Spying? Who cares? Profits are at stake!

Actions do speak louder than words, and thus the start of European Union-United States trade talks as previously scheduled would seem to hold more weight than European political leaders’ displays of public anger at the extent of the spying against them.

Resignation to their subordinate status, the extent of their own spying networks and the knowledge that considerable dirty work is necessary to remain a leading capitalist country are among the contradictory factors at work here. So, too, is a willingness by European leaders to rely on the U.S. to perform much of the dirty work, while European big business needs to sell to U.S. consumers. Business is business at the end of the day. Or at the (hoped) end of the scandal.

With the stream of new revelations showing no signs of stopping, the end of the scandal does not appear anywhere in sight. Nor does the spectacle of contradictory behavior by European countries, most dramatically exemplified by France.

Navy communicationsOn the one hand, the French government declared revelations that the U.S. has spied on E.U. offices and computer networks “completely unacceptable” and demanded a delay in the start of the E.U.-U.S. trade talks, intended to form a “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.” Yet France not only meekly agreed to the trade talks beginning on time but acceded to U.S. arm-twisting that it close its air space to the plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales on the mere suspicion that whistleblower Edward Snowden was aboard.

How much of the complaints from France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe are posturing and how much is genuine anger is an open question, but perhaps ultimately irrelevant. Le Monde has revealed that the France intelligence agency DGSE spies on the French public’s phone calls, e-mails and Internet activity in a manner similar to that of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). And Mr. Snowden has revealed that German spy agencies are “in bed together” with U.S. spy agencies.

The chief of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency has confirmed that his agency works closely with the NSA, Der Spiegel reports, with the U.S. agency using several German locations to engage in data collection. The arrangement is justified by the “fight against terrorism,” the favorite all-purpose excuse to trample constitutional norms and privacy concerns, both of which tend to be taken more seriously among Europeans than United Statesians. In its report, Der Spiegel asked:

“Is it really conceivable that the German government knows nothing of what the NSA is doing on its own doorstep? Last month Interior Minister [Hans-Peter] Friedrich said in a parliamentary debate on the NSA snooping: ‘Germany has fortunately been spared big attacks in recent years. We owe that in part to the information provided by our American friends.’ Sentences like that reveal a pragmatic view of the US surveillance apparatus: What the NSA gets up to in detail is secondary — what counts is what its snooping reveals. And that information, intelligence officials admit, is indispensable.”

The German government sees itself as dependent on the U.S., and that counts for more than public displays of anger that culminated in a German minister condemning revelations of U.S. spying on Germany as “methods used by enemies during the Cold War.” Whatever momentary anger her government may have felt, Chancellor Angela Merkel has not wavered in her support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks. Germany’s economy, after all, is dependent on exports — increasingly so during the past decade as German workers have absorbed a decade of wage cuts — and German manufacturers are likely salivating at the thought of increased exports to North America.

You can be angry, but you’re still subordinate

After all the displays of anger and assertions of sovereignty, European government showed themselves not only subordinate to the U.S. but to their own industrialists and financiers. The U.S. government is similarly a captive of its own big business interests — that is what right-wing calls to “starve” government are about. It was all smiles on July 8 as the TTIP talks began, on schedule, with embarrassing discussions of spying relegated to a “parallel” track, separate from what really counts, the main negotiations to dismantle regulations.

Both newly seated U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht made the ritualistic grand claims of the benefits that will fall from the sky if the TTIP is implemented, and business groups competed with themselves to issue the highest “estimates” of the increase in wealth. The Centre for Economic Policy Research in London, for example, claimed the TTIP would stuff pockets with more than US$100 billion a year from added growth.

Similar pie in the sky promises were made for the North American Free Trade Agreement and many other trade deals, so, dear reader, all is forgiven if you are skeptical about such claims. “Free trade” agreements elevate corporations and investors to equal status with governments on paper, and above governments in reality because disputes between businesses and governments are sent to unaccountable tribunals controlled by organizations like the World Bank and in which the judges are frequently lawyers who specialize in representing corporations in disputes with governments.

Ambassador Froman, the new U.S. trade representative installed by the Obama administration, will not represent any change in direction. The American Enterprise Institute, a leading lobbyist for multi-national corporations, gave its seal of approval:

“No white smoke floated up from the White House when the president announced that he had chosen deputy security adviser Michael Froman as the new US Trade Representative; but there was a huge, collective sigh of relief from all elements of the US business and trade policy communities. … Michael Froman is an excellent choice. He is close to the president, was deeply involved in passage of the Bush [free-trade agreements] with [South] Korea, Colombia, and Panama.”

