Please make your comment after we make our decision

Taking a page from their United States counterparts, European Union trade negotiators apparently interpret the word “consultation” as a synonym for “ignore.” Fresh evidence for this attitude toward the public was provided thanks to a leak of the final text of the proposed “free trade” agreement between Canada and the EU.

Although the E.U. trade office, the European Commission Directorate General for Trade, promotes a process of public consultation on its web site, it isn’t the public who gets listened to. The final text of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) includes language mirroring corporate wish lists unchanged from previous drafts despite the fact that the E.U. trade office has not had time to analyze comments submitted by the public.

This farce of a “consultation” process mirrors the secretive negotiations in the better known Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic trade agreements. Corporate lobbyists are well represented in these talks, but the public, watchdog groups and even parliamentarians and legislators are barred from seeing the text. The CETA text is also secret, but was leaked by the German television news program Tagesschau, which published the entire 521-page document on its web site. Yep, 521 pages.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

Critical to understanding the CETA text is Section 33, the portion simply labeled “dispute settlement.” Under that bland heading a reader finds the muscle — what is known as an “investor-state dispute mechanism.” These “mechanisms,” found in many bilateral and multilateral trade deals, are corporate-dominated secret tribunals that hand down one-sided decisions with no oversight, no public notice and no appeals. Governments that agree to these mechanisms legally bind themselves to mandatory arbitration with “investors” in these secret tribunals on which most of the judges are corporate lawyers who represent the “investors” in other legal proceedings.

Kenneth Haar, a spokesman for the watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory, in an interview with the EurActiv news site, called the dispute mechanism “an outright danger to democracy,” and said:

“The Commission is not really serious about its own consultation. It’s more about image than substance. … I think those who chose to respond to the Commission’s consultation are being ridiculed.”

Decisions will be final and unaccountable

Employing the standard sweeping language, CETA’s Article 14.2 (the articles here are numbered “14” even though they are found in Section 33) states: “[T]his Chapter applies to any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the provisions of this Agreement” [page 472]. Article 14.10 goes on to declare, “The ruling of the arbitration panel shall be binding on the Parties. … The panel shall interpret the provisions referred to in Article 14.2 in accordance with customary rules of interpretation of public international law” [page 476].

“Customary” international law is whatever one of these secret tribunals says it is. Environmental regulations, “buy local” laws or any other government action that a corporation claims will hurt its profits can be, and frequently are, ruled illegal by these tribunals when adjudicating disputes under existing trade agreements. Such rulings set precedents that become “customary” international law.

In case these “customary” laws are not clear, on page 480 of the CETA text is Article 14.16, which would supersede national law:

“No Party may provide for a right of action under its domestic law against the other Party on the ground that a measure of the other Party is inconsistent with this Agreement.”

Your law was passed in a democratic process? Too bad — it will be overruled if an “investor” doesn’t like it.

CETA’s proposed rules are consistent with what is being secretly negotiated in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and E.U., and in the Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated among 12 Pacific Rim countries. A majority of the world’s economy would be removed from any possibility of democratic control should these three trade deals come into effect.

The watchdog group Council of Canadians warns:

“The Harper government has thrown Canadian municipalities under the bus, forever banning ‘buy local’ and other sustainable purchasing policies that help create jobs, protect the environment and support local farmers and businesses. The Harper government has also agreed to lengthen patents and give new monopoly protections to already profitable brand name drug companies, which will needlessly add hundreds of millions to the cost of prescription drugs in Canada.”

Not even water would be exempt. If a water system is privatized and a local government chooses to re-municipalize it because rates have risen while service declines (as has routinely occurred on both sides of the Atlantic), the investor would be able to hold out for an extra windfall under the terms of the trade deal.

Only corporate lobbyists need apply

Although the public, and public-interest groups, are not heard, corporate lobbyists are. For example, there are 605 “advisers” with access to the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and who shape U.S. negotiating positions. Virtually every one is an executive of a multi-national corporation or a corporate lobbyist working for an industry association.

It is little different in Europe. Corporate Europe Observatory reports that 92 percent of the closed-doors meetings of the E.U. trade office have been with corporate lobbyists, while only four percent have been with public-interest groups. The trade office has gone so far as to actively solicit the involvement of corporate lobbyists. That perspectives other than those of multi-national capital are not considered can be inferred from the very way public input is solicited, the Observatory said:

“How would the average citizen respond to questions such as: ‘If you are concerned by barriers to investment, what are the estimated additional costs for your business (in percentage of the investment) resulting from the barriers?’ So, clearly, the close involvement of business lobbyists in drawing up the EU’s position for the [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] talks is a result of the privileged access granted to them.”

It’s no different for CETA, and the same dynamic exists across the Atlantic. Former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk once admitted that if people knew what was in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would never pass. It is important to remember that these massive “free trade” deals are not simply business as usual — they go well beyond even the draconian rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So although the competitive pressures of each country attempting to give an advantage to its multi-national corporations does mean that maneuvering through differing interests requires lengthy negotiations — not to mention the sometimes conflicting interests of various industries — at bottom there is a unifying class interest in the overall project. It is true that the U.S. adopts the hardest line in the trade negotiations it participates in (before we even get to the military muscle it applies to force open Southern countries), yet the absence of the U.S. from a Canada-European Union trade deal has made no practical difference to its outcome.

That different countries, different administrations, reach similar one-sided “free trade” agreements in which “investors” are allowed to overrule national laws, and labor, safety and environmental regulations are “harmonized” at the lowest level, is a product of capitalist competition. The rigors of that structural competition mandate expansion and growth — as local markets mature, capital has no choice, if it is to survive relentless pressure from competitors, other than opening new markets and relentlessly cutting costs to maintain profit levels. “Free trade” agreements represent one of the most effective ways to accomplish that.

