Archive for category Greece
So incensed was the outgoing austerian Greek conservative-social-democrat coalition at the prospect of a left government that they apparently even stole all the soap from the parliament with them when they left and wouldn’t tell the new guys what the wi-fi password is.
It’s an exquisite, farcical little anecdote from Athens, first reported by the Guardian, of the most infantile, toy-out-of-the-pram-throwing behaviour by politicians who otherwise describe themselves as the sensible, realistic, Practical Men of Europe. But the episode is also completely emblematic of the instinctive contempt for voters maintained by EU elites and their entourage of fart-catchers.
Ahead of the election, a raft of European leaders, elected and unelected, from other states, from the ECB and the European Commission, warned Greek voters to be “responsible” and hinted of a dark punishment should they not choose wisely. These masters of Europe intervened in another country’s election in a way that would be unthinkable in, say, US, British or German elections. But of course they are quite used to such extra-democratic interference, such threats and dirty tricks now, having had quite some practice since the advent of the economic crisis doing the same in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal and even Finland.
And instead of the perfunctory congratulations offered to the winners, figures such as head of the centre-right in the European Parliament Manfred Weber, Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, and eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem, were quick to warn in effect that regardless of the election result, they expected the new government to immediately abandon their programme.
Typically outspoken former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt has outdone himself in attacking the new government on Twitter and all but accusing the plainly anti-nationalist, anti-fascist and anti-oligarch Syriza of being a stalking horse for Russian nationalists, fascists and oligarchs.
A welter of red-baiting slander has been thrown at the new government hoping that something will stick, largely focused on the coalition with the right-wing Anel (Independent Greeks) party.
Let us be clear, Anel, an anti-austerity splinter from the recently governing New Democracy party, is a vile set of characters, home to a series of xenophobes, homophobes and other strains of bigot, much like its very right-wing parent party. But Syriza had little choice in the matter. The Communist KKE views Syriza as a bigger enemy than the right and refuses to even meet with Syriza’s leaders and the newly founded centrist To Potami was established with the explicit aim of trying to tame Syriza and prevent it from withdrawing from the EU-ECB-IMF memoranda. There was no one else to work with.
And the party has no ministry responsible for areas covering the rights of immigrants in any case. A fortiori, yesterday, the new government announced that all the children of immigrants would be granted Greek citizenship, making the new government easily the most pro-immigrant government in the EU. But we already knew that, or at least those of us who are familiar with Syriza’s on-the-ground defence of migrants and stuggle against anti-immigration politics. My friend Michelle Chen of The Nation recently walked readers through the long list of Syriza’s pro-immigration policies that intend to reverse decades of xenophobia and racism, ensuring migrants the right to resettle and protecting them from deportation. Syriza’s immigration politics are precisely the opposite of Fortress Europe.
Meanwhile, those attacking the new government over the anti-immigrant politics of Anel were happy to turn a blind eye to New Democracy’s embrace of Golden Dawn’s ideas, not least the 2012 Operation Xenios Zeus in which 60,000 (Not a typo. That number should indeed read ‘sixty thousand’) migrants or dark-skinned people who didn’t appear sufficiently ethnically Greek were rounded up and detained and 4,200 arrested. Let’s remember how human rights NGOs have repeatedly denounced New Democracy’s detention of migrants in inhuman conditions. Where was the great human rights champion Carl Bildt then, when his fellow austerians were content to let migrant children rot in concentration camps?
It is worthwhile also to underline the journalistic laziness of repeatedly describing the Anel party as ‘far right’. No one seems to have done their research. My colleague Yiannis Baboulias put his scorn for this sort of hot-take dishonesty on Twitter in this way: “Thank you int journos for letting us lowly antifascist gr journos know we apparently have a far-right party in gov. Must have missed it.”
But there are two authentic far right parties in Greek politics: as well as the infamous Golden Dawn, there is also the Greek Orthodox Rally, or LAOS party, which, in an earlier edition of the Athens crisis regime, entered into a coalition with Pasok and New Democracy, a partnership that was actively encouraged by Brussels. I remember the press briefing at the European Commission when reporters confronted the EU executive’s spokespeople about the new fascist party participating in a member state government and they declared themselves disinterested so long as the austerity commitments were respected. In other words, fascism is welcome in Europe so long as it is neoliberal. But if an anti-neoliberal party comes to power, we have no qualms about branding it fascist.
Indeed, it is particularly hard to take very seriously the pearl-clutching in the chancelleries of Europe when last December, not a word was spoken over the outgoing government’s marching of six imprisoned Golden Dawn neo-Nazi MPs into the Greek parliament to vote for the right’s presidential candidate in their doomed attempt to hold on to austerian rule.
Instead, one really has to just marvel at the, well, Olympian scale of hypocrisy on display here. If we are to take the issue of Ukraine and Russian sanctions seriously, and I very strongly feel that we should, how can we not take note of the great danger posed by the actual, genuine, proper, veritable, and bona fide far right in Ukraine of the likes of Svoboda, Right Sector, and Azov Battalion.
Even if Putinist propaganda describing the new Ukrainian government as fascist is patently false, saying that the far right has not played a prominent role in the side in the conflict that the EU backs, particularly in the war in the east, is also untrue. David Stern of the BBC has explored how the Azov Battalion in particular enjoys “special backing” from top Ukrainian officials, despite it considering “Jews and other minorities “sub-human” and calls for a white, Christian crusade against them, it sports three Nazi symbols on its insignia: a modified Wolf’s Hook, a black sun (or “Hakensonne”) and the title Black Corps, which was used by the Waffen SS.”
In the Manichean, austerian mind of Bildt and company, if Athens is not with Brussels, it must therefore be with Moscow. In the world of less febrile imaginations however, it is more than rational to simultaneously be an opponent of Moscow and its coterie of oligarchs and an opponent of Brussels and its version of the same. I remember the slogan of my anti-Stalinist leftist forebears: “Neither Washington nor Moscow”. An updated version, “Neither Brussels nor Moscow” would suit me fine today, and indeed many members of and voters for Syriza to boot.
Are there useful idiots on the left who in their hatred for their own elites make the mistake of thinking that their enemy’s enemy is their friend? Of course. UK anti-war MP George Galloway famously saluted Saddam Hussein’s indefatigability. I find it repugnant, for example, that anyone who considers themselves left wing should ever work for the Moscow agitprop and disinformation outlet Russia Today (RT), and yet some ‘progressives’ have no such qualms. So the minute I see any such compromise of basic, leftist antifascist principle emanating from Greece, I would be the first to denounce it.
However, as of right now, the only people I see playing fast and loose with anti-Semites, xenophobes, homophobes, ultranationalists, fascists, neo-Nazis, or far-right outfits of any other description are the flinty, austerian sociopaths of Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin.
