Austerity and Lessons from Europe

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Austerity and Lessons from Europe

 

Presentation at the Toronto Historical Materialism Conference 8-11 May 2014

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From resistance to hegemony: The struggle against austerity and the need for a new historical bloc

Austerity has been the main battle cry from the part of the forces of capital. New cuts in public spending, new cuts in pensions, new cuts in social expenditure, mass lay-offs of public sector workers, all in the name of dealing with increased budget deficits and increased debt–burden. This was intensified after the eruption of the global capitalist crisis in 2007-8. All over the world, political and economic elites along with media pundits have been singling out public spending as the main obstacle to economic recovery. Deficit reductions have become the point of condensation of political conflicts and party rivalries. The call for budget cuts and deficit reductions has been accompanied by new calls for abolishing whatever has been left of labour rights. In all advanced capitalist societies, we can hear the same battle cry against the supposed ‘rigidities’ of the labour market and the ‘privileges’ enjoyed by public sector employees and certain segments of the workforce. Liberalizing markets and removing obstacles to entrepreneurial activity have been at the centre of political debates and policy discussions. The attempt to save the banking system has led to massive transfusion of public funding from socially useful directions toward banks, leading in a massive redistribution of income towards capital.[1]

The intensity of this attack depends upon the particular conjuncture of every economy, but also upon the extent of previous ‘reforms’ and austerity policies. There is an obvious difference in the extent of and scope of the attack in the US and European Union and in particular the countries of the Eurozone. In contrast to the incompletion of any attempt towards a ‘welfare State’ in the 20th century in the US, along with the extent and depth of the attack against workers after the late 1970s, things were different in the European Union. In Europe, despite the effects of forced market liberalization, privatizations and labour market reforms, there were still some social gains and rights in place, which European capitalists regard as an obstacle to profitability. The country that seems to have suffered less during the period of the crisis, in terms of recession, Germany, is also the country that was the first to impose aggressive measures of austerity, real wage reductions and increased flexibility, in the first half of the 2000s, under social-democratic governments.[2].....

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quote:

Any attempt towards a confrontation with questions of strategy, this also entails dealing with the question of power. On this question is important to stress the following point: today the traditional mechanism of social protest is no longer in place. It is not possible for movements to wage struggles and achieve compromises. Nor is it possible to think in terms of the movement pressuring bourgeois governments in progressive reforms. In a post-democratic condition, governments do not think in terms in political cost. Moreover, the preferred solution by both EU and the IMF, is coalition governments, not voted by anyone, but constructed after elections. Therefore, it is impossible to have change and an answer to austerity, simply in terms of movements pressuring governments. Without a political break, without gaining political power, it is impossible to fight austerity, reverse these aggressive forms of neoliberal social engineering and open up the road for a project of social emancipation and transformation.

However, thinking in terms of political power does not mean thinking simply in terms of a change of government. Nor does it mean a smooth transition process strictly within the limits of existing legality. It means a process of breaks and transformations, and radical reforms, which in some cases also means a constituent process of changes and radical reforms in legislation, including the basic aspects of contemporary constitutions, which increasingly tend to constitutionalize austerity, private investment and international trade liberalization agreements. Moreover, especially in the case of the European Union, with its embedded neoliberalism, it also means disobeying EU treaties and regulations that are part of the constitutional framework of member states.

Moreover, if it is not possible to think of political power simply in terms of government power, we still need a strong movement. Without a strong movement from below, without forms of popular power from below, of self-organization, and self-defence, any government of the Left will be, in reality, weak and unable to answer the pressures and blackmails from the part of international markets and organizations. We must never forget that the class character of contemporary states is deeply rooted in the very materiality of their institutions, forms of decision making, knowledge process, however traversed they are by class struggles. There are going be strong resistances and obstacles from the judicial system, the coercive state apparatuses, segments of the state bureaucracy, especially the ‘specialists’ and ‘technocrats’ dealing with the facilitation of ‘investment’.
Consequently, the Left can never be a ‘normal’ party of government. It will always be in a necessarily contradictory relation to the State. That is why it can never simply have a government policy. It must always be based upon mass movements and at the same time trying to impose a profound transformation of state apparatuses.[18] There would be a necessary asymmetry between real political power (in large part in the hands of the bourgeoisie) and governmental power, an asymmetry that can be only countered by forms of popular from below....

Pondering

Fascinating but difficult to digest article. Step one, putting it into more accessible language. 

epaulo13 epaulo13's picture

Pondering wrote:

Fascinating but difficult to digest article. Step one, putting it into more accessible language. 