Popular revolts against these agreements must be continued, and strengthened, but there will be no end to them as long as economic and social decisions are allowed to be made by “markets,” which are not disembodied entities sitting dispassionately on an Olympian throne but rather are the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

How long will Europeans accept austerity?

Europe is not ready to revolt. Or, possibly more accurately, given the 43 percent participation rate, Europeans simply see the European Parliament as irrelevant. Given the little power it has, and the anti-democratic structure of European Union institutions, many saw the election as simply as an opportunity to cast a protest vote.

Yet despite the hand-wringing over the advance of far Right parties (and I am not suggesting that is not worrisome), Europeans continued the general pattern of voters in the global North of alternating between their mainstream parties. The two main blocs, the E.U.’s center-right and center-left groupings, comprising almost all of the major parties, combined for almost 54 percent of the vote, and if we throw in the more than eight percent won by the third-place liberal grouping (for North American readers, European liberals are roughly equivalent to libertarians), the parties of austerity won a solid majority.

The combined total is about ten percentage points less than than won by the three largest groupings in the previous election in 2009, but still a comfortable majority.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg, France

The Left made some advances, too, albeit falling short of some expectations.

The fourth-place Green alliance and sixth-place European United Left combined for 13 percent of the vote, considerably more than far Right parties garnered, despite the strong showings of the United Kingdom Independence Party, France’s National Front and the Danish People’s Party. In Greece, Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) came in first place. In Spain the United Left and Podemos — a four-month-old party organized by the “Indignados,” Spain’s Occupy movement — combined for 18 percent of the vote, and Left parties in Portugal did about as well.

Keeping the devil you know

Nonetheless, those who did not bother to vote formed a majority of the E.U. electorate. And those who did vote voted for more of the same, even if in most countries the one major party was swapped for the other major party. More of the same surely isn’t appealing, as the E.U. unemployment rate is 11.8 percent, barely off the 12 percent peak of March 2013. Inequality, although less severe than in the United States, has been rising for three decades. Moreover, the three largest blocs, plus a small right-wing bloc that includes Britain’s Conservative Party, are committed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a “free trade” agreement being negotiated in secret between the U.S. and the E.U. with the warm approval of multi-national corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The lack of democracy in E.U. institutions is not a happenstance; the intention of them is imposition of a U.S.-style régime. There was and is no vote on the mandatory budget constraints national governments must abide by nor the policies of the European Central Bank. When loans are made to Greece by E.U. institutions, the money does not go to Greeks, it passes right through the Greek government and into the hands of French and German banks.

Thus it is no surprise to hear that of E.U. negotiators’ 127 closed meetings concerning the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists, information known only because of investigatory work done by a public-interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory.

European food safety and privacy laws are squarely in the crosshairs of U.S.-based multinational corporations. European capitalists are one with their U.S. counterparts that trade rules should be “harmonized” — which means “harmonized” with the lowest standards. This is only one aspect of the larger project of neoliberal austerity to which Europe’s center-left parties are as committed as its center-right parties, as the French voters who put François Hollande into office have found. In Germany it was none other than the Social Democratic Party, through its “Agenda 2010” legislation, that instituted austerity there. The so-called German “miracle” rests on a decade of wage cuts for German workers.

You can only do so much in a voting booth

The large number of abstentions and decreased vote totals for major parties are symptomatic of Europeans becoming fed up with economic stagnation, high unemployment and the relentless austerity being imposed on them by unaccountable, undemocratic supranational institutions. But only in a handful of countries, where austerity has pushed down the hardest, have sizable opposition movements coalesced.

Those voters who could be bothered to vote for the European Parliament are not yet exhausted with their political and economic systems, mostly remaining content to alternate between major parties. Although the vote totals for the extreme Right were, overall, not as dramatic as press reports have portrayed them, nonetheless the strong increase in those votes is cause for concern, especially as Britain’s Conservative leadership increasingly appears inclined to adopt UKIP talking points and France’s Union for a Popular Movement does the same with National Front talking points.

When there is not an active Left to provide an alternative to institutional decay, the Right will fill the vacuum with scapegoating, programs to weaken anything that counters corporate power, paeans for a return to a mythological past, and the potential for nationalistic violence, a threshold already trampled by Greece’s Golden Dawn. But change in capitalist systems does not derive from parliamentary maneuvers, it comes from organized, militant popular movements.

We do not yet live in dictatorships; there remain cracks, seams and fissures in political systems that enable reforms. These can be significant reforms such as those won in the 1960s and, in the United States, in the 1930s. But those democratic spaces are closing — the ever more powerful spying apparatuses, militarized police, top-down rules imposed through “free trade” agreements and subsidies lavished on the already wealthy do not fall out of the sky. Moreover, reforms can and are taken back and are better seen as means to larger goals, not ends in themselves.

An intensified race to the bottom is all that is on offer by the governments and institutions of the world’s mature capitalist countries. There is no tweak of policy, nor exchange of one corporate party for another corporate party, that can solve the structural crisis of the global economic system. The European Parliament elections are interesting as a barometer of public opinion, but not for much else. An increasing number of people (although hardly a decisive number as yet) are signaling discontent but also that while they are beginning to decide what they don’t want, what they do want is much more inchoate. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Scotland can be independent from London, but not capitalist markets

Independence for a country that is a dependent capitalist entity is illusory. Scotland, although a core capitalist nation whether or not it remains a part of the United Kingdom, will not prove to be an exception.

The governing Scottish National Party (SNP) promises the people of Scotland that they would hold their fates solely in their own hands should they vote for independence, yet Scotland just showed itself to be at the mercy of the world’s 12th largest petrochemical company. If so, how is Scotland to stride boldly into its future free of London financiers and global capitalist markets when a single multinational corporation successfully issues diktats?

