Thankfully though, the authors note, “There is a growing recognition of the extent of this problem, both in the core and in the periphery. Change is beginning to take place.”
In particular, they highlight how Spain has begun “to address some of the contradictions of the post-Franco settlement” and rein in the regions.
But other than that, sadly, the process of de-democratization (okay – I’m calling it that. They call it “the process of political reform”) has “barely begun”.
Well, the JP Morgan paper may have been written in English, but there is a venerable Spanish phrase that that all good anti-fascists right across the eurozone periphery know and is probably the simplest and best response to such provocation: ¡No pasarán!
Christ on a stick, that Portuguese Constitutional Court is a pain in the arse. This is the second bleeding time that they’ve ruled bits of austerity illegal. Will somebody please tell them they’re doing it wrong!
I don’t know if anybody’s noticed this, but it’s been just over a year since the EU’s Fiscal Compact was signed, the treaty that gives the European Court of Justice radical new powers to ensure compliance with permanent austerity in the eurozone and most of the not-so-eurozone (the UK and the Czech Republic excepted).
As a result of the Compact, the ECJ – which has been called a “rubber stamp for the EU institutions” by the editor of the European Law Review, legal scholar Damien Chalmers of the London School of Economics – is now the mouth-breathing, club-wielding mob enforcer for austerity.
Under the new treaty, the Court is to police the laws implemented to ensure budgets do not exceed three percent of GDP, that governments do not engage in “excessive macroeconomic imbalances” (which is not really defined, but you can bet that this does not include running deliberately neo-mercantilist economic and trade policies. I’ll not mention any names about who I’m referrring to there. Cough, Germany, cough), and that states bring down total government debt to 60 percent of GDP pretty damn quick – at an average rate of at least five percent a year until they get below the 60 percent reference point. For the average member state, this works out to be around a third of government debt.
If the required “implementation laws” – which are supposed to be made permanent, preferably constitutional – are not passed, the ECJ can hand out fines of up to 0.1 percent of GDP (it is presumed repeatedly) until a government corrects the problem.
The reason the court was given these powers was to remove the exiguous remaining sliver of democratic control over such matters. EU leaders of course don’t put it quite this way. They say instead that giving the court these powers will ‘depoliticise such decisions’. But it is exactly the same thing. De-politicise = de-democratise.
As Chalmers put it last year, shocked at the unprecedented control the judiciary had been given over fiscal policies:
“It might be thought that if national politicians decide to entrench a certain economic policy making model, it is ultimately their prerogative. They are accountable for that choice in both domestic and Union elections. Electorates can kick them out, if they wish, and bring in politicians who will change the policies. However, whilst it will still be possible to give the politicians a good kicking, it will only be that: an exercise in political sadism which will probably be enjoyable, certainly fetishistic, but ultimately only empty. For this is where the Court of Justice comes in. It is there to ensure that the policies cannot be changed whilst the Union lasts in the current format … The Court of Justice judges ensur[es] that there is not the slightest expression of democratic deviation.’”
But now, the Portuguese Constitutional Court has gone and ruled that proposed cuts to pensioners and public sector workers, and reductions in sick pay and unemployment benefits were unconstitutional. The cuts were part of the quid pro quo for the 2011 bail-out for the Iberian nation demanded by the EU Troika. Last year, the same court put a halt to the government suspending payment of a pair of monthly salary payments for civil servants in 2013 and 2014.
Don’t worry though. It’ll all be all right. Responding to the constitutional court’s latest decision, Portuguese centre-right Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho says he’ll just slash spending on health and education more deeply than he’d intended instead, so it all balances out.
But all of this still comes at an awkward time if the whole point of snatching decisions out of the hands of elected parliaments and handing them over to unaccountable judges is that the judges are supposed to stick to the austerity line.
No matter, decides the commission. We shall carry on regardless of how hypocritical it may appear. From Sunday’s communiqué out of Brussels, directing Lisbon to disregard the court’s decision:
“Any departure from the programme’s objectives, or their re-negotiation, would in fact neutralise the efforts already made and achieved by the Portuguese citizens, namely the growing investor confidence in Portugal, and prolong the difficulties from the adjustment.
“The Commission therefore trusts that the Portuguese Government will swiftly identify the measures necessary to adapt the 2013 budget in a way that respects the revised fiscal target as requested by the Portuguese Government and supported by the Troika in the 7th review of the programme.”
And here’s where they say that if Lisbon does not do so, the government might just not get that relaxation of the payment period for the existing loans that they’d been all but promised:
“It is a precondition for a decision on the lengthening of the maturities of the financial assistance to Portugal, which would facilitate Portugal’s return to the financial markets and the attainment of the programme’s objectives.”
And, just to be on the safe side, make sure there’s a cross-party consensus on this, mmm ‘kay? So that voters don’t get any ideas that they can change things:
“The Commission reiterates that a strong consensus around the programme will contribute to its successful implementation. In this respect, it is essential that Portugal’s key political institutions are united in their support.”
Just so we’re clear here: Voters cannot be trusted with electing the right people, so we are taking fiscal decisions out of their hands and giving these powers to judges instead. Courts shall enforce austerity. Except of course if they don’t. In which case, courts shall be disregarded.
Austerity is the law. It is the permanent and irreversible law. Should any other laws conflict with this, austerity rests above these laws.
Basically, austerity has crowned itself king, untrammelled by the laws of men. It’s the Joffrey Baratheon of economic policies.
There is an old Latin legal term for this, Princeps legibus solutus est (“The sovereign is not bound by the laws”), a concept first described by Ulpian, a Roman jurist from Tyre. Black’s Law Dictionary explains Legibus solutus further: “Released from the laws; not bound by the laws. An expression applied in the Roman civil law to the emperor.”
Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem.
What pleases the prince has the force of law.
I always burp up a metaphorical little mini-vomit into my mouth at use of the word ‘solidarity’ by European leaders, which they do far too often, completely misunderstanding what the word means. They drop this buzzword almost as often in discussions of the current crisis as they do the phrases ‘independent supervision’ or ‘budgetary discipline’ or ‘country X is a unique case’.
(Here – I’ve made a wee Austerityland Bingo pdf of crisis buzzwords and talking points for you to print out and play with the kids!)
This is the sort of thing I mean:
“The time has come for a new and deeper approach to economic integration. This implies striking the right balance between responsibility and solidarity in our economic policy-making,” said economics and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn in a 14 March speech.
“Germany is showing solidarity so that in the end, the crisis countries have a future,” German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told Munich daily Merkur on Wednesday. “So I would ask that the people at the top – the commission president and the Council president – demonstrate solidarity with us and defend the Germans against accusations.”
What is this ‘solidarity’ that Germany (and Finland, and the Netherlands and France and the IMF, and the ECB, etc., etc.) are showing? Lending money that flows straight back into core European financial institutional accounts? In return for slashing wages (‘internal devaluation’, as it is otherwise bloodlessly called), dismantling social services, privatisation of common property, and, let’s be honest, a trimming of democracy and, in Greece, repression of the street-led opposition to austerity severe enough for Amnesty International to denounce the abuses?
This is the consummate application of Doublespeak: The use of a term, solidarity, and its translations – that has been the watchword and bond of working people to each other, generation after generation, yea unto the 17th Century (or thereabouts) – in a way that deliberately reverses its meaning.
For ordinary people, for us, it is the word that means that we will take care of each other in good times and at all other times, but also, crucially, the obverse of this understanding, which is that we will all stand together, against any enemies, to stop any of us from coming to harm. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” was the motto of the Industrial Workers of the World, one of the first industrial unions.
All of this, this most human of behaviours, is the opposite of charity – not that charity even comes close to the ‘solidarity’ that is being imposed on the European periphery – and is offered without any expectation of exchange. Such concepts are so foreign to Europe’s current leaders that it is no wonder they are using the word wrong.
It has to be said though that there are some in the European opposition that are also misunderstanding the meaning of solidarity, or at least not permitting it to encompass all who require solidarity.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has written eloquently on the permanent state of exception – how governments in times of crisis extend their powers and rights of citizens are diminished or overridden; as well as the concept of homo sacer – the individual reduced to ‘bare life’, deprived of all rights and placed outside the law, such as the ‘non-combatants’ of Guantanamo Bay, afforded none of the rights allowed citizens or prisoners of war. (I appreciate many of his insights and actually doffed my cap to him last week when I created a Tumblr jokingly named after him, of a collection of photos of genuine Playmobil, Lego and Fisher Price ‘riot police’ toys – something perhaps tangentially related to this current blog.)
