Is the end in sight for the austerity experiment?

The annual Greek drama ended in June this year with a relatively tidy deal: further austerity in exchange for more emergency loans. It was a less turbulent story than previous years, although not without some bumps. However, the striking thing this year is that the biggest shockwaves came from the international establishment and not from the resistance in Greece. Just prior to this year’s agreement in June, the Governor of the Greek Central Bank proposed a counter-cyclical strategy as an alternative to austerity. This despite the fact that last year when Varoufakis proposed pretty much the same package he sided with the Troika and refused to even look at it. This followed earlier overtures from the likes of the head of the commission, Junkner, who in May made allusions to debt relief being part of the next package. Also in May, the imf, stated

“We do not believe it will be possible to reach a 3.5% of GDP primary surplus [in 2018] by relying on hiking already high taxes levied on a narrow base, cutting excessively discretionary spending and counting on one-off measures as has been proposed in recent weeks.”

So why these sudden signals from the transnational economic dictatorsh-network suggesting they see austerity in Greece as a problem rather than the solution? We are just over one year since the European establishment elite forced a very humiliating defeat on Syriza, so what has changed since then that would bring elements within them to ‘propose’ the same deal that they would not even entertain last year?

The answer is easy to miss because it is so obvious – Syriza has changed since then. It has changed in two ways that the Establishment are acutely aware of. First it is no longer an anti establishment party and secondly, the political space vacated by them is there to be claimed by the fascist right. And the Establishment are also acutely aware that this is a microcosm of Europe more generally. Across Europe we are seeing both electoral success of radical left parties supported by – but still disconnected from – grassroots struggles, and simultaneously a the rise of the far right. As Paul Mason puts it, when the Establishment is being asked for debt-relief they are effectively being asked which side they are on. The answer is neither, but I would put money on it that if forced to choose between the two they would prefer a tamed and impotent left that can contain the hopes of the grassroots and keep them in check, rather than a lunatic fascist right that represents a very real possibility of bringing the EU crashing down.

So having de-fanged Syriza, the timing is perfect to continue the housetraining and reward them and the greek populace with some relief from austerity, which will have the intended effect of signaling to greek voters to stay with this serious party that can deliver results rather than experiment further with any parties on the left or right. Although Varoufakis’ insider leaks would suggest that the Eurogroup and their ilk don’t know shit about macro economics and are blissfully unaware of a fact that the majority of people have grasped from experience, I think a more likely explanation is that they are very much aware of how austerity medicine is one sure-fire way to worsen a crisis and prevent economic recovery – only they don’t care about this as long as their interests are secured. Time and time again cunning politicians will underplay their intelligence in order to avoid giving honest answers to difficult questions, to seem like a ‘man of the people’ and most importantly, because it is much less damaging for journalists and satirists to make fun of their medium-level intelligence than their knowing willingness to commit evil.

And when it comes to cunning and making a sham of democracy there is an absolute master at the helm. I’m still surprised at how after two years, many people mistake the political ideology of the sham-master-J. The widespread notion is that he is a ‘federalist’ – something that dates back to one of the previous times that he and Lagrande have been placed in the same paragraph. Think back to the hissy fit Cameron threw in response to the rise of UKIP as an electoral force in the European elections in 2014. These election had been billed as the most democratic in the history of the EU, because for the first time the european electorate would get to ‘decide’ who heads the commission, a flimsy and exaggerated requirement that aimed to give the unelected and unaccountable Executive, the European Commission, a veneer of democratic legitimacy through making the heads of state ‘take account’ of electoral wishes when appointing a new head of the commission. So when the grouping of European peoples’ parties (christian democrats) won the most seats in the powerless parliament, master-J was expected to be appointed to the commission. But they had another trick to make the appointment seem even more democratic. Apart from the continued dominance of the centre-right, those elections also saw success for many far left and far right groupings, so instead of a straightforward appointment of Junkner the european publics were sold the illusion of a ‘debate’ about whether or not he was too much of a federalist, with Lagrande proposed as an alternative candidate – an illusion that served two purposes: a) by having a public ‘discussion’ the EU could be made to seem more democratic at the time of its most glaring democratic deficit, and b) the question of whether the J-man represents a more or less integrated europe was only a distraction to temporarily hide the real victory for more of the same neoliberal austerity politics.

And two years later, this charade still forms the idea that many people have of the head of the european executive. So it is worth taking a look at what he actually represents. To start with, he became prime minister in Luxembourg in 1995, a position he held onto until 2013 with the help of a very professional and successful election machine. This guy managed to stay in power for 18 odd years, a track record that will humble the most conniving of careerist of politicians. Of course a liberal analysis would conclude that his longevity is a sign of his ability to stay in touch with the concerns of the people and secure their consent, but a more pragmatic approach would be to see this as a very successful manipulator with remarkable consistency in turning unstable variables (people) into preferred outcomes (votes). However, even the most successful brands can’t hold poll position forever (does anybody remember when IBM made computers?), and so the sham-master-J’s tenure did eventually come to an end in 2013 when in a snap-election his christian conservative party failed to deliver a majority-coalition of seats for the first time since forever. Coincidentally, with the european elections just around the corner, this end to an 18 dynasty was just in time to make him available to ‘run’ for the post that he currently holds. (strategically convenient you might say, but are you really that cynical??)

So, what this man represents is not a particular ideology that he will stick to to the end, (although he is clearly on the right of the spectrum), it is instead an expert on how to play the institutions of liberalism. So put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how would they strategise? The first thing is that contrary to the belief that THEY don’t know that austerity doesn’t solve broken economies, – as I argued above, we may be dealing with devious monsters, but not idiots – they know well that the austerity assault has to come to an end sometime. Already with 8 years of it THEY have achieved a lot of neoliberal restructuring. What June 2015’s Syriza-Eurogroup drama represented was the culmination of 7 years grassroots struggle against austerity-capitalism, channeled into institutional structures and language, and for the first time coming face to face with the Establishment. The Establishment rallied to this battle which they could not afford to lose lest it serve as inspiration and the message gets out that ‘WE’ can defeat austerity. No. Instead Syriza’s capitulation drove the message across Europe that there is no possibility to defeat it on ‘our’ terms. One year later however, the space vacated by Syriza and by the equivalent inspirations in other countries is now ripe for the picking. Many countries are experiencing electoral instability, as one set of establishment parties follow another in failing to implement the will of electorates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a defender of representative democracy as being democratic, but as a system it needs stability, which actually prevents political differences, and any time it becomes unstable, the concentrated power and violence of the state becomes ripe pickings for the extreme right. And the extreme right has only grown over the last year both with xenophobic anti-refugee rhetoric, and because voters have less and less parties to jump to (aside from ditching voting altogether and organising instead) as one after another parties on the left capitulate.

So actually, THEY are extremely well placed to capitalise on all this. THEY know austerity-neoliberal restructuring cannot continue indefinitely and have already got a lot out of this ‘experiment’: austerity-capitalism has become the ‘common-sense’ response to economic crisis when the lunacy of the pre-2008 era should have left capitalism with no legitimacy; they have lowered living- and labour- standards in Greece to make it ‘competitive’ with emerging economies, all while proportionally increasing returns the capitalist class expect on their investments; and they have learned just how far they can subvert democracy without a revolution. And hey will no doubt be looking forward to taking these lessons out of the laboratory and generalising them across the continent. But at this moment, having symbolically defeated the left-wing last year, political calculus would show that there is a chance to kill three birds with one stone in the coming six to 18 months. If they grant debt relief and a change in strategy now, they will simultaneously pre-emptively undercut the support building of the fascist right, they will discredit the extra-parliamentary left who say that change will not come from existing institutions, and to crown it all they will themselves appear as the heroes who deliver salvation and paste a thick layer of veneer over the perceived crisis of legitimacy of the EU.

But then, I could be all wrong about it and the bastards might be willing to let fascism take over europe again.

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