Some of the contradictions inherent in Scotland’s independence bid are reflected in the SNP’s white paper, Scotland’s Future, in which it promises a host of progressive policies to reverse London-dictated austerity while flatly stating that an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound as its currency and recognize Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. In part these promises are borne from the SNP’s desire to retain the advantages of being a part of Britain while formally separating. Intended or not, retaining the pound ensures fiscal policy will be decided in London and not Edinburgh.

Scottish parliament during 'Make poverty history' day in 2002 (Photo by Russ McGinn)

Scottish parliament during ‘Make poverty history’ day in 2002 (Photo by Russ McGinn)

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond doesn’t appear to see the significance of this, telling The Guardian that “The Bank of England and sterling are as much Scotland’s assets as London’s assets. They are certainly not [Chancellor] George Osborne’s assets. We put forward in this paper our willingness to accept liabilities. We are also entitled to the share of assets.”

Although an opponent of independence, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is closer to the mark, declaring a currency union “self-imposed colonialism.”

It should be noted that the question of Scottish independence is strictly a matter for the Scottish people. If formal independence is their desire, that is that. But there is formal independence, and there is actual independence in a globalized world dominated by markets that tilt heavily in favor of industrialists and financiers.

Swiss company, not London, decides fate of industrial complex

In its white paper, the SNP declares “Independence means that Scotland’s future will be in our own hands. Decisions currently taken for Scotland at Westminster will instead be taken by the people of Scotland.”

Yet a recent decision, with significant consequences for the health of Scotland’s economy, was taken not in the British parliament but by a single corporate leader in Switzerland. That leader, Jim Ratcliffe, is the chairman of Ineos, the petrochemical company alluded to above. Ineos had been locked in a bitter negotiation with the union representing workers at its oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the city of Grangemouth; this is the only refinery in Scotland and processes 70 percent of Scotland’s fuel.

The Unite union had balked at Ineos’ demands for significant cuts. In response, Chairman Ratcliffe shut down the complex. Unite quickly reversed itself, agreeing to the demands. The complex was re-opened and Ineos announced it would invest £300 million and commit to keeping the complex open. In return, the union accepted a three-year pay freeze, cuts to pensions and a three-year moratorium on any strikes.

Scotland may claim 90 percent of Britain’s North Sea oil reserves, but without knuckling under to the demands of Ineos, would have been reduced to importing refined oil. First Minister Salmond called the deal “a great team effort from all concerned,” as if workers and employers were somehow equal, while a Scottish trade union official, Graham Smith, more realistically told the BBC that Ineos had “tried to impose its will on the workforce with a take it or leave it ultimatum.” For his part, Chairman Ratcliffe said he sought “to bring the site into the modern world.”

Reduced wages and living standards is “modernization,” the corporate media tells us; the Ineos chairman said more than perhaps he meant. Scotland’s independence would have had no effect whatsoever on this outcome.

Independence from Britain while staying in British grasp

The policies the SNP intends to implement, should independence be granted and it remain the governing party, certainly represent a sharp break with austerity and neoliberalism, and if realized would represent real gains for Scottish working people. The SNP white paper calls for universal child care, universal “high-quality early learning” programs, reductions in income inequality, reversing the cuts in social services imposed by the British government, provide more support for small farmers, and writing a constitution that would enshrine equal opportunity and “certain social and economic rights” such as a right to education.

On the other hand, the white paper also said it would remain in the Nato military alliance, retain the British currency and queen, and work closely with British security and intelligence agencies. The SNP also intends to focus the Scottish economy on exports while “emphasising innovation, technology and manufacturing.”

Capitalist market competition, which drives production to low-wage locales, will have much more to say concerning Scotland’s ability to become a successful exporter than the SNP. Moreover, Scotland would not be independent of London under the SNP’s formulation. The Bank of England is not likely to consider the needs of an independent Scotland when setting monetary policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve quite likely does not weigh the impact on Panama, which uses the U.S. dollar, when setting its monetary policy. Central banks, in general, are sensitive to the needs of financiers, from whose ranks their personnel come from, not to the needs of working people.

With a population of 5.3 million, Scotland would have no more ability to significantly deviate from the dictates of core capitalist heavyweights like the United States and Germany than other small countries. The interests of big capitalists in Scotland align with the interests of big capitalists elsewhere — maintaining the system in which they operate, at any cost to employees, not at sacrificing themselves to build a better Scotland.

There is nothing new here; the current era of corporate globalization has merely intensified what has long been true. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote a century ago:

“Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, the ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Even within the European Union, smaller countries like Greece and Ireland have little independence although they long ago broke free of colonial masters. The “troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund demand brutal cuts to wages, pensions and social services — and none of these bureaucracies are subject to election. The European Central Bank dictates financial policy across the continent on behalf of the financial industry. There is also less political independence than meets the eye — recall that in late 2011 Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel “summoned” the Greek prime minister to a meeting to curtly inform him there would be no referendum on the latest round of austerity. There was not.

No more living under unrepresentative governments

The foregoing does not deny that the Scottish people could be better off constituting a separate country. They have had to often endure the unpopular rule of the Conservative Party, which wins few votes outside of England, and thus subject to a government not of their choosing. (One of Scotland’s 59 members of parliament is a Conservative.) The Scottish Socialist Party, for example, readily acknowledges the progressive elements among the SNP proposals while arguing that the white paper should have gone much further.

Party officials, in the December issue of Scottish Socialist Voice, write that the SNP white paper did not have any commitment “to repeal the worst antiunion laws in Europe,” mention of a progressive tax system, guarantee of affordable housing, guaranteed right to union membership nor right to strike. Moreover, the white paper’s call for a minimum wage is based on the “good will” of employers rather than legal enforcements.