Ambassador Froman’s neoliberal credentials are assuredly in order. He worked as chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who played a leading role in the Clinton administration’s deregulation of the financial industry, and before that was a managing partner at Citigroup. He seems to have done well at Citigroup, receiving more than $7.4 million from the company from January 2008 to when he joined the White House early in 2009, including a year-end bonus of $2.25 million.

Full speed ahead! The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a hard-line organization that has never seen a regulation it likes or a tax that is justified — had already called for a speedy agreement before any pesky elections get in the way. Eurochambres had declared that it sought “the highest possible standards of protection for investors” — thinly disguised code for an elimination of rules and regulations. As Systemic Disorder has previously noted, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, intended to go beyond NAFTA and formally codify the maximization of corporate profits as the central principle of governments, is the model for the TTIP, and it is unlikely that it is a coincidence that the two giant trade pacts are being negotiated simultaneously.

Some country has to be the top dog

The growth of spying operations and the shrinking of democratic spaces that accompanies bilateral and multilateral trade agreements progress hand-in-hand. The capitalist system has always required a center to hold it together. Capitalism has had a succession of dominant centers; each successive center has been bigger to be able to cope with increasingly complex tasks.

When London succeeded Amsterdam as the financial center, the financial center became located within a country with a powerful military, not only a large merchant fleet as Amsterdam’s United Provinces possessed. When New York succeeded London, the country at the center became continental in size, possessing a military that can be projected around the world, further intensifying the links between financial and military power that had solidified during Britain’s rise to dominance.

The projection of, and willingness to apply, force is crucial to the maintenance and expansion of the capitalist system. That force nowadays may be more often financial and commercial rather than military, but the military and intelligence services are in reserve. From the dozens of coups in Latin America to the forcible installation of regimes willing to do U.S. bidding in Iran and Iraq decades apart to propping up dictatorships around the world, the common thread has been using power to gain advantage for U.S. multi-national corporations. “Free trade” agreements are another methodology to the same goal.

All of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are a part of this system. They acquiesce in it however much they sometimes chafe at their subordinate status (in relation to the U.S.); their willingness to enter into trade pacts binds them to the dominant power. No single country is large enough or possesses a big enough military to challenge U.S. domination; today, only a unified Europe could challenge U.S. hegemony. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent.

The E.U., in its current capitalist form, is a logical step for business leaders who desire greater commercial power on a global basis: It creates a “free trade” zone complete with suppression of social accountability while giving muscle to a currency that has the potential of challenging the U.S. dollar as the world’s pre-eminent currency.

Thus the proposed TTIP is in the interest of industrialists and financiers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at the same time that its approval would spell disaster for working people — more concentration of power in the biggest corporations; less ability for citizens to influence government policy; and weaker labor, safety and environmental regulations. Concentration of power and shriveling of democracy can’t be accomplished without a stifling of dissent, which in turn requires, inter alia, more spying and less accountability by spying agencies.

There are common interests at the same time that spying is also deployed to gain competitive advantages for favored corporations; the latter is exemplified by U.S. bugging of E.U. offices. Those shared interests in maintaining the system, however much the advanced capitalist countries may compete, tend toward cooperative relations. Thus although countries like France and Spain demonstrate their subordinate status in humiliating fashion by closing their air spaces under U.S. orders, the blocking of President Morales’ plane is not reducible to only that subordination; European governments have shared interests in maintaining the system. That force is what maintains it speaks for itself.

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.

There are no national solutions for Greece, or any other country

There is no Greek solution to Greece’s crisis. There can be only an international solution. However that solution unfolds, the day when a radically different course, a clear alternative to austerity, can no longer be avoided is perhaps drawing closer.

Aware of their dwindling support and the increasing desire among Greeks for a different course, the two “left of center” parties propping up the pro-austerity right-wing government of Greece may yet balk at committing a final suicide.

Four days after the expiration of a deadline handed down by European Union finance ministers, the leaders of Pasok and the Democratic Left were still refusing to fully agree to demands for yet another round of cuts and labor “reforms,” the standard euphemism for eliminating job protections. Those leaders’ reluctance to agree to terms with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, and their apparent ending of talks (at least for the moment) on October 23, adds more uncertainty to the already conflicting signals coming from the Greek government.

The “troika” — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — have been unyielding in insisting that Greece impose more austerity on its citizens in exchange for the latest tranche of financing totaling €31.5 billion.