..agreed! i find i'm having to read some passages 2 or more times to get it. i don't claim to have understood it all but where i didn't understand i got the gist enough to find it an important read..in my own opinion of course. there isn't much analysis floating around canada regarding canadian austerity. maybe that's because in europe it's more advanced and it has felt it's impact on a grander scale. but we can look to europe or even just south of the border to the us to see the outcomes. and we certainly don't want to go there any further than what we have. this means we need to spend more time organizing ourselves for both self defence and just as important, creating a different path. an example:

quote:

We must think of political power in terms of a contemporary version of a ‘dual power’ strategy. This would combine a strategy for governmental power and at the same time for political power from below, in a constant process of pressure towards enlargement of the transformation process, towards even more radical measures, towards dealing with all the counterattacks from the part of the forces of capital. This process must be a constant dialectic between initiatives from below, forms of counter-power and attempts of institutionalizing forms of enlarged democracy, worker’s control and democratic planning. This process must be seen as a process of constant struggle, of continuous battle against various forms of obstacles and of collective experimentation based upon the collective ingenuity of the people in struggle.

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Sweden’s Great Welfare Heist

How Sweden’s public services were stolen, and how people are fighting to take them back.

For a hundred years, ABF-Huset on Sveavägen has been the headquarters of the workers’ education movement, a pillar of Sweden’s ‘study-circle social democracy’. Every day and all evening the classrooms and lecture halls are filled with adult education classes, theatre and music performances, as well as political discussions. Tonight’s public meeting is standing room only. The mood is cheerful, earnest, disciplined and, dare I say it, rather churchly. Fittingly, we begin with songs: first a hymn tune with the refrain ‘Everything is for sale!’, then a jazzier number that goes ‘Got any money? (Then you can buy a place in the queue)’. Next there’s a short dystopian pantomime set in a hospital waiting room: the man with the private plan goes straight upstairs while the lady on the public option has to wait in line. The sheepish uninsured fellow with the broken leg is shown a price list, then the door.

The wholesome militant jollity of this curtain-opener jibes strangely with the evening’s tag-line, ‘politicians against the wall’. It’s a public debate called by an organisation called the Campaign for Common Welfare. The panel are bunched in on the stage, as all the parties in the red-green coalition have sent MPs to field questions, and a number of municipal politicians as well. The panel are on average maybe ten years younger than their audience, and they look rather bashful: rightly, for they are about to spend three hours being scolded.

Sweden’s welfare system is famously extensive: long parental leave, free childcare, free tertiary education, generous social security. After the economic crisis of the early 1990s successive governments have reduced entitlements and cut public spending, but what has changed the most is the incorporation of the private sector at every level of the welfare state. All public contracts are subject to competitive tendering and most new clinics and hospitals are built with private funds. Communal clinics, nursing homes and schools compete with private firms for pupils and patients. Last year the state paid almost one hundred billion kronor (£11 billion) to private welfare operators, overwhelmingly to ten large corporations all owned by private equity funds.

The Swedish experiment has attracted worldwide interest from governments looking to promote ‘efficiency, choice and innovation’ while slashing budgets. The ‘free schools’ introduced by the UK coalition government were expressly inspired by the putative success of the Swedish experiment. In 2008 Michael Gove wrote an article for the Independent under the headline ‘We need a Swedish education system’, and two Swedish companies have already taken over the management of schools in the UK, albeit on a not-for-profit basis. The ‘New Nordic Model’ promises to finally free the public sector from the dead hand of bureaucracy, although curiously no other Nordic country has actually implemented it....

http://europe.redpepper.org.uk/swedens-great-welfare-heist/

Slumberjack

My take on it is that there's recognition that traditional forms of protest have been largely invalidated by the way in which the corporate media portrays citizen dissent, by the power of the judiciary, by the thuggery of the police, and by biopolitics.  Even a popular vote for a leftist government as the frustrated gesture - despite all the counter-propaganda - of an electorate feeling besieged by the system, is almost entirely mitigated by center-right compromises with the dictates of the economic power structures. 

I believe the concept of 'dual power' as a strategy that intends to enfranchise the general public is a pipe dream, because one side of the 'power' equation is always at risk of being undermined and subsumed by the power of capitalist greed and everything that goes along with that.

Right now the justification for power consists in the false legitimacy of the ballot box.  We can envision the ultimate removal of this justification as more and more people shun the elections to nowhere, but power and its coercive effects will only become more overt and blunt in it's methods for retaining power.  At that point, such methods which are already present and employed anyway, would constitute all that remains of it's self-serving vices.  In other words, the curtains would be thrown open and the emperor finally revealed to all.  Not a naked individual or a group of naked elites, but a great nothingness, empty except for all the lies and violence substantiating it, for that is all it is.