Scottish Socialist Party national co-spokesperson Colin Fox writes:

“I would also have liked to have seen a commitment to take the renewable energy industry into public ownership — just as the Scottish government did recently with Prestwick Airport — and return our gas and electricity supply industry to public hands. Both measures are concomitant with pledges to achieve greater economic prosperity, social democracy and fairness. … [T]he [party] prefers the very successful Norwegian approach to its oil and gas resources where it took them both into public ownership rather than privatising them as Britain did. As a result of this decision Norway has now accrued £840 billion in a state ‘Oil Fund’ with which to benefit its citizens and future generations.”

Another party writer, Richie Venton, argues that Scottish working people face a choice of going either forward or backward:

“So trade unionists don’t even face a choice between the status quo and independence, but between a further clawing back of gains won by past generations of trade unionists and socialists in struggle — or a chance to improve our lot as workers by voting for the right to get whatever government the Scottish people elect!”

We come back here to the question of reforms or a change to a better world. Welcome as reforms are — and the Scottish National Party proposals are significant and meaningful reforms — they are always subject to being taken back when political conditions change. The era of neoliberalism that dawned in the 1970s and continues to intensify is a concentrated attack on the gains won in prior decades, much of which has been lost.

Socialist changes, such as workers’ control of enterprises and public ownership of key industries such as energy and banking, codified in a constitution, would be the product of a struggle intended to go well beyond reforms and instead seek to create a better world. But no single country can be a socialist island in a sea of capitalism. A Socialist independent Scotland would face the ferocious hostility of the capitalist world, not excepting London bankers and bond traders, and Scottish capitalists.

That a small country could defy the power of capitalist markets — the product of the aggregate interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers — is not realistic. Those markets are expressed through a variety of means, financial and political, through multilateral institutions and imperialist governments, through webs of debt and military pressure.

A socialist Scotland could only flourish within a socialist Europe designed to maximize human need and potential rather than private profit. Otherwise, London, Brussels and Wall Street will continue to call the tune on behalf of the wealthiest, regardless of the formal political power residing in Edinburgh.

One small step for French workers but no giant leap

France appears on the verge of advancing the rights of workers, and although such a victory will be slight, even a tentative step forward is welcome. But it is no more than that: Once we get past the comedy of business leaders wailing that the sky is falling, do we really have anything other than a small reform that leaves the system intact?

It would seem not. The French National Assembly, on September 30, passed a bill that would grant employees a voice when their company is the target of a takeover attempt and require owners of companies with at least 1,000 employees to seek a buyer for a plant intended to be closed. The French Senate must also approve the bill before President François Hollande can sign it into law.

Marching in Paris against pension reformShould the bill be passed, a committee of workers would be organized inside a company being targeted for a takeover, which would be empowered to appoint an accountant to assess the bid. The board of the target company would be required to take the assessment under consideration before making its final decision. Although it is unclear what legal force this workers’ assessment would have, the company’s “works council” (an employee oversight body larger French companies are required to have) could ask a judge to intervene if it believes the board has not responded adequately to its queries, potentially delaying any deal.

The bill would also put a temporary roadblock in the path of a company that intends to shut a plant or some portion of its operations. Enterprises with more than 1,000 employees that intend to shut a facility with more than 50 workers would be required to seek a buyer for three months. Judge would be authorized to impose a fine if the company fails conduct a search or turns down a serious offer.

The French Senate has a narrow majority bloc of Socialists, Communists, Greens and other Left-leaning members, so it would appear that the bill is likely to pass the Senate, enabling President Hollande to fulfill a campaign pledge to give workers more say in the running of their enterprises.

A tiny change, a giant rage

In reality, these new powers, should they enter into law, would do nothing to alter existing relations within the workplace. Nonetheless the principal of the bill — that workers are entitled to a modicum of control over their working lives, at least in theory — has driven business leaders and the corporate media that loves them into fits of rage.

A Bloomberg report on the bill quotes a series of speculators in full indignation, including a Paris investment banker:

“In the M&A [mergers-and-acquisitions] world, the image of France viewed from outside is deplorable, and this law is adding extra complexity.”

Quelle horreur! Bloomberg itself grumbles:

“Foreign companies have spent $14.8 billion on French targets this year, putting 2013 on track to be the weakest for such deals in at least a decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The new rules may further dissuade potential buyers. France hasn’t seen a major hostile takeover since Mittal Steel Co. bought Arcelor SA in 2006 in a transaction then valued at about $36 billion.”

Oh, the humanity! Seven long years of only relatively smaller takeovers. How is a poor investment bank supposed to keep its speculators in the style in which they are accustomed? Although the underlying imperative of capitalist competition — expand or die — propels the frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions, the proximate cause is to enable enormous profits for corporate executives, investment bankers and partners at corporate law firms. The bigger the deal, the bigger the payday for those on the inside.

Keeping score of the money but not the human cost

Definitive totals on the numbers of jobs lost to takeovers are extremely difficult to come by; this is not surprising when the corporate media reports on mergers and acquisitions in breathless terms of the size of the deal and with assurances that jobs will be sacrificed on the alter of “efficiency.” In other words, the human cost is not even an afterthought. To take just two examples, Washington Monthly, in a report detailing the increasing monopolization that characterizes most industries, wrote:

“Consider two recent deals in the drug industry. The first came in January 2009 when Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, announced plans for a $68 billion takeover of Wyeth. The second came in March 2009, when executives at number two Merck said they planned to spend $41.1 billion to buy Schering-Plough. Managers all but bragged of the number of workers who would be rendered ‘redundant’ by the deal — the first killed off 19,000 jobs, the second 16,000.”

The money to pour into these deals has to come from somewhere. So can measures like those passed by the French National Assembly reverse this trend? Because the limited “voice” to be granted workers is connected to France’s “works councils,” a look at these councils will help us answer that question.