On the one hand, we have Mr. Samaras, head of the conservative New Democracy party, saying at last week’s European Union summit that Greece will be broke next month without the latest loan installment, yet declaring:

“The economy and society are at their limits, the bloodline of the economy that is liquidity is at point zero; unemployment has reached nightmarish levels and every Greek is facing a personal tragedy.”

On the other hand, the Greek finance minister, Yiannis Stournaras, in an October 22 speech to the Greek parliament, declared the country’s nightmare does not reside in the austerity cuts demanded in exchange for fresh loans, but rather in not imposing the cuts:

“The cost for the country will be boundless if we don’t get the €31.5bn installment. … If we don’t get the loan people will go hungry.”

Perhaps the finance minister, one of the “technocrats” who hold most portfolios in the current government, is unaware that Greeks already are starving. Several rounds of imposed austerity has brought only misery to the people of Greece. Here are some of the results:

  • Overall unemployment is at 25 percent.
  • Youth employment is at 55 percent.
  • Average wages have been cut 40 percent.
  • Cuts to the health care system of 25 percent since 2009.
  • Economy has shrunk 18.4 percent since 2008.

The years of austerity were supposed to turn around the Greek economy, yet the deficits only become larger. The country’s deficit for 2011 is now estimated to have been 9.4% and its debt has widened to 171% of gross domestic product. If more people are thrown out of work and those still employed take home less, then less can be bought and less taxes will be paid.

Although the International Monetary Fund quietly admitted earlier this month that austerity does not work, the troika is holding to a hard line in demanding still more austerity measures. Greece is expected to come up with another €13.5 billion in cuts. The troika demands implementing a six-day working week; further cuts to the minimum wage; further reductions to pensions; “increased flexibility” of work schedules; tens of thousands of government workers and professors be laid off; and income-tax rate gradations flattened, which would increase the tax burden on those who aren’t wealthy.

The latest €31.5 billion installment won’t be going to Greeks; virtually all of it will go to banks. A conservative Greek newspaper, Kathimerini, reported (based on a leak from Pasok) that Germany’s finance ministry demanded that an escrow account be set up that would ship money to the European Central Bank. The proposed escrow account would not only be the recipient of all the bailout money, but Greece’s tax revenues would also sent there.

To put this in plain language, Greece would be reduced to a vassal state in which it had no control over its finances and its tax revenues would be used to pay banks instead of for government functions.

European Union finance ministers had demanded, as long ago as February 2012, that such an escrow account be set up for bailout money, but the extension to Greece’s internal revenue is something new. Kathimerini quoted Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, as declaring:

“In the last program [for Greece] we introduced mechanisms; we need to strengthen those in the sense of control mechanisms, perhaps also automatic stabilizers.”

The “automatic stabilizers” are measures that would automatically further cut Greek government spending beyond whatever is agreed if the deficit grows wider. Given that austerity will lead to less revenue, a wider deficit is the likely outcome. Seeming to draw a line, Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis on October 23, following the impasse in talks with Samaras, added still more contradiction to the government coalition’s signals. Kathimerini reported:

“ ‘If the unacceptable demands of the troika are met, they will increase sackings, unemployment and the recession,’ said Kouvelis, adding that he felt the troika was aiming to ‘flatten’ any working rights that remain.”

It must be asked, however, why Mr. Kouvelis’ Democratic Left, and Pasok, are propping up Mr. Samaras’ pro-austerity government, since such goals have long been in place. Mr. Samaras’ New Democracy — Greece’s leading big-business party — has strong links with European capital and has no basic disagreement with the ruthless austerity being imposed across the continent despite the prime minister’s public worry that the Greek “economy and society are at their limits.”

The waves of strikes that have washed over Greece is a development that Samaras can’t fail to notice. Yet he and his government have nothing to offer other than more austerity; the “troika” certainly has nothing else to offer. A radically different course is necessary. Greece can not survive as an island unto itself — to repeat, there is no Greek solution to Greece’s problems, only an international solution. Financiers and industrialists operate internationally, and working people have no alternative to uniting across borders in order to defend themselves.

That does not, however, mean that Greece can’t adopt new programs internally. The main political current offering a radically different program is Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, the largest opposition party and which currently leads in polls. In a talk last summer, a Syriza representative laid out a different course:

“The reversal of the descent towards degradation and marginalization cannot be achieved without the implementation of a radical program of reforms and transformations of the state, the political system and the entire ‘body’ of the Greek social formation. … [T]he crisis we are living through is a crisis of the system itself, rather than simply a management crisis of the system. Everything must change: the political system, the state, the relation of the citizen with the state and with politics. Consequently, the way out cannot be found in a return to some version of the past. The way out lies in opening up new paths to new productive and consumption paradigms, to new forms of real democracy, to new social arrangements based on equality and solidarity, the respect of human dignity and the environment.”

