He ain’t heavy; He’s my brother

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!)

austerity bingo small 2

Fun for the whole family!


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 info@solidarity4all.gr

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.

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