Although only a minority of workers in France are protected by a traditional labor union, all who work in enterprises with 50 or more employees are represented by a works council. French law proscribes fines and even jail terms for employers who interfere with the functioning of these bodies. In unionized companies, trade unions put forth the candidates for the works council, although if more than 50 percent of the eligible voters do not vote, a second election is organized in which any employee is eligible to run.

The works councils are required to be consulted on the management and general organization of the company; personnel decisions, including dismissals; and changes to equipment, working conditions, professional-training procedures, or hygiene and safety issues. The opinion of the works council is not legally binding, however, unlike a collective-bargaining agreement negotiated with a trade union. Works councils decisions are binding in only a small number of minor issues, such as the hiring or dismissal of the labor doctor.

As private-sector union membership in France is low, the works councils provide a modicum of enterprise participation for French workers. The bill that has passed the National Assembly represents a tiny incremental gain while leaving all the prerogatives of ownership firmly in the hands of capitalists. The wailing from capitalists and the corporate media is more of a reflection of their desire for total control than any actual change in labor relations.

Works councils as controllers rather than consultants

Although their consultative status currently makes them little more than a safety valve, France’s works councils could, in theory, form the nucleus of actual workers’ control. The concept of real workers’ councils, assuming control over the decision-making of an enterprise, has taken root at different times in several countries. All the workers collectively make strategic decisions, and elect a council to oversee the running of the enterprise (including supervising management) and to act as links with other enterprises.

Meetings to discuss, and vote on, the enterprise’s business would be a part of the regular workweek. All ownership would stay within the workforce — each would own one share and relinquish it upon leaving or retiring. Shares could not be transferred or sold, except to the collective. Management would be recallable and promoted from within.

Why should democracy stop at the entrance to the workplace? Cooperatives are already flourishing. There are the examples of the Mondragon collective and the recovered factories of Argentina, among others, in which assemblies of all the workers make the strategic decisions and elect supervisory boards that are responsible to the assemblies. Mondragon has been a planned enterprise from its foundation; Argentina’s recovered factories are the products of workers struggling to restart production while slowly gaining the confidence to be their own managers.

Cooperatives are as yet minuscule islands in a vast sea of capitalism. Several countries have works councils, including Germany, where employers must reach agreement with them in regards to rules covering, inter alia, smoking bans, dress codes, overtime, introduction of new technical equipment and policies on pay bonuses. Employees are also represented on corporate boards of directors in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and several other European countries.

Reforms should be taken whenever possible, but reforms can always be taken away. Instead of being the basis of minor tinkering, why shouldn’t works councils be one starting point for a complete transformation? Top-down authoritarian enterprises that give an elite dominating power over the overwhelming majority of humanity hasn’t been working out so great.

Greece’s depression is IMF’s idea of ‘progress’

The International Monetary Fund congratulated itself last week for the splendid job it is doing in Greece, declaring the country “is making progress in overcoming deep-seated problems.” With an unemployment rate of 27.2 percent, an economy that has shrunk by at least 20 percent and children going hungry, one has to shudder at the thought of what a lack of success might look like.

Temple of Zeus photo by Andreas Trepte (www.photo-natur.de)

Temple of Zeus photo by Andreas Trepte (www.photo-natur.de)

The depression in Greece is the logical conclusion of austerity, but while Greece is the first in Europe to arrive it is not alone — the composite eurozone unemployment rate reached a record 12.1 percent in March. The eurozone unemployment rate rose to 24 percent for men and women below the age of 25; the European Union-wide rate is nearly as high.

The IMF’s solution? Eliminate more jobs. In its latest report on Greece, issued on May 3 following its latest inspection visit, the IMF graciously mentioned that Greece’s wealthy don’t pay taxes:

“Very little progress has been made in tackling Greece’s notorious tax evasion. The rich and self-employed are simply not paying their fair share, which has forced an excessive reliance on across-the-board expenditure cuts and higher taxes on those earning a salary or a pension.”

But the IMF report quickly followed up by grumbling that:

“[T]he over-staffed public sector has been spared, because of a taboo against dismissals.”

Perhaps you will not fall off your chair in shock, but it is the latter of these two concerns that gets the attention when the IMF gave its verdict on what it expects the Greek government to do:

“A strong recovery will need to be built primarily on deepening structural reforms. … The government’s welcome public commitment to improving the business environment and accelerating privatization now needs to be matched with results.”

Diktats masquerading as democracy

Those bland-sounding words take on deeper meaning when we examine the “structural reforms” already imposed on Greece by the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, the “troika” that dictates Greek policy. In February 2012, for instance, the Greek government agreed to reduce the already low minimum wage by more than 20 percent, to freeze all public-sector wages until the unemployment rate falls below 10 percent and to deep cuts in pensions.

The Greek minimum wage is €751 per month (equivalent to US$990 or £636). How well could you live on such a sum?

Overall, wages have fallen 40 percent and health care spending has been cut 25 percent. Meanwhile, most of the money released by the troika goes straight back to lenders, not for internal relief. As a result of this austerity, it is no surprise that retail sales in Greece have declined by 30 percent over the past three years and an estimated 150,000 small businesses have closed. Poverty has become so widespread that an estimated 10 percent of Greek’s children go to school hungry.

All this in a country where its biggest and wealthiest industry, shipping, pays no taxes — its tax-free status guaranteed in the constitution. Greece’s wealthy pay little or no taxes, stashing their cash outside the country. Government employees are the people who can’t evade paying their taxes — yet they are the ones scapegoated for economic troubles. (A common pattern in many countries.)

The IMF made no mention of its own role in bringing about this depression in the May 3 report, instead blaming a “lack of confidence” for Greece’s struggles:

“Looking over the period 2010–2012, the much deeper than expected recession was overwhelmingly due to a progressive loss of confidence. … With fiscal adjustment set to remain a drag on GDP growth for several years to come, the key challenge is to generate the improvement in confidence needed for a recovery in investment to begin to more than offset this drag. This cannot happen unless Greece can secure broad domestic support for the program and the political stability that would come with this.”

