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.

18 comments on “How long will Europeans accept austerity?

  1. Alcuin says:

    I don’t read him on a regular basis, but I did read two posts by John Michael Greer that were linked in a post at Noir Ecologies. In those posts, he claimed that the present situation is starting to resemble, in some respects, the inter-war period when Italian Facism and German National Socialism started to take hold. The respects he referred to had to do with declining voter participation in the established political institutions. They were tired and disillusioned so when demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler came along, they were greeted with open arms. It was a troubling and interesting post. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum.

    • History never repeats itself neatly but the parallel with the past you’ve drawn can’t be ignored. European elites, having had their hands burned by fascism in the past, are not likely (at least yet) to be tempted. Certainly not for now, as industrialists and financiers continue to enjoy a firm grip on E.U. politics.

      Another difference is that fascist movements had been growing for several years before gaining power — with the assent of traditional elites in Italy, Spain and Germany. Only in Greece have outright fascists made themselves a significant force (indeed with helping hands from Greek elites and police), but the combined Syriza/Communist vote is about three times higher than that of Golden Dawn.

      Should there be a widespread refusal to continue to cooperate with business as usual through mass movements and a corresponding downward pressure on corporate profits, then the floodgates are thrown open for fascism. In that case, only a well-organized, sizable movement of the Left could defeat a fascist threat.

  2. skulzstudios says:

    I can’t speak for Europe but in the America, it’s a case of one of these political parties is just like the other political party. With the difference being only minor shadings of war profiteering and which Third World nation will get humanitarian interventioned unto death first.
    The American political system can’t be changed using the vote. The system is rigged against upset. One votes and nothing changes. One doesn’t vote nothing changes. So America is stuck and our shared world suffers the consequences.

    • We’re not stuck — United Statesians and everybody else can choose to make a different world. The Republican/Democratic duopoly is replicated around the world. The U.S. system effectively precludes third parties, leading so many people to vote for the “lesser evil.” The problem is that if you vote for evil and do nothing else, you get evil.

      I have nothing against voting — in fact, I have been doing it for many years — but we need to accept that only mass movements change conditions.

  3. Jeff Nguyen says:

    “But change in capitalist systems does not derive from parliamentary maneuvers, it comes from organized, militant popular movements.”…I have been thinking about this statement in my own way, lately. I think Occupy’s decentralized approach was effective in providing a platform for a diverse array of voices and ideologies under one collective umbrella but I also think that a lack of public facing leaders made it easier for the state to co-opt and suppress the movement without fear of public backlash. The Black Panthers had a number of leaders Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Assata Shakur but were battling both entrenched racism and classism. When Dr. King and Malcolm X were assassinated there were riots but mainstream America did not fully engage because America was not ready to overthrow it’s racist underpinnings.

    Relying on a single, charismatic leader can also be a recipe for the movement becoming too focused on a personality such as what has been taking place with Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN. But a diverse group that enjoys both popular support from the movement and is able to interface with the general public would help to build support and solidarity with those who prefer to stay silent and on the sidelines. One of the best examples I can think of when it comes to a grassroots movement that utilizes a small number of public facing leaders, both men and women, is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The CIW have inked fair food agreements, labor concessions and landmark legislations for farmworkers while creatively confronting the corporate-based food supply chain.

    I know my response to your article was America-centric but the issues Europe is facing are a microcosm for where America is headed, particularly the fascist rumblings. Great article, as usual.

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      To make a long story longer…one problem with representative “democracy” which the elite exploit to no end is that the vast majority of Americans are exhausted just trying to make ends meet. When families are struggling to pay the bills they tend to become apolitical without an organizing force to direct their anger and frustration. Or worse, we see the rise of neofascism which is taking place in Europe as austerity measures continue to grind the people down.

    • There is indeed no one model that can work in all circumstances, and there are shortcomings in various models, as you summarized well. But there is always a leadership, in can be out front or it can be submerged. Occupy Wall Street, although it appeared that way, was not “spontaneous” but rather was well planned and it had leaders even if not publicly identifiable as such.