But a couple of weeks ago, evidently furious at perfidious Teutonia, Agamben departed somewhat from his academic focus and in a brief column – in Italian centre-left daily La Repubblica subsequently reprinted in its French analogue, LibérationLucasian, under the provocative, headline “The Latin Empire should strike back!” – he argued for the creation of a southern European bloc, or ‘Latin Empire’ (eliding non-Latin Greece into this configuration) in contradistinction if not opposition to the alleged German hegemon.
For him, the antagonism at the heart of Europe is not the elites of all nations against the rest of us of all nations, but nation vs nation, culture vs culture. Between the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, et al) and the ‘FANGs’ (Finland, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany et al).
“Not only is there no sense in asking a Greek or an Italian to live like a German but even if this were possible, it would lead to the destruction of a cultural heritage that exists as a way of life. A political unit that prefers to ignore lifestyles is not only condemned not to last, but, as Europe has eloquently shown, it cannot even establish itself as such.”
Sympathy for Cain
I have to say, as furious as I am at the German leadership, I have no time for those who would locate the source of injustice with Germany tout court. It is European elites and structures as a whole, however black-hearted Berlin has been, who bear responsibility for the current debacle.
Agamben and too many like him forget that is not ordinary Germans who are responsible for the hollowing out of democracy and economic shock therapy across Europe. They are as much victims as ordinary Greeks. Indeed, the German Social Democrat-Green administration of Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer at the turn of the millennium imposed the Agenda 2010 package of measures that to a great degree laid the groundwork for the current disaster by repressing domestic demand and embracing an aggressively mercantilist outlook to other European economies. Agenda 2010 comprised a radical programme of cuts to social welfare (healthcare, pensions, unemployment payments) and labour market deregulation that has ramped up poverty, precarity, and consolidated a low-wage underclass.
Germany is no economic miracle for regular Germans. Low levels of unemployment mask the fact that the country now has the largest temp agency workforce in Europe. Almost two percent of employees are now temps, earning on average 40 percent less than permanent workers. Conditions are atrocious in this shadow labour market, with temps often unpaid for their trial period, no fixed hourly rate, no sick pay, no overtime pay, no choice but to work through weekends and holidays, and wages as low as five euros an hour. According to the Bundesgentur fur Arbeit, in 2010, as Brussels was cheerleading German economic success amidst gloom elsewhere in the eurozone, 53% of all new job creation was in fact in the temporary sector. Companies such as BMW in Leipzig set up fake agencies that service only one firm, and transfer staff to the new ‘daughter company’, slashing wages by 40%.
A full quarter of the workforce now is in the low-wage sector, defined as under €9.54 in the west and €7 in the east, four fifths of them with either a completed apprenticeship or university education, according to a December report from the National Conference on Poverty (NAK). The number of elderly dependent on welfare benefits has climbed from 250,000 to 400,000 since 2005. A total of 12.4 million live below the poverty line.
Agamben in his recasting of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations as an Impero Latino vs Neues Reich struggle unfortunately fails to remember all this. In so doing, he also actually unintentionally buttresses the false Bild narrative of two irreconcilable cultures, of a frugal, industrious north and feckless, lazy, spendthrift south.
This nation vs nation construction is as spurious as European elites’ Orwellian view of solidarity. But where the first is the opposite of solidarity, Agamben calls for a genuine solidarity, but between the wrong people. This solidarity is the false unity of nationalism. However improbable the actual formation of an anti-German southern bloc (though the risk of a southern fraying of the EU is already being factored into long-term calculations by market actors), Agamben is not the first to make such arguments laying the blame at the door of the supposed ‘Hitler-Merkel’. little different in its way to the infamous piece in El Pais on 23 March by Univeristy of Seville economist and leading member of Attac Spain Juan Torres Lopez, “Germany vs Europe” (since withdrawn from the site [a worryingly censorious development, whatever one thinks of the author's words], but mirrored here) in which the author avers: “Merkel, like Hitler, has declared war on the rest of Europe, this time to secure their economic lebensraum”. (The Daily Telegraph’s Bruno Waterfield, an implacable opponent of EU post-democratic shenanigans and austerity strategy, makes a similar point about anti-German hysteria falling decidedly wide of the mark).
To argue for the overthrow of the current European austerian regime via a retreat to nations or ‘southern bloc’ is not so much problematic for any supposed awakening of slumbering daemons as is frequently argued by the likes of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and ex-Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker (It is quite clear, from the advent of Golden Dawn to Jobbik to Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders, they have already awoken quite within the bosom of a still-unified European Union), but that it does not target all those responsible for the crisis and for austerity. Domestic elites are left alone. While Papandreou, Berlusconi, Socrates and now Anastasiades were thrown under the bus, is the appropriate response really allying with these characters and the rest of their class, who still back the Brussels consensus and would have done little different to Merkel were they in her shoes?
Moreover, the Agamben view abandons those ordinary Germans to the depredations of the CDU-SPD-Green policy concurrence. The division in Europe is not between north and south but between the elites and the rest of us. To coin a phrase (an admittedly imprecise one to be sure, but still): the 1% versus the 99% – of all of Europe.
All this is not to say that there is some mass anti-austerity consciousness in Germany or Finland or elsewhere in the FANGs countries. Quite the contrary in Germany (although the Netherlands is a very different story). Indeed, as a result of the dominance of the Bild-Merkel narrative domestically, one of the most important efforts must be efforts at breaking its hold. There are groups bringing people from Greece to Germany on speaking tours, explaining what is actually happening. There will also be the protests outside the ECB headquarters – the Blockupy Frankfurt at the end of May in Frankfurt – an effort that repeats last year’s demonstrations against the central bank. These are some of the most important propagandistic endeavours in Europe at the moment.
And I’ve discussed before the rising of a pan-European movement against austerity and European post-democracy. It’s still baby steps, but the one-day general strike last 14 November – the first such cross-border general strike in history, was a major advance even if largely symbolic. And, crucially, networks linking up the opposition across borders have been in operation for about a year and a half now, although again, these seem to replicate already-existing left-NGO/academic grapevines that in the past have come together for other issues and now just repurposed for the current conjuncture (a criticism they themselves recognise and are working to transcend). Suffice it to say that there are many who understand the meaning of the word ‘solidarity’, but discussions of European anti-austerity resistance strategy is a topic for a blog post another day.
From Colour Revolutions to locum tenens for a prodigal social democracy
More interesting to me for the purposes of discussing what solidarity really means in Europe today is the curious phenomenon of ‘Solidarity Now‘, Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros’s new crypto-anti-austerian endeavour, launched this week.
The scheme aims to bring together ordinary Greeks in difficult situations with ordinary Europeans from outside Greece to establish social centres, or what the group is calling ‘Solidarity Centres’, focussing on healthcare, heating, housing, legal aid, job-seeking assistance, and support for vulnerable groups such as elderly and migrants.
Combining a sort of Kickstarter, crowd-sourced funding with cash from one of the richest men in the world, Solidarity Now will match small donations from “people around Europe and larger contributions from philanthropies and individuals” to “offer space to new and existing civil society organisations in Greece, facilitating cooperative community solutions to pressing social and economic problems. Each locally run centre will address the unique needs of its community.”
But before we go any further, do have a look at this remarkable video produced to promote the quite fascinating project:
I have to say that I’ve watched this clip about five times now and I still get goosebumps and watery eyes (but then I’m a complete big-girl’s blouse when it comes to these sorts of things. I get watery eyes at Apple adverts and that clip of the view from the International Space Station at night and the complete Space Shuttle missions), so I have to remember to put away my maudlin and sentimentalist tendencies in a box for a minute and analyse this level-headedly.
Nonetheless, this two-minute clip is thoroughly novel. To me, this is what a 21st Century social democratic ad campaign might look like if social democracy were not the stumbling zombie of a political philosophy that it is, capitulating to the right’s every position and shuffling along, a corpse and yet not quite dead at the same time, waiting like Pasok for something to put it out of its misery.
As a couple of young Interrailers (or are they Roma?) walk through a busy train station, text hovers above different people saying “We are all French, Italian, Irish, Greek, Spanish, German, Dutch” – (the PIGS and the FANGs together). The clip is filled with with people of different skin colours but in a way that is not tokenistic like the sole black woman, say, in some European Commission clip advertising the European Year of Sausage Innovation or whatever. The Europe in this video is a Europe that is more than comfortable with immigration; it is a Europe that celebrates it. “We are all borders,” the text continues. “When you are not safe, I am not safe,” over an image of a young, possibly Arab child (at mosque with his father? Or is he huddling in refugee camp with his uncle?). “While you are not free, I am not free,” over young people lighting candles and placing them on a pavement (the pavement where one of their friends was murdered by a Golden Dawn fascist?). “While you are homeless, I have no home,” over various people sleeping in places that are not beds. “When you lose your job, I lose mine.” And so on like this. How markedly different this is to the social democrat attempts to out-do the right in anti-immigrant positions, in attacks on the recipients of social welfare, on the homeless, the unemployed and the ‘scroungers’!