Yes, if only Greeks would believe that hunger is a sign of progress, everything would be better! In lieu of a sudden spasm of optimism, generating “broad support” for bleeding the country dry to pay back financiers who made reckless gambles might be difficult.

Ideology masquerading as economics

Although it might be tempting to note that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is unreasonable, reasonableness is besides the point here: Austerity programs are designed with ideology in mind, not with economics based on the real world. One clue to this is that “structural re-adjustment” programs invariably demand sell-offs of public assets — holding fire sales of state enterprises means private capital can scoop them up at very low prices, and profit nicely from doing so at public expense.

The neoliberal concept is that people exist to serve markets rather than markets existing to serve people. Entire countries have been harnessed to the dictates of “markets.” This has long been the pattern imposed by the North on the South through institutions like the IMF; now the stronger countries of the North are imposing it on their weaker neighbors. Taxpayers in those stronger countries are on the hook, also, as some of their taxes go toward the bailout funds, for which bailed-out countries are merely a conduit to pass the money to financiers, often from their own country. Much of the money Europeans lent to Greece was used to bail out German and French speculators.

The race to the bottom, of which austerity programs and the continual shifting of production to locations with ever lower wages constitute crucial components, represents an intensification of market dominance over human life. It is also a result of a scramble to maintain profits, which have been under continual pressure from the economic crisis.

But neoliberalism is not the product of a cabal “hijacking” economies or governments; it is the natural progression of a system that insists “markets” should be the arbiter of all human problems and the model for social relations and institutions. Capitalist markets are not neutral abstractions perched loftily above the Earth; they are the aggregate interests of the wealthiest industrialists and financiers as expressed through the corporations and other institutions they control.

“Markets” dictate that school children faint at their desk due to hunger while billionaires grab ever more. We can do better than this.

Austerity or Keynesianism: Can’t we do better than this?

Austerity. Keynesianism. Voting for the Center-Right. Voting for the Center-Left. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Five years of the economic crisis has yet to shake the stubborn idea that, if only the right policy were implemented, prosperity would be here again. And so this week’s two turns of the electoral wheel — agreement on a “grand coalition” government in Italy and the return to power in Iceland of the two parties that presided over that country’s collapse — demonstrate that traveling in a circle leads you to where you just were.

(Photo by Jim Champion)

(Photo by Jim Champion)

The outgoing Icelandic government earned a reputation for “standing up” to banks and the International Monetary Fund, and refusing to saddle its citizenry with the massive debts of Iceland’s swollen banks. At first glance, it seems curious that Icelanders would vote out such a government and return to office the same government coalition that presided over the country’s meltdown. But a closer look reveals a much different story. So different, in fact, that the IMF praised the outgoing Social Democrat/Left Green coalition government of Jóhanna Sigurđardóttir. Here is an excerpt from an IMF report on November 19, 2012:

“Directors commended the progress made in fiscal consolidation, noting that it is broadly on track.”

That doesn’t mean that Iceland’s dose of austerity is coming to an end. The IMF report goes on to say:

“While welcoming the recent monetary tightening bias, Directors viewed the policy stance as still accommodative. They agreed that further monetary tightening is needed to bring inflation back to target and to normalize monetary conditions in advance of capital account liberalization.”

Iceland’s banks are too big to fail

Iceland didn’t tell the IMF, or the world’s bankers, to take a hike. Iceland, until recently, was unlikely to be at the center of any financial controversy — a country of 300,000 people with an economy traditionally based on fishing. Somewhere along the way, it was decided to convert the Icelandic economy into one based on financial speculation, with the result that the country’s banking sector grew to nine times the size of its gross domestic product. Iceland’s banks offered interest rates well above that of other countries, drawing in foreign depositors (much like Cyprus). Big pots of money led to the irresistible temptation to speculate, with bank-officer compensation tied to the volume of loans made. The usual result followed.

Not that regulators, or parliament, were zealous in checking the financial sector. An official report by an Icelandic parliament committee states:

“It appears that both the parliament and the government lacked both the power and the courage to set reasonable limits to the financial system. All the energy seems to have been directed at keeping the financial system going. It had grown so large, that it was impossible to risk that even one part of it would collapse.”

Iceland took over its three big banks, but quickly sold two of them to creditors, who in turn sold most of their interests to foreign hedge funds. The Icelandic government did agree to all conditions demanded by foreign creditors, the IMF and the British government, but had to somewhat back off only because the package was voted down in a national referendum. So it’s not accurate to say that the outgoing government stood up to anybody. As the Icelandic blog Studio Tendra pungently put it:

“Iceland didn’t bail out the collapsed banks, but that wasn’t for the want of trying. … [T]he Icelandic government tried everything it could to save the banks, including asking for insane loans to pay off the banks’ debts. … So the true story is that Iceland tried and tried and tried and tried as hard as we could to save the creditors. The only reason why we didn’t is that the Icelandic government, then and now, is completely incompetent.”

The outgoing Icelandic government did follow two Keynesian prescriptions in imposing capital controls and currency devaluation, but these did not do much to ameliorate the pain — Iceland can’t detach itself form global capitalism.

For the years 2009 and 2010, Iceland’s gross domestic product declined more than ten percent and its household consumption fell nearly 23 percent. Recovery has since been at a snail’s pace. Making matter worse, Icelandic personal debt is mostly pegged to the country’s inflation rate. As Iceland continues to suffer from inflation, the amount a debtor owes grows as his or her wages decrease. (Wages since 2008 have lagged the consumer price index, according to IMF statistics.)

