Archive for category Greece
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 email@example.com
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.
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?
The Greek Frankenstein’s monster of a coalition government – stitched together from the torso of the wounded conservative New Democracy and the decomposing, undead remains of centre-left Pasok and ex-eurocommunist Dimar – passed legislation last week raising taxes on ordinary Greeks and corporations and then this week approved another package of moves restructuring state assets for privatisation and expanding the powers of the finance ministry
I’ll not go into details of the problems with the legislation, termed ‘prior actions’, which was demanded by international lenders in return for the latest round of financing due this month. The imposition of suicidal and unjust economic policies in the European periphery is very much more ‘dog bites man’ these days than ‘man bites dog’. I’ll leave it to others to point out the errors.
Instead, what I find significant is that the different pieces of legislation have not been presented as proper bills, but as edicts in order to prevent debate, which would slow down the approval process.
The coalition felt it didn’t have time for the legislation to go through normal procedure as it wanted the bills to be already in the bag before finance minister Yannis Stournaras headed to the Eurogroup meeting (of finance ministers from the eurozone) on Monday, 21 January, where the first of three bail-out tranches worth €18 billion was to be considered and possibly approved.
Opposition parties, both the socialist Syriza party and the Independent Greeks – the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy – accused the government of bypassing parliament.
Their criticisms were – how should this be put politely? – let’s say ‘unvarnished’.
“You are introducing a new form of governing,” Syriza parliamentary spokesman Panayiotis Lafazanis said. “Ministers will issue edicts that will abolish parliament’s rights and will not be debated at all. You are responsible for turning a parliamentary democracy into a parliamentary junta.”
“We are observing a situation where parliament has essentially ceased working,” said Notis Marias of the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy, the Independent Greeks. “Your attitude is ‘Eurogroup uber alles.”
It seems strange to be talking about legislation by decree in the 21st Century. The words ‘decree’ and ‘edict’ evoke images of the Catholic Church releasing papal bulls, or absolute monarchs issuing proclamations changing the religion of a realm overnight.
The development of modern democracy placed great emphasis on ‘legislative supremacy’ (also known as ‘parliamentary sovereignty’). Whether called a parliament or congress or house, the deliberative assembly normally has exclusive authority to pass, amend or repeal laws, raise or lower taxes, regulate trade, and declare war. Western societies did not opt instead for a model of elected monarchs (athough Poland famously employed wolna elekcja, or royal elections, on occasion until the late 18th century).
Why did we do this? Well, it’s a long story and whole libraries could be and indeed are filled with discussions of theories of governance. But boiled down, the argument is that the executive branch – the body that enforces the law and carries out the day-to-day administration of the state – is the servant of the legislature, in order to ensure a separation of powers, which in turn serves as a sort of inoculation against tyrants.
By distributing power away from the executive, and maintaining the supremacy of the elected chamber, a polity is supposed to be protected against authoritarianism. In those places where there is little or no separation between executive and legislative branches, the different powers of government by definition are held by one person or one small group of people. (This situation, by the way – other than during times of national emergency, or ‘state of exception’ – is the very definition of despotism you will find in any dictionary)
Yet what happened in Greece this past fortnight is far from the first time that governments in the eurozone periphery have turned to the use of decrees to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, though it has received little notice, the use of decrees, edicts and similar manoeuvres – a direct challenge to legislative supremacy – has been sharply on the increase in since the advent of the crisis.
Grand Duke Draghi of Frankfurt
Most controversially, the ECB’s humiliating ultimatum letter to Berlusconi in the summer of 2011 that was leaked to Corriere della Serra, the Italian daily, included not only a series of demands for legislation in return for central bank bond purchases, but the detailed timetable bills needed to be passed by and that they be imposed by edict, only later to be approved in a similar up/down fashion to this past fortnight’s Greek decrees. According to the letter, the package of austerity and structural adjustment bills had to be passed “as soon as possible with decree-laws, followed by parliamentary ratification by the end September 2011.”
The bulk of the shock therapy that unelected technocrat prime minister Mario Monti has applied to Italy have been performed by decree – the ‘Save Italy’ emergency decree, which took place days after Super-Mario took power; the ‘Grow Italy’ decree, the ‘Fiscal Simplification’ decree, the ‘Spending Review’ decree, the ‘Sustainable Development’ decree, and so on.
Some of the actions undertaken by decree any progressive could support; others decidedly less so. But whether one supports or opposes a move is immaterial – the method through which they are enacted is undemocratic.
Over in Spain, in May last year, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy used a decree to avoid parliamentary oversight of the decision to use public funds to bail out its drowning banks, offloading written-down assets into separate financial vehicles. Similarly, in February, Rajoy used the decree format to force banks to set aside certain amounts as cash buffers against losses. In March, there was a labour market deregulation decree in March, and in November an anti-tax-fraud decree and another delinking pensions from inflation.
After a woman killed herself when bailiffs tried to throw her out of her home and under pressure from protests, Madrid also passed a decree suspending home evictions for poor families with small children, the disabled and long-term unemployed. This action should certainly be welcomed, and probably did need to be instituted instantly for obvious reasons. But the question still remains, even for these sorts of measures – why is so much legislative activity now being done without parliamentary scrutiny?