How used we are to seeing video footage of demonstrations as events to be feared, yet in the clip, we see smiling citizens marching behind a banner in the sun as the Sigur Ros-like music swells and the text reads “No people should fall and keep falling.” The protest in this clip is what protests are: the natural, welcome, democratic expression of the people and not something to be frightened of. But then in black and white, we see riot cops and tear gas – but from the point of view of a protester. How scary the police seem in this video, which they of course do in real life to anyone who has ever seen riot police from this same viewpoint. “When systems fail, it’s the people who hold up our world.” The sun comes back and it looks like Cypriot protesters this time, hands aloft as if to say “Enough!” And finishing with “We are all Europe. Solidarity Now.”
Some of you will instantly point out that this is still all very vague and who exactly is George Soros anyway and isn’t this a bit top-down and unaccountable? You’re not wrong here and I’ll get on to that in a minute. But for now just sit and marvel at what this is: This is, at least in visual terms, a sharp disagreement with the Brussels consensus, the consensus that everyone, of all parties, is repeatedly told that they must sign up to because there is no alternative. The Open Society Foundation, a thoroughly mainstream and respectable outfit, is saying, Sorry, but there is an alternative. And it’s we, the ordinary people who must build it when systems fail. For me, if people like George Soros are peeling away from the consensus so publicly, it confirms how mainstream anti-austerity opposition has become.
Solidarity Now is part of a broader initiative, the new Open Society Initiative For Europe (OSIFE), launched last year. A message from the young Catalan director of OSIFE, Jordi Vaquer, describes his understanding of the political situation, and I think it is worth quoting at length to get a good sense of the direction all of this is headed:
“People across Europe mistrust political parties and parliaments, depending on the country, only unelected bodies (e.g., constitutional courts, the police, the armed forces, churches, and even television,) have escaped a dramatic drop in trust. Common European institutions appear to be more removed than ever from people’s everyday concerns; the European Union is increasingly seen as part of the problem, rather than a solution. Meanwhile, welfare, multiculturalism, solidarity, tolerance, accountability, integration, and other values upon which Europe has built its post-World War II democracies and its integration process are under unprecedented attack. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that that the economic upheavals have taken a heavy toll on European democracy.
Perhaps the reverse is actually true. Perhaps it is the failure of the European democracies and of their common project which explain the current predicament in which Europe has found itself economically. Institutions that lie at the heart of representative democracies, including trade unions and, in particular, political parties, have implemented policies that have alienated them from the constituencies they claim to represent. In the past two decades, people in Central and Eastern Europe have become used to politics without real policy alternatives or, in Slawomir Sierakowski’s words, to choosing not between right and left, but between right and wrong—that is either following the euro-Atlantic (neo) liberal consensus, or voting for undemocratic or irresponsible alternatives.
This narrowing of the political space has also occurred elsewhere in the European Union, most noticeably in its Southern periphery in the context of the euro crisis. Meanwhile, independent institutions whose legitimacy stems from their ability to handle key aspects of economic life in an impartial manner have proven to be inept at regulating the market in order to avoid cycles of boom and bust. This has had devastating effects on quality of life. When policies promoted as the only reasonable or realistic course result in economic devastation, it should come as no surprise that the whole system is called into question.
Criticism of the state of European democracies and of the democratic quality of the European integration project comes from different corners. In many instances, traditional players in the system raise their voices, just as they have for a long time: from the traditional Left to a large swath of organized labor. A new generation of protesters has been active on the net and in the public squares and the media with calls for democratic renewal that have struck a chord with significant numbers of people.
Not all expressions of populism should, however, be treated in the same manner. On the one hand, there is a brand of populism that works to enlarge the scope of democratic debate and include new constituencies; on the other hand, there is xenophobic populism, a significant political force in more than half of EU member states which strives to disenfranchise and exclude significant segments of the population from political and social life.”
I don’t think there’s a single word wrong here.
Simultaneous with the launch of Solidarity Now, OSIFE released a fresh survey showing that ordinary people do not blame each other for the crisis, but the European institutions and their own political elites.
“People across Europe refuse to blame ordinary people in countries such as Greece for the crisis. Three quarters (74 percent) of Europeans surveyed agree that ordinary people in countries like Greece are unfairly suffering the consequences of a crisis that they didn’t create. However, an overwhelming 92 percent believe politicians across Europe have lost touch with the suffering of ordinary people in the wake of the financial crisis.”
As Soros put it last October discussing his plans to launch the new project: “The European Union was conceived as an instrument of solidarity and co-operation. Today it is held together by grim necessity.”
Now on to the criticisms.
This remains all very vague, as mentioned. What exactly is being planned here? Are these Solidarity Centres going to be organising points for resistance or just a sort of softly politicised charity? There appear not to be any connections with existing opposition mobilisation. I think the best that can be said at this point is that we need more details. It would be surprising if the Open Society folks got involved on this level. Surprising but not shocking, I should say. The Soros peeps remember were some of the cash-carriers for the Colour Revolutions in bits of eastern Europe eight or nine years ago. There was a lot of nonsense written at the time about how these were Western-orchestrated operations but squares do not fill with demonstrators night after night because George Soros or the German embassy has funnelled some cash to the organisers (however helpful that might be). And Soros and his Open Society pixies have been very catholic in who they support. Critical Resistance, a US-based prison abolition movement, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from them for example.
Nonetheless, I don’t think Solidarity Now is going to achieve anything more than say a pint-sized Medicins Sans Frontieres or a Greenpeace. And so far it’s limited to Greece, although as I understand it, there are plans to spread the concept elsewhere as part of OSIFE.
But should it prove successful and spread to other peripheral states, would we want the anti-austerian resistance to be bank-rolled by this sugar daddy?Also, perhaps it’s a bit much to describe this effort as anti-austerian. We don’t actually know what the full politics of the situation is. We are familiar with Soros’s widely published criticisms of the austerity course, which amount to a sort of middle-of-the-road Keynesianism, but mobilising resistance to the current course on the ground is a much, much dirtier affair than having polite disagreements with policy-makers in the back pages of the Financial Times.
I am also certainly aware that Karl Popper’s concept of the open society – the analysis at the core of all of Soros’s philanthropic work – is a fundamentally liberal framework incapable of grasping the structural contradictions of the post-war truce between capital and labour that is now breaking down. Soros’s ‘Tragedy of the European Union’ theme he repeats wherever he speaks makes insufficient mention of the post-democratic black hole at the heart of the eurozone’s crisis response, perhaps so as not to frighten the horses. So far, his is a mainly economic frustration, rather than a political one, at least in terms of public utterances.
Still, I’m open-minded. If Soros has decided to start engaging in democracy promotion in the heart of Europe and not just the east or the ‘Stans in central Asia, to say that this is interesting would be an understatement.
Avanti o popolo
Another effort, so far somewhat more modest, but also trying to carve out some sort of break from the Brussels consensus, is the new Avanti Europe project, from Green MEPs Franziska Brantner and Sven Giegold and the French EU affairs think-tank EuropaNova. Its slogan may be “Solidarity with the people of Greece” but its key demand, presented in a smaller font underneath, is the decidedly modest “For a revision of austerity policies”.
Here, the plan appears to be a sort of clicktivism akin to Avaaz or MoveOn.org, a comparison blogger Jon Worth accurately made this week, in that supporters are encouraged to sign an online petition “to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe”, asking the members of the EU-ECB-IMF Troika “to revise the austerity plan and put humans and their needs at the centre of your decisions.” Other campaigns are apparently in the works.
The petition, which has 1837 signatures as of this writing, will be presented on 9 May.
Right. So 30+ general strikes against the Troika in the European periphery and the austerians remain unmoved, but a petition with a couple thousand names will make them reverse course?
I don’t want to be snarky. I really don’t. These people have their heart in the right place. Online activism, organised well, has proven to be a powerful weapon in the hands of ordinary people and has helped pull down tyrants. But this is just not that.
But that’s okay. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
To my mind, it’s great that a pair of German Green MEPs are willing to stand up against austerity and structural adjustment, but where is the rest of their party? And across Europe, Greens in government have without exception shown themselves to be willing participants in this crime. If Franziska and Sven disagree with this, as they appear to, their time would be best spent working like the organisers of Blockupy Frankfurt to break the Bild-Merkel narrative domestically rather than sending e-petitions to the Scharfrichters of the Troika.