The suicide mission of Italy’s “Left”

So much for the “Icelandic miracle.” Icelanders have yet to question the economic system that brought them misery, instead opting to swap one set of mainstream parties for another set. That has been the pattern in advanced capital countries. Italy is not yet an exception, although the dramatic rise of the Five Star Movement — sort of an electoral Occupy movement — as a third force in the Italian parliament may be the start of a pushback. Or it could be a brief protest vote without lasting effect. For now, however, Italy’s Center-Left standard-bearer, the Democratic Party, has apparently chosen to complete its suicide mission by forming a “grand coalition” with the main Right party, the wildly misnamed People of Freedom Party.

Italy’s post-war political parties may have collapsed two decades ago, but the same personalities and the same policies and the same interests nonetheless continue to dominate the political sphere. The Democratic Party is the main remnant of the Communist Party of Italy, and is also is a receptacle for the late Christian Democratic Party, a centrist formation that once dominated Italian politics. The new Democratic prime minister hails has roots in the Christian Democrats, but is the nephew of an important aide to Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s morbid combination of Rupert Murdoch, George W. Bush and the U.S. right-wing corporate “populist” Ross Perot.

Mr. Berlusconi is one of Italy’s richest persons, owns most of Italy’s mass media and is continually mired in multiple legal entanglements; he dealt with the last of these by forming his own political party, the recently renamed People of Freedom, which catapulted him into the prime ministership. “Freedom of Capital” Party or “Silvio’s Get Out of Jail Card” Party would be more accurate, but nonetheless Italians voted this personal vehicle into office three times.

Italy’s Democratic Party is as eager to implement austerity as the Italian Right — voting for it changes nothing. Italy’s outgoing “technocratic” prime minster, Mario Monti — appointed without the tiresome pretense of elections — and the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, both enjoy Democratic Party support, and the new finance minister has worked closely with Mr. Draghi.

The main potential fracturing point in the grand coalition is personality, which might make for interesting reading but is nothing more than a diversion from a serious discussion of alternatives.

The Five Star Movement’s leader, Beppe Grillo, now the main opposition in the Italian parliament, characteristically didn’t mince words in his blog this week:

“In the last few decades many sides have admitted that this political class lacks credibility, this same class that for the umpteenth time is asking for your vote of confidence. It’s as though this governing team had come down from the moon, as though they are not the ones directly responsible or jointly responsible for what has happened up until now.”

Alternating parties but the same austerity

There’s nothing unique about Italy here. With the exception of Greece, where Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) missed winning the last Greek election by two percentage points, voters in all advanced capitalist countries have been content to alternate the main capitalist parties in office while beginning to voice displeasure through social movements and in polls. One important reason is that the dominant alternatives to the Right — Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, Democratic & etc. — offer no alternatives to the Right; at best they offer “austerity lite.”

Various reasons, each with some measure of validity, can be assigned as the cause: dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of social democracy in Europe and liberalism (as the term is used there) in North America. These political formations are trapped by their fervent wishes to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.

They wish to discover the magic reforms that will make it all work again. They do have criticisms, even if they are afraid of saying them too loud, but are hamstrung by their belief in the capitalist system, which means, today, a belief in neoliberalism and austerity, no matter what nice speeches they may make.

The Right, on the other hand, loudly advocates policies that are anathema to the working people who form the overwhelming majority but have the mass media, an array of institutions and the money to saturate society with their preferred policies. But, perhaps most importantly, they have something they believe in strongly — people who are animated by an ideal, however perverted, are motivated to push for it with all their energy.

In contrast, those who are conflicted between their belief in something and their acknowledgment that the something needs reform, and are unable to articulate a reform, won’t and can’t stand for anything concrete, and ultimately will capitulate. When that something can’t be fundamentally changed through reforms, what reforms are made are ultimately taken back, and society’s dominant ideas are of those who can promote the hardest line thanks to the power their wealth gives them, it is no surprise that the so-called reformers are unable to articulate any alternative. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly bleat “me, too” when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what it to be done.

The reformers can call themselves Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, Democratic or Liberal, but the label makes no difference. The are dancing to the same tune as their legislative rivals. All dancers will back reforms when there is concentrated public pressure; when the pressure subsides, the reforms are taken back and austerity attacks are relentlessly pushed forward. Major reforms in the United States came in the 1930s and in Europe following World War II thanks to rulers’ fears of being swept away; when the movements responsible for forcing these major reforms became content with reform, the rollback began.

Keynesian reforms would be better than austerity, but would be no more permanent than those of last century; moreover, Keynesianism keeps the capitalists in the saddle, allows them to regain their confidence and gives them the breathing space necessary for them to methodically take back the reforms.

The working peoples of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are living through a structural crisis of capitalism, not simply a rather nasty downturn similar to the repeated recessions of the past. Reforms, not even those on the scale of the mid-20th century, are a panacea. The solution is to be found not on a ballot but rather in organized mass action working for a more humane system not content to settle for reforms that will be taken away. If not today, when?

Cyprus pensioners told to pay for crisis. Who will pay tomorrow?

Either bankers are so confident of their power that they increasingly can’t be bothered to disguise it, or we have to stretch the definition of “democracy” so far that the word loses any sense of meaning. This week’s news that the newly elected government of Cyprus was ordered to make its savings depositors pay for a bailout of Russian oligarchs and real estate speculators is stunning even by the standards of the global economic slump.

None of the previous eurozone bailouts had gone so far as to directly confiscate the savings of ordinary depositors. Not even in Ireland, where former Prime Minister Brian Cowen had huffed and puffed that Ireland would not surrender its sovereignty — which he demonstrated by insisting that Ireland’s ultra-low corporate tax rate not be touched. It wasn’t. European bankers had no issue with that, granting him that one concession while imposing cuts to wages, lowering the minimum wage, drastically raising water rates, raising university tuition and reducing health care services.

