The European jigsaw puzzle: tragedy, farce or…?

by Leonidas Oikonomakis on January 12, 2012

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As Europe wakes up to a terrible nightmare, old ghosts from the continent’s dark past are being revived. Greece is the canary in the coalmine.

Interesting times indeed — for dogs and men alike. Europe has suddenly woken up from its pleasant dream into a tangible nightmare. The good old recession is back to stay, while old ghosts from the continent’s dark past are reviving in Italy and Greece. Canaries in the coal mine.

And Europe’s political leaders? They are busy making plans to save the bankers — lately installing them into government seats in a weird series of financial coups d’état. Who needs the army anymore? In case of social upheaval the riot police are enough. As Subcomandante Marcos had written in 1997 already in The Seven Loose Pieces of the Global Jigsaw Puzzle:

The State, in neoliberalism, tends to shrink to the “indispensable minimum”. The so-called “Benefactor State” does not only become obsolete, it separates itself of all it was made up of as such, and it remains naked. In the cabaret of globalization, the State shows itself as a table dancer that strips of everything until it is left with only the minimum indispensable garments: the repressive force.

Once upon a time — and under the fear of the communist “threat” — the army was called up to take control of the government and implement Chicago-style reforms. But the social cost was high: torture, murders and disappearances were difficult to hide and the internal and international outrage proved equally difficult to control.

The adherents of neoliberalism have learnt their lesson though: today it is enough to call the bankers, to form “technocratic” governments and save us from the financial “threat”. Yet the bankers’ Chicago-style cure has the same problem: it is destined to fail. Once again.

Take Greece for example. For the late “street fighter” ex-Prime Minister of the country Giorgos — “Venceremos” –Papandreou, the man who invited the Troika to save Greece from its financial crisis, the recipe was simple: typical neoliberal austerity. Diminishing the welfare state, government deregulation and — of course — privatization of state assets.

The plan also included severe wage and pension cuts, horizontal taxation measures that mainly fell upon the already weakened middle and lower classes, firing thousands of civil servants, massively reduced spending on health, education and social care. All those, in the country with one of the already highest poverty rates and the weakest welfare regimes in Europe. And of course the plan is not working out- certainly not at the societal level at least.

The official unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 18.4 percent as of August 2011, while the youth unemployment rate lies at 43.5 percent, twice its level three years ago. At the same time, the labor flexibility measures that the Greek government is promoting are clearly successful (but for whom?): flexible labor contracts are now the majority in the market according to a report published by the Greek Labor Inspectors’ Body.

The full time contracts that have been transformed into temporary ones have risen by 199.15% during 2011, while the number of full time contracts which have been transformed into temporary ones with a mutual agreement between the employer and the employ has risen by 1,121.45 percent (!) in the first two months of 2011 (4,556 from just 373 in the same period last year). The number of full time contracts transformed into temporary ones by employer’s will has also risen by 2,725 percent (!).

The above makes perfect sense if we consider that there is a big number of civil servants that have been forced to resign, which — combined with the already huge unemployment in the country — creates intense  pressure for the workers in the private sector to accept any terms dictated by their employers, in an effort to at least keep their jobs. All in the name of enhancing the market.

At the same time, the poverty risk for the people in employment is 14.1 percent, yet the share of the employed people amongst the poor is an impressive 31.7 percent. In other words, 14.1 percent of the people in employment are poor, while 31.7 percent of the poor do have jobs (as of 2005). And that happens exactly because of the temporary/flexible jobs these people are forced to accept, leading them into precarity. Therefore, what we can expect for the future is this situation to get only worse and worse.

And of course, just like history has taught us before, the weakest of the weak become the first scapegoats. As a beautiful Greek song by Kostas Hatzis (Roma himself) goes: “Somebody must be responsible and it is easy to find it: It must be the gypsies, or the Jews, or a handful of Albanian immigrants…”  (“Mr Nobody”, Lyrics by Sotia Tsotou).

Unfortunately, old Karl was right: history repeats itself. What remains to be seen is whether it will repeat itself as a tragedy once again, a farce for a change, or whether it will take a different unpredictable route this time…

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on the interaction between revolutionary movements and the state in Latin America.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

me January 12, 2012 at 15:43

Remember the developments after the last big crisises of the last century.

After WWI – Soviet Union established.
After WWII – Socialist System established.