Among the highlights of Syriza’s program are:

  • New taxation policies to lessen the burdens on low-income people and small businesses to make taxation more fair and to eliminate the large problem of the “black market” whereby many Greeks don’t pay taxes.
  • Elimination of the “clientist” system that rests on the “inside dealing” of the two-party system (New Democracy and Pasok) through a drastic overhaul of the administrative system and empowerment of citizens through bottom-up and top-down changes.
  • New institutions of workers’ control and social control to increase day-to-day democracy and accountability.
  • Democratic planning involving the parliament, the scientific community and society at large, linked to specific policies.
  • Development of long-term plans to reconstruct the economy on the basis of increased bargaining power for labor; reducing dependence on imports and external borrowing, supporting employment and respecting the environment; and building a society of justice, full employment and solidarity, with an enhanced and equal position in the European and international division of labor.
  • Changing the banking system to support the real economy and a targeted productive reconstruction, establishing public control over banking, and recapitalizing banks through the issuing of ordinary voting shares.

Such a program is by no means “revolutionary,” and Syriza supporters don’t claim it is. But such a program (which has much more to it than the above summation) is no mere reform, either; rather, it offers a radically different way of organizing Greek society tomorrow that can be built with the bricks of today. This program also keeps Greece connected to Europe; Greece can’t prosper in isolation.

Present-day Europe, in the form of a European Union dominated by the unaccountable and undemocratic European Central Bank, is not capable of becoming a platform for such a program as outlined by Syriza. Ultimately, Greeks, Europeans and everybody else can only prosper in a democratic system geared toward social good, public accountability and an economy oriented toward full participation and the development of all men and women.

The dismantling of the current structure of the E.U., one-sided trade agreements, international financial institutions and the immense power concentrated in corporate hands will have to be mirrored everywhere. If we are living in a globalized world, then the world’s salvation can only be on a global basis.

A medieval present of austerity, a future of feudalism

By Pete Dolack

Austerity is just another word for punishment. The corporate mass media serves us a daily diet of central bankers, government ministers, financiers and industrialists lecturing us that we must swallow bitter medicine as repentance for living beyond our means.

Those who caused the economic collapse ask everyone else to swallow the medicine, and those financial doctors are not yet done writing their austerity prescriptions. Saddled with high unemployment, a shrinking job base as production and services are steadily moved to overseas low-wage havens and a lack of incentive to invest as the products that are made can’t find a market, the solution, we are told, is: Cut wages and social programs more. Medical doctors long ago stopped using leeches and blood-letting as their primary “cure.” Mainstream economics, sadly, has yet to evolve beyond that medieval stage and its practitioners have no licenses that can be revoked.

The costs to working people who have been forced to pay for the excesses of financiers has been high in many countries. Rather than isolate individual countries, a tactic used to enable finger-wagging at Irish, Spanish, Greeks & etc., let us instead look at several countries at once, and see if we can spot patterns.

Spain: Pain for people, bailouts for banks

  • 25 percent unemployment
  • 52 percent unemployment for people younger than 25
  • Spending cuts and tax increases biggest in Spain’s modern history

Spain ceded its remaining sovereignty on July 10, when the so-called “troika” — the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission — agreed to give Spanish banks a bailout in exchange for the usual harsh conditions. The twist here is that the bailout will go directly to Spanish banks, rather than the previous European practice of using a national government as an intermediary. This is a bookkeeping trick so that the deficit of the Spanish government is not technically increased, but Madrid nonetheless will now have its finances directly supervised by the troika.

The next day, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dutifully wielded the ax. According to a report in El País, the national sales tax will rise to 21 percent from 18 percent; cuts in wages and benefits to civil servants and the unemployed will be imposed; tax benefits for employers who hire will be reduced; Christmas bonuses will be eliminated; tax setoffs on mortgage payments will be eliminated; and energy prices will increase. Those measures are on top of earlier rounds of austerity, including new rules to make firing workers easier. In just the first three months of 2012, about 375,000 jobs were lost, representing an estimated loss of about 950 million euros in income tax receipts.

The hard-line vice president of the European Commission, Olli Rehn, strongly hinted that more austerity will be expected: Spain “will have to comply fully” with the new conditions and impose more cuts if told to, El País reported. The Spanish economy was already expected to contract this year, and these measures will depress consumer spending further. Yet consumer spending is the engine of economic activity in Spain, as it is in any other advanced capitalist country. Blood-letting.