The intensity of Ireland’s austerity derives from the decision by the former prime minister to cover all potential losses by Ireland’s major banks, no matter how reckless their speculative lending had become. In other words, the Irish government paid off the bad loans made by its bankers and guaranteed speculators in the banks’ bonds would suffer no losses, and passed the bill onto its citizens. This represented an extraordinary warping of the idea that bank deposits, up to a certain level, are guaranteed. Other countries have had various versions of this austerity imposed on them. But now the European Union and its bankers are attempting austerity from a different angle: Partial confiscation of all savings, even if “guaranteed.”

No, that doesn’t mean that the normal austerity terms aren’t being imposed by the European Central Bank, the eurozone’s finance ministers and the International Monetary Fund. For weeks, rumors had circulated that, this time, that there would be a sharing of the cost of a bailout as Cyprus inched closer to a bailout. In the ordinary sense of this concept, that would mean that bondholders and the banks themselves would shoulder some of the burden. Not surprisingly, there had been pushback against this idea with financiers complaining that making them take responsibility for their own speculation would be disruptive to financial markets.

Finance ministers want pensioners to pay for crisis

Plan B was is to make working people and pensioners who have their life savings in banks and had nothing whatsoever to do with the latest eurozone crisis instead shoulder the burden. The Cypriot government was told point-blank to confiscate a portion of depositors’ savings or all money would be cut off, which would cause an immediate collapse of its two primary banks. No matter that deposits up to €100,000 are guaranteed. To avoid a bank run, Cypriot banks are closed for at least three days so that Cypriot parliamentarians can be hectored by eurozone finance ministers to do their duty.

The Cypriot parliament said no in its March 19 vote, but “no” votes in other countries have been reversed under pressure, so this drama has not yet run its course.

Cyprus needs €17 billion to bail out its banks, but European Union and International Monetary Fund officials are loaning only €10 billion, insisting that the remainder come from a deposit tax and other internal measures, including privatizing utilities. And why do Cypriot banks need all this money? Because they over-extended themselves on loans to real estate developers and others, the same story as in so many other countries. They also absorbed losses when Greek government bonds they owned were devalued in the wake of Greece’s ongoing crisis. An added complication is that about 40 percent of Cyprus’ total deposits are by foreigners, mostly Russians, causing extra challenges.

Cypriot banks are widely seen as money-laundering havens for Russian oligarchs, and a straight bailout of the banks would appear to many eyes as a bailout of money launderers. That in itself would not look good. In addition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces re-election later this year and, given repeated assertions by German right-wingers that Germany is bailing out slothful Mediterraneans, is loath to leave herself exposed to more such charges.

Imposing a “deposit tax” only on deposits greater than the government guarantee would be one way out of this political dilemma, but that would leave Russia angry. Not only does Russian President Vladimir Putin seek to protect his country’s oligarchs, but Russia has previously granted Cyprus a loan on which the Cypriot government hopes to re-negotiate easier terms. As it is, Russia strongly protested the proposed confiscation that would have affected everyone.

The Cypriot government is caught between multiple rocks and hard places — subordinate to Germany, the northern European Union countries that ally with Germany on financial issues, Russia, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is also subordinate to financial markets, a nice term that really means international financiers and speculators. Countries far bigger than Cyprus are subordinate to financial markets, and even large countries like Germany are not independent of market forces.

Cypriot banks hold assets estimated at eight times the country’s gross domestic product — Cyprus, like Ireland and Iceland, which had similarly bloated banks, can’t sustain a financial sector swollen to such a dangerous size. Cypriot banks offered interest rates far above rates found elsewhere, which attracted foreign depositors but also signaled significant risk. Banks that do not ask questions of people who deposit huge sums of money are not closely regulated. The downside of that risk has materialized, but rather than impose the cost, financiers and the government ministers who represent them prefer to say “never mind” to the deposit insurance counted on by working people and pensioners banking their life savings.

A crisis of financial domination, not national characteristics

The social risk here, in a broader sense, is that the Cypriot crisis will be seen through nationalist lenses. To accuse “slothful Mediterraneans” or “arrogant Germans” is to be blind to the larger structural forces at work, which pay no attention to national borders. Financiers last year imposed new unelected governments on Greece and Italy so that their preferred policies be carried out. If they can topple one government, they can topple other governments; the pious declarations that Cyprus’ confiscation of savers would be a unique event that won’t be repeated rings hollow given those precedents.

Austerity comes in many forms and no country’s workers are exempt — the German manufacturing “miracle” in fact has a down-to-earth cause — a decade of wage cuts for German workers. Germany is ever more dependent on exports as its domestic ability to consume slowly declines due to the steady drop of wage cuts. When those export markets begin to dry up, German workers will not be able to pick up the slack and German manufacturers and financiers will impose stronger austerity on German workers to buoy profits.

For now, German workers are relatively privileged, a difference exploited to foster divisions. Austerity has been much harsher in the eurozone’s Mediterranean countries and Ireland. Thus far, we have seen only the beginnings of any political fightback, in the form of strong electoral showings by Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece and the 5 Star Movement in Italy. For the most part, Europeans have continued to alternate among their local dominant parties.

Frequent massive demonstrations demonstrate widespread anger — that is important, as the route to reversing austerity and the system that imposes it lies in mass action. It is a healthy sign of cross-border solidarity that demonstrators in front of the Cypriot parliament carried signs saying (in Italian and Spanish) “today me, tomorrow you.”

But anger without organization ultimately dissipates like steam released from an engine. Such organization has to translate, in part, to challenging political power, which in turn is intimately linked (and subordinate) to economic power. Austerity does not fall out of the sky; it is an expression of power to benefit those in power. Capitalists, including financiers, can remove governments and confiscate savings. What’s next? The return of debtors’ prisons? Mandatory unpaid labor to boost profits? Those might sound far-fetched, but unchecked power has a way of moving toward limitless power. Organizing to reverse this is simply self-defense.