For it is not fascists that they are really afraid of. History shows how elites never have been. Churchill may have defeated Hitler, but in the choice between fascism and socialism in the Greek Civil War, he knew which side his pita was tzatziki’ed.
Rather, it is the sans culottes that makes elite blood run cold. And these days, it appears that the latter-day Jacobins of the Mediterranean are grabbing their pitchforks and sharpening the guillotines.
What can be done about austerity, the crisis and democracy in Europe? (or, Is social democracy in Europe – or in one country – even possible any more?)
Amongst those united in horror at the social and economic savagery of the austerians, there is nevertheless a sharp division on what is to be done about the European Union and I want to flush this out into the open.
I’m going to lay down my own thoughts on the matter, but I want to stress that at this point, my opinion remains quite tentative, and submit these thoughts more as an effort toward finding a position rather than at declaiming ex cathedra What Is To Be Done.
On blogs andTwitter, in journals, on the street, on the slogans on placards and banners, and in meeting after meeting, two broad and opposing positions are taken. I largely disagree with both, although both raise valid points. In summarizing the positions, I hope I am not mischaracterising any parts of the arguments. If so, please correct me below the fold.
The ‘Possibilist’ position
On the one hand, there is the argument that while the EU may currently be a wretchedly neo-liberal and less-than-democratic structure, it does not have to be this way, and it can – indeed must – be radically reformed. Let us call this ‘good EU’ perspective the Possibilist position due to this its partisans’ belief that a thoroughgoing progressive reform of the EU institutions is possible. (It could also be read as a nod to the 1882 gradualist faction of the French Workers Party – one of the precursors to France’s modern-day Parti Socialiste – that argued for an approach toward social justice that emphasised achieving only what was possible)
How this reform of the EU’s structures can come about, other than via the roughly simultaneous election of a majority of social-democratic governments in the EU, giving the centre-left control of the European Council/Council of Ministers, is left ill-defined. Beyond the problem of having to wait a long, long time for such an unlikely alignment of planets, we can actually point to a lengthy period in the late 1990s when social democrats did in fact control most of the major parliaments of Europe, but to no noticeable effect.
The other problem with this position that I can see is that even as it begins to concede that there may be structural problems with the European Union, it places the fault ultimately with Christian Democrat/conservative dominance of the European institutions rather than something intrinsic to the European project as it has always been conceived.
The partisans of this position range from those left-wing supporters of French President Francois Hollande who wish he would be a bit more forthright, to leading members of Syriza who may reject the troika but remain vague about membership of the euro.
As a result of breadth of this ideological spectrum, it would be incorrect to describe the Possibilist position as simply coterminous with social-democratic and social liberal critiques of the EU’s crisis-response policies, although many social democrats and social liberal critics of austerity are indeed Possibilists, but more on this shortly.
The Neo-Gaullist position
The opposing argument maintains that European integration has always been an elite-driven project and that particularly since the Maastricht Treaty, the EU and eurozone have developed such a steadily ratcheted up neo-liberal ‘constitutionality’ (that is: a free-market-fundamentalist orientation that can be tightened but not loosened), and institutional structures that are ever more technocratic rather than democratic and equally difficult to walk backward, that exit from the euro and even abandonment of the European project and return to national democracy is essential.
As with the difficulty of pigeon-holing Possibilism, it is also not correct to categorise this second position as simply the more ‘radical’ anti-austerian position, even though it is the position of many socialists and of the not insignificant Communist Parties of Portugal and Greece.
This is because this second position is also the perspective of national sovereigntists of an otherwise roughly middle-of-the-road social democratic persuasion, such as the UK’s trade-union-backed but tiny No2EU party and the more sizeable Scandinavian left-wing eurosceptic groups.
And such euro-rejectionist ideas are steadily gaining support well beyond the usual suspects. Portuguese economist Joao Ferreira do Amaral published a best-selling book last year promoting euro exit, a position now backed by the country’s chief justice, and the late Gaullist Philippe Séguin, former president of the French National Assembly and minister under Chirac consistently held to this position till his death in 2010.
Due to this emphasis on national sovereignty rather than a class-based but Europe-wide internationalism, and due to a need to give this argument a short-hand term, let’s describe this position as ‘Neo-Gaullist’. Gaullism, named after France’s post-war centre-right sovereigntist president Charles de Gaulle, is a philosophy of the right that emphasises national sovereignty but that nevertheless looks to strong government intervention in the economy and emphasises an ethic of noblesse oblige toward the ‘popular classes’.
Right-wing eurosceptics also take a position backing withdrawal from the EU, but it need hardly be said that most of these characters, being of a market-fundamentalist persuasion, entertain less of a concern for the victims of austerity.
(Most, but not all conservative eurosceptics. And we should not dismiss out of hand criticisms of the EU simply because they come from such quarters. The question should always be: are the criticisms legitimate? It is noteworthy that some of the most piercing and richly evidence-based criticisms of austerity and EU post-democracy have come from the right, notably the Daily Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard)
However, as my primary concern is whether social justice is feasible under the current European framework, and that is hardly the primary concern of the eurosceptic right, I’m going to leave aside this third discourse, and focus instead on just the ‘Possibilist’ and ‘Neo-Gaullist’ positions.
Return to national sovereignty?
Brussels-based binational reporter Craig Willy, a self-described American liberal (what on the continent would be called a ‘social liberal’) and French ‘social Gaullist’, has done an admirable job in condensing the latter argument in a 2013 essay to which this article is in part a response.
In essence, he says that policy independence is impossible within the euro. Stimulus is now in essence forbidden. Overturning this is almost impossible democratically, as it would require a majority in the Council of Ministers/European Council committed to a project of neo-Keynesian reconstruction, and, as there are no general elections to this ‘European senate’, there is no opportunity for Europeans to ‘vote out the bastards’ and overturn the current policy.
Additionally he argues, because of the ‘constitutionality’ of permanent austerity, from Maastricht to the Fiscal Pact, such a reversal would require a treaty change, which would entail effective unanimity amongst states. Moreover, a European social democracy would require a true political and fiscal union, involving fiscal transfers of 5-10%, a federal budget and treasury, with EU-level progressive taxation, borrowing and spending. This in turn would require a revolution in the public’s mindset about Europe in the major eurozone countries, in particular in the largest economy, Germany, where public opinion is strongly behind Merkel and the Berlin narrative of a frugal north and feckless south.
All of this is completely unrealistic, showing that multi-national democracy cannot work. Only with a return to national democracy is there a possibility of change, as – in theory – all you have to do is vote in a new government, a much more realistic option. Willy stresses that none of this need involve any appeal to national chauvinism. It is just an honest recognition that a socially just and democratic response to the economic crisis is impossible outside of a break-up of the EU.
