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INDONESIA: POISED BETWEEN SECULARISM AND ISLAM – Pages 6-7
NOVEMBER 2010 N o 1011
A permanent state of
MAILAIKA WEBER – from ‘Street
Workers Dance’ (2010)
by SERGE HALIMI DEFIANT STAND AGAINST A FUTURE OF ECONOMIC AUSTERITY
The explosion of anger seen on the streets of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Bucharest is a sign of people’s exasperation and desire for change, with the hope that would bring. But we are in new economic territory: we do not know what we have to do,
but we have to act now
France says No
France hasn’t seen demonstrations like this for 40 years. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s character, his arrogance and determination to crush the “enemy” have aroused wide opposition. But one man’s whims do not account for all the sound and fury. This is a response to a fundamental and unjust change of social direction chosen by European governments with allegiances ranging from confident right to compliant left, on the pretext of dealing with the financial crisis. Berlusconi has done no more good or harm in Italy than the socialists under Papandreou in Greece and Zapatero in Spain. They all threaten the viability of public services and social security. To please the bean-counters on the stock exchange, they all propose to make ordinary people pay for the havoc wrought by the banks, who carry on just as before, free from any obligation to show “courage” (like the workers) or solidarity with future generations.
me, you know.” The French, already subject to a European constitutional treaty overwhelmingly rejected by referendum but subsequently passed in parliament by rightwing MPs (with a bit of help from the socialists), are also demonstrating against the authoritarian contempt shown by their government.
The young know what to expect. As crisis follows crisis, the capitalist line hardens. If capitalism is to survive, society will have to pay the price: endless evaluations, more competition between workers, exhaustion and bitterness. The latest version of the Attali report now recommends freezing public sector pay until 2013, making patients bear part of the cost of treating long-term illnesses (cancer, diabetes) and increasing VAT, but leaving the “tax shield” in place (naturally). As Mitterrand’s former adviser kindly informs us, “we face 10 years of austerity” (though he will doubtless be spared).
This is not the rabble havinga fit, but theFrench people returning to the fray. The government has no legitimate defence against their claims. The National Assembly was elected immediately after a presidential campaign in which Sarkozy said nothing about his plan to reform pensions, later presented as the “highlight” of his fiveyear term. Four months before he was elected, he had declared that the “right to retire at 60 must be preserved”. A year later, referring to the possibility that this right might be deferred, the new president insisted: “I will not do it, I have not promised the French people that I would do it, I have no mandate to do it, and that counts for
As a young demonstrator said in early October: “First we have education: that’s school. Then we work: that’s the hardest bit. And after that, we retire: that’s the reward. If they take away the reward, what are we left with?” Neo-liberals make fun of these young people worrying about retirement. They do not seem to realise that their anxiety is an indictment of the policies they have pursued for the past 30 years, which have produced this result: a future without hope. Demonstrations, marches and strikes are the best way to reverse the process and avert such a prospect.
Translated by Barbara Wilson inside this issue Alliance of note: meet India’s new friends, Israel and Iran Page 2 In good times and bad, Ireland’s economic model still fascinates Page 4 Cuba prepares for radical cuts: is Castro’s dream now over? Page 5 How weapons and wars kept perfect time over the past century Page 8
US midterm elections: the Tea Party takes on all comers Page 10 In Putin’s business-friendly Russia, things are somehow working Page 12 Go west: Syrian immigrants work the land of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley Page 14 Eyes wide open: Israel’s lively and surprisingly free cinema Page 16
During this year’s protests against the Eurozone’s austerity measures – in Greece and, on a smaller scale, Ireland, Italy and Spain – two stories have imposed themselves. The establishment story proposes a de-politicised naturalisation of the crisis: the regulatory measures are presented not as decisions grounded in political choices, but as the imperatives of a neutral financial logic – if we want our economies to stabilise, we have to swallow the bitter pill. The other story, of the protesting workers, students and pensioners, presents the austerity measures as yet another attempt by international financial capital to dismantle the last remainders of the welfare state. The International Monetary Fund appears from one perspective as a neutral agent of discipline and order: from the other, the oppressive agent of global capital.
insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, the violation of its rules effectively causes economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own.
It would be futile merely to hope that the ongoing crisis will be limited and that European capitalism will continue to guarantee a relatively high standard of living for a growing number of people. It would indeed be a strange radical politics, whose main hope is that circumstances will continue to render it inoperative and marginal. There is no lack of anti-capitalists today. We are even witnessing an overload of critiques of capitalism’s horrors: newspaper investigations, TV reports and best-selling books abound on companies polluting our environment, corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their firms are saved by public money, sweatshops where children work overtime.
While each story contains a grain of truth, both are fundamentally false. The European establishment’s story obfuscates the fact that the huge deficits have been run up as a result of massive financial sector bail-outs, as well as by falling government revenues during the recession: the big loan to Athens will be used to repay Greek debt to the great French and German banks. The true aim of the EU guarantees is to help private banks.
There is, however, a catch to all this criticism, ruthless as it may appear: what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework within which these excesses should be fought. The goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism – through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations – but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law.
The protesters’ story bears witness yet again to the misery of today’s left: there is no positive programmatic content to its demands, just a generalised refusal to compromise the existing welfare state. The utopia here is not a radical change of the system, but the idea that one can maintain a welfare state within the system. But one should not miss the grain of truth in the countervailing argument: if we remain within the confines of the global capitalist system, then measures to wring further sums from workers, students and pensioners are necessary.
One thing is clear: after decades of the welfare state, when cutbacks were relatively limited and came with the promise that things would soon return to normal, we are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent, turning into a constant, a way of life. It brings with it the threat of far more savage austerity measures, cuts in benefits, diminishing health and education services and more precarious employment. The left faces the difficult task of emphasising that we are dealing with political economy – that there is nothing “natural” in such a crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions. Simultaneously it is fully aware that,
It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps today more than ever. For Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper, as with the criteria the global financial institutions apply when they want to pronounce a judgement on a country. Does it have free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected? The key to actual freedom resides rather in the “apolitical” network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, or about worker-management relations in a factory; all this is left to processes
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