But I think my favourite bit of activism along these lines recently was the lone wolf commission staff person and friend of mine – let’s call him Jan – who, furious at what was happening to Greece and in particular how hospitals are running out of medicines and even blood, decided that he was going to organise a fundraising bake sale or something similar in the entrance to the commission, but instead of for some worthy orphanage in Uganda, the money raised would go to the Greek Solidarity For All Committee, a network of hundreds of self-organised initiatives that blossomed out of the popular assemblies of the squares and the neighbourhood committees of the anti-road-toll movements of 2009-11 in the country.
Replacing collectively what has been stolen from them, the network organises social clinics and pharmacies, food distribution, collective kitchens, ‘social grocery shops’ that connect farmers directly with urban households, legal aid, and immigrant support. Solidarity For All was created to facilitate communication between the different groups that had popped up and to co-ordinate a horizontal international campaign of solidarity with the Greek people both on a political and financial level, as well as in the form of direct donations of medicines and foodstuffs.
“Jan” was not surprised at all to find that such a fund-raising effort would not be possible. But at least some noses were tweaked
This, from the bottom up, ordinary people coming together in networks of community, public-spiritedness and altruism – is what solidarity is really about. It cannot legislated. It cannot be written into any memorandum of understanding. Appropriate amounts of it cannot be agreed upon behind closed doors in return for sufficient ‘responsibility’. It flows out of us unbidden and without expectation of reward, most especially in times of catastrophe. It is the most human thing in the world.
I am my brother’s keeper. Or, as The Hollies put it, ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’.
To find out how you can help the people of Greece, get in touch with the Solidarity For All Committee at +30 210 3801921 or +30 210 3801925 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This year, instead of running a sponsored marathon for the local donkey sanctuary, do it for Greek cancer patients whose medicines were snatched by Olli Rehn.
One of the most frightening aspects of the crisis is how it appears that our leaders are increasingly at a complete loss as to what to do.
It’s common to come across popular spitting fury at the ‘banksters’ and ‘conmen’ who govern us, as though those with their hands on the levers of the European system are moustache-twiddling cartoon-mastermind villains of unbounded venality (cf. Matt Taibbi’s characterisation of Goldman Sachs as a ‘vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’).
But as we peer goggle-eyed and gap-jawed at the scale of the debacle of the Great Cypriot Bank Robbery and the blame game that has followed, it is manifest that we are so very, very far from being ruled by a cabal of cat-stroking Lex Luthors and Ernst Stavro Blofelds of finance. On the contrary – we are ruled by the Three Stooges of finance.
Each of the individuals involved in the negotiations last weekend has been eager to stress how he or she was not responsible for coming up with the idea of imposing the ‘stability levy’ on those with under €100,000 in deposits. All actors have been keen to seek out their preferred media outlet to plead their case.
(Although I should say here: Why isn’t anybody screaming “Hello? What’s with all the Kremlinology? Why do we have no choice but to report on decision-making of this import and impact on domestic laws and finances in essentially the same way that we report on the election of the Pope? Why does the Eurozone’s de facto legislature operate like a papal conclave?”)
The ECB’s Joerg Asmussen basically said: ‘It wasn’t us.’ Cypriot officials said: ‘It was Schaeuble.’ Schaeuble said: ‘It was the Cypriots, the Commission and the ECB.’ ‘Rehn started it.’ ‘No I didn’t.’ Unnamed officials darkly hint that the Cypriots care more about Russian oligarchs than they do their own people while Nicosia publicly accuses the ECB of blackmail. France says they never supported the plan. Fingers are pointed at the Finns, Slovaks and Dutch as bullies egging the big kids on.
But all we have to do is go read the press statements of Saturday morning to find very few dissenters from the arrangement. Even European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who had nothing to do with the crafting of the deal and should have been free to be more critical publicly if he really felt that way, as of Saturday had only timid concerns, agreeing that depositors should pay for some of the bailout, and only called for an exemption for those with sums under €25,000, however much he is now thundering at the injustice of what has happened.
The most enlightening nugget in the FT’s investigation is when we find out that a proposal to exempt low-level depositors ‘was only actively supported by Ramon Fernandez, the French treasury chief – a fact that supports [French finance minister Pierre] Moscovici’s claim to have been an early opponent of the levy on smaller savers. “The rest did not care.”’
That is to say they all, with the possible exception of France, share the blame.
Over in the UK, British Chancellor George Osborne’s scramble on Sunday to reassure UK depositors in Cyprus that they will be reimbursed (at a back-of-the-envelope cost of £138-200 million), reeks of something of an afterthought, not least because his deputies (underlings? henchmen?) later wobble, saying that only ‘most’ of any monies seized will be recompensed.
And the Eurozone’s conclave of necktied cardinals all quickly row back after the fury on the streets of Nicosia and the Cypriot parliament does its democratic duty and pushes back, rejecting the deal (the first domestic parliament in Europe brave enough to do so).
They all just seem so utterly at a loss as to what to do, other than to stick to the received consensus wisdom of TINA – There Is No Alternative.
Attempting to pin the blame on a particular actor misses the point. We have to remember that not just in the Cypriot case, but for each of the euro-crisis intensive-care patients, there is a role that the ECB plays, that the IMF plays, that the European Commission plays, that the Council of Ministers/Eurogroup/European Council plays, and that local elites play. Positions are often overlapping but conflicting, representing the different elite domestic and/or institutional interests to which a particular actor is most sympathetic.
Yet when we take a helicopter view, we see that the shock-therapy course is agreed by all, regardless of nationality, institution or party. Asmussen and Dijsselbloem are social democrats and Anastasiades is a conservative. Truly, anyone who still believes that there is any difference on economic questions between Europe’s social democrats and conservatives any more can only be a member of one of these two rapidly dwindling tribes.
So saying that the Cypriot debacle is all the EU’s fault or all Berlin’s fault may be incorrect, but saying that it’s all the local comprador elites’ fault is also incorrect. It is a complicated interplay of interests between these different actors, just as Greece’s late Pasok prime minister, George Papandreou may have been thrown under the bus by the Frankfurt Group for threatening a referendum on a second bailout – but ideologically he represented nothing different.
Russian vs European oligarchs
And as if the raid on bank account-holders with less than €100 large was the only egregious act performed in the wee hours of last Saturday in Brussels in any case. What about the 70-something couple for whom €120,000 maybe is their life savings? Or the small and medium-sized businesses for whom that sum represents a payroll account?
And if there really is the concern on the part of the rest of Europe about Russian oligarch accounts, could they not have been forfeited instead? Why are no senior bondholders – hedge funds or other holders of Cypriot sovereign debt even talked about as subjects for bearing some of the pain?
All those who signed off on Saturday’s deal endorsed once again a programme of austerity, privatisation (of utilities) and structural adjustment worth some 5.75% of GDP – the same recipe that has such a depression-beating success elsewhere. The record is broken. Beyond its injustice, the strategy plainly is not working. As elsewhere, an economy already in recession will be bludgeoned by additional austerity, likely meaning a second or third kick at the bail-out can somewhere down the line, in turn requiring still further austerity in a vicious cycle.
The focus on who is to blame also occludes the step change from private to public of threats of economic violence from Frankfurt and Berlin that has occurred in the wake of the Cypriot parliament disobedience. The threats aren’t new, but they have been made privately until now. And their wrath is something to behold. So now we have an ultimatum from the ECB that it will cut off its Emergency Liquidity Assistance, snuffing out the oxygen to Cypriot banks. They will collapse, with all the social dislocation that would bring.
Schaeuble, unused to being defied, roared: “The ECB has made it clear that without a reform programme for Cyprus the aid can’t continue. Someone has to explain this to the Cypriots and I think there’s a danger that they won’t be able to open the banks again at all.”
Someone has to explain this to the Cypriots. The same refrain we’ve heard throughout the crisis, but with added bile: Vote how you like, dum-dums, so long as it’s the right way.
And lest we think France somehow gets a gold star in all this, her representative on the Eurogroup Working Group, which comprises deputy finance ministers or senior treasury officials from the 17 eurozone members, as well as representatives of the ECB and Commission, has this to say as regards democracy in Cyprus: “The (Cypriot) parliament is obviously too emotional.”
Lastly, where is this sudden concern about tax havens and Russian oligarchs and organised crime coming from anyway? Leaving aside the bail-out cash that never actually lands in Greece but heads straight back to northern reckless lenders, the ‘oligarchs’ of core European finance, the chutzpah of a Dutch chair of the Eurogroup or a Luxembourgish finance minister making any noise about tax havens is breathtaking.
