A Spectre Is Haunting Europe: The People Won't Listen!

By Leonard Gentle · 11 May 2012

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Picture: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr
Picture: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr

The Presidential elections in France and the general elections in Greece are seismic events, which have significance way beyond the characters involved. After three years of austerity programmes throughout Europe characterised by billions of Euros worth of public money redirected towards protecting bankers and speculators who indulged in an orgy of reckless bond buying, people are simply defying an elite consensus.

This consensus brought together all the politicians, economists and media pundits who simply stigmatised the Greeks as lazy tax dodgers, railed against the “wasteful” expenditure on public services and declared that belt-tightening to satisfy the markets is the only sane thing to do.

Einstein once defined madness as doing the same thing over and over again…and expecting different results.

The business media has been uniformly gloomy about the election results in France with the Economist calling the new President elect, the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande, a “dangerous man” because he had the temerity to speak about the need for growth instead of austerity. They’ve been even more apoplectic about anti-austerity parties winning the majority vote in beleaguered Greece.

Here in South Africa we’ve long been schooled to look at events, from the occupation of Tahrir Square to local service delivery protests, through the lens provided by economists who pronounce on these events purely as to whether they are “good for the markets”.

But in this case, we have to dig a little deeper to understand the significance of the European elections as an indicator of a sea shift in public opinion and as a sign of new political alignments, as the old social democratic parties unravel. There is even a portent for our own social democratic equivalent, the ANC, to consider.                              

The French and Greek elections can be seen as a referendum of public opinion on the austerity programmes of the bankers and the timid politicians who act on their behalf.      

Since the 2008 capitalist crisis started, no less than eight governments have been kicked out for their association with the hated austerity programmes – in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Holland, Romania and now in France. In Iceland, the Prime Minister that presided over the 2009 banking crisis even went on trial for mismanagement of the country. At least the electorate in six of these countries had some kind of hand in the process. But in Italy and Greece, the EU-ECB-IMF Troika simply lost patience and imposed their own man.

Of course none of this means that Hollande will be some kind of tireless warrior taking on the bankers and the ratings agencies. The man’s history is that of a colourless career bureaucrat who only got the job as candidate for the French Socialist Party because the favourite, Dominic Strauss-Kahn, couldn’t keep his “willy” zipped up and got caught out very publicly.

Along with their counterparts throughout Europe, the social democrats of old have long made their peace with neo-liberal capitalism and have dashed every hope that their electorates entertained in them. Tony Blair’s Labour Party is remembered for being little more than “Thatcher-lite” with a whiff of corruption, whilst it was Spain’s Zapatero who was punished in that country’s last election for over-zealously carrying out the will of the markets.

And lest we forget it was the “socialist” party, PASOK, in Greece that launched the country’s much maligned austerity programmes at the behest of the EU-ECB-IMF Troika – before they threw George Papandreou out because he had the audacity to suggest a referendum on the bailout deal with the Troika.

This pig-headed refusal to listen to the elite economic consensus on the part of the European electorates goes beyond Hollande and his grey social democrat equivalents in Europe and elsewhere – it is a sign that whatever the consequences for the “markets” and the “future of Europe”, the people are simply gatvol with the lie that they must carry the can for the greed of the bankers. The people won’t listen!

There is a second significance with respect to the two recent elections – the slow, but inevitable, disintegration of the old social democrats of Western Europe. After World War II, the political landscape in Western Europe was shaped by two social forces: 1) a strong working class forged out of the experience of the war and its deprivations and 2) the contending forces of the Cold War with half of the continent in the Soviet Bloc.

Out of this complex emerged mass social democratic parties and a welfare state. The social democratic-labour parties actually didn’t spend many years in government. Only in the Scandinavian countries were they a constant feature of government. However, they were both defenders of the welfare state and a buffer against more radical alternatives, whilst their social base got the benefit of jobs and social security and rising living standards.

Thatcher’s neo-liberal project saw all this unravel. Under her and her successors, the welfare state has been severely eroded and the god of the markets invited to take over in a system of financialised capitalism. Large sections of the European middle classes and the offspring of the old post-war working class – some of whom had become middle class - were initially supportive of Thatcher’s mantra that the private sector does it better and that a smaller state sector means less taxes and more space for personal initiative. So the 1980s and 1990s saw the victories of right wing parties and, instead of them contesting the neoliberal project, the dragging of the Social Democrats/Labour Parties along with this apparent consensus.

When the neo-liberal programmes of privatisation and the destruction of the welfare state began to bite and living standards declined in the 1990s, European electorates were dealt a cruel shock. They voted out the Conservatives in Britain and their equivalents in Germany, Spain and elsewhere only to find that the Social Democrats had re-invented themselves as the new conservatives. Most recently the Greek people triumphantly sent the neo-liberal New Democrats packing in 2009 only to find that “socialist” PASOK’s Papandreou had become the Tony Blair of Greece.