Given the effort over the last few years in my writing that I’ve put into cataloguing the post-democratic nature of the EU and its austerian crisis-response, one would think that I would demur from the Possibilist position and support instead the Neo-Gaullist line.
Certainly, I have abandoned all hope that I once had of the possibility of EU democratic reform, and so I concur that the Possibilist option is in fact impossible.
But however difficult the prospect of a democratic United States of Europe may be, social democracy in one country is no longer possible either, if it ever was. A recovery of national sovereignty would find the popular will no less circumscribed by capital, by undemocratic forces than it is within the EU.
I want to argue that we need to break out of this binary of ‘reform the EU’ or ‘reject the EU’. I am coming to believe that the only path out of the current unpleasantness is the construction of a United States of Europe, but – and this requirement is absolutely non-negotiable or it will not work – it must be from the ground up, by European citizens themselves, not imposed from above.
What permitted the construction of post-war social democracy?
To grasp why this is the case, one must have an understanding of what conditions permitted the construction of social democracy and the Keynesian turn in economic policy in the first place. Those conditions do not exist today at the national level, and it is unlikely that they ever will again.
Here I offer a potted and very, very brief history not of social democracy per se, but a brief sketch of the social, economic and political conditions that permitted social democracy’s creation in Europe and America*. I make no mention of Republican Spain, France’s Popular Front or Ramsey MacDonald’s pair of British premierships not because they are not important, but because they were failures. (If I had more space and time, I would in fact delve into these, as well as more about the role model that was 1920s Red Vienna and, from the previous century, Bismarck’s social legislation that was a key part of his Revolutionary Conservatism, but this is an essay, not a book)
First off, let’s remember that the first genuine ‘Keynesian turn’ – in form if not by name, initially occurred not after World War Two, but under Mussolini and Hitler. Between the manifest cataclysm of laissez-faire capitalism and the uncertain promise of Communism, it was the corporatist innovations of fascist economics that prefigured the Scandinavian, Swiss and American demand-management economic policies a few years later which were then embraced across western Europe after the war by governments of both left and right.
Both fascist governments were able to overcome economic crisis by stimulating aggregate demand through massive investment directed by state agencies and the establishment of extensive and generous social programmes. Italy saw the establishment of work creation programmes involving house construction, marsh draining and highway, canal, railroad infrastructure roll-out. Government assumed control of credit allocation, with the fascist regime’s Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale in this period ultimately controlling 77% of pig iron production, 45% of steel production, 80% of naval construction and 90% of shipping.
When private capital was frightened of investing, the state became the investor of last resort. The regime also oversaw banking reform and nationalised the Bank of Italy. It also introduced the 40-hour work week, health insurance, paid national holidays, disability and old-age pensions, maternity benefits, and leisure-activity subsidies. State expenditure doubled between 1922 and 1933.**
Meanwhile in Germany, when we ask ourselves how it is that so many people could tolerate the totalitarian barbarism of the Nazis, we have to understand that for many ordinary Germans who were not from minority groups or the left, the daily experience was not one of terror, but, as Gotz Aly argued in a 2005 essay in Der Spiegel, a ‘warm and fuzzy’ or ‘feel-good’ dictatorship: ‘Die Wohlfuehl-Diktator‘. Employment returned through a similar stimulation of demand, while the regime delivered family and child supports, decent pensions, free access to higher education and even cheap tickets for the theatre and concerts. There was an economic leveling and even social mobility. The well-being of the national community, ‘volksgemeinschaft’, was all-important. Life was indeed better.
But this all this was made possible not just by high rates of corporate taxation, near-autarkic capital controls and the state assumption of investment decision-making, but also ultimately slave labour (by Jews, eastern Europeans, political dissidents, homosexuals and POWs – amounting to 20 percent of the German workforce at its peak) and the conquering and economic draining of other economies.
Meanwhile, fascism also promised and delivered an end to the widespread class conflict of earlier decades. Independent working-class institutions were obliterated. Business leaders embraced what had previously been seen as fringe parties due to the social peace they imposed. Fascism is at base a response to crisis and strife.
Folkhemmet and Arbeitsfrieden
Scandinavia in this period had also been the site of recurrent labour unrest. Labour relations in Norway and Sweden were home to strike rates amongst the highest in the world, and frequent violent clashes. The worst of which, a paper-mill strike in Adelen in 1931, was suppressed by the army. In 1938, fearing further violence and radicalisation, and the socialism that was around the corner, a historic compromise between labour and capital was reached at Saltsjöbaden. For similar reasons the Arbeitsfrieden (labour peace) agreement was achieved in Switzerland in 1937.
A similar social and economic reorganisation, with local particularities, to what had been pioneered in the fascist countries was adopted. In Sweden, as the late historian Tony Judt pointed out in his magisterial history of Europe since World War Two, Postwar, Swedish social democracy’s concept of the ‘people’s home’ – Folkhemmet – was appropriated from the nationalist political theorist Rudolf Kjellen, who in turn was inspired by the social-reformism of Otto von Bismarck’s conservative Realpolitik. Via Kjellen’s concepts of folk not klass, as Judt argues, Sweden’s Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti was able to undercut the right’s communitarian appeal and neutralise support for fascism.
Sweden certainly benefited from an economy that had not been devastated by war as other western European countries had been in World War One, leaving it more room to manoeuvre, but she also benefited directly from the upturn in the German and American economies, which had also embraced a demand-management approach.
Under the New Deal, the US Treasury embraced deficit public spending while labour and capital reached a ‘Grand Truce’ akin to Saltsjöbaden in Sweden and the Arbeitsfrieden in Switzerland.
Although some of the bright young things recruited to the US Treasury may have been Keynesian true believers, Roosevelt himself was no idealist. The president had concluded that governments had no option but to turn away from laissez-faire liberalism for a brief period in order to stave off revolution.
Canadian economists Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin in their recent history of the construction of the international postwar economy, The Making of Global Capitalism, uncovered a remarkable quote from the US president, writing in a letter to a friend that there was “no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for at least one generation. History shows that where this occurs occasionally, nations are saved from revolutions.” The authors note that he admired the ultimately doomed municipal social democracy of the experiment of Red Vienna in the 1920s and its public housing projects for having “probably done more to prevent Communism and rioting and revolution than anything in the last five years.”
And indeed, as the war ended, in many parts of the continent, ordinary people were armed, with millions expecting that the world that would be built after the conflict would be radically different and were taking things into their own hands.
Social democracy as vaccination against socialism
In the absence of government, and following desertion by factory and land owners, local committees were set up to administer workplaces and neighbourhoods, organise food supplies and maintain order — often a rough justice toward collaborators. In 1944, a popular insurrection in Ragusa, Sicily, was put down by the army, and in 1948, a three-day general strike crippled the country.