This socialist system of course, could not survive, because it used the old patterns of the old system, but it was a good try. And people, who lived in these system remember all and learn – like the whole humanity is learning.

The old Karl also said that the “capitalism creates his own gravedigger.” Yes, it does as we witness just now. And the worst terror and violence can’t help the rulers. The technological development is ripe. Capitalism isn’t able to manage it. It has to disappear.

What we are witnessing are the last convulsions and aggressive try to withstand of an dying giant. But it is dying. No other solution is possible.

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Leonidas January 15, 2012 at 17:58

Absolutely true. As Jerome -quoting Gramsci- wrote the other day on ROAR:
”The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born”.
Yet, to quote the guru of neoliberalism (never underestimate your enemies) :
“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

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John Dolan January 17, 2012 at 00:58

How are you Leo?

Excellent article, the statistics are frightening and speak volumes for what is termed the ‘Greek Situation’.
In particular,youth unemployment is catastrophic and is mirrored,to an extent, on our small Troika compliant Island. Ireland has the second highest youth unemployment figures after Greece, the Government has introduced internships (Job Bridge) and work placements that I fear will not be given to scrutiny or auditing and thus be rife for exploitative practices.
As our economy crumbles and our mindless politicians fumble over already well worn and discredited ideas our young people are leaving the country (those that can afford to and who may well end up in Vancouver working for the ‘Chinese dollar’ in questionable conditions), other young people are frozen in to submission by fear, or are sadly opting out of living (here in the west of Ireland we have Europe’s highest suicide rates and males under the age of 30 are predominant).
The solution is, of course, to be found in these pages amid the myriad of insightful commentators. A return to the strength of community must be imagined. An appreciation for renewable energies – to harvest the wind and the wave makes sense on an island nation that is totally dependent on imported energy. The embrace of proximity principles in design, sustainable building initiatives that promote job creation, ethical investment and solidarity.
The first step; to stop paying unsecured private bond holders colossal quarterly sums that are funded by the Irish people (My 2 children (4yrs and 1yr) will otherwise be paying a Universal Social Charge to pay these debts well into middle age).
Step 2 is to dismantle the system of governance in place and replace it with direct democracy structures where accountability and transparency are norms.

Keep writing Leo,
I’ll try to fill you in on our travails in Ireland.

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Leonidas January 17, 2012 at 17:19

John! Great to hear from you.
What you are describing is exactly what is happening in Greece right now too. Same policies by the government “to tackle youth unemployment”, stage-like programs, and -of course- reduced minimum salary for people under-25 to the 80% of the actual. Of course I have no idea how one can survive in modern day Greece with 500 euros while having to pay rent and bills.At the same time xenophobia is rising dangerously (even made it to the government seats) and suicide rates have risen by 40% since last year…
And I am quite sure the same failed policies will be proposed to Italy soon -one not need to be a mentalist to see it coming. Keep me updated on the situation in Ireland John! Again great to hear from you!

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John Dolan January 21, 2012 at 01:51

Hi Leo,

I definitely will keep you updated and pass on any relevant articles…

Take care and keep your finger on the pulse!

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Alexander February 25, 2012 at 21:02

When I read this I become what I can only call a pessimistic optimist. Neo-liberalism has distilled the antagonisms of capitalism and it’s moonshine economics have been duly consumed. The public percpetion is now intoxicated with “The 1%”, “Technocracy”, “Austerity”, etc. The neo-liberal solutions to the crisis – as this article shows, seem only to entrench and worsen the situation. Slavoj Zizek says the system as a whole cannot go on as it is. It definitely seems austerity cannot go on. SO: since the whole situation is completely unsustainable, at some point the political elite will have to revert back to some type of Keynesian ‘socialism’. If not – all the better, as a socialist revolution will become inevitable. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become too violent. But then again – can it be more violent than the streets of Valencia and Athens?

P.S. – Great articles Leo – keep ‘em coming!

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Constantine July 3, 2012 at 17:05

I am 76 years old. I have lived and seen too much and my advice to the young people in Ireland,Greece,Spain,Portugal and Italy is: Do not despair.Join and support the moovements of the Left in your countries. Participate in riots and demonstrations. Vote for them in the elections. The neo-liberalists control with their money the media and the politicians of the establishment,but they have a weakness.They are afraid of the angry and determined young people.

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