Spain is the one country that experienced an even larger housing bubble than the United States. When the bubble burst, Spain’s system of community banks, known as “cajas,” were hit hard because they had lent heavily in real estate and construction. The cajas were consolidated in an effort to create banks with more assets, but instead larger banks with bigger debts was the result. Debts that are to be repaid by austerity imposed on Spanish working people.

Ireland: Asserting ‘sovereignty’ by keeping taxes low on corporations

  • 15 percent contraction in economy
  • Middle-class wages have been cut by about 15 percent
  • 15 percent unemployment

Fifteen does not appear to be Ireland’s lucky number. Seeing no future for themselves at home, Irish students are leaving in droves — more than 1,000 per month. Irish banks engorged themselves on loans to fuel a housing and construction bubble at home, with bank executives and speculators making fortunes but homeowners left holding the bag when the bubble burst and prices collapsed. Ireland’s three biggest banks were bailed out when Brian Cowen, then prime minister, unilaterally stepped in and announced that the government would assume all the debts of the banks.

The ex-prime minister put on a show, huffing and puffing that Ireland would not give in to unreasonable demands, would not surrender its sovereignty. Where did Mr. Cowen draw the line? Was it cutting wages, lowering the minimum wage, drastically raising water rates, raising university tuition or reducing health care services? No, none of those were of concern to him. What he did get worked up about was Ireland’s ultra-low corporate tax rate — set far below what working people must pay. He demanded, and received, one concession: No increases of corporate taxes.

The result was an 85 billion euro bailout of the Irish government by the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, all of which goes toward paying back speculators. Ireland has already seen five austerity budgets since 2008, and its repeated raising of taxes and cutting of spending is likely to last for at least three more years. The sales tax is now a punishing 23 percent, while taxes on incomes, cars, homes and fuel are all higher; government-benefits payments have been cut.

An Irish economist, Morgan Kelly, who nearly alone in his country predicted the housing crash, summed up the bailout this way:

“Everyone is a winner, or everyone who matters, at least. … The Germans and French banks whose solvency is the overriding concern of the [European Central Bank] get their money back. Senior Irish policymakers get to roll over and have their tummy tickled by their European overlords and be told what good sports they have been. And best of all … the senior management of the banks that caused this crisis get to enjoy their richly earned rewards.”

Latvia: “Solving” problems through emigration

  • Unemployment peaked at 20.5 percent
  • Real gross wages fell seven percent in 2009 and another eight percent in 2010
  • Population has fallen from 2.7 million in 1991 to 2.2 million in mid-2011

The return to capitalism as Latvia regained its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has not been smooth sailing. First there was hyperinflation, as prices rose more than 1,000 percent in each of 1991, 1992 and 1993; a widespread loss of savings during economic turmoil in 1995 and 1996; and another crash in 1998 as the Russian ruble collapsed. A credit boom sparked by cheap loans from Swedish banks following Latvia’s ascension to the European Union in 2004 did not last long — and times have become so difficult that Latvia is undergoing a demographic implosion as Latvians see no choice but to leave.

Lativa’s unemployment rate has fallen to 16 percent — a decline due to the heavy rate of emigration. The economy contracted by 25 percent for the three years of 2008 through 2010. Assisting in that decline was a 30 percent cut in public-sector wages and cuts to pensions — a so-called “internal devaluation” as the Latvian government refuses to devalue its currency to make its export products more competitive; it maintains a peg to the euro in hopes of joining the eurozone. A slight rebound in 2011 is hyped by neoliberal apologists as “proof” that Latvia is on a sound course, but a look at the bigger picture reduces that claim to rubbish.

The U.S. economists Jeffrey Sommers and Michael Hudson, in a tart analysis, note that nationalism keeps austerity-minded parties in power because the main opposition to austerity comes from a party that represents Latvia’s sizable Russian minority; anti-Russian sentiment continues to remain strong enough to override all other considerations. They write:

“Birth rates fell during the crisis – as is the case almost everywhere austerity programmes are imposed. Only now is Latvia seeing the social effects of austerity. It has among Europe’s highest rates of suicide and of road deaths caused by drunk driving. Crime is high because of prolonged unemployment and police budget cuts. There is less accessible, lower-quality education and there is a soaring brain drain alongside blue-collar emigration.

“The moral for Europeans is that a Latvian economic and political model can work only temporarily, and only in a country with a population small enough (a few million) for other nations to absorb émigrés seeking employment abroad. Such a country should be willing to have its population decline, especially its prime working-age cohort.”