While arriving Allied armies worked to disband these councils and committees, US forces cabled home to report their deep concern at the disturbances that they feared could quickly evolve into revolutionary situations. Their own forces were not immune to the rebellious sentiment. In 1946, a thousand US GIs in Paris protested down the Champs-Élysées and a New York paper the same year fretted in a report from Nuremberg that American soldiers had been infected with “strike fever”. Across the continent, Communist Party memberships soared. And of course civil war in Greece broke out between Communist partisans and nationalists, with Britain backing the fascists that not months before had been the enemy. Socialism once again was a greater fear than fascism.
It was clear that, as British Conservative MP Quentin Hogg told the House of Commons as early as 1943: “If you do not give the people reform, they are going to give you revolution.”
And so we find that the post-war welfare state, full employment and concomitant high-wage truce with labour was constructed as much by parties of the right as by social-democratic governments.
The 1947 programme of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union declared: “The new structure of the German economy must start from the realisation that the period of uncurtailed rule by private capitalism is over.” It went on to argue that the “capitalist economic system” had not served the German people, and called for a “new order built right from the ground” based on “an economic system of collective ownership”
And the 1944 manifesto of France’s Christian democratic Popular Republican Movement backed what it described as a “revolution” to create a state “liberated from the power of those who possess wealth”. It backed the nationalisation of industry and the banks and supported the programme of the Conseil National de la Résistance, which envisioned a social democratic planned economy after liberation. In France, it was Gaullism rather than social democracy became the dominant force, but Gaullism was just as committed to demand management as its left opponents.
In Austria, the Socialists and the conservative People’s Party reached an understanding that was intended to prevent the sharp class conflict of the decades before the war. This delivered child care, unemployment insurance, public pensions, child support, universal medical provision, public education and subsidised transport. While it had experienced a typical Western European welfare state for decades, it was not actually until 1970 that the country saw its first left-wing chancellor, Bruno Kreisky.
In the UK, as in Belgium and the Netherlands, it was indeed their Labour Parties that built the welfare state, with demand-manipulating fiscal policy, progressive taxation and some level of nationalisation, with as much cooperation as opposition from the mainstream right. As James Meek writes in an extensive essay in the London Review of Books on the history of public housing in the UK, “the Tories started a race with Labour over who could build more houses.” Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan at one point said: “Toryism is paternalist socialism” and advocated a “planned capitalism” with substantial public ownership.
Certainly what aided the process on the continent was that the old conservative political class leading Europe had been utterly discredited by its association with fascism. The new Christian Democratic parties were composed initially of anti-fascist Catholics, some of whom had been partisans alongside Communists and socialists, allied to Christian trade unions. With the old order razed to the ground, amid the rubble, a new order could be built, even if the traditional right would quietly come in from the cold to absorb these parties in the years to come.
And of course, it was that grand American villain of the right, Richard Nixon, who famously proclaimed: “We are all Keynesians now.”
This is not to say that there were no differences between social democrats and Christian Democrats/conservatives. Compared to the cosy consensus between today’s centre-left and centre-right on economic questions, even amidst the post-war Keynesian consensus, the contrast in party programmes and delivery was stark. Just to take the example of Austria, the first ‘Red Chancellor’ Kreisky oversaw the extension of employee benefits while cutting the working week to 40 hours, decriminalised abortion and homosexuality, legislated formal equality for women and introduced maternity leave. He also extended public ownership to the point where Austria had one of the largest nationalised sectors outside of Communism.
But the point is that Europe had to pass through decades of war, violent class conflict, revolution and holocaust, for there to be cross-party consensus that mass unemployment, what they believed to be the catalyst of all this strife, was a treacherous menace that had to be avoided despite the not insubstantial cost of the welfare state and high wages.
This is where the welfare state came from: Not from enlightened social democrats on high, but from grubby conservative elites petrified that if they didn’t do something pretty radical, they would lose everything.
It is a cliché to make reference in political writing to the words of the nephew of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel about the Italian Risorgimento, Il Gattopardo. But the epigram is only really accurate as an allegory for the historic compromise of the capitalist class after the war: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Another condition that is missing
Next, it is crucial to understand that the construction of the western European welfare state could not have happened without the encouragement, orchestration and ‘seed capital’ of the United States.
Panitch and Gindin describe this process as ‘Internationalizing the New Deal’. The US needed a restored Europe, according to a 1947 Council of Economic Advisors’ report to Truman, so that it could buy “substantial amounts of our products”, both exports and goods produced on European soil by American firms. More abstractly, but still a conscious concern – indeed the main concern – on the part of Washington, was that US capitalism could not survive if the major countries of Europe were removed from the global marketplace either by the adoption of Communism or another descent into whatever form of totalitarianism might come next.
While the stick of the Truman Doctrine attempted to contain Communism, the carrot of Marshall Plan funds offset the capital that was flowing out of Europe and moving to New York at the time, and catalysed a sustained recovery. Moreover, the plan explicitly encouraged adoption of an entente between capital and labour modelled on the New Deal’s grand truce of union recognition and high wages in return for industrial peace and increased productivity.
Class conflict would be replaced with an interest in economic growth, and a redistribution of wealth could be enacted atop – instead of in place of – the free market. Alongside the Marshall Plan, the US turned a blind eye – and even encouraged in some cases – to some level of capital controls, tariffs and radical currency devaluations until Europe could begin to be able to pay for US imports.
Simultaneously, European integration was required to develop the large firms and large domestic (continental) markets they would service, such as existed in the US, that in turn would allow the economic growth that could pay for this high-cost labour truce and welfare state. Without such regional economic integration, the US feared it would not be able to wean Europe of its relief funding lest the “vicious cycle of economic nationalism … again be set in motion.”
So why did it fall apart?
But the social-democratic compromise was, as Roosevelt had said, only ever intended to be temporary. And indeed, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, capital was already straining at the leash.
The Keynesian paradox is simple enough.
To keep labour costs low, the capitalist needs a certain amount of unemployment as a whip against workers to keep them from demanding higher wages. However, with unemployment and low wages, the capitalist runs into a problem of workers not being able to afford many products. The social dislocation meanwhile also tends to encourage political instability.
If there is full employment, the capitalist can sell lots of products, but wages soar as workers tell the capitalist that he can stuff it if he doesn’t pay higher wages. The inflation this produces in turn erodes the worth of large holdings of capital. At the same time, stroppy unions produced by this sellers’ market begin to challenge not just profits, but even management’s prerogative to direct production. If a job can be had anywhere, why put up with a martinet boss?
This all came to a head with the economic crisis of the early 1970s. After a period of ideological flux prompted by the unprecedented stagflation of this period, a series of governments of both left and right experimented with a retreat from Keynesianism and a return to orthodox or classical economic thinking.