Ah, I hear you say, but European oligarchs aren’t quite like Russian oligarchs. They aren’t up to their tits in organised crime.
Well, let’s have a look at the shenanigans of UK multinational bank HSBC, ordered twice by US regulators in 2003 and 2010 to tighten its anti-money-laundering activities. Then in November last year, it was found that HSBC had set up offshore accounts in the Channel Islands tax haven of Jersey for suspected drug-dealers and other criminals, prompting Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to launch an investigation. The following month, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion for allegedly laundering some $881 million in drugs cash for cartels. The company turned a blind eye to Mexican drug cartels using its branches to launder millions, with staff also stripping identifying information off transactions from embargoed countries such as Iran and Sudan. The company has also been accused of laundering money for terrorist groups. But of course, as the aforementioned Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi put it in his investigation of the case, HSBC is ‘Too big to jail‘.
There aren’t Russian oligarchs who are eeevil and European oligarchs who are saintly. There are just oligarchs.
And of course the useful idiots – the bungling stooges – who abet them.
Portugal e Espanha e toda a Europa juntos
A couple of years ago in Brussels, I was at a debate on Europe and the crisis between Dan Hannan, the frothingly anti-EU but witty UK Tory MEP, and Giles Merritt, the avuncular secretary-general of the integrationist think-tank Friends of Europe. As it is wont to do at these sort of events, the perennial EU-dork topic of a ‘European demos‘ came up.
I’m probably butchering his argument and he’s welcome to correct me, but as I remember it, Hannan’s point was that the nation-state provides the best and only possible geography for popular, democratic endorsement of any particular set of policy options (austerity or otherwise), as the nation-state offers a natural demos (a self-aware political community), while there is no real European demos to speak of beyond European elites.
Outside of the Ryder Cup, Europeans do not think of themselves as European, so his argument goes, but rather as Greeks or Italians or Danes or Slovaks and so on, and they do not look to the European institutions as their representatives or government and never will. It is an unnatural formation compared to the demos that flows without effort from the unity and historicity of the nation.
Merritt conceded that the lack of a European demos went to the heart of how to manage the crisis, as the policy responses were far-reaching and European citizens did not really have a way to feel that they were participating in their construction. The economic crisis was of course simultaneously a political crisis and the one would not be solved without solving the other. The eurozone catastrophe thus had moved the long-standing question regarding a lack of a European demos out of the realm of political scientists (see for example this decade-old analysis) and thrust this vital question to the centre of debate.
But unlike for Hannan, for Merritt, the lack of a European demos was not something that was fixed, but something that could be changed, possibly through the construction of some sort of a political union atop what already exists, with the European Parliament taking a more decisive role. But most importantly, contrary to Hannon’s assertion, there was no such thing as a ‘natural demos’ historically. Via Mazzini and Bismarck, to take just two examples, what is now viewed as a natural demos in Italy and Germany once upon a time had to be constructed, and this, just as today, had happened in a mix of top-down and bottom-up ways.
Both characters, and other debaters who were there, had a lot more to say, and the conversation quickly turned to the economics of the subject at hand, but this tiny bit of the debate around a demos - a stale old argument become fresh again – was what stuck with me, and, in particular, a brief little concluding nugget of banter from Merritt.
As a throwaway line hardly remarked upon, Merritt at one point quipped that the growing number of anti-austerity demonstrations and movements that were emerging, whatever one thought of them (and I can’t imagine Merritt thinking very much) could ironically actually help create this ‘European demos’ so long lacking and desired by the EU’s visionaries, as across Europe, for the first time in history, the EU rather than any domestic actor was the focus of popular anger.
“Maybe these European ‘demos’ will give rise to a European demos,” he said in a joke that unfortunately fell a bit flat, as it required a subtle play on the plural of the English abbreviation for a political demonstration: a ‘demo’ (Just as in French, ‘manifestation’ becomes ‘manif’; in English, ‘demonstration’ becomes ‘demo’. But the former ‘demos’ is pronounced ‘dem-oze’ and the latter ‘demos’ is pronounced ‘dem-oss’). Still not getting the joke? Fine. As I said, it passed by largely unnoticed, despite its foresight. But roll with me here.
However groan-worthy and offhand the witticism, it has stayed with me as particularly lucid. In the last few months, as political instability and popular anger has exploded across a great swathe of Europe, it has kept appearing in my mind.
There are the votes for Syriza, Golden Dawn, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, the True Finns and Sinn Fein (all of which have radically different perspectives and, I stress, SHOULD NOT BE LUMPED TOGETHER, as some lazy analysts do, as a homogenous ‘southern populism’ [not least because Finland is not particularly southern]); and the phenomenon of the Indignados of Spain; the terrorist groupuscules of Athens; the general strikes that are now common across the bloc’s southern flank.
So far, the strikes are not properly co-ordinated across borders, although Europe’s first ever one-day cross-border general strike did indeed take place last 14 November touching Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy (admittedly with varying levels of adherence). It is also true that much of Germany remains in thrall to the false Bild-Merkel narrative of a thrifty north and feckless south, but it is at the same time remarkable that despite this ideological uniformity, young Germans of ‘Blockupy Frankfurt’ demonstrated last May outside the ECB against European austerity in violation of the city’s banning the protest, with European banking superintendents (as opposed to local German objects of frustration) being the clear focus of their fury.
The loud voices of the anti-austerity thousands across Portugal last month singing once again, a generation later, 1974′s revolutionary anthem, ‘Grandola – Vila Morena‘ against the dictator Salazar, have gone viral, but it is just as noteworthy to hear the young and middle-aged and old equally packed in their thousands into Madrid’s Puerta del Sol singing the very same song in the language of their ancient Iberian rivals. Bulgaria has torn down a neo-liberal prime minister while Slovenia has been racked by its biggest uprising since the fall of Communism, with 42 protests across the country’s major cities since last november, against both local and European austerian and corrupt elites.
For the indignant of Europe, there are local comprador enemies of course, but the real object of the rage lives in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. And the anger is reaching a boiling point, as the destabilisation of Greece shows. European elites should be (and are by all reports) terrified that such unravelling could spread to Italy.
On Thursday, as EU leaders met in that unelected senate that goes by the name of the European Council, which governs Europe from behind closed doors while never facing a general European election, some 15,000 people from across the continent braved a snowy, beautiful Belgian winter in the European capital to protest what these elites are imposing without permission from their subjects.
Protesters from Occupy the Troika, taking their inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement across the Atlantic, and calling for a “European Spring” akin to the Arab Spring, occupied the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, directing their anger at that stubborn lieutenant of austerity, Olli Rehn. Some 30 were arrested.
I don’t want to romanticise some aspects of the rainbow of different reactions to crisis and austerity. The right-most, of Golden Dawn, are murdering foreigners and intimidating theatre-goers to plays with gay characters. The pan-ideological Grillo mixes a confused and economically illiterate opposition to austerity with dark words for immigrants and kind words for fascists.
But the most progressive of these formations are beginning to come together at their own conferences and summits, earnest in trying to come up with constructive proposals about what a credible alternative to Rehnism should be. Discussions about what a good European Union would look like jostle up against arguments calling for the EU’s dismantling, and everything in between. Some of them I personally feel are bonkers. Others bear further investigation. Still others are brilliantly transformative while still thoroughly viable. The debate is tumultuous online.
I find it amusing to see how much aggravation the European institutions go through trying to navigate everyone’s different languages, but largely in an effort to keep everyone’s linguistic chauvinism in check, while down at the bottom of Europe, the forgotten and spurned – but hypereducated in many cases – just get on with it. This has so long been the argument of conservative critics of Europe – that without a common language, political unity is impossible. But here down below, a sort of euro-English is the rough lingua franca, while at the same time all languages are given their due. Even the smallest of language groups is taken into account. The interpreters and translators who work by day for the EU institutions, by night volunteer in other spaces in Brussels so that the young European opponents of European austerity can congregate and conspire and construct a better Europe. And so many of the young activists – the Erasmus generation – are multilingual or will teach themselves what needs to be learnt in the process of organising and campaigning.
I don’t want to suggest all of this is coherent or has all the answers, or even in agreement on what is to be done.
But here, underneath, from the streets and the workplaces and the schools, whatever you think of it, a genuine European demos is emerging. The shoots of a European spring are pushing themselves up through the hard earth of a long, long winter.
And these protesters are not Greeks or Italians or Slovaks or Danes. These protesters are Europeans.