Under the circumstances, a summons to the ballot box is similar to a sub-conscious request by the general public to continue drawing the curtains closed, which is unfortunately what too many people still prefer as a means to shield themselves from the reality.  This is ultimately why they can't be blamed for performing this ritual every so often, because it's quite understandable that everyone's first natural inclination is to either hide from it, to bury it deep, or to continue with this patterning without ever understanding why, only that everyone around them seems to be doing it.

epaulo13 epaulo13's picture

Slumberjack wrote:

My take on it is that there's recognition that traditional forms of protest have been largely invalidated by the way in which the corporate media portrays citizen dissent, by the power of the judiciary, by the thuggery of the police, and by biopolitics.  Even a popular vote for a leftist government as the frustrated gesture - despite all the counter-propaganda - of an electorate feeling besieged by the system, is almost entirely mitigated by center-right compromises with the dictates of the economic power structures. 

txs slumberjack

..yes to all you have said. but especially to police thuggery. and the readiness of governments to do violence to it's populations using military tools that have been accumulated over several years now. it has happened in spain and in greece just to name two places. you can only do so much with street confrontation these days before the full military like might falls onto your head. we see this in quebec re the students protest being decalred illegal the second they begin. and also to deal with the concept of change or revolution where the old guard is tossed out only to be replaced by the new guard and that not much changes after all is said and done. new forms of organization were/are needed to be able to not only defend ourselves but continue to move forward towards a participatory democracy. and so i see this taking place not only in europe but north america. and elsewhere for sure but i will keep trying to connect this back to canada.

..i will respond to the rest of your post but i don't have time right now..gotta go. talk to you later.

Slumberjack

A way forward seems best facilitated by an honest assessment of the circumstances.  For instance, anyone who aligns with the array of neo-liberal contingencies around the world, ie: sanctions against populations, regime change, no fly zones, economic and military warfare, the whole horrifying kit and kaboodle traditionally at the disposal of power, disqualifies themselves and their respective associations from all consideration.  In my view, when a political entity removes itself from consideration through its policy leanings, it should serve to lessen the confusion of community based movements when it comes time to deliberate which conduits and networks are to be approached and entered into dialogue with.  This is why I've been following the progress of the "People's Social Forum" with a little suspicion, because at the 'end of the day,' since political representation as we’ve come to know it is a relic from a bygone era, the question that remains for me, is: 'to whom are the products of this dialogue to be articulated?'  If it is connected in any way, shape or form with the already existing state of ‘official’ politics, then it has already been internally co-opted, which is suggestive of its initial design.

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Exclusive: Euro-Crisis Report Links Bailouts and Austerity To Fascism's Rise Across Europe

Across Europe human rights, due process and democracy are eroding. On the surface, this seems most evident in the continent's electoral lurch in May toward parties of the far-right – especially Greece’s Golden Dawn, which secured the third most votes while demonstrating open Nazi affiliation.

The far-right’s rise connects directly, of course, with escalating conditions of social deprivation and economic hardship. The International Labor Organization recently announced public spending cuts have caused poverty to rise to 25% across the continent. In essence, we're watching austerity breed fascism.

Yet the greatest actual attack on democracy has come from neoliberals working within the system who generated those austerity policies – without any electoral mandate. Such policies diminish people’s rights, ignore national legal frameworks and disregard democratic sovereignty. The neoliberal attack is explained with striking detail and clarity in a forthcoming report by Christina Laskaridis, entitled False Dilemmas. (Laskaridis gave Occupy.com a pre-publication copy before its release by the U.K. research group Corporate Watch....

http://www.occupy.com/article/exclusive-euro-crisis-report-links-bailout...

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Slumberjack wrote:

A way forward seems best facilitated by an honest assessment of the circumstances.  For instance, anyone who aligns with the array of neo-liberal contingencies around the world, ie: sanctions against populations, regime change, no fly zones, economic and military warfare, the whole horrifying kit and kaboodle traditionally at the disposal of power, disqualifies themselves and their respective associations from all consideration.  In my view, when a political entity removes itself from consideration through its policy leanings, it should serve to lessen the confusion of community based movements when it comes time to deliberate which conduits and networks are to be approached and entered into dialogue with.  This is why I've been following the progress of the "People's Social Forum" with a little suspicion, because at the 'end of the day,' since political representation as we’ve come to know it is a relic from a bygone era, the question that remains for me, is: 'to whom are the products of this dialogue to be articulated?'  If it is connected in any way, shape or form with the already existing state of ‘official’ politics, then it has already been internally co-opted, which is suggestive of its initial design.