Unsurprisingly, this response to the crisis – what we now term neo-liberalism – initially provoked years of increased labour strife. But eventually, the return of high unemployment would be a great aid to soothing industrial troubles.
Meanwhile, deeper global market integration and relaxation of restrictions on the flow of capital could now quite easily tame any social democratic government that was tempted to turn back the clock. This first occurred most spectacularly with the election of France’s first Socialist president, Francois Mitterand, in 1981. He had been propelled into the Élysée Palace off the back of a strong left platform, committed to expanding the welfare state and extending public intervention in the economy. But as a result of capital flight and economic sabotage, by 1982 Mitterand was forced to abandon most of his plans and became something akin to a Thatcher for France, dramatically cutting social spending.
Social democracy in one country
Now, to counter this, Willy argues that so long as the country has not abandoned core state powers (pouvoirs régaliens) to international institutions, countries can still actually do whatever they like.
Certainly, governments even in the current era of global quicksilver movements of capital, can be braver than many have been. Many service providers cannot simply up sticks and leave a jurisdiction, and the movement of plant and machinery for many industries would be pointlessly expensive. There is a lot of bluster from the captains of industry when demanding that they get their way.
But despite the exaggeration, the reality is that these pressures do exist. If Willy is right, then we have just had a bad run of luck with the crop of social democratic leaders over the last 30 years. We just need leaders with more gumption like Kreisky, Palme and Brandt.
I think the problem instead is material rather than ideological. I don’t buy that social democratic parties are just full of venal characters. It is that they are running up against a barrier that they cannot surmount.
In a period of growth, social democracy offers to share out the spoils of capitalism more fairly than the right. When stagnation or decline sets in, they can only promise to share out the austerity more fairly than the right. Social democracy does not have a theory of crisis. Even Kreisky would be a Blairite today.
The radicalisation toward the end of the sixties provided enough momentum for Italy’s Hot Autumn in 1978, the street politics of 80s Britain and a smattering of strikes in the US, but otherwise the left, both of the social democratic and extra-parliamentary variety, began to experience steady decline.
Voter turnout begins its remorseless downward spiral amid a crisis of representation as voters instinctually began to recognise that little changes regardless of who is elected. Social democratic parties haemorrhaged members. More generally, the left was disoriented. It would not be clear for some time that what had happened was a fundamental crisis of Keynesian social democracy, and not just a temporary set-back that could be reversed at the next election.
Then at the end of the 80s, the Soviet Union collapsed. However genuinely brutal the Stalinist monster had been, and however much its dissolution was a victory over barbarism, the very existence of a living alternative to capitalism did one important thing: it put the fear of God into western elites and permitted room for social democracy. Without Communism, there was no need any longer for social democracy to keep the masses placated. This is not in any way to apologise for Moscow or its monstrous unfreedom and perverse irrationality. It is an unalloyed good that the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed.
Hungarian anti-Communist dissident and former leading member of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) G. M. Tamás put the conundrum well last March in an interview with the New Left Review:
“I don’t for a moment regret having fought against the ‘socialist’ regime—mendacious, stupid, brutal, repressive and treacherous—and I do still emotionally identify with the dissidence of those years. But I dislike very much the results of those struggles and … however understandable and salutary the sudden East European infatuation with freedom and rights, however promising the fall of the market Stalinist parties, it was at the same time a historical disaster, heralding the demise of working-class power, of adversary culture, the end of two centuries of beneficent fear for the ruling classes.”
In these new, radically different circumstances to those facing the postwar leaders, Blair and Brown in the UK and Clinton in the US gave social democracy one last kick at the can by further unleashing finance and using the revenues to expand spending in some core areas, but otherwise superintend a further liberalisation and deregulation of the economy.
The expansion of consumer credit and home ownership masked for a period the stagnation or retreat in working-class and middle-class incomes, but we all know how unhappily that ended. Indeed, this merely postponed rather than resolved the crisis that emerged in the 1970s. The question of restoration of profitability without full employment was temporarily solved by credit expansion, but that bubble has burst.
And so, reversing Nixon’s maxim, we are all neo-liberals now. The centre-left distinguishes itself from the right not on economic questions, but on identity politics and cultural issues such as gay rights, abortion and women’s rights that – however important – cost almost nothing.
Social democracy in one country has ceased to be possible.
Brave new world
This is why a retreat from European integration – and indeed global integration – is not a viable alternative.
Today, we are not presented with the same conditions that permitted the construction of the Keynesian welfare state, economic planning and full employment:
a) There is no background of strife, revolution and war that convinces elites that social democracy is the best worst option.
b) There is no actually existing alternative like the Soviet Union that also frightens elites and reminds that another way of ordering society is possible.
c) The US is going through its own economic crisis right now. It cannot help out this time and
d) Movement of capital is too fluid now for any one European country outside the EU to attempt any serious programme that delivers social justice.
If a government were to attempt such a programme, they would have to introduce strict capital controls to avoid market pressure, while engaging in currency devaluation to make their products and services competitive.
This might work for some countries for a short period. But the currency devaluation would kick off a downward cycle of competitive depreciations and beggar-thy-neighbour economic nationalism that would exacerbate rather than solve the broader economic crisis. And in a generalised period of crisis, even cheap goods can go unsold. A 25% depreciation in sterling in the first 18 months of the crisis has had little to show for it from boosted exports. Indeed, the 2012 current account deficit in 2012 exceeded that of pre-crisis 2007.
And supply chains and sites of production are so diffused now compared to when the European welfare state was constructed that such autarkic closure would cut a nation off from a range of goods and services that consumers have come to expect, with even further impoverishment of ordinary people than they have already experienced.
In any case, as soon as the capital controls were lifted, the taming pressure of the market would return, again threatening a national social democracy.
However, continent-scale economies, such as the US or China may still have room to manoeuvre. It is one thing to pick up sticks and move capital and production out of Greece. It is another thing entirely for capital to move out of an entire continent.
Any genuinely sustainable solution to the crisis, rather than the treading water that we see, must involve a recovery in investment that will have to be state-led, which in turn requires some sort of transnational taming of capital. But global markets have outgrown the nation-state’s ability to do this.
Yet remaining in the eurozone is a death trap, both economically and democratically, as Willy correctly states, and as I have repeatedly argued elsewhere.
Staying in Europe is a disaster and leaving Europe would be a catastrophe.
So does this mean that the only option is slowly reforming the EU institutions, as the left social-democratic anti-austerian analysis proposes? In reality, this is no different to just accepting austerity and post-democracy. There is no appetite for EU reform in a democratic direction at the institutional, governmental or even popular level.
What is to be done? We can’t stay in and we can’t leave.
A European union but not the European Union
There is another option. A coordinated writing off of public debt to European banks, hedge funds and other financial actors. To accomplish this without banking collapse, and to pay for the institutions’ losses, wealthy shareholders and bondholders would be squeezed and the major few dozen banks would have to be taken into public ownership at the European level.
