The Time of Monsters
Athens protest, May 5, 2010, Jesse Garcia
From New left Review:
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 predominant, establishment story proposes a de-politicized naturalization 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 stabilize, we simply have to swallow the bitter pill. The other story, that of the protesting workers, students and pensioners, would see the austerity measures as yet another attempt by international financial capital to dismantle the last remainders of the welfare state. The imf thus appears from one perspective as a neutral agent of discipline and order, and from the other as the oppressive agent of global capital.
There is a moment of truth in both perspectives. One cannot miss the superego dimension in the way the IMF treats its client states—while scolding and punishing them for unpaid debts, it simultaneously offers them new loans, which everyone knows they will not be able to return, thus drawing them deeper into the vicious cycle of debt generating more debt. On the other hand, the reason this superego strategy works is that the borrowing state, fully aware that it will never really have to repay the full amount of the debt, hopes to profit from it in the last instance.
Yet 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 since, if any of the Eurozone states goes bankrupt, they will be heavily hit. On the other hand, 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 generalized 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. Here, again, 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, effectively, necessary.