The more you obey the more you get punished – that’s the troika’s way. But a second spring of discontent is in the air
The “new world order” announced at the end of the 1980s was the shortest in history. Protest, riots and uprisings erupted all over the world after the 2008 crisis, leading to the Arab spring, the Indignados and Occupy. A former director of operations at MI6, quoted by Paul Mason, called it “a revolutionary wave, like 1848“. Mason agreed: “There are strong parallels – above all with 1848, and with the wave of discontent that preceded 1914.”
Many on the left have been more circumspect. The philosopher Alain Badiou welcomed the Arab spring but did not think it would lead to a “rebirth of history”. For Slavoj Žižek, 2011 was the “year of dreaming dangerously”. A melancholy of the left descended as the protest wave started receding. But on this occasion the pessimism was premature. Resistance against austerity and injustice is again in the air. In Bulgariaand Slovenia, protesters unseated the government. In Italy, the overwhelming anti-austerity vote has shaken the parties committed to the Berlin orthodoxy. Large marches and rallies in Portugal and Spain have undermined governments and policies and a new push for anti-austerity unity is emerging in Britain. In Greece, the parties that brought the country to its knees and are now administering policies causing the well-documented humanitarian catastrophe and rise of fascism are on the brink of exit.
Finally, the Cypriot government agreed the unprecedented haircut of bank savings but was forced to renege after MPs of all parties under pressure from the public voted against it and ruling party MPs had to abstain. This was the first formal rebuff of austerity, something that the obedient governments of southern Europe had not dared. When the government finally accepted the European blackmail, it presented it as unavoidable and, under instruction from Germany’s foreign minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, refrained from putting it to parliament or the people. The words “democracy” and “referendum” create panic in the corridors of Brussels. But the symbolic value of a small nation rejecting the initial troika blackmail and protecting the savings of ordinary people is immense. The European debate has concentrated on the protection of savings. The protection of our democracy is perhaps more important.
The argument against austerity has been won in southern Europe. The continuation of austerity, a matter of survival for the ruling elites, can be achieved through ideological misinformation and police repression. We cannot predict the timing and location of the next flashpoint but its occurrence is certain. It is the result of systemic pressures and failures felt by all Europeans and exacerbated in the south. Three are the most prominent.
First, permanent work has been abolished. Part time and flexible work, long periods of unemployment following short periods of work are now the rule. In the past, a reserve army of unemployed was used to push wages down. Today technology and the transfer of industry to the developing world are making large numbers of people, particularly the young, superfluous. At the same time, we now have the most educated population in history. One thousand unemployed engineers, lawyers and architects are not likely to accept easily power’s broken promises .
Second, profit takes new forms: rent for services and interest for capital. As wages get pushed down in order to improve profits, late capitalism increasingly works through consumption fuelled by debt, making states, companies and individuals permanently indebted. Debt is first a social and moral relationship. Lifelong indebtedness is an effective control of the debtor’s conduct ensuring future conformity. Full of guilt and forbearance, the debtor must accept a lifestyle of obedience and redemption. Debt is the lubricant of consumption, capital desires and creates indebted populations. But when the banking greed and collapse makes money scarce, the indebted citizen abandons the vicious circle of debt and consumption followed inevitably by frustration and starts questioning the dominant model.
The third change is the extensive and violent privatisation of the commons. The commons of culture – music, poetry, art – and of nature – water, sea, electricity – are systematically sold off. We must rent back our common substance and our collective achievements. Everything that can be sold will be sold and then hired back to us in a process resembling the early modern enclosures of land. The recent wave of occupations reasserted the right to our common substance of life.
All three policies converge in Greece, the textbook case of neoliberal failure and popular resistance. After entry to the euro, the modernising socialists promoted consumption and hedonism as the main way of linking private interests with the common good. People were treated as desiring and consuming machines. Easy and cheap loans, bribing people to transfer their savings into stocks and shares, and an artificially inflated property market became the main instruments of economic growth and the criterion for individual happiness and social mobility. Austerity violently reverses priorities. The population is divided according to age, occupation, gender and race and radical behavioural change is imposed for the sake of “national salvation”. The politics of personal desire and pleasure turned into a strategy of saving the nation’s DNA by abandoning its individual members to the rigours of sin, guilt and punishment. No wonder fascism and xenophobia have risen to unprecedented levels.
Behind southern austerity is a top down re-arrangement of late capitalism with the north acting as colonial masters of an impoverished and disenfranchised south. The debt offered a convenient pretext for the brutal imposition and moralisation of these “reforms”. We were all “in it together” and must be punished. In Greece, the troika increases the punishment every time its policies and predictions go wrong. Like Freud’s superego, it is a sadistic, cold master, the more you obey the more you get punished.
But the habitual victims have started rising again. As we move into 2013, the rites of a second spring are in the air. The end of power systems that implement austerity against the overwhelming wishes of their people is now a matter of historical necessity even if it may take some time. The European spring of discontent is leading to the awakening of history and to the end of policies that destroy people, countries and cultures.