The European jigsaw puzzle: tragedy, farce or…?

  • January 12, 2012

Capitalism & Crisis

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…

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