Sleepwalking to catastrophe

So the country that destroyed two thirds of Greece’s economic capacity during the Second World War has now succeeded in obliging the European Union to impose a “settlement” on Greece that guarantees the majority of its citizens an even grimmer future than they could have expected when they voted “no” to the previous proposals on 5 July. It takes away fiscal sovereignty and involves a substantial sequestration of national assets. The imposed plan is not simply an infliction of social cruelty, but  an economic nonesense that will prevent economic recovery and keep Greece in its debt trap. That Alex Tsipras and his team agreed to these proposals and will put them to the Greek parliament reveals the weakness of a negotiating position that did not have a robust Plan B that could be based on Eurozone exit and use of an alternative currency. This no doubt tells us quite a lot about the shallowness of Syriza, and possibly points to potential limitations in all “alternative” left movements led by the same kind of professional career politicians who turned established social democratic parties into cheerleaders for neoliberal capitalism. But this imposed “deal” that does not include any clear commitment to debt restructuring and will actually extend and deepen the types of measures that proved catastrophic in the previous bailouts tells us even more about “Europe”.

The promised “moderating” influence of France failed to materialise. Perhaps François Hollande was too preoccupied with making sure that his country clinches its deal to sell new arms to Mexico’s military during the state visit of President Enrique Peña Nieto, arms that will undoubtedly be used in the violent repression of domestic dissent. German demands for a hard-line received support from other Northern European states. The hardest line of all was adopted by Finland, whose government now includes the Finns party, infamous for virulent expressions of racist xenophobia. So this is not just the Europe of the bankers, though it certainly is that too. It is the Europe that rests on a deepening polarisation between North and South within Europe. Racism is a long-established historical feature of that relationship: read what Kant had to say about the Spanish to see how it permeated even the most cosmopolitan thinkers of the European Age of Reason. It is even replicated in north-south divisions within countries such as Spain and Italy.

Yet it is not simply spectres of a dark past that have reemerged to haunt Europe. The present created by the European Union’s flawed efforts to make foreign policy and its embrace of neoliberal capitalist forms of “development assistance” is pretty bleak as well.  Although efforts are constantly being made to push the “front line” of Fortress Europe’s efforts to contain migrants and refugees back into Africa, as anthropologist Ruben Andersson has shown in his excellent study Illegality Inc. (University of California Press, 2014), Southern European countries remain the initial points of entry. It is ironic that, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper, residents of the Greek Islands of Kos were still willing to offer what help they could to refugee families arriving on their shores from war zones last week despite their own deepening worries about the future. It is a pity that few mainstream European politicians now seem willing to risk saying (let alone doing) anything that might reverse Europe’s slide into moral bankruptcy.

What we now have is the Europe of the bankers, the Europe whose governing institutions have a serious deficit of democracy, and accountability, and the Europe whose democratic politics are nurturing the return of fascism and racism. We also have a Europe that at least in part seems to want to return to a military confrontation along its borders with Russia, an indescribably risky way of further boosting right-wing nationalist politics and the profits of the European arms and security industries. Europe’s “humanitarian interventions” on European soil have proved unmitigated disasters, not least because they failed to bring jobs and prosperity. The post-Libyan intervention situation in North Africa also continues, totally predictably, to deteriorate.

France and other continental European countries are beginning to learn what happens when young people of immigrant origin are consigned to “zones of urban exclusion” where they are “contained” by repressive and racist policing. As Didier Fassin has argued, these kinds of social situations are “post-colonial” in the sense that we are dealing with “a state of affairs that is subsequent to a colonial history, in which the present has formally broken with the past but retains the traces of it” (Enforcing Order, Polity, 2013). Yet the European left seems incapable of devising a political strategy that joins up even the most obvious dots (French socialist governments have a track record of disastrous imperial operations, and Hollande’s administration is no exception). The posture of established centre-left parties desperate to win elections has done little, if anything, to advance solutions to the social and economic polarisation that is driving working class people into the arms of the racist populism of the ultra-right. All this applies equally well to the UK as to continental Europe, of course.

So what about the “new” political alternatives in the light of what has happened to Greece so far? If Tspiras manages to hold enough of his party together and gets the backing of the Greek parliament by joining hands with former political opponents, legislators will be tearing up the referendum result and handing the country over to an even more extreme form of external control than the Troika exercised before Syriza came to power. Hardly anything to celebrate. I very much doubt whether such a situation could be stabilised politically in the longer term, even if a short-term fix that reduces the appearance of an EU-imposed coup proves possible. But what has happened with Greece immediately poses a challenge for Podemos in Spain (from which Tsipras has seemed increasingly concerned to distance himself) and to the Southern European left in general. Syriza’s humiliation has been satisfying to the present Southern European governments that accepted austerity and would hardly have looked good had Greece won important concessions. Left alternatives outside Greece whose pitch is “vote for us and we’ll negotiate something better within the Eurozone” now sound less convincing. Forces belonging to the populist political right have made most of the running so far in making the dismantling of the European Union thinkable. What the fate of Syriza’s efforts to negotiate has demonstrated is that a strong national popular mandate does not cut any ice within European politics. Even mainstream proposals for structural economic reforms of the Euro system and debt relief seem impossible to achieve in Europe as presently politically constituted. We are moving backwards towards the crisis conditions and somnambulant political responses of the period between the two world wars.

In reality, the European Union has always been a political failure. Cooperation between European countries does not depend on a flawed currency union, and the growing economic disadvantages to most member states of German hegemony seem likely to increase the levels of political stress. So those fighting for an alternative to austerity (and fascism) in Southern Europe should start thinking more energetically about Plan Bs that should include exit from the Euro and prioritising economic relationships outside the Eurozone as a basis for future national development.

Yesterday I went to a party attended by friends from Bahia’s federal university, and seized the opportunity to ask people how conscious they were about what was happening in Europe and its implications. Despite the prima facie relevance of “austerity” and anti-democratic politics to Brazil’s own current situation, it seems that the Greek crisis and its implications are not really seen as very important on this side of the Atlantic. Yet Latin America is at a crossroads that does have some common features. The power of transnational financial institutions (including vulture hedge funds) is one of these shared problems. Another is the growing power of political movements of the right and the threat of “slow motion coups” engineered by the oligarchic manipulation of “popular” responses to austerity. Transnational elites with few scruples about increasing levels of inequality and social deprivation are flexing their muscles as the United States prepares to start raising interest rates. Debts that cannot be repaid are not simply a Greek problem, and efforts to construct alternatives to austerity inside the capitalist orbit are now very definitely under siege everywhere.

That is why the challenge that Greeks, and especially young Greeks, tried to offer was so important, and why their betrayal by the politicians that they elected would be bad news for all the rest of us.