      But of course a movement or organization could have not a small number of leaders but instead a large leadership that actively develops new leaders from new members.

      The availability of time to do organizing work is critical, which brings us to your addendum. One of the byproducts of continual work speedups, job cuts and stagnant wages is that more of our energies are consumed by our jobs — we work harder to make the boss wealthier while left exhausted with little time for much else. Capitalist ideology stresses individuality and falsely reduces all problems to individual deficiencies —  encouraging either self-loathing or lashing out at scapegoats. So if you are overworked and underpaid, there must be something wrong with you for not being able to keep up.

      At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It is capitalism with the democratic elements stripped out. One need only to see who bankrolled Hitler and Mussolini, or supported Franco and Pinochet, to see that clearly.

      Fascism need not (and in the U.S. would not be) jackbooted militarists parading down the street, it merely needs a social base fooled by rhetoric into acting against its own interests. The Tea Party, for example, could potentially provide such a base and there is plenty of corporate money to be used to supply the propaganda.

  4. Alcuin says:

    On the subject of mass movements being required to change conditions:

    “Critical unmasking has been an extremely powerful tool in emancipatory struggles—especially in
    struggles for gender equality, racial equality, fights against monarchial power, and struggles for sexual freedom—but is nonetheless problematic for two reasons. First, it is not clear that the power structuring social relations is solely discursive or semiotic in character. Features of geography, technologies, how infrastructure is arranged, the number of calories a person gets a day, mediums and channels of communication, how time is structured in day to day life, and networks and paths of distribution all contribute to the organization of social relations and function to reinforce power relations. A people might very well know that their circumstances are unjust, but have little option but tolerating them because the structuration of their geographical conditions allow for no other alternatives. CT tends to proceed from the premise that people tolerate unjust conditions because they have mistaken beliefs and that it is merely a question of revealing the untruth of these
    beliefs to produce change. While ideology, no doubt, plays a significant role in sustaining unjust social assemblages, this overlooks the role that things themselves play in organizing power.”

    This is from an article by Levi R. Bryant, Politics and Speculative Realism. What Bryant is saying here is that the Left too often focuses on the results unearthed by Critical Theory, which is discursive (using words or thoughts to convey ideas) and semiotic (the study of signs and symbols and how they are used) to effect change. Jeff points out that families struggle to pay the bills, which falls under Bryant’s category of how time is structured. Occupy used a lot of semiotic and discursive techniques to get their message across and that got the attention of the elites very quickly but resulted in repression, not change. Occupy didn’t have leaders and that was part of their message – that leaders are not to be trusted.

    What is of concern in Europe is the rise of neo-fascism. If we’re going to discuss fascism, though, we have to be clear about what it is. Perhaps Systemic Disorder can go through the archives and dig up his post about fascism, where there was a good deal of discussion about what it is, to get everyone on the same page.

    It’s all well and good to call for a mass movement to effect change or to counter a trend, but what is critical is to direct that mass movement in a liberatory direction. National Socialism in Germany and fascism in Italy were both mass movements but they did nothing to liberate anyone. The Populist Party in the United States in the 1890s was a mass movement, too, but it had a mixed record of achieving its goals. I have a fear of mass movements and think a better goal to be encouraged and worked towards is co-ops, something that is dear to the heart of Systemic Disorder. I read, just today, a most interesting article that reported on a very interesting development in the implementation of Obamacare: health care co-ops in many states are giving the insurance companies, which Obamacare was created for, a run for their money. Republicans, naturally, are frothing at the mouth about this development.

    • I just touched on a definition of fascism in my reply to Jeff, above. But a deeper discussion is surely warranted and I could also draw upon a pamphlet I wrote on the subject a decade ago.