This then, together with revenue sharing throughout the Union (fiscal transfers) under a true democratic political and fiscal union, could be part of a continent-wide plan for growth and bridling capital.
Such a plan, a new New Deal for Europe, could involve something like extensive public investment in new green-transition infrastructure and energy production, involving taking energy companies back into the public sector under genuine democratic control, and build-out of new grid, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar production (in the south, not Germany, where the sun doesn’t shine); a coordinated near-term wholesale shift of transport from being fuel-based to electric-powered; a massive extension of public transit; a truly colossal public housing construction programme to lower the cost of living; the establishment of a common, high European minimum wage; a reduction of the working week and sharp lowering of the pension age; and the institution of a generous, non-means-tested, universal basic income. Significant expansions in health, education and research would round out the programme, as well as a fulfilment of the long-since abandoned commitment to raise all of eastern Europe up to the same standard of living as existed in the west prior to the crisis.
Much of this would involve, as it did during the war, expropriation (including Europe’s share of the €23 trillion in untaxed offshore booty) and the public direction of private investment, overcoming the risk aversion, timidity, and sedated animal spirits of market actors. All of which is intended to get Europe growing again and at a sharp, postwar-style clip, but in the interest of ordinary people.
But how can such a set of proposals be taken up by a European Union whose very structures prevent its implementation?
Even were a economic heterodox majority elected in the European Parliament this year, the parliament has no right of legislative initiative, so it can only advise the skipper, not set the course and hold the tiller. Europe’s executive is appointed, not elected, and our senate, the European Council / Council of Ministers, is the real legislative chamber, but one to which there are no elections and one whose legislation is largely crafted by diplomats and bureaucrats in secret. Monetary policy is beyond the remit of elected politicians, as it is the province of the unelected ECB, and fiscal policy – the alpha and omega of any government – is fast being shepherded out of the realm of democracy as well through European fiscal integration.
And of course all this would require a true fiscal and political union, with the necessary fiscal transfers and EU-level taxation – but a fiscal union constructed on the basis of democracy, not the anti-democratic fiscal union currently being knocked together, a Hail-Mary-pass of an authoritarian federation aimed at forestalling the EU’s otherwise certain disintegration.
It would require a genuinely democratic European government, at a minimum one with powers across the continent’s territory equivalent to the traditional powers of a national government, with the executive drawn from the party or coalition with the greatest number of seats in the parliament.
There would be no European Commission, no Council. There would simply be a European cabinet of ministers and a European prime minister instead. And a European central bank would merely be an agency of a European Treasury whose mission would be in support of full employment and economic growth. Monetary policy would be returned to the realm of democracy.
But it would still, quite obviously, require a common currency. So I am in the odd position of advocating a toppling of the European Union (as it currently stands) but a maintenance (and indeed extension) of a eurozone.
And of course none of this can be imposed from the top down. It would lack all legitimacy. This has to be the demonstrated will of a majority of the European demos. We should simply walk away from the existing treaties, which have never won the legitimacy of the European electorate.
In effect, the European Union as it exists has to be overthrown by a mass, popular European movement and a new European democracy constructed by these same people in its place, something that cannot happen on a piecemeal basis, i.e., country by country.
But make no mistake: to achieve a socially just Europe, the size of the political economy can be no smaller than that of a continent. Anything less is impossible in a globalised economy.
The accusation from the Neo-Gaullists is that the construction of this socially just Europe is titanically utopian.
It certainly is.
But is the scale of its utopianism any greater than the thorough democratic and economic reorganization that occurred in Europe after the war?
More appropriately: Is it any more utopian than thinking that Keynesian demand-management programmes sufficiently ambitious to solve the economic crisis can still be accomplished at the national level? That growth can return at a national level without first solving the European – perhaps even global – economic anaemia?
Klass not Folk
Heterodox economist Costas Lapavitsas and former German deputy finance minister Heiner Flassbeck last May published their own roadmap for coordinated, orderly euro exit. They write that political and transfer union is no way out because it is “not feasible among independent and sovereign nations. No member of the EU wants to become dependent on one country, Germany.”
But Lapavitsas and Flassbeck are still accepting here the legitimacy of the nation-state as the fundamental unit of politics, rather than the individual. Who cares what the nationalists of various lands feel about the myth of dependence on Germany, or what German nationalists feel about myth of dependence upon them? Ordinary Europeans of all lands need to expropriate the wealth of the Europeans elites of all lands.
The proposal for a European New Deal under a democratic European government – a United States of Europe if you will – makes no countries dependent on other countries. It erases the idea that Europeans are split on the basis of national borders and recognises that we are split on the basis of class.
That is the real division in Europe. Klass not Folk.
For a European Spring
And this is where I want to raise the importance of the 3000 or so anti-ECB ‘Blockupy’ protesters who clashed with riot police and paralysed Frankfurt in June for the second year in a row.
Willy is right when he says that for something like a European New Deal plan to work, there would have to be a ‘social democratic revolution’ in thinking in most of Europe, and in Germany in particular. For any pan-European solution to be viable, the Berlin-Brussels-Frankfurt narrative of a frugal north and a feckless south has to be broken in the country where it has the strongest hold on the population.
Germany has already gone through its austerity period, imposed by the Social Democratic-Green administration of Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer, with poverty, temp employment and low wages soaring domestically as a result. Yet still far too many ordinary Germans are taken in by the Bild tabloid lies about ‘lazy’ southern Europe instead of pointing to their domestic enemies. Last year, a German environmental campaigner told me he personally was opposed to what his government was doing in concert with the EU, the ECB and the IMF, but it was just impossible to talk about this with anyone. The Merkel line was universally accepted.
That is why the Blockupy protests are so important, despite their relatively small size (for now). What Schroeder and Fischer did last time and the support for austerity the SPD and many Greens have shown in the European Parliament demonstrate that they represent no real change from the status quo.
But Blockupy is a sign that there is now a small but growing domestic opposition there, a crack in the austerian ideological monolith in Germany. The road to a socially just Europe runs through Frankfurt.
It brings a European Spring that much closer. This year, the protests are split between a decentralised pan-European series of actions in May ahead of the European Parliament elections, and then what looks to be widespread acts of civil disobedience both in Frankfurt and across borders to coincide with the planned opening of the new ECB premises in the autumn. In parallel fashion and over the medium term, no effort can be spared to attempt to scale up cross-border general strikes along the southern bloc, and extend them to beyond one day symbolic gestures.
As I have argued, the history of the gun-to-the-head postwar compromise between European capital and labour shows that social-democratic concessions do not come without a threat that so frightens elites that they have no choice but to concede at least to a minimum of our demands.