As giddy as I am about the drubbing that unelected fiscal superintendent and senator for life Mario Monti received in Italy in the weekend’s elections, it remains the case that Beppe Grillo’s pan-ideological Five Star Movement (M5S) is no genuine alternative to Bersmontilusconism.
I don’t have time until the end of the week to write much about the results, but for now, a link to the Italian writers’ collective Wu Ming, who do a good job taking Grillo down in this brief post – especially reminding us of the continued imposition of austerity by Parma’s M5S mayor elected last year, Federico Pizzarotti. (One should also note Grillo’s flirtation with the far-right Casa Pound outfits) – will have to suffice.
Italy remains, like Ireland, a stunned fish flopping about on the fishing-boat deck of European austerity: not really liking what’s going on, but not knowing what to do about it either.
“We did not have a movement comparable to the Spanish #indignados or to the #Occupy protests. We did not have anything comparable to the ‘Je lutte des classes’ struggle against reforms to the pension system,” write Wu Ming. “Our Tahrir Squares, our Puertas del Sol, our Syntagma Squares remained empty. In short, we did not fight back.”
The original post in Italian is here:
The European Central Bank’s Darth Draghi descended upon Madrid on Tuesday for a pep talk, saying that Spain had successfully stabilised its banking system and that borrowers with top-notch credit ratings should be seeing an easing of the credit drought by the end of the year. He saluted new laws making it easier to fire workers and did his best Bill Clinton impression, feeling the pain of the almost 60% unemployed youth.
After a closed hearing before a select group of MPs in the Chamber of Deputies, he told reporters that “Spain is on the right track,” while darkly warning that all EU countries still had far to go and called on PM Rajoy to put together a “credible, detailed plan” on further spending cuts.
Nothing really new here. Typical ‘Good work, now cut more’ generalities.
So why was the meeting held as a closed session?
It was reported ahead of the meeting by El Pais that according to parliamentary sources, the central bank had requested the secrecy as Draghi had wanted a similarly restricted format to that which he used when he spoke to Germany’s Bundestag.
The decision to keep the meeting closed to the public, with proceedings to be issued in none of the normal formats, provoked an angry response from left-wing deputies, who announced that they would just “retransmit” Draghi’s comments by Twitter.
All opposition parties, including the Socialists, denounced the move (although one has to ask if PSOE would really have done any different). The Socialists’ spokesman, Valeriano Gómez filed a formal protest, while the Plural Left (United Left and Greens) described the efforts at a closed session as a “failure of democracy”.
Shockingly, in response, the Speaker of the House installed mobile-phone jammers to prevent deputies from live-tweeting. So left-wing deputies Alberto Garzón and Joan Coscubiela just sneakily filmed the session on their iPhones and later uploaded the videos to YouTube.
The kerfuffle prompted Draghi to subsequently deny that he had ever wanted a closed session and that he would have been perfectly happy for it to happen in the open, adding that no harm had been done by it being posted on YouTube. See, look, I’ll even post my speech up on the ECB website.
On the one hand, the Sith Lord’s speech was so full of austerian banalities that it makes you wonder why whoever it was requested the meeting be held in secret in the first place.
On the other hand, if Draghi’s comments really were going to be incendiary and have such import for the Spanish political economy, then such words – if Spain is still a sovereign democracy – need to be said publicly.
Particularly as the ECB has such form since the crisis with secret letters to governments ordering them to liberalise their economies or commanding them to take a bail-out, or quiet phone calls to domestic banking bosses directing them to turn off the taps, citizens have every reason to be frightened of Frankfurt’s preference for the shadows.
In 2011, when former Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker was at a small Brussels think-tank function, forgetting that reporters were present, he for once spoke quite frankly about the need for secrecy, saying: “I’m ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious.”
Economic policy discussions were simply too sensitive, he said, potentially putting “millions of people at risk”, to have them in public. “I am for secret, dark debates,” he joked at the time, adding that despite his Catholic upbringing, he had often “had to lie.”
In the end, Draghi’s comments appear to have been largely banal. But this is the point. European leaders have become accustomed to operating beyond the glare of parliaments and the public, both for discussions of great import and for the prosaic.
The demand for state secrecy in economic matters is expanding – a sharp turn away from principles of open government, which require that citizens have a right to access documents and proceedings of government to assure democratic, public oversight.
It should be obvious that limitations on state secrecy, a core principle of democrats since the Enlightenment, is also required to prevent corruption.
At a time when great swathes of the current Spanish and Greek political classes stand accused of protecting themselves and those close to them from the taxes that mere mortals are subject to – and Draghi himself is caught up in a similar scandal of his own, we must be especially vigilant and on guard against what increasingly appears to be unblushing criminality amongst our leaders.
Enough clumsy cloak and dagger, Draghi. At least talk pretty to our face before you screw us.
For more details on Draghi’s Super-Secret Secret Squirrel meeting, just check the #openDraghi hashtag.
I made a satirical reference to labour conscription in my last post, noting that the Greek government had used emergency powers to break an eight-day metro workers’ strike – the third such manoeuvre used to bring an end to industrial action since the start of the crisis. This was in spite of a commitment the country had made to the UN’s International Labour Organisation to only engage in these ‘civil mobilisation’ orders in the future in times of war.
However, yesterday, Athens announced yet another civil mobilisation decree, this time against striking seamen, who were reportedly delivered military-style orders by coast guard officials Tuesday evening. Workers who refused to comply with the command face up to five years in prison.
It is a worrying development, so I think it’s worth exploring in a bit more detail what is going on here without my satirical snark this time so that people understand clearly what the issue at stake is:
There has been a rise in the use of labour conscription by European governments since the start of the crisis, and it is being used against workers engaged in industrial action in strategic sectors of the economy both public and private sector such as ports, transport, air traffic control and refineries.
The English translation of the Greek term for this is ‘civil mobilisation’ or ‘civil conscription’. The French term is ‘requisition’. Another, darker and more historic term for the same state action is the ‘militarisation of labour’. Although the specificities of the concept vary from country to country, in essence, it is a sort of brief martial law for workers where one is forced to provide labour on pain of imprisonment. As such, it is one of the four main types of ‘forced labour’.
And its use, outside of national emergency, is a breach of an internationally recognised fundamental human right.
First though, a brief warning: It is really important to understand that the issue of forced labour is completely unrelated to whether you support a particular strike. Just because you don’t support a particular strike does not mean that you want to engage in a breach of a fundamental human right in order to bring that strike to an end.
Now, with that out of the way, I don’t want to see any comments below the fold saying: “But I don’t agree with this strike” or “Public transport is different.” I’m not talking about whether such strikes are legitimate or not. That is a completely different argument.
Another comment I don’t want to see is: “Come on, they weren’t too rough with these workers. It’s not like it’s North Korea.” Again, the point is not how violent riot police, military police, the army or the coast guard are in enforcing civil mobilisation decrees. That is also a completely different argument.
This is about the fundamental right of all humans to refuse to perform work against their free will.
European governments – indeed 185 states out of the UN’s 193 member states – are parties to the International Labour Organisation’s conventions, eight of which are called the Fundamental Conventions. Two of these, 1930′s Forced Labour Convention and 1957′s Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (which extended the 1930 document), do pretty much what they say on the tin: attempt to prevent forced labour.
Defined legally, forced labour is work that is performed in ‘the absence of a voluntary offer’. Another way of putting it is to say that all work relations must be founded on the mutual consent of the contracting parties.
Slavery is the most well-known example of forced labour. But there are three other main kinds defined by the ILO: human trafficking, bonded or indentured labour (resulting from debts), and state-imposed labour. Common to all, regardless of the conditions of labour, is this absence of a voluntary offer.
Civil mobilisation or civil conscription falls into this fourth category. It is a special case, as there are five exceptions under the 1930 convention where such forced labour is allowed under international law.
Forced labour does not include military service. So military conscription and military service is permitted. It does not include any service that is part of the normal civic obligations of a citizen such as jury duty, or minor communal services such as doing your recycling (so long as you’ve been able to vote on whether, say, recycling should be adopted). It does not include prison labour – but only so long as that prison labour is not performed for private companies.
And finally, forced labour, specifically state-imposed labour, is permitted in times of national emergency such as wars, floods, earthquakes, or outbreaks of serious disease. One can easily understand why – still hopefully brief – restrictions on individual freedom are necessary in such times.
Even in these periods though, we still do not hear much about civil conscription because far from being unwilling, humans are in general pretty great in an emergency and so very willing to do whatever is needed to help out. So it’s not normally required anyway.
