Tag Archives: austerity

Socialism or Barbarism

Occupation by a fascist or imperialist power is perhaps one of the most common experiences of the last century.  This is certainly true of Italy, which endured nearly two decades of fascist rule, culminating in several years of occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today Italy celebrates resistance to this oppression. Here in Europe, though, this experience of occupation and resistance is being forgotten all too quickly. As a result, Europe is witnessing the return of National Socialism.

Two days ago, in the French elections, Marie Le Pen won nearly 20% of the national vote. She ran on an explicitly racist platform, spewing demagogic vitriol about halal meat as a threat to French values and promising to clamp down on immigration. But in addition to playing on nostalgic white desires for the imaginary homogeneous France of an era before mass immigration, globalization, and financialization, Le Pen promises to leave the EU and to support a generous welfare state, early retirement, and old age pensions. On many of these positions, she is far to the left of the nominally socialist candidate François Hollande.

Extreme xenophobia and racism married to a generous socialist state for a white nation. Sound familiar? This was the formula of the Nazi – an abbreviation of National Socialist – party, although not many people remember the socialist elements of the party’s ideology.

Rabble-rousing populists of this ilk are making gains across Europe in the context of the austerity policies implemented by mainstream parties of both the Right and the Left over the last two years. The center-right government of Mark Rutte in Holland caved in on Monday after Geert Wilders, Le Pen’s Dutch equivalent, withdrew his support for the government because of resistance to austerity. In Prague, massive popular protests – the biggest since the Velvet Revolution – have brought the governing party to the brink of collapse as a result of its implementation of unpopular spending cuts.

We are living through a very dangerous moment, one in which the extreme right is set to capitalize on the lack of a strong progressive alternative to the horrendous, failed policies of austerity pursued by European elites, Sarkozy and Merkel foremost among them, since the financial crisis engulfed Europe.

In the face of this return of National Socialism, it is more urgent than ever to revive the memory of anti-fascist struggle in Europe. Salutary, then, that today was the celebration of Italy’s liberation from the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

This evening I participated in a torch-light procession of partisans – guerrilla fighters against the Nazis and Italian fascists during World War Two – and their friends and family here in Torino to celebrate the Day of National Liberation. Here are some photos of the march:

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Notice how diverse the crowd was in terms of age. For Italy, it was also fairly multi-racial, with a strong anti-racist showing.

During the march I spoke to a young medical student named Federico. He explained that the national association of Italian partisans (whose acronym is ANPI in Italian) was only open to actual fighters during the Second World War until four years ago. At that point, though, a decision was made to open the organization up to younger people in order to transmit its values to new generations. The point, in other words, is to keep the memory of the anti-fascist, anti-Nazi struggle alive while also trying to make that memory active in the present. How can the heritage of the partisans be made meaningful in today’s world, the marchers asked?

The march concluded with a series of speeches by partisans on a stage in Torino’s Piazza Reale. Like Federico, these men stressed that the legacy of anti-fascism needs to be kept alive in the present. Unfortunately, no elderly women were invited to speak, although, as Roberto Rosellini’s great film Roma, città aperta shows, women played a vital role in fighting the fascists. A young woman did, however, make a powerful argument for the need to fight the advance of the Right within Italy and throughout Europe.

With Italy and the rest of Europe moving into increasingly difficult economic straits, this message needs to be amplified in every way possible. As Rosa Luxemburg might have put it, today it’s a case of international socialism or Nazi barbarism.

I’ll give the last word in this posting to the partisans. Here’s a version of the classic partisan song Bella Ciao:

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Organic Crisis

The news today carried tidings of another huge setback for working people in the U.S.  The legislature in New Jersey, one of the most heavily Democratic and pro-union states in the country, has passed a bill rolling back benefits such as pension plans for 750,000 state workers and retirees.  Passage of this legislation, which is sure to be signed into law by New Jersey’s conservative governor, is a huge victory for the Right in the U.S.

There’s a strong thread linking this latest defeat for American public-sector workers and recent posts on the Social Text blog that I help edit concerning the campaign to dismantle unions in Wisconsin and the imposition of structural adjustment policies in exchange for a bailout in Greece.  That thread is austerity.

Elites around the world have decided to deal with the fiscal crisis of the state produced by the latest downturn in the capitalist system by raiding and in effect further dismantling the tottering remnants of the social democratic state, and, along with it, the rump of the mass middle class.

As Anne McClintock explains in her blog posting on Wisconsin, this is a nationally coordinated strategy by the Right rather than an ad hoc response to conditions on the ground.  And, as Costas Panayotakis’s blog on Greece demonstrates, it is a strategy common to elites across much of the Western world.

But this politics of austerity will inevitably intensify rather than ameliorate the current crisis.

First of all, public employees did not cause the current economic crisis.  The crash brought on by shady dealings in subprime mortgages and the many arcane financial tools invented to facilitate rampant speculation by bond traders had absolutely nothing to do with teachers, clerks, and other state employees in places like Wisconsin, Trenton, and Athens.

And pretty much everybody knows this.  So the austerity policies being imposed on public employees and their unions by the Right don’t just create moral hazard; they are also morally repugnant, and are likely to intensify the crisis, turning it into what Antonio Gramsci called an organic crisis, in which the economic contradictions of capitalism provoke thoroughgoing political and cultural crises.  In this case, the organic crisis is likely to create a political landscape increasingly riven with conflict.  The Right’s austerity policies perhaps gain short-term legitimation through arguments that pit workers in the insecure private sector against those in the public sector (who supposedly enjoy unfair perquisites), but such divisive ideology is guaranteed to polarize the political sphere in the long term.

In addition, these policies make no sense in economic terms.  As Costas Panayotakis notes in his blog about Greece, dismantling the remnants of the middle class is a sure-fire way to produce even deeper economic problems, since it is through mass consumption that 20th and early 21st century capitalism produces the three percent compound rate of growth it needs.  The Right uses the same tired arguments from the Reagan era about how we cannot raise taxes during a time of economic trouble, but it is not the rich and the mega-rich who fuel capitalism.  Their purchases of luxury goods are a relatively small segment of any modern economy.

So we can expect an intensification of the economic crisis, and, in tandem, an exacerbation of the naked class warfare of the last three years.

Welcome to the organic crisis.

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Austerity

Back in early July, I wrote a “Letter from London” based on a conversation I had had with a friend during a trip to the UK.  He told me of his fears about the implications of the new Tory government’s plans to slash government spending drastically.

Those plans are now being realized.  A recent article in the New York Times details the pain that is unfolding as the central government rolls out deep, wholesale, and apparently random cuts.  The Film Council, the Health Protection Agency, and dozens of other groups that regulate and distribute money in the arts, health sector, and other areas have simply been abolished at the stroke of a pen.  The ability of local authorities to plan and budget on anything beyond an immediate time-scale has been drastically interrupted.  The article quotes the chief executive of the country’s supreme court as saying that she doesn’t know whether the country will continue to function if the Tories’ promised cuts of 40% are implemented.

The U.S. needs to watch what’s unfolding in the U.K. very closely.  Already the recession and the failure of politicians of both parties to implement a genuine recovery program has led to brutal economic problems around the country.  As Paul Krugman discussed in a recent editorial, Colorado Springs recently made headlines by shutting off its streetlights in an attempt to save money.  The lights are going off across America, Krugman argues, as the dogmatic anti-statist doctrines of neo-liberalism are implemented remorselessly.

As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs argued in her final, dystopian book, there is a dark age ahead.

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