Austerity? There is an Alternative – A New Project for Europe’s Left

Costas Douzinas May 2, 2011

Editor’s Note: The May Day International site aims to facilitate greater European and international understanding of the crisis amongst those resisting the neo-liberal austerity measures.

Europe stands at a crossroads. Successive waves of fiscal austerity have been imposed by European and domestic elites on the people of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, with Spain, Britain and Italy following suit. These programmes, almost without precedent in their severity, were barely debated either against alternative policy options or accounts of the nature of the crisis, both of which were certainly available. Governments, bureaucrats and pundits of dubious expertise simply declare that “there is no alternative”, and instruct the public to take their medicine.

Neoliberalism – audaciously, given the historic humiliation suffered by its market fundamentalist dogma in the autumn of 2008 – is on the comeback trail, with a renewed and reinvigorated assault on the fundamental democratic principle of economic governance in pursuit of the common good. The public itself – with its “generous” pensions, social safety nets and other unaffordable luxuries – is now portrayed as a burden on the economy.

A choice must be made, we are now effectively told, between sharing our common wealth to support one another in living dignified lives as human beings, or maintaining a sound fiscal policy. It is one or the other, and that being the case, good sense dictates that the latter must win out.

Meanwhile, the economic and policy elites who caused the crisis appear to be suffering no material penalty. “Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor” hardly begins to describe the absurdity, the irony, and the sheer, rank injustice of the situation in which we now find ourselves.

European governments and corporate media have adopted a range of rhetorical strategies to legitimise the wholesale destruction of the postwar social contract. First, the diagnosis and prescription is presented as an objective “truth”, determined by “scientific” economic principles. The chutzpah required to make this claim is impressive. The economic establishment and the ideology it promoted were deeply implicated in the crisis, and the dogma of market fundamentalism should not have emerged from the financial crash with a shred of credibility.

That it did (at least among those who matter), testifies to the capacity of the prevailing discourse to serve the interests of power, exclude the public from any active participation in decision-making, and turn politics into a market-place for the elites. By contrast, a debate that reflected the interests and concerns of the public would include more sensible discussion of the causes of debt, and assessment of alternatives such as debt default, imposing substantial losses on bondholders, referendums or public audits on debt legitimacy, or even exiting from the eurozone. Instead, these have been peremptorily dismissed as ignorant or naive by governments and establishment media.

This attempt to cow people before the mystical knowledge of “experts” has been accompanied by the politics of fear. Europeans are told that if catastrophic austerity measures are not adopted immediately, and implemented with martial discipline, salaries will not be paid, savings will be lost, the world will come to an end. This fear-mongering is combined with a guilt-trip – “we all partied” is a consistent refrain in Irish public discourse, aimed at reconciling a disoriented public with their patriotic duties to German and French banks.

Similarly, the Greek deputy prime minister tells the low-paid and unemployed that “we spent the money together”, forgetting that his “socialist” party and opposition rightwing parties have ruled the country for over 35 years using deficit and debt to consolidate their position. The reality is that it is not “we” who spent the money, it is not we who “partied” in the boom years – yet we are the ones who are being made to suffer now, and to degrees inversely proportional to our capacity to bear the pain.

The patronising stance of governing elites cannot disguise that the struggle against neoliberal austerity is also the fight for democracy. Moreover, it is a struggle against the huge democratic deficit of the EU, and for the creation of a Europe of the peoples.

The imposition of neoliberal austerity has been accompanied by a strident nationalism, which deflects some of the disaffection arising from economic strife away from the privileged culprits and instead towards immigrants and refugees. The rise of the extreme right, from Greece and France to Holland and Finland, injects an extra dose of poison into an already toxic situation in working- and middle-class communities across the continent. Declarations that class conflict is dead typically function to redraw social antagonism on racial lines. In this respect, again, it is the most vulnerable who are sacrificed upon the altar of austerity.

While the political right works to sow division, the left recognises the many complex ways in which people across the world, fighting what are ostensibly rather different political struggles, are connected by the effect that the failures of neoliberalism have had upon their lives.

Increased economic hardship played a major part in sparking the popular revolts now sweeping the Arab world, most famously in Egypt, where the trade union movement played a leading role in toppling a western-backed presidency that had been driving through neoliberal reforms to the benefit of a tiny, bloated and corrupt elite.

Across Latin America, various novel and interesting forms of socialism have been emerging and evolving for some time, since an earlier generation experienced the miseries resulting from the imposition of the Washington Consensus.

And while these faltering, painful attempts are being made in various parts of the developing world to create and establish new political economies that protect the basic needs of the population, western countries see battles fought in the defence of welfare states and economic rights won in a previous era, from Madison, Wisconsin, to the streets of Athens and London. From these latter conflicts, the European left may hope to see emerge, as a historic repudiation of the fracturing neoliberal consensus, new forms of socialism that can meet the people’s needs and their demands for social justice.

The aim of the joint initiative we have developed, linking websites across Europe, is to demonstrate that there is an alternative analysis of the present situation to that which has brought forth the miseries and injustice of austerity. A pluralistic and rich critique of the crisis and the appropriate political and social responses has been developing in various European countries, but this has yet to lead to a synthesis of the emerging positions and solutions.

To contribute towards attempts to address this problem, the international, