Europe: Don’t mourn the collapse of the political center

The National Front’s election triumph is the long shadow cast by the broken aspirations left by the Socialist Party’s victory in 2012. The French Socialists had Hollande in the Elysee palace, control of the legislature and a continental mandate to break the austerity regime that Merkel and Sarkozy had enforced. Two years later and Hollande’s second prime minister has just passed another 50 billion euro austerity package. It’s a story of governing having consequences and Marie Le Pen’s right-wing nationalism offering itself as the political reckoning.

The French socialists are not isolated in their fate. It doesn’t take long to see the wreckage of the former political giants of social democracy strewn across the continent. PASOK, which in 2009 took 43% of the vote in general elections, won just 8% support from Greek voters this weekend, condemning the party to the role of  New Democracy’s sidekick in the coalition government. In Spain, Alfredo Rubalcaba of the Spanish Socialist Party has conceded to a change in party leadership after the party’s dismal performance Sunday. In Portugal, the Socialist Party faces its own leadership questions after beating the center-right coalition by a disappointing margin of less than 4%. Even after nearly three years in opposition to deeply unpopular center-right austerity governments, Spanish and Portuguese socialists still can’t convince voters to reward them with power, let alone a majority.

While the socialist parties of Europe collectively suffer from a shared crisis of reconciling their commitment to the European project with the social democratic convictions of their base, the advance of the far-right on the continent doesn’t offer such a unified reading. In places like Austria, the 20% share won by the Freedom Party returns the party to strength it previously had. In Greece, Golden Dawn’s won 9.4%, after only winning half a percent in 2009, carving out a new space in Greek politics for a party that has verified its fascism with a violent, murderous campaign against leftists and migrants.

We don’t have to paint all these far-right, right-wing nationalist forces with the same brush in order to fully despise their politics, nor should we scapegoat them for the continent’s xenophobia. After all, it was Spanish police who earlier this year fired rubber bullets and tear gas at migrants swimming to shore. Over a dozen migrants drowned and the actions of the police were defended by the conservative interior minister who threatened those criticizing the police with legal action rather than launch an investigation into their conduct. Golden Dawn would surely envy the opportunity to commit such an atrocity with impunity.

Europe’s center is hardly suited to defend democracy from existential threats like Golden Dawn. Who could forget the technocratic governments installed in Greece and Italy? Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos were made prime ministers without so much as a single vote being cast for them in either a constituency or for a party list that carried their names. But those who would today offer themselves as defenders of democracy shrugged this off as a typical government reshuffle between elections or “national salvation”. When there weren’t technocratic governments, there were memorandums by the Troika (European Central Bank, IMF & European Commission) imposing policy measures in Ireland and across Southern Europe.

By no means am I arguing that the success of far-right parties has no consequences. The National Front would use the discontent over austerity to break apart Europe along nationalist lines. The existing divisions between debtor and creditor states already fan nationalist grievances, a dangerous political device that the far-right aren’t alone in tapping. Narratives portraying the nation as a victim leave little room for minorities or forces which prefer social conflict among classes. It’s easy to unleash nationalism, far more difficult to restrain its passions.

At the end of a right-wing nationalist break-up of the European project, would those who suffered from the effects of EU imposed austerity be better off? I fully Doubt it. It’s here where the social movements from 2011 have made a difference. The success of Syriza in Greece and several left-wing parties in Spain can’t possibly represent the political content of those protests, but they are a consequence of those demonstrations. Crucially, they’ve created political space for those who despise the far-right and don’t wish to close ranks around the centrist parties who are responsible for so much of the misery across the continent. Nationalism or austerity is a false choice, but it must be defied by building another Europe that has no place for razor-wire fences, Troika memorandums, or Marine Le Pen.

 

The Markets Recovered But Social Peace Hasn’t Been Won

Since global capitalism plunged into existential crisis in 2008, workers, students, pensioners, and other vulnerable segments of society have mounted mass protests in the face of a grinding neoliberal policy offensive that has hiked tuition, privatized services, dismantled labor rights, and slashed wages and benefits. The millions who protested from Lisbon to Athens, London to Wisconsin, and countless other places were for the most part ignored. The defeat of these protests has real consequences, however, and it has taken a rising toll with each passing day. Tens of thousands in Spain are still being evicted from their homes each year, record unemployment in Southern Europe has left behind a permanent, swelling underclass, and a generation struggles with choosing between dependence on their parents well into their late 20s or early 30s, or exile to another country in search of work that may or may not sustain them.

With the mass street protests largely exhausted, global stock markets euphorically rallying to record highs, and profits and income gains being registered by the most privileged sectors of society, politicians who’ve governed since the crash are desperately trying to cash in politically on this unbalanced recovery. The risk is if this triumphalism ruptures the bitter resignation of much of the public who saw little alternative but to trust the narrative that the measures are temporary, and that contesting them would only heighten the state of emergency. This narrative is already being walked back by Portuguese prime minister Passos Coelho, who has acknowledge that levels of pay and benefits won’t return to pre-crisis levels, and instead, effort will be put to making pay cuts permanent.

We have found ourselves in an age when social-democracy has no policies or political aspiration. Europe’s socialist parties can do no better than promise to carry out austerity with less enthusiasm than their center-right rivals. The state of Europe’s center left is so bad they look on with envy across the Atlantic at Obama’s policies like healthcare reform. What a sad state of affairs when the most half-hearted, business friendly attempt at reforming the U.S. healthcare system makes the U.S. Democratic Party the standard-bearer of social democracy across the globe.

Contesting the ideological bankruptcy of the dominant political parties is left to those same social movements that suffered repeated failures in their goals of altering the crisis policies of center-left and center-right governments. Failure isn’t the same thing as being wrong, though.  The critique of the movements that occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid or Syntagma Square in Athens still have a better analysis of current state of affairs than any parliamentary force. The system may not have failed and come crashing down as authorities warned but it still failed the poor and working class, leaving older generations with reduced wages or pensions, and condemning the young to precarious work, exile or both.

In Spain, there are positive indications that the collectives, platforms, and social movements that rallied huge protests in 2011 and 2012 are reemerging with new, contentious politics; contentious politics that not only object to the political ambitions of the two dominant political parties, but to offer their own political ambitious to rectify the injustices in Spain.  For the past week, Marches of Dignity have set off from each end of the Spanish state, marching dozens, even hundreds of kilometers to reach Madrid by Saturday. The Marches of Dignity brought together some 300 collectives, from anti-foreclosure groups, to the most left-wing unions, as well as platforms by indignados that previously carried out separate mobilizations.

What stands out about this mobilization is that it managed to bring these platforms, unions, and collectives behind a shared set of demands: bread, housing, dignified employment, and a basic income. It’s a set of aspirations that is essential to breaking widespread resignation and giving protesters an objective to tirelessly strive for. It’s insufficient and undesirable to return to the state of affairs before austerity. Society was broken and unjust before austerity and that can’t be forgotten. Instead, these aspirations not only reverse the misery brought by austerity but pursues an egalitarian society to replace the current one.

Of course, coalescing around a set of political objectives is just one of the corrections demanded of the movement. The other correction is one of tactics and this is less clearly a matter of consensus. This past January a popular revolt in a working class neighborhood of Burgos, Spain challenged excessive ideological attachments to pacifism. The neighborhood of Gamonal had for months petitioned and marched against plans by the mayor for a boulevard and parking lot in their neighborhood, spending millions of euros on the project while thousands there are without jobs and while social services are shuttered. Their protests ignored, in January residents took the direct action of blocking work on the boulevard which escalated into days of pitched battles between riot police and protesters.

The revolt in Gamonal was marked by widespread community solidarity. Arrests each night provoked hundreds to descend on police stations to demand their release. During skirmishes with police, protesters were sheltered by residents, ending in police storming into buildings to make snatch arrests. In the end, the boulevard plan was suspended, but the protests continued, demanding the unconditional release of all those arrested. The idea of the Gamonal Effect was born out of this revolt; that defiant, popular revolt had won and could be replicated.

The lesson to be taken out of this isn’t even that mounting barricades or lobbing stones at riot police is the most effective method. The lesson is that government and political systems that we consider unrepresentative can’t be lobbied or have their behavior altered by massively attended protest marches. Instead, they must be confronted and defied with a diversity of tactics where no single tactic is romanticized. In terms of Saturday’s March for Dignity in Madrid, for me it’s not about persuading the government to accept their demands but of inspiring the masses out of their resignation. The 1,700 riot police being deployed in Madrid  to contain the protest suggest authorities are afraid that their recovery hasn’t won social peace, but reignited the conflict.

The Troika and Portugal’s Democracy Can’t Coexist

That time of year has returned to Portugal, when inspectors from the IMF & European Union arrive in the capital, negotiate behind closed doors with the country’s leaders, then disappear so the finance minister and deputy prime minister can brief the Portuguese public a few days later about the new sacrifices that are meant to prevent the next round of sacrifices, the same dishonest narrative presented the last several years. For the 2014 budget the government seeks further privatizations, salary cuts between 3.5% & 12% for hundreds of thousands civil servants, 10% cut to public sector pensions, and an increase in the retirement age. These deep public sector cuts for 2014 combine with this year’s “enormous” tax increase that will continue in effect for the foreseeable future.

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The outrage to the measures was swift. On Saturday, tens of thousands marched in Lisbon and Porto in demonstrations organized by the main trade union federation, CGTP. Next Saturday, Que Se Lixe a Troika (screw the Troika in English) will hold demos across the country in an effort to repeat the success of mass demonstrations it organized in the spring and last fall. CGTP has called for a demonstration at parliament on the 1st of November to demand the rejection of the austerity budget, and sectors across the economy are organizing rolling strike action, from the dockworkers to the postal service and later the entire public sector with a general strike on the 8th of November. It’s easy to fear that the opposition on the streets will once again fall short, contained by low ambitions of political parties and union leadership, as has happened in previous protests, allowing the government to ignore them and press on with its budget cuts and tax increases.

While the protests and the outrage on the streets can be ignored or dismissed, there has been one voice against the austerity that the government and the Troika live in complete fear of: the constitutional court. A number of Troika imposed austerity measures have met a swift death in the constitutional court. The court has twice ruled against measures taking away the Christmas & vacation benefits of civil servants and pensioners, it has struct down cuts to unemployment benefits & sick pay, and this past September it ruled against the government’s “mobility scheme”, a cynically named measure to ease layoffs in the public sector. Having successfully blackmailed several European democracies into complying with austerity programs over the past several years, the frustration of the Troika continues to mount as expectations are high that some of the more controversial austerity measures in the 2014 budget will face their demise before the court.

The Troika is already making its next move in Portugal. For the past few weeks, there’s been a steady application of political pressure on the judges of the constitutional court. European officials warned against “political activism” by the court. The president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso warned of the need of all Portuguese institutions to have “responsibility” to ensure Portugal’s return the markets. In private, European officials are more frank, with one Portuguese newspaper quoting an official describing the political pressure as “live ammunition” that will continue until the judges get the message: approve the measures even if they’re unconstitutional. It’s not hard to see where this is all leading Portugal. Having “rescued” Portugal from defaulting on its national debt, the Troika is preparing to rescue the country from the constitution crafted in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution that brought to an end decades of fascist rule.

The constitutional court isn’t the only threat to the Troika’s program. This latest austerity package follows the near collapse of the coalition government over the summer. Paulo Portas, the leader of CDS, the junior party in the coalition, had delivered an “irreversible” resignation over the government unshaken commitment to austerity despite its well documented failures. After two weeks of political turmoil and failed talks for a government of national salvation with the opposition socialist party, the “irreversible” resignation became reversible, Paulo Portas winning a promotion to deputy prime minister. The commitment to the austerity program, however, remained unaltered.

With that commitment, the country remains condemned to a vicious cycle of political crisis and the Troika reimposing austerity through blackmail and threats. The country slides into a neoliberal dystopia where the young either emigrate or are unemployed, and where the shrinking pensions of their grandparents must somehow provide for three generations. If asked to choose which is the impossible path to pursue, to defy the Troika and cease the self-inflicted wounds of successive austerity measures or to continue on indefinitely slashing the welfare state to divert more of Portugal’s wealth to paying a national debt that can’t be paid, I would argue the second option is the impossible path and there’s no alternative but to expel the Troika before every last conquest of the Carnation Revolution is lost.

Europe’s Complacency Shattered by Fascist Violence and Continued Austerity

It’s as if Europe has passed the summer with its eyes shut and ears plugged, trying to wish away its profound social and economic crisis. It may seem like ages ago but it was just within the past year we’ve witnessed the bank runs in Cyprus, the pan-European strike that brought pitched street battles to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona & several Italian cities, and the determined effort by Catalans to achieve independence from Spain, threatening the dismantlement of one of Europe’s largest nation states. This was all meant to be forgotten; Europe’s crisis has come to end, we were told by policymakers. Greek & Portuguese prime ministers have spoken of recovery & German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has assured us that Europe is being fixed. However, on Tuesday night, the fascist paramilitaries of Greek Golden Dawn reminded us that Europe is not just far from fixed, it is deeply broken.

On Tuesday night, those fascist paramilitaries attacked and pursued anti-fascist Pavlos Fyssas into an ambush where he would be fatally stabbed, living just long enough to identify his killer. Something is very broken here; broken so badly that Golden Dawn has been able to fatally assault migrants, carry out a homophobic siege on a performance of Corpus Christi, & just last week hospitalizing 9 communist party supporters with an assortment of crude weapons. Despite all of this, securing the dismissal of thousands of civil servants is still Europe’s most pressing concern when it comes to Greece, not dismantling this murderous neo-Nazi militia and its support network within the Greek police force.

Amid this fascist violence, record unemployment, decimated public services, and mass emigration from crisis hit countries, they still argue to us that Europe is being fixed. While they haven’t fixed Europe, they have manage to normalize a level of misery that would’ve been politically untenable just years ago. The mass mobilizations by indignant Europeans of the past three summer have largely melted away in 2013. Maybe Europe’s indignados have been broken by the many defeats of their movements to a European austerity policy that has gone unchanged despite the policy’s failure to reduce public debt & its rejection by the streets & ballot boxes. But this complacency isn’t sustainable. While the panic of Euro Zone collapse may have passed, the fascism and deprivation remain, and it won’t be leaving like the last dark clouds of an exhausted storm.

The political parties of the center-left and center-right will have nothing to offer voters for the foreseeable future. These parties only compete to prove that they will apply austerity at a slower rate than their rivals. The relevance of democratic elections is increasingly lost for more and more voters. It is in this political waste land where abominations like Golden Dawn and the National Front lurk. Europe can’t hunker down and attempt to wait out either the violent fascism on the streets or the endless austerity imposed by the Troika. Europe can’t avoid the inevitable task and responsibility of expelling these political actors from its political life. Waiting only leaves more victims behind, whether those victims are Spaniards who commit suicide at news of their home’s foreclosure, or migrants & leftists on the streets of Athens hunted down by fascist assassins. This is the broken Europe given to Europeans. Are they willing to keep it?

Portugal’s Leaders Heroically Working To Avert Calamity Of Democratic Elections

Political stability has become the national project of Portugal. While once Portugal had explorers seeking out regions of the world unknown to European civilization, today, Portugal has new explorers to romanticize, its president Cavaco Silva and prime minister Passos Coelho. Indeed, the promise of power, riches and a revitalized Portuguese nation isn’t across the vast Atlantic but within the depths of country’s political class. The current situation of hunger, misery, unconstitutional budgets, and unemployment will all vanish if only the country devoted itself to find this much sought political stability.

If you had witnessed the dedication placed by Portugal’s political class to finding political stability this past week, you too would resort to sarcasm to lash out at them. In a country with unemployment of 17.6%, mass emigration of jobless youths, & unending economic crisis, political stability somehow became the national priority. Prime minister Coelho, president Cavaco Silva apparently think the political crisis caused all these problems to exist, rather than believe that the existence of these problems are the source of the political crisis.

But let’s not deny Portugal’s political class the chance to be new national heroes. They devoted too much effort praising their own sense of political responsibility in repeatedly cutting pensions of retired nurses and teachers to be denied this moment when they rescue Portugal from their own incompetence, abuse, and negligence. Indeed, in Portugal’s darkest hour last week, when Paulo Portas, leader of the crucial coalition party CDS-PP, offered his irrevocable resignation from the government, he did the impossible, undoing the irreversible resignation! What courage! What self sacrifice! Portugal was staring down the barrel of the national calamity that is earlier elections *gasp* and prime minister Passos Coelho and CDS-PP leader Paulo Portas averted the tragedy of voters penalizing their mismanagement at the ballot box.

However, the coalition government apparently didn’t sufficiently save the country. Another hero emerged in president Cavaco Silva, who on Wednesday, with a tremendous sense of personal responsibility, informed the country it simply couldn’t be trusted with incredibly dangerous sharp objects like early elections. Instead of elections, he purposed something incredibly brave, something that hadn’t already failed with horrible results in Italy and Greece, a government of national salvation! He called on the three parties that have governed Portugal since the transition to democracy to come together, inevitably behind closed doors, and reach an agreement to complete all the wildly unpopular austerity measures before the Portuguese people have a say on it all through parliamentary elections.

Generations will come to envy that today we live in this golden age of Portuguese politicians who advance their profession to unimaginable heights of manipulation, insincerity, and theft. Although once again, Portuguese may find themselves enviously looking across the border to Spain where the ruling political party is accused of operating a slush fund, a fund from which prime minister Rajoy is alleged to have pocketed tens of thousands of dollars annually. Like on the football pitch, Portugal will have to dig even deeper to triumph over its Iberian rival.

Brazilians Didn’t Flee from the Struggle

A day after the massive protests in Brazil, it’s still difficult to wrap my mind around what has happened. It was a day in which crowds in the capital, Brasilia, outmaneuvered the police force and climbed onto the roof of the country’s legislature, occupying it for several hours. Soon after news broke of this occupation of the national congress, further news emerged of the violent clash and attempted storming of the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro.

Brasilia:

Rio de Janeiro:

The video above from Rio is the most complete video of the clash. Most videos show the clashes after the police had already retreated inside. Also, you can see how the legislature is protected by two rings of barricades manned by fully geared riot police. This contrasts with last week when the protesters were able to assemble & rally right on the steps. You can see that here.

While the dramatic scenes from Rio and other locations in Brazil certainly demand attention, the fact that hundreds of thousands took to streets remains the most significant fact. This came after months of anti-fare hike protests in Porto Alegre, Natal, and Sao Paulo that would normally attract a few thousands. It demonstrates the precarious situation for authorities. They sought to break a rather isolated movement with brute force last week and in doing so angered the wider Brazilian public out of inaction. The visuals from Monday were of authorities on the back foot, literally and figuratively.

Brazilian authorities now contend with a force they don’t understood nor know the tactics with which to approach it. When provoked, social media is a powerful force, and it’s certainly an element of this. I’m used to reading Portuguese language hashtags almost exclusively about Brazilian music starts or celebrities. Suddenly on Monday, protest locations &  rallying cries were dominating the twitter discussion for Brazilians. It’s like a light switch from indifference to revolt. And the impact of social media isn’t just the awareness it can spread. Now, when protesters go to the streets, they not only know what’s happening at their location, they know what happens at other protests and can react to those developments. Police violence in one city doesn’t provoke just the crowd in front of the police, it provoked the crowds across the country within moments.

Like many people in Turkey, the imaginations of Brazilians are captured by these events. The protests will certainly continue & with each protest Brazilian authorities risk further miscalculations. The police from last week who fired countless “nonlethal”  rounds at protesters chanting “no violence” are the villains in this. Do the authorities have the sense to pull them back and sink the plot of this burgeoning movement? We’ll see in the days ahead.

The Economic Ruin Of The Troika Visits Cyprus

Cyprus is currently experiencing the most dramatic collapse yet in a Euro Zone crisis that is only deepening in its third year. Only a few weeks after center-right leader Nicos Anatasiades decisively won presidential elections, he now governs a country enduring nothing less than economic siege, with banks shuttered and a modern economy reduced to an exchange cash -however much is let into circulation. Any faint hope that European economic policy is no longer set to austerity and depression must surely be shattered after all that has passed.

As in the other bailed out countries like Portugal, Greece and Ireland, what has been done to Cyprus has both culprits abroad and at home. Cypriot President Anatasiades originally agreed to the bail-in of small depositors only for that plan to fail in the Cypriot parliament. He then had his finance minister pursue a deal with Russia that would never materialize, before finally going back to the Troika and agreeing to a deal that leaves small depositors untouched, but that ultimately pulverizes the banking sector with great collateral damage to the “real economy”.

Abroad, creditor states led by Germany ambushed Cyprus in the nation state bargaining arena that is the Eurogroup. It is an unsustainable situation in which domestic German politics imposed itself on Cypriot society. Looking ahead to German elections in the fall, Berlin insisted on Cyprus financing nearly half the bailout by raiding its own bank deposits. The Troika would deliver 10 billion euros, Cyprus had to deliver the other 5.8 billion euros. Dramatic conditions before even discussing any austerity measures like the ones seen in Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

More than any previous bailouts, even the ones of Greece, the Cyprus bailout has the least chance of succeeding in stabilizing the financial crisis. The other bailouts succeeded in calming markets for a time, until the markets were awaken to the economic, social and political reality. The Cypriot bailout, on the other hand, has caused so much damage up front, failure is inevitable and in very short order.

Bank are already closed into their second week, paralyzing Cypriot commerce. Economic forecasts as a result of the turmoil are dire. Unemployment may doubling from an already high 14% to a socially explosive 30%.  Analysts see the economy contracting by more than 10%, higher than even the savage economic contractions witnessed in Greece. All of this will inevitably play havoc with the country’s deficit and national debt, with tax revenue collapsing as taxpayers lose their jobs or see salaries reduced. Out of fear of spending more than 10 billion euros on a bailout, the Troika may have just made sure Cypriot economy is unable to pay back that amount loaned to it.

The Cyprus debacle demonstrates how Europe as an entity still doesn’t function. The continent is trapped between two impossibilities. Politicians in the bailed out countries are terrified of adding an uncontrolled Euro Zone exit on top of the economic depressions they already endure. At the same time, both creditor and debtor states balk at ripping up the sovereignty of European nation states in order to build the common, authentic European institutions necessary for monetary union. Unable to go forward or revert to the old mode of individual currencies, the continent simply sinks, with saw, nation state rivalries intensifying all the way down.

The bitterness toward Germany is only growing deeper and spreading beyond Greece. Just since the flair up in Cyprus; a protester in Cyprus scaled the German embassy and took down the German flag, Spanish newspaper El Pais published and then retracted an article by an economist comparing Merkel to Hitler, and the Luxembourg foreign minister accused Germany of striving for hegemony in Europe. It’s impossible not to feel deep unease for the continent, that it’s continuing to find darker aspects of its history and nature. The crisis has shattered the promise of prosperity in Europe, and with the misery set to continue and deepen, the promise of peace looks increasingly lost as well.

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