We have to be honest: One-day general strikes have been repeated in Greece perhaps 20 times now, depending how they are measured, and similar actions have happened in Spain, Portugal and Italy, albeit with less frequency – yet EU elites remain unmoved.
So we have to go beyond even this. The threat we ordinary Europeans have to pose to our 21st century elites has to be at least as great the threat that forced postwar elites to compromise. There has to be Tahrirs, Taksims, Syntagmas across the Union, including in Germany too.
But the pan-European movement against austerity has to know what it is fighting for. Tweaking the current set-up of the EU is impossible, but so is social democracy in one country.
There is no alternative but a United States of Europe democratically built from the ground up.
*Many readers will be quick to point out that the American Democratic Party is not strictly speaking a social-democratic party and they are not incorrect, but the party played a similar role to that of social-democratic parties elsewhere, and contains social democrats amongst its membership.
** Data come from Sheri Berman’s superb 2006 book, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century; the late Tony Judt’s masterful (if overly sympathetic to social democracy) 2010 tome, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945; and Ian Birchall’s out-of-print but still essential (if overly antipathetic to social democracy) 1986 work, Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe 1944-1985.
There are those who will be cheering the arrest on Saturday of Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and the Greek government’s crackdown on his neo-Nazi party after the political assassination of rapper and left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas last week.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with hosannas for the government’s moves against the neo-Nazi party.
Some feel that with the raids of branches, confiscation of some weapons, and arrest of leading cadre on charges of forming a criminal gang, the governing parties, New Democracy in particular, have finally, belatedly realised that the Golden Dawn now threatens their interests as much as it threatens the left and immigrants.
Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps the cabinet has indeed decided that enough is enough, however useful the fascists have proved until this week, and that the pitbulls now need to be muzzled. I have no access to the interior of the skull of Prime Minister Antonio Samaras or Nikos Dendias, his anti-immigrant minister of public order and citizen protection [sic]. So I do not know.
But I am sceptical.
Despite my revulsion at the party, I am afraid that I have to take my leave from this celebration, partially because I feel that the evidence suggests that the crackdown is at best little more than a piece of political theatre.
But also more fundamentally because I worry that in the context of the dominant but dishonest media and political discourse of “two extremes” of left and right – where the so-called ‘far left’ Syriza, trade-union strike action, and smaller left wing groups are spoken of in the same breath as the Golden Dawn – the moves against the nazis are a precursor to a similar but more thoroughgoing crackdown on sections of the left.
I would rather the ideas of the Golden Dawn be defeated in open political contest, and its militants sent scurrying, swept from the streets by popular antifascist mobilisation, than they be arrested by the very same men who not days before stood by approvingly while the blackshirts engaged in their pogroms.
Let’s be clear: Greece has existing laws to deal with those engaged in violence, such as party activists’ savage aggression towards immigrants, left-wingers and gays and lesbians, and certainly to deal with the murder of a hip-hop artist. But these laws are not being enforced. Repeatedly, the police have been seen to turn a blind eye to the party’s violence or actively work alongside its militants. It is by no means the ravings of conspiracists to claim collusion between the police and the fascists.
On the contrary, this collusion is well known, discussed by human rights groups, mainstream journalists and now leading politicians. This collusion is as much a fact, a certainty, a truth – as gravity, or that the decimal representation of pi never ends, or that it is a mistake to touch your pink bits after handling habanero peppers.
Here is a statement from the Union of Hospital Doctors of Athens and Piraeus from 19 September following the murder of Fyssas:
“As doctors of the Tzanio general hospital, we express our strong concern, as yesterday night 18/09/13, after the protests against the murder of the young Pavlos Fyssas by a member of Golden Dawn, 31 protesters were brought to the surgical department, all with blows on the head. The injured people reported blows by batons, helmets, shields and kicks from Delta and Dias teams (motorcycle police), whereas there were reports of rocks being thrown from the side of the police towards the protesters, aiming for the head, from members of Golden Dawn.
“One of the people who was injured, after being operated upon, was hospitalized at the ophthalmological department of the hospital with a ruptured bulb [sic] from a stun canister. He reported being aimed directly on the head and is in danger of suffering a permanent loss of vision in one eye. We urge for a halt of the policy of intensification of the state and parastate repression in order not to mourn any more victims.”
In the wake of the arrests of Golden Dawn MPs, two senior police officers – the regional police commanders of southern and central Greece – stepped down while another seven were suspended. One officer was arrested, suspected of simultaneously working as security for the party. These are not small fry: five senior individuals were moved to other posts pending an investigation of collusion: the chiefs of the police special forces, internal affairs, organised crime division, firearms and explosives division, and the Dias motorcycle force.
The government said its simultaneous moves against the officers was to ensure “to ensure the absolute objectivity” of the inquiry into the Golden Dawn. Defence minister Dimitris Avramopoulos has also ordered an investigation into allegations that some members of the army’s elite special forces have trained the party’s militias.
But police collusion with the party is hardly a fresh revelation. In one internationally famous incident in 2012, police stood by while the party hurled rocks into an open-air auditorium where a play with gay content was being performed. The theatre manager made calls to the chief of police, begging him for protection from the mob as the fascists beat up journalists.
“This was the Greek Kristallnacht,” the play’s director, Laertis Vassiliou, told the BBC’s Paul Mason at the time.
“People went home with broken bones. Every day they phone me now, they phone the theatre, saying: your days are numbered.”
Raids on immigrant market stalls by the party’s bully boys go unpunished, again under the watchful eyes of the police. Its offices are aggressively protected from protesters by riot police. Two weeks ago, seven members of the Communist Party of Greece were taken to hospital after some 50 men wielding crowbars and wooden bats fastened with nails and spikes attacked them as they were putting up posters for a youth festival in the port district of Perama, a stronghold for the leftists. But nearby police were indifferent, according to witnesses. The government has long known what the party gets up to and how police give it a nudge and a wink, yet both the party and its police protectors have operated with complete impunity.
Either public order minister Dendias is utterly incompetent or has himself knowingly shut his eyes to the obvious.
But I rather think that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the country’s leadership believed that the street thugs served a useful purpose against popular left-wing agitation against European austerity, or at least misdirected attention from the economic cataclysm by focussing on migrants, but now with the murder of Fyssas, the dogs must be brought to heel.
In recent months, some commentators such as Skai TV journalist Babis Papadimitriou have called for the Golden Dawn to be brought in from the cold and, so long as it can become a “serious party” and isolate the worst of its thugs, to join the governing coalition. The party was riding high before the murder – with most polls putting the party in third place on 12 or 13 percent, although one internal government poll in July gave the fascists a shocking 18 percent. It has lost a couple of percent nationally since the killing, but in its strongholds, polls suggest that it has easily shrugged off the murder.