By contrast, this past week, US President Barack Obama unveiled his gun control strategy. Alongside a series of legislative proposals, Obama announced 23 executive orders that are enacted immediately. Republican opponents and hyperbole-mongers have attacked the president for bypassing congress and ‘ripping up the constitution‘.
But in reality, every one of his gun control recommendations – criminal background checks for all gun sales, reinstating an assault weapons ban, a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines, outlawing armour-piercing bullets and providing mental health support services in schools – require congressional approval. The executive orders cover such matters as directing the Center for Disease Control to perform research into the causes of gun violence, requiring that federal agencies make relevant data available to the background check system, launching a national dialogue on mental health and starting a a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.
These are precisely the sort of relatively trivial moves that do not require parliamentary debate and oversight – the sort of direction from the directors of the executive branch of government to its officers and agents managing their operations or the appointment of senior civil servants. In France, these are called décrets (although the president may not rule by decree except during national emergencies) and in the UK Orders in Council. Not all executive actions need to be put through the legislative sausage factory.
But major policy changes with significant impacts, such as cutting pensions, radical overhaul of labour markets, bank bail-outs and so on certainly should indeed be looked over by parliaments with a fine tooth comb. And when they aren’t, if there is genuinely some sort of emergency requiring immediate executive action, there needs to be a bloody good reason, and it should be explained why this exception is necessary.
(If you want to be technical about this, what we’re talking about here is the distinction between primary legislation – crafted and approved by the legislative branch – and secondary or delegated legislation – laws made by an executive authority under powers transmitted to them by the primary legislation in order to carry it out)
Citizens’ ears should prick up every time they read that something is being passed by decree or edict. Nine times out of ten, it is a sure sign that democracy is getting a bit of a hair-cut. An historical wander through the textbook exemplars of the use of decrees are instructive for comparison.
Famously, George W. Bush enacted a whopping 262 executive orders, the preponderance of which were a clear usurpation of congress’s position as the legislative branch. In this way, he blocked funding for stem-cell research, sidestepped the Geneva Conventions protection from torture, and offered impunity to US corporations operating in Iraq.
Those for whom the origins of Russia’s current ‘managed democracy’ remain a mystery could do worse than read up on Boris Yeltsin’s privatisation by decree and ultimate disbanding of parliament and rule by decree in the autumn of 1993. Fantastic sums in public funds were transferred to banks owned by major figures in the Soviet state and the former Communist Party higher ups. These banks then spent the effectively embezzled funds to snap up state industries on the cheap in privatisation auctions they themselves conducted.
From 1972 to 2007, governance of Northern Ireland was carried out under what was known as ‘direct rule’ – in effect rule by decree. While the people Northern Ireland still technically elected members of parliament to the House of Commons, legislation administering the region was made through Orders in Council, a situation opposed by by both nationalists and unionists for its lack of democratic accountability.
Similarly, during the Algerian War of Independence, in 1956, the governor general of French Algeria, Robert Lacoste, abolished the Algerian assembly and ruled by decree to deal with the mounting political violence. Then in 1961, President Charles de Gaulle became the only French president to rule all of France by decree during a national emergency, employing ‘special powers’ he requested from the National Assembly in the wake of an abortive rightist uprising in Algiers. Over the course of five months from April to September of that year, De Gaulle enacted 16 decrees expanding police powers, enlarging the power of the courts, banning publications, dismissing civil servants for ‘encouraging subversion’, and establishing special military courts, amongst other measures.
Now, one of the difficulties in discussing Europe’s democracy-on-a-diet approach to the economic crisis is that when anyone suggests that there has been a hollowing out of democracy, the cry immediately goes up from defenders of the strategy: “Where are the tanks? Where are the gulags? Where is the police state?”
But this is a category error, a conflation of autocracy and totalitarianism, as there can of course be creeping autocracy without totalitarianism. The advance of rule by decree does not signify the imminent appearance of a Duce or Fuhrer but with a blue and yellow flag. Mario Draghi is not Kim Jong-un.
Cindy Skach, professor of comparative government at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s leading experts on constitutional design, has described precisely this sort of legislative atrophying phenomenon as ‘constitutional dictatorship’. It comes from the use of emergency powers over a prolonged period “during which authority is transferred to non-partisan, above-party sources, leading to a loss of substance in the democratic process.”
In her work comparing Weimar Germany and the French Fifth Republic, she offers a warning of what results from this overuse of decree: “Such periods are also characterised by opaque, nonaccountable decision-making in which the democratically elected institutions of the polity, such as the legislature, have lost their controlling capacity, as presidents become increasingly less accountable.”
Such descriptions will of course be familiar to anyone who has followed the steady transfer of fiscal powers out of the hands of democratically elected parliaments – both in EU-IMF programme countries and across the eurozone.
To be clear, I am not saying that Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries are being ruled entirely by decree, but a lot of the new rules do come in the form of decree.
This state of exception is becoming permanent.