This has been the pattern of European politics for the past 30 years, which has left so many people so disillusioned with electoral politics that low voter turnouts have probably been the most significant feature of the electoral landscape over this period. Only in referenda has public opinion really been galvanised throwing up results, which then too defied elite public opinion – notably the “No” votes delivered in the French, Irish and Dutch referenda on the neo-liberal draft EU Constitution.       

In this context, the rise of new movements in Europe contesting matters of politics, power and representation outside the parliamentary arena has been a notable feature. We are witnessing the rise of everything from youthful middle class flash-mobs to immigrant and refugee networks and even signs of newer forms of militant trade unions. More recently we have had the occupations of Madrid’s main square and the streets of Athens by groups known as the Indignados.

The Indignados are not just defending health, education and social security, or resisting bank bailouts. They are demanding a popular audit of the national debt. In fact many of Spain's problems stem from toxic private debt, not public debt. The Indignados’ demand for a universal basic rent offers a real critique of current policy. The healthy disrespect these groups have for the traditional political parties has meant that their radicalism has not yet been felt in parliamentary elections and so there has been – till now a kind of flowering of radicalism in the public squares, but a victory of right wing parties at elections.

Of course whilst many of these movements are associated with progressive causes, the spaces that have opened up have also been occupied by young fascist groups, anti-immigrant thugs and ultra-religious networks.                                                                                                          

As such, the current conjuncture is one in which Europe is balanced on a knife-edge – on the one hand the possibilities of a revival of emancipatory politics, a kind of European Spring, are heightened. And yet failure to galvanise this public anti-austerity tide into a movement for broader political change, both in and beyond parliamentary elections, can strengthen the hand of the new fascist right wing.

With the bankers and the mainstream politicians so hell-bent on getting their pound of flesh, the spectre of a popular revolt against neo-liberalism may well make them see New Dawn and Marine Le Pen as blunt weapons to crush such a revolt.

We are not so far away from the circumstances in Weimar Germany where what were once regarded as brown-shirted buffoons became the “saviours” of German business.
The Greek elections are therefore more interesting because the two main parties of austerity, the parties who have run Greece for decades – when the military or occupying powers were not doing so – were both rejected and progressive anti-austerity parties have gained huge public support.

Greece's economic collapse, triggered by the crash of 2008 and deepened by EU-ECB-IMF-enforced austerity, is a social disaster on the level of the US depression of the 1930s. Real wages have fallen by 25% in two years, according to the OECD.

Support for the governing parties which brought Greece to its knees fell from 80% to 30%, while leftwing parties that reject the Troika’s remedies such as cuts, privatisations and unachievable debt repayments, surged ahead of both the discredited establishment and the nationalist right.

While international attention has focused on the fascist Golden Dawn's 7% vote, by far the biggest beneficiary of Sunday's election was the radical left Syriza coalition, which won 17%. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has been holding talks on the unlikely prospect of forming a government without new elections. Syriza has so far been unequivocal in its position that any new government partner will have to be part of an alliance, which rejects the Troika deal, guarantees jobs and establishes an independent tribunal to investigate and audit the validity of Greece’s sovereign debt.

The chances of Syriza achieving such a government at this stage appear small and it may well be that Greece faces a new elections in two weeks time whose outcome is even more uncertain and threatening for the bankers.

But it is a moment of great potential for social justice and democracy.

Which brings us back to South Africa and possible parallels here. Whilst the ANC emerged not from the working class but from amongst anti-colonial chiefs and the African intelligentsia and had to build its broad church under repression with a goal of national liberation rather than socialism, there are parallels with the recent history of European social democracy.

The ANC, too, came into power on the back of popular expectations that it would bring about social transformation and break with the unpopular policies of its predecessor. The predecessor – the old Nationalist Party – had begun to mix a lethal cocktail of apartheid with the economic policy changes inspired by Thatcher’s neo-liberalism in the 1980s: privatising Iskor (now Kumba and Arcelor Mittal), commercialising Escom (now Eskom) as well as SA Railways & Harbours (now Transnet, Spoornet and Portnet), leading to the biggest jobs crash in South Africa’s history.

But like the social democrats of Europe, the ANC too continued the programme of privatisation and commercialisation and placed South Africa in hock to the “markets”, combined with its own brand of Blairite cronyism in the form of BEE.

Isn’t it significant that here too politicians across the parliamentary spectrum chastise the protestors who want perfectly reasonable things like housing, public services and greater democracy, warning them that they will “alienate investors”. Here too the business media and the economists lecture us on how too many demands may force the ratings agencies to downgrade us and that the austerity of fiscal discipline must be our lot.

And here too, despite this elite consensus, the people throughout the country simply won’t listen!

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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