As a result, and as I mentioned in my last post, in democratic societies, civil mobilisation has been pretty unheard of since the two World Wars.
But in 2010, Sarkozy used just such a labour requisition order to break a refineries strike that was part of a wave of protests against his pensions reform. A court ruled this quasi-military manoeuvre unconstitutional and so the government issued a more limited requisition that managed to sneak through the courts.
The same year, even more flamboyantly, Zapatero militarised labour in air traffic control towers to break a strike against internationally ordered public sector ‘reforms’. The Defence Ministry took over air traffic control facilities and was authorised to seize workers from their homes and march them to work. The penalty for breaching such military discipline is up to six years in prison.
Greece has engaged in civil mobilisation now ten times since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, so it is a particularly bad student as far as the International Labour Organisation is concerned. But four of these civil mobilisation decrees occurred in response to anti-austerity industrial action in the last two years, and two of these four in the last two weeks.
Now, the concept of ‘essential services’ is a controversial one, but the ILO’s committee that investigates compliance with its conventions has stated that legislation requiring the provision of such services should be taken to mean only those services without which, life or health is endangered. Mere inconvenience or economic loss, whatever the scale of inconvenience or loss, does not count.
The ILO notes that seafarers are the most common type of worker that is affected by civil conscription and as a result keeps a keen watch on the sector.
In 2009, the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association investigated the use of a 1974 decree on ‘Civil Emergency Planning’ to issue a civil mobilisation order against striking seamen. The back and forth between the Greek government and the committee is detailed here, and the legalese is difficult to parse, but in essence, the government’s argument is that given Greece’s unique geography, this sector requires special consideration. The committee agreed, but at the same time received a commitment to ensuring that use of civil mobilisation under the 1974 law “will from now on only apply in times of war.”
In 2007, fresh legislation had been introduced that was supposed to clarify the legal situation. A number of articles in the news media from the last few days say that this legislation allowed for conscription in peacetime, but again according to the ILO, even under the 2007 law, labour conscription is still possible only in a “sudden situation requiring the taking of immediate measures to face the country’s defensive needs or a social emergency against any type of imminent natural disaster or emergency that might endanger the public health.”
Rotting fruit in a truck, however frustrating and damaging to economic interests, still does not count.
Now, the easiest way for the Greek government to be in compliance with its international human rights obligations in this case is for it to declare a national state of emergency, but I’m guessing that would probably just inflame the labour strife still further, let alone what such a declaration would do to its economy or that of the eurozone.
I also don’t want to overstate the case. I’m not a lawyer. There will be nuances here in terms of Greek and international law that I’m sure I’m missing.
And southern Europe is not anywhere near the situation of what is happening in Belarus, where presidential decrees forbidding workers from striking or quitting their jobs in different sectors may spread to the entire economy.
But even if the situation is not anywhere near the same in scale, it bears a resemblance in kind.
The worry is that governments that are put in difficult situations by international lenders and bond markets will begin to opt more and more for the easy option of labour conscription when it comes to industrial action that is highly disruptive in strategic sectors.
Moreover, Athens and other peripheral capitals have a credibility problem when it comes to their commitment to pushing through unpopular measures, and many of the toughest labour market ‘reforms’ in much of the periphery have actually yet to be imposed. So it cannot have escaped the Greek prime minister’s mind that this is a great way to demonstrate to international lenders his iron determination to enact their demands.
Nevertheless, at the moment, there are still a small, if growing, number of cases of this unorthodox government manoeuvre, so it is too early to pronounce that the use of forced labour is becoming a habit.
I’m just saying we should keep a close eye on this space. This is not business as usual.
Let’s say you’re the prime minister of a country that’s being forced to impose some seriously strict-ass austerian shock therapy. Every day, it’s all puppies and ice cream, am I right?
Okay, not so much.
Now, if you’re lucky enough to have a population who are as demoralised as Marvin the Paranoid Android and they just emigrate like the Irish (highest emigration rate in 25 years last year) or the Latvians (13% drop in population since 2000, most of which since the crisis and 80% of whom are under 35), then you don’t have to worry about rolling general strikes, low-level terrorism and neo-Nazi MPs beating up women on TV.
Sure, with all those hyper-educated working-age kids skedaddling off to Australia or Brazil or, erm, Angola, you’ll have a bitch of a brain-drain on your hands, not to mention a wallop of a drop in economic demand, but hey, isn’t that better than having your office shot at?
But not every prime minister is as lucky as Ireland’s ol’ Blueshirt Enda Kenny. Much of the rest of the EU periphery is nowhere near as docile as his flock. At a conference I attended last summer, one German analyst placed the number of general strikes in Europe’s southern flank since the start of the crisis at over 30. Historically unheard of. Even the tumult between the World Wars didn’t see this number of general strikes.
And all that’s going to happen is your economy is going to tank, unemployment will rise to 30% (to almost 60% for young people), pensioners will shoot themselves in public squares and mothers and sons will jump off the roofs of their building while holding hands when they can’t pay the bills, and your people will despise you. You won’t even be able to go to your favourite restaurant without having eggs thrown at you.
Then come elections, the other guys are certain to get in. Of course, they’ll impose exactly the same measures, but come on, they’re the other tribe! They may be ideologically identical to you, but they’re still the other team, man!
So what are you to do? How the hell are you going to boost your popularity in such hairy times? It’s a stubborn pickled octopus of a quandary.
Now, I’m no James Carville, the infamously Machiavellian political strategist who delivered Bill Clinton’s long-shot Democratic nomination and presidential election victory in 1992, but I’ve nevertheless come up with a handy little playbook with some lessons taken from the remarkable – if very likely only temporary – turn-around in opinion-poll fortunes of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
In many respects it does come down to a bit of a Hail-Mary pass – the last best hope of a democratic government before it turns into something else, so it’s not recommended in anything but the most extreme circumstances. Still, other European leaders should at least familiarise themselves with these tactics should the economic and political stability of their countries ever, Heaven forfend, take a similar turn to that of the Hellenic Republic.
Step One: Distract attention from the cuts
First, and most important, initiate something along the lines of Samaras’ Operation Target Darkie.
Okay, so the undertaking is not actually called Operation Target Darkie. It’s called Operation Xenios Zeus, which is still quite a bit of a chucklesome border-patrol in-joke.
You see, since the launch last August of Operation Xenios Zeus, 60,000 (yes that’s not a typo. There are five zeroes after that six) people who don’t look Greek enough have been rounded up and detained, and 4,200 arrested. But ‘Xenios Zeus’ was in fact one of the Greek god Zeus’s many titles, and it meant ‘patron of guests and hospitality’, quick to avenge any wrong done to a stranger.
Ha! Rib-tickling! Side-splitting! (Actually, quite literally side-splitting in some cases) Do you get it? Amnesty International, those po-faced goody-goodies, clearly didn’t. They issued a 12-page report last month denouncing the government’s attacks on migrants, the extended detention in filthy, appalling conditions and its routine breaking of international and EU law.
But what you have to understand is that it’s been tremendously successful in restoring Samaras’s fortunes after his party spent months in the wilderness, trailing well behind the radical left Syriza in polls since the election. The most recent polls out this week now puts his New Democracy party even-Steven (even-Stefanos?) with Syriza – perhaps even actually pipping their main opponents. And a slim majority believe Samaras to be a better prime minister than Syriza’s Alex Tsipras would be.
Now, I know what you’re gonna say. “Leigh, won’t this sort of strategy just normalise attacks on immigrants and open the door for the neo-nazi thugs who will be emboldened to assault or even murder anyone who doesn’t look or sound ‘Greek’?”
And I see where you’re coming from. That could indeed be a problem. Why, just last week, a young Pakistani man riding his bicycle in Athens was stabbed by two men on motorcycles, later dying of his wounds. In August, a 19-year-old Iraqi was fatally stabbed by a gang, also on motorcycles. The city’s mayor describes knife attacks happening on an almost daily basis.
There has been an increase in racist attacks since 2010, but human rights groups say that incidents of racially motivated violence last year just skyrocketed. Golden Dawn thugs break up market stalls with baseball bats while the police stand by and watch. They climb aboard buses and drag people out and beat them with crow bars and chains. They throw molotov cocktails at barbershops and when the police come and investigate, they arrest the barber.
But remember, we’re all in this together. We’ve all got to do our part. Sure, it’ll be a bit uneven. Some of these measures will fall unfairly on some people. I recognise that. But what other option does Samaras have? How else is going to be able to distract attention from his EU-ordered gutting of social protections and services? Sure, children are being kept in concentration camps with no clean bedding or warm water, but where’s the sympathy for poor old Sammy?