..i'm feeling that events in the past while reflect change. the ont election for one, the rejection of neoliberalism, the splits occurring between the ndp with both labour and the anti-poverty groups is significant. it's also i believe symbolic and now everyone can be freed up to go up against the system no matter who is in office. now we can tell them all how we feel. we can see this now by the mp occupations re gaza.

..i watch the people's forum closely as you know. i want to see something close to the elgin proposal or even better. but i can't help being excited. the forces that have created the forum in the 1st place i trust explicitly. i am one of them i feel. and i see this as our last big fight. it's like a foundation is being built and so far so good. the ideas are there. we are so fortunate to have the 1st people there. what they have to teach everyone is key. and if we look and listen  close we can see a pathway out of this mess. both environmentally and living in a participatory way.

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Slumberjack wrote:

My take on it is that there's recognition that traditional forms of protest have been largely invalidated by the way in which the corporate media portrays citizen dissent, by the power of the judiciary, by the thuggery of the police, and by biopolitics.  Even a popular vote for a leftist government as the frustrated gesture - despite all the counter-propaganda - of an electorate feeling besieged by the system, is almost entirely mitigated by center-right compromises with the dictates of the economic power structures. 

I believe the concept of 'dual power' as a strategy that intends to enfranchise the general public is a pipe dream, because one side of the 'power' equation is always at risk of being undermined and subsumed by the power of capitalist greed and everything that goes along with that.

Right now the justification for power consists in the false legitimacy of the ballot box.  We can envision the ultimate removal of this justification as more and more people shun the elections to nowhere, but power and its coercive effects will only become more overt and blunt in it's methods for retaining power.  At that point, such methods which are already present and employed anyway, would constitute all that remains of it's self-serving vices.  In other words, the curtains would be thrown open and the emperor finally revealed to all.  Not a naked individual or a group of naked elites, but a great nothingness, empty except for all the lies and violence substantiating it, for that is all it is.

Under the circumstances, a summons to the ballot box is similar to a sub-conscious request by the general public to continue drawing the curtains closed, which is unfortunately what too many people still prefer as a means to shield themselves from the reality.  This is ultimately why they can't be blamed for performing this ritual every so often, because it's quite understandable that everyone's first natural inclination is to either hide from it, to bury it deep, or to continue with this patterning without ever understanding why, only that everyone around them seems to be doing it.

..my personal belief is that the world can run itself via various assemblies (ie co-ops etc) plus some helping tools. but not everyone agrees. so some may come at it in another way. what the post says to me is that organization is what is important. and that if your going to support a party this is what it kinda has to look like. (eta: forgive me for not saying sooner that quebec solidaire is also a party that could become a vehicle for change.) the genie though has been let out of the bottle. since the occuping of the squares began, participitory democracy is on the table and that very much shapes relationships.

..in bc the movements (especially 1st nations) have defined the political situation. the majority of 1st peoples who's territory will be expected to provde the land for energy projects have rejected it. polls show that enviroment is of crucial impotance and that people don't want tankers in the harbors. this has defined the political situation. all politicos follow this and must address it. also the movements have forced the ndp to take a stronger stand on energy projects. it now rejects site c dam and the tarsands pipelines. come election time why wouldn't i vote ndp? it's the movements that are important. 

NDPP

Mass Protest Strike Against Austerity Staggers New Belgian Govt

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/11/08/belg-n08.html

"Workers from across Belgium converged on Brussels on Thursday to protest the austerity measures of the new right wing government and Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Approximately 130,000 people (100,000 according to police and 200,000 according to the marchers), from both Flemish and French speaking regions marched in one of Belgium's largest mass protests.

Workers were protesting the Michael government's plans to raise the pension age to 67, carry out a 10 percent cut in the public sector wage bill, force long-term unemployed workers in the chemical, pharmaceutical, transport, public transit, part, steel and aerospace industries struck and joined the protests.

Violent clashes erupted between police and groups of protesters..."

 

RT News (and vid)

http://rt.com/bulletin-board/203631-rtnews-november-09-12msk

"Anti-government anger boils over in the heart of Europe - as Belgium is rocked by violent clashes involving thousands protesting against austerity, despite its esteemed welfare state..."

But against Canada's right-wing government, where austerity also bites deep...nada.