Lithuania: Another Baltic Tiger “stabilizes” through emigration

  • Unemployment peaked at 18.6 percent
  • Three consecutive years of economic contraction, including by 15 percent in 2009
  • Highest emigration rate in Europe

Latvia’s Baltic neighbor has feared little better. A fast-falling economy has led to an exodus out of Lithuania. As in Latvia, unemployment has declined because so many have left. And although the economy did grow last year, that does not mean all the losses will soon be made up: the International Monetary Fund projects that by 2015 Lithuanian gross domestic product will remain 12 percent less than it was in 2008.

Most the emigrants are young people. In 2010, eight percent of all Lithuanians ages 25 to 29 emigrated. The European Institute reports Lithuania’s austerity measures include a two-year freeze in public-sector salaries; a 30 percent cut in public spending; an 11 percent cut in public-sector pensions; and cuts to parental-leave benefits.

Portugal: Forgoing investment in exchange for a dictated bailout

  • Unemployment has reached 15 percent
  • New laws making it easier for employers to fire workers
  • Rent controls eliminated

Portugal last year accepted an 80 billion euro bailout, in return for which the government had to postpone the building of two high-speed rail lines and a new airport, cut spending, impose yearly layoffs and sell off state energy companies. As a result of the austerity, the economy is expected to contract by another 3.4 percent this year.

The European Union did not leave any room for democratic discussion — although the bailout was negotiated during an election campaign in Portugal, E.U. finance ministers announced there would be no release of bailout funds without an agreement by all Portuguese parties. “We call on all political parties in Portugal to swiftly conclude an agreement on the adjustment programme and form a new government after the upcoming elections with the ability to fully adopt and implement the agreed fiscal consolidation and structural reform measures,” the statement said.

Greece: Experiencing the logic of neoliberalism first

  • 22 percent unemployment
  • 40 percent wage cuts
  • 13 percent shrinkage of economy, with another seven percent decline expected this year

With all the coverage of Greece, no more than a brief summing up is necessary here. Two crucial results of the 130 billion euro bailout agreed to early this year are that Greece was required to change its constitution to ensure that banks are paid back before there is any spending on social programs and that the bailout is used almost exclusively to service the interest on Greece’s debt — not even to pay down the principal. Small businesses, the backbone of the Greek economy, are closing by the tens of thousands because few people can afford to buy what they once could.

As I have previously written, Greeks worked, on average, 42.3 hours per week on their main job — the most working hours of any people in Europe). Their reward is the most punishing austerity of any European country. One aspect of that austerity is the crumbling of Greece’s health care system, which has endured a 25 percent cut in spending since 2009. The result of those cuts is under-staffing, shortages of medicines, dangerously long waiting periods for operations and increased out-of-pocket expenses that many can’t afford.

Greece’s largest industry is shipping. Not only do Greek shipping tycoons pay no taxes (not unusual among Greek big business), but the industry’s tax-free status is enshrined in the constitution. Greek business leaders don’t pay taxes, but the people who can’t avoid paying taxes — government workers — are demonized as the cause of Greek’s problems, and are being laid off in large numbers, while those who remain have been saddled with draconian wage cuts. Similar wage cuts and layoffs are imposed in the private sector.

Austerity for who?

It would seem to defy understanding how more of the medicine that has made most of the world’s economies sick could possibly be seen as the solution, until we observe the pattern.

Financiers can’t tolerate losses flowing from their own greed and reckless gambling. Their solution is to have the state guarantee their stratospheric profits, bonuses and salaries. Governments can only do so through extracting money from their citizenry and facilitating the upward flow of wealth within corporate structures. Industrialists don’t mind those subsidies for financiers because the banks will be more willing to lend to them in a time of economic uncertainty and the “market discipline” applied by financiers boosts their own profits.

Markets do not serve people; rather, people exist to serve markets. And “markets” are simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful capitalists, both financiers and industrialists. Entire countries — a list not limited to those sketched above — have been harnessed to the dictates of “markets.” This has long been the pattern imposed by the North on the South; 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 send the money to financiers.

The race to the bottom, of which austerity programs and the continual shifting of production to locations with ever lower wages constitute critical 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.

All that is on offer is more pain, more austerity. The most any government, all of which lie prostrate at the feet of their biggest capitalists, is able to offer are weak, unfocused attempts to inflate another financial bubble or to indulge in fantasies of “green capitalism” whereby the same economic system that causes massive environmental destruction will somehow be re-tooled to profit further by cleaning up its own mess.

We are to be servants of the richest, so say “markets” — more a resemblance to feudalism than to a democratic society. Continuing to do so is not simply irrational; in the long run it will be suicidal.