A number of leading MPs have for some time now publicly mused about bring the party into government. Earlier this year, New Democracy MP Vyron Polydoras, said: “The Golden Dawn is no threat to Democracy.” Another MP and former leadership candidate, Panagiotis Psomiadis, said ahead of the 2012 elections: “We should join forces with all sister parties, such as X, Y, Z and Golden Dawn.”
The murder and crackdown, ironically, offers the party an opportunity to appear to rehabilitate itself should it choose to play its cards right in the court proceedings, and so far, with the voluntary surrender to police stations by many of its leading members, it’s making some of the right moves (although rhetorically, the party is as dyspeptic as ever).
Meanwhile the centre-left Pasok is one snap election away from oblivion. The latest numbers put it on around four percent, down from its election victory result of 44 percent four years ago. The threshold to get into parliament is three percent. Amongst young people in some major voting districts, the social democrats score zero percent. And with the final demise of the zombie Pasok, New Democracy would need a new ally.
In a previous iteration of the Athens crisis regime, New Democracy and Pasok did not blink when entering into a coalition with the far-right and religious conservative Laos party – a marriage publicly blessed, indeed encouraged, by Brussels. A tidied up Golden Dawn, post-show-trial, would be preferable in certain quarters to the eurozone Hades that they believe would be opened up by a government led by the left-wing Syriza.
Indeed, a day after the murder, it was not Golden Dawn that New Democracy MP and senior advisor to the prime minister Chrysanthos Lazaridis took to task, but the opposition Syriza and allied left groups, attacking the party for “undermining democracy”.
Under the Greek constitution, political parties cannot be banned, but the government now at least has set the precedent of exploiting laws intended for pursuing organised crime.
If you look at the policies of Syriza, it is clear they are a party of left social democrats at most, but the party has consistently been classed both by government-allied media domestically and in some of the foreign press as the left-wing mirror image of the Golden Dawn, the ‘extremists’ of the left.
It would be too much of a provocation for the government to move against the opposition party, but watch for the coalition now to make similar moves against smaller allies of Syriza or independent left-wing activists and trade union militants, which it will describe as “criminal gangs” as well.
New Democracy and Pasok are no defenders of democracy. It is through their economic policies, imposed at the anti-democratic insistence of Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin, as well as their collusion with the Golden Dawn, that have given birth to this 21st Century fascism of thick-necked gym rats in black golf shirts in Greece. So long as these policies and politicians remain in place, fascism will only grow.
The defeat of the Golden Dawn can only come through the defeat of the architects of austerity.
At times, I do marvel how antiseptic, bland even, that the language of the most wretchedly villainous documents can be.
Last week, the European economic research team with JP Morgan, the global financial giant, put out a 16-page paper on the state of play of euro area adjustment. This involved a totting up of what work has been done so far and what work has yet to be done in terms of sovereign, household and bank deleveraging; structural reform (reducing labour costs, making it easier to fire workers, privatisation, deregulation, liberalising ‘protected’ industries, etc.); and national political reform.
The takeaway in the small amount of coverage that I’ve seen of the paper was that its authors say the eurozone is about halfway through its period of adjustment, so austerity is still likely to be a feature of the landscape “for a very extended period.”
The bankers’ analysis probably otherwise received little attention because it is a bit ‘dog bites man‘: Big Bank Predicts Many More Years of Austerity. It’s not really as if anyone was expecting austerity to disappear any time soon, however much EU-IMF programme countries have been offered a relaxation of debt reduction commitments in return for ramping up the pace of structural adjustment.
The lack of coverage is a bit of a shame, because it’s the first public document I’ve come across where the authors are frank that the problem is not just a question of fiscal rectitude and boosting competitiveness, but that there is also an excess of democracy in some European countries that needs to be trimmed.
“In the early days of the crisis, it was thought that these national legacy problems were largely economic: over-levered sovereigns, banks and households, internal real exchange rate misalignments, and structural rigidities. But, over time it has become clear that there are also national legacy problems of a political nature. The constitutions and political settlements in the southern periphery, put in place in the aftermath of the fall of fascism, have a number of features which appear to be unsuited to further integration in the region. When German politicians and policymakers talk of a decade-long process of adjustment, they likely have in mind the need for both economic and political reform.” [Emphasis added]
Yes, you read that right. It’s in dry, banker-ese, but the authors have basically said that the laws and constitutions of southern Europe are a bit too lefty, a product of their having been written by anti-fascists. These “deep-seated political problems in the periphery,” say authors David Mackie, Malcolm Barr and friends, “in our view, need to change if EMU is going to function properly in the long run.”
You think I’m perhaps exaggerating a smidge? They go into more detail in a section describing this “journey of national political reform”:
“The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left-wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism.”
All this is a load of historical horse-lasagna anyway. Italy for example never went through a process akin to Germany’s denazification, and in Spain, the democratising king, Juan Carlos, played a major role in the transition. Only in Greece and Portugal were there popular socialist insurrections that resulted in or contributed to the overthrow of the regimes: the Athens Polytechnic Uprising played a key role in the Metapolitefsi or ‘polity change’ (although much, much more than the crushed student protests were involved here, including a failed coup d’etat and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus), and in Portugal a proper left-wing rebellion, the Revolução dos Cravos or Carnation Revolution, brought down the Estado Novo regime. Although it is true in the case of the latter three countries that their late-in-the-day construction of welfare states in the 70s and 80s was largely carried out by social democratic forces, the architects of the Italian post-war state were the Christian Democrats, who dominated government for 50 years.
“Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labour rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis. Countries around the periphery have only been partially successful in producing fiscal and economic reform agendas, with governments constrained by constitutions (Portugal), powerful regions (Spain), and the rise of populist parties (Italy and Greece).”
Let’s parse that paragraph, shall we? Weak executives means strong legislatures. That should be a good thing, no? Let us remember that it is the parliament that is sovereign. The executive in a democracy is supposed to be the body that merely carries out the bidding of the legislature. There is a reason why liberal democracy opted for parliaments and not a system of elected kings.
Oh, and we want strong central states. None of this local democracy nonsense, please.
JP Morgan, and presumably the EU powerbrokers they are ventriloquising for, finally are being honest with us: they want to do away with constitutional labour rights protections and the right to protest. And there has to be some way to prevent people electing the wrong parties.
Thankfully though, the authors note, “There is a growing recognition of the extent of this problem, both in the core and in the periphery. Change is beginning to take place.”
In particular, they highlight how Spain has begun “to address some of the contradictions of the post-Franco settlement” and rein in the regions.
But other than that, sadly, the process of de-democratization (okay – I’m calling it that. They call it “the process of political reform”) has “barely begun”.
Well, the JP Morgan paper may have been written in English, but there is a venerable Spanish phrase that that all good anti-fascists right across the eurozone periphery know and is probably the simplest and best response to such provocation: ¡No pasarán!
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.