      An overemphasis on economics (as crucial as the organization of an economy is) is nothing new — Engels lamented that the followers of he and Marx were prone to putting too much stress there, which he attributed in part to he and Marx having to stress that so heavily to counter the prevailing bourgeois ideology. I wrote this passage in my as yet unpublished book:

      “Philosophical, political and religious ideas (which are built on the materials of their predecessors); the prevailing culture (which include traditions shaped in the conditions of the past that have survived into the present); and local geographic factors influence not only each other and but also influence economic conditions. What was a cause can become an effect, and an effect can become a cause.”

      I am simply summarizing Engels there. I believe the quote from Levi Bryant you offered is consistent with that summary. Mass organization is unavoidable (and, yes, must have a “liberatory direction”) to effect change for the better. A movement for co-ops, ultimately, would not be an exception.

      The recovered factories of Argentina survived because the workers were integrated within the community and could call on the community for help when the police came to expel them. It took an organized community for those co-ops to survive, and if co-ops become a large movement anywhere, they will need a strong defense from the capitalist forces that will seek to destroy them.

      • Alcuin says:

        This post is from 2009, so it doesn’t represent the latest iteration of Bryant’s philosophical thought but it does lay out, in quite clear language (very unusual for a philosopher!) his agenda. Simply put, he suggests that we assign each of the three approaches to theory (Symbolic, Imaginary and Real) a ring in the Borromean Rings. Bryant doesn’t reject the Symbolic or the Imaginary, but he strongly asserts that the Real has been virtually ignored for the last 40 years. Yes, there are theorists who focus on the Real, but they ignore the Symbolic and Imaginary. The Symbolic theorists give short shrift to the Real and the Imaginary, while the Imaginary theorists pay little attention to the Symbolic and the Real. Bryant is calling for the unity of all three approaches. I suspect that Marx and Engels would agree with Bryant.

        The article about the health care co-ops that I linked to clearly shows the defenses being mounted by capitalist forces, but I think, in the United States, anyway, that increasing numbers of people see through the arguments presented against change and are changing their behavior by, in this case, selecting a health co-op instead of a traditional insurance company. If those increasing numbers amount to a mass movement, I’m happy with that. But I remain fearful of a demagogue stepping up to the plate to lead the masses to “freedom”.

        • No demagogue, or even a good leader, can lead the masses to freedom. Only the action of people themselves can do that. But there still must be leadership that arises organically from the movement itself and leaders must leave room for new leaders and new ideas. If there is no effective leadership, the energy of a movement gets dissipated, as we saw with Occupy.

          Conversely, no leadership can ever substitute itself for a movement. One of the healthy byproducts of cooperatives is that there is no single leader, rather everybody learns how to assume and share responsibility.

          • Alcuin says:

            What is “freedom”? Tea Partiers have a completely different conception of “freedom” and how to attain it than the followers of Ché Guevara do. Now, we’re dealing with human perception and we end up in the soup. That is where the demagogues function best, by tossing life preservers to the drowning. Have you ever read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer? The problem of The Promised Land is, in my opinion, an intractable one.

            I’m all for co-operatives. May they proliferate all over the land.

  5. Alcuin says:

    Has anyone here read Max Haiven’s new book, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power? A quick read of the linked article indicates that it bears directly on the substance of both this and the previous post. I know that reading a book isn’t going to solve the problem, but I think the fact that the book was even written shows that the rumblings of discontent are getting louder. It’s a new book, but how many people have read it?

    • I haven’t read it, but I would like to do so. Thanks for the tip. From the blurb:

      “Max Haiven argues that capitalism has colonized how we all imagine and express what is valuable. Looking at the decline of the public sphere, the corporatization of education, the privatization of creativity, and the power of finance capital in opposition to the power of the imagination and the growth of contemporary social movements, Haiven provides a powerful argument for creating an anti-capitalist commons. Not only is capitalism crisis itself, but moving beyond it is the only key to survival.”

      To once again quote Fredric Jameson, it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That is a reflection of capitalism co-opting everything, including oppositional underground expression.

  6. […] wealthy people wealthier. Recently, I engaged in a dialogue taking place over at Systemic Disorder that has helped me to gain some perspective on the nagging sensation that a new brand of fascism […]

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