NAFTA and European Union: Different sides of the Atlantic but same function

By Pete Dolack

The logic of the multi-national euro currency is tighter economic integration and loss of popular sovereignty. Unless the eurozone breaks up and its users return to their own national currencies, pressure will be built by the “markets” for further centralization and harmonization of rules. In plain language, tightened control by big capitalists.

The eurozone, functionally, is much the same as the North American Free Trade Agreement across the Atlantic. NAFTA makes corporate profiteering paramount by eroding the ability of the governments within it to enforce regulations; places decision-making in the hands of unaccountable and undemocratic arbitration boards convened by either the commercial arm of the United Nations or the World Bank; and elevates the interests of large corporations and financiers above all other human considerations.

(There are the occasional conspiracy-mongers who claim that NAFTA is a precursor to the dismantling of the United States in favor of some “North American republic” and that the dollar will be eliminated in favor of a regional currency, but besides the fact that these feverish Right-wing conspiracies are laughable on their face they completely ignore the fact that U.S. capitalism needs U.S. military might, that the world capitalist system needs a center with the requisite financial and military clout to act as the enforcer, that the U.S. relies on the dominance of its national currency to be able to run budget and trade deficits, and that the nationalistic U.S. public would rise up, in arms if necessary, against any such idea.)

The key NAFTA provision is Chapter 11, which codifies “equal treatment” in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit. Thus we have had the spectacle of a corporate parcel-delivery service suing Canada in attempt to have the Canadian postal system dismantled and chemical companies suing because a chemical they produce has been banned because it is poisoning water supplies.

The idea that safe drinking water is considered a trifle next to the maximization of profits, sadly, is not a mordant joke. Any company that has its shares traded on stock exchanges is legally required to maximize its profits for shareholders, to the exclusion of all else — under capitalism, safe drinking water is unimportant. (Except, of course, for the bottled-water companies that drain aquifers to supply their products.)

Although Canada, which has the most stringent regulations of the three NAFTA countries, has won five decisions before the arbitration boards, three of them were on technicalities in which the merits of the cases were not ruled upon. Only twice has the Canadian government won a clean victory in the dozens of cases brought against it. Just this week, The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto reported that Exxon Mobil Corp. won a Chapter 11 arbitration case against the province of Newfoundland and Labrador because Exxon and a partner company were required to conduct research before commencing projects.

A U.S. watchdog group, Public Citizen, summed up the rules of NAFTA and other trade treaties in this succinct fashion:

“This ‘investor-state’ enforcement mechanism elevates private firms and investors to the same status as sovereign governments, effectively privatizing the right to enforce public treaties’ expansive new investor rights. There is no such private enforcement for labor rights or environmental standards. … The [free-trade] pacts provide firms a way to attack other countries’ domestic public interest laws and skirt their court systems.”

If readers in Canada, the United States or Mexico have no recollection of voting on any of this, there is good reason.

Similarly, the financiers who dominate European Union policy are not subject to any democratic accounting, either. And under the rubric of not allowing a perfectly good crisis to go to waste, the ongoing eurozone crisis is being used as leverage to install an ever harsher régime. Doing so is completely logical within the imperial construct of the European Union, which is a supra-national institution to impose corporate domination on a reluctant population. National governments are not insulated from popular opinion, but a supra-national structure can impose dictates on those governments, which can then tell citizens that is has “no choice” but to adhere to them so that the country can remain “part of Europe.”

Concomitantly, European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the E.U., including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and policies that are designed to break down solidarity among wage earners across borders by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

The E.U., in its current capitalist form, is a logical step for business leaders who desire greater commercial power on a global basis: It creates a “free trade” zone complete with suppression of social accountability while giving muscle to a currency that has the potential of challenging the U.S. dollar as the world’s pre-eminent currency.

A difficulty for E.U. business elites is that nationalism tends to act as a disorganizing force within the E.U., whereas nationalism is a potent unifying force in China and the United States. But nationalism, as always, has its uses: Instead of uniting on their common interests across borders, all too many Europeans are attacking one another on a national basis. Nationalism, ordinarily an easily manipulated ethos used to provide a unifying glue within countries that are otherwise consciously atomized by capitalist pressures and individualist propaganda, becomes a divide-and-conquer tool par excellence in a supra-national context. And so we have the dispiriting spectacle of venomous attacks on “lazy Greeks,” “arrogant Germans” and the rest of the assortment of tired clichés.

Nationalism is fine for working people, but an impediment for business elites who are increasingly bold in calling for economic policy to be directed by Brussels. In the past week, an assortment of E.U. officials, joined by national leaders elected and unelected, said the E.U. must be bound together more tightly. Arrogant and hypocritical as they may be, these officials are simply enunciating the logic of E.U. capitalism. The most prominent tangible form of these calls are for the issuance of “euro bonds” — government bonds to finance debt issued by the European Central Bank in place of bonds issued by individual national governments.