Step Two: Use arcane laws to break strikes
Next, you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with bolshy workers who saw household disposable income drop by 10.6% in the third quarter of 2012 compared with the previous year, as data released by the government stats agency last week showed.
One-day general strikes you can handle. It’s normal that unions should march on parliament. There’s the odd scuffle with riot police, then people go home. So what? As Swedish finance minister Anders Borg joked about Hungarian unions protesting austerity in 2011, “Isn’t that what unions always do?”
But indefinite strikes, particularly in strategic sectors that the rest of the economy depends upon, such as transport, ports, oil refineries and airports – that’s a real nuisance. People like to say that unions aren’t as powerful as they once were. Many union leaders, particularly in the European Trades Union Congress, may even believe it themselves. But t’s remarkable how just a few strategically placed strikers can paralyse an entire economy.
The solution to this persnickety little problem here does require breaching international conventions against forced labour dating back to the 1930s, but don’t worry, you’re not going to get any trouble from Brussels on that front.
So when Athens Metro workers go on strike for eight days to oppose an EU-demanded 25% cut in wages – a demand being imposed in breach of contract with the workers – all you have to do is enact a ‘civil mobilisation’ order, enforced by riot cops armed with the threat of five-year prison sentences.
“What on earth is a ‘civil mobilisation’ order?” I hear you say. And indeed, it is an obscure power that governments have. There’s no Wikipedia entry for it, and if you Google the term, you’ll only find clippings from newspapers from the First and Second World Wars. It’s a tightly bounded form of martial law, restricted to a particular sector, that requisitions workers’ services for an indefinite duration and bans strikes. Essentially, it’s labour conscription or military labour.
But just like the return of avocado-green kitchen appliances, after a long time unconscionably démodé, civil mobilisation is deffo back in fashion.
In 2010, then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy used ‘requisitioned labour’ to break strikes at occupied refineries and oil depots and defeat the widespread movement against his planned pension cuts. The requisition order declared that continuance of the strike could cause “serious disruptions of public order” including “riots”, and threatened the workers with six months’ imprisonment and a €10,000 fine. A judge may have subsequently declared the requisition order illegal, but the government just issued another, less general requisition.
The same year, Spain’s Zapatero militarised labour in the country’s airspace in order to break a strike by air traffic controllers over similar European orchestrated public sector cuts and privatisation. The Defence Ministry was put in charge, sending military police to disrupt a union meeting and force them back to work. Soldiers took over air traffic control towers across the country and army units were given the power to conscript air traffic controllers from their homes and order them to work under military authority. Workers faced prison sentences of up to six years for disobeying military orders. In effect, they had become military personnel.
So basically, everybody’s doing it, so why not Greece?
In keeping with the UN International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention (Convention No. 29) and according to Greek law, the requisition of labour is only permitted in cases of a “sudden situation requiring the taking of immediate measures to face the country’s defensive needs or a social emergency against any type of imminent natural disaster or emergency that might endanger the public health”.
After an investigation by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association in 2009 into a controversial use that year of a 1974 decree (thus dating back to the last year of the Colonels’ junta) on ‘Civil Emergency Planning’ to issue a civil mobilisation order against striking seamen, the Greek government committed to ensuring that such use “will from now on only apply in times of war.”
But really, who cares about the ILO? It’s not like they’re international lenders who need a signal showing how tough you are at forcing through the cuts and privatisation they’re demanding. Political leaders across the EU periphery have desperately been trying to figure out a way to show the markets and European power-brokers they mean business. And now, Eureka, they have found a way! Is there any bigger big-cock manoeuvre than the militarisation of labour?
Samaras’s civil mobilisation was denounced by unions as authoritarian and “tantamount to dictatorship”. “Let them [the government] come and collect dead bodies. Let them send in the army,” bellowed transport union leader Antonis Stamatopoulos.
But after riot police stormed a train depot in the diddly tiny hours of Friday morning and served mobilisation notices to 2,500 employees, normal service was resumed by the afternoon.
There is of course the danger that the use of such unorthodox tactics will itself produce still an escalation in militant activity from furious citizens and unionists, shocked that you are using a mechanism normally reserved for times of war, but then all you have to do is escalate the repression! Simples!
Step Three: Accuse your opponents of terrorism
Third in the clutch of clever strategems aimed at boosting your popularity in an age of austerity is the tried-and-true gambit of all desperate pols: slander your opponents by accusing them of terrorism.
If you’ve got a fragile governing coalition, it’s pretty inconvenient to have to a major corruption scandal on your hands directly connected to the current crisis. If some meddling little journalist publishes a list of some 2,000 wealthy tax-dodging Greeks with Swiss bank accounts your government knows about but does nothing to investigate, including one of your advisors and finance-ministry officials, and to top it off, a finance minister removes evidence relating to three of his family members, it’s pretty awkward. I mean, when you’ve been saying that everyone has to tighten their belts for a few years until the crisis is over, you don’t want everyone to find out that you just meant everyone except the wealthy and well-connected.
Well, one option is that you can have the journalist arrested, and why not? It’s only one more episode in the cavalcade of assaults on freedom of the press in the country such as threats from neo-Nazis and riot police attacking journalists covering demonstrations. Who cares if your country drops to 84th place (out of 179) in the annual press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders to just between Kosovo and Togo?
But an even better option is to exploit the petty terrorism from anarcho-nihilist quarters that has intensified in recent weeks and accuse your political opponents of being “terrorist-friendly”.
On 14 January, gunmen strafed the headquarters of the New Democracy party with bullets, and in recent weeks, canister bombs have exploded at government offices, banks and the homes of high-profile journalists. The streak of low-level petty terrorism escalated however with the bombing of a shopping mall owned by shipping magnate Spiros Latsis, the second richest Greek in the world and a student mate of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, on 20 January.
When Syriza MP Vangelis Diamantopoulos warned that austerity was producing a despair that was so wrenching that it was leading to people “either committing suicide or picking up the gun”, and encouraged them instead to join Syriza, New Democracy government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou accused the “hoodlums of Syriza” of being “terrorist friendly” and Diamantopoulos of making the shopping mall a target. The party also produced a heavily edited 90-second video of Diamantopoulos, making it look as though the MP was issuing a call to arms, and said that it reveals a “justification of violence and understanding for the use of weapons”.
Now, sure, accusing another party of fomenting terrorism may further undermine political stability by casting your democratic opponents in the role of enemy within, but who’s paying attention to the corruption scandal anymore? See? Magic!
Step Four: Who doesn’t love a police crackdown on dissidents?
But if the right side of the political spectrum is splintering, with New Democracy having lost its nationalist right to the anti-memorandum Independent Greeks, and yet another new right-wing movement being formed this past week out of refugees from the governing coalition and the remnants of the hard-right Greek Orthodox party Laos – and of course, famously, an openly neo-Nazi party has swollen to third place in opinion polls, you still have to do something to hold the right together against a radical left that is on the cusp of power. After all, Sammy was picked as leader precisely because he was thought most likely to be able to hold the right together.
What you’ve got to do is find that thing that can both unite conservatives and is popular amongst a populace frightened by a growing crime wave: a good old law-and-order crusade.
And while you’re making yourself look good to certain traditional quarters by getting tough on crime, why not mount a crackdown on squatters and anti-authoritarian youth and launch mass arrests of left-wing trade unionists including a number of union chiefs – and call it putting an end to “lawlessness”?
You can set in motion police raids and evictions of long-standing cultural centres with their dangerous cafes and free concerts, child-minding and left-wing literature. Above all, have the minister of public order, Nikos Dendias, issue a dog-whistle message that the democratic era after the end of military rule was too lax with those of certain political philosophies, a situation that needs to be corrected: “The country must finally settle its accounts with the post-1974 era.”
Be careful of course to do essentially nothing to track down the murderers of Golden Dawn, who brazenly usurp the state’s monopoly on violence, openly engage in racist assaults in public places such as squares or public transport while the police look on or even participate, beat journalists in front of them as well, attempt to enter parliament with guns, issue death threats, distribute white nationalist literature in schools, intimidate theatres that produce plays with gay content, maintain caches of weapons and train militias. Even if every day is a Greek Kristallnacht,
I admit that all of this may seem like a high-risk strategy – the immigrant round-ups, the use of arcane junta-era laws intended to be used in times of foreign invasion or viral haemorrhagic pandemic in order to break strikes, accusing opponents of terrorist sympathies, and the police crackdowns on dissidents.
But when the state has surrendered all its economic authority to international organisations, and handed much of its civil authority over to black-shirted thugs, how else do you prove to your people that you’re still there?