The new French government has endorsed the issuance of “euro bonds,” adding to the momentum. The proximate cause of pleas for the creating of “euro bonds” is that too many eurozone governments can’t afford to borrow at the high interests rates demanded by financiers and the rich who buy bonds (in lieu of paying taxes, which would end the need for selling bonds in such large amounts). The price of pooling together the risk of all E.U. governments by issuing such bonds is much closer economic integration. And what that means is financiers controlling policy to an even greater degree than they already do.

Financiers, that is, as an international interest group; not German bankers or Germany as a country. The corporate news media continues to cover the ongoing crisis and its slow-motion developments as a contest of wills between Germans (or Chancellor Angela Merkel) and the Southern rim of the E.U. with France as a buffer in between. But, as I have previously written, it is German industrialists, not German working people, who are the beneficiaries of German government policy.

Germany has become reliant on exports as German workers have absorbed a decade of wage cuts, leaving domestic demand inadequate to soak up German production or to pick up the slack when export markets soften. German exports have become more competitive on the backs of German employees, making it more difficult for other eurozone countries to remain competitive because, by not having their own currency that they can devalue, they can’t use that route to give their exports a boost. Thus, German industrialists have prospered through the widespread adoption of the euro, which has “locked in” their competitive advantages.

German, French and other bankers earned fat bonuses because the euro also made it easier for them to make loans to the Southern rim, which also enabled those countries to buy more German products. In turn, deficits mount and production is shuttered in countries such as Greece (where the shipping industry, the rich and even many private-sector middle class people don’t pay taxes), and the price for more loans is more harsh austerity.

But the money doesn’t go to the Greek budget, it goes right back to the banks. The 130 billion euro bailout of Greece is used almost exclusively to service the interest on Greece’s debt — not even to pay down the principal! The so-called “troika” — the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission — wire Greece the money, which is almost immediately sent right back. Most of the small amount that is retained by the Greek government is used to bail out Greek banks. The price for this? An unemployment rate of 22 percent and rising, pay cuts of 40 percent for those still employed and large numbers of small businesses closing.

The troika went so far as to demand that the Greek government change its constitution to ensure that banks are paid back before there is any spending on social programs. That is a taste of what will be experienced across Europe if more power is concentrated in the hands of unelected and unaccountable officials at the European level. A de facto financier dictatorship, although one to benefit big industrialists as well as financiers, because financiers are dependent on big industrialists to generate the profits that are poured into speculation (nor is there a neat separation between the two). For working people across Europe, the program can be summed up in two words: permanent austerity.

And not even German workers, who have acquiesced to their unions agreeing to a decade of wage cuts in exchange for job security, will be immune. German workers’ living standards are slowly eroding, and when German exports slow or decline because buyers in other advanced capitalist countries buy fewer of their their products because of austerity and buyers in developing countries like China buy less because they can no longer sustain the pace of investment in infrastructure and industrial capacity, austerity will hit Germans. The route to German industrialists maintaining their profits under these future conditions will be either deeper cuts to wages, an end to job security, export of production to places with much lower wages or a combination of these.

The alternative to harmonizing economy policy among the eurozone countries (harmonizing with the tightest policy among them) is for the eurozone to break up, and countries to resume using their own currencies and setting their own policies, which would at least be subject to elections, and provide space for policies other than neoliberal austerity.

It is no surprise, then, that centralizing economic policy is the preferred route for European business elites. The arguments among them are over details — Chancellor Merkel is not a stubborn holdout nor obsessed with Weimar-era inflation; she is simply reminding other national political leaders that the harmonization will conform to the tightest policy among them and Germany so happens to have that tightest policy. None of the eurozone’s national leaders are in any sense reducible to “puppets,” but their perceived national interests are distorted by whatever consensus their capitalists arrive at, which in turn are determined by larger market forces. Big industrialists and financiers dominate their societies through control of the mass media and a range of other institutions to the point that their preferred policies become, through repetition, the dominant ideas across society and the ideas adopted by the political leaders who become dependent on them.

Similarly, “markets” seek regulatory harmonization within NAFTA countries at the level of the weakest regulations. Governments must respond because capitalists can move production at will, leaving everyone else at their mercy.

Such is the logic of “markets,” which are not the disembodied forces of nature so often portrayed but are simply the interests of the most powerful capitalist elites. It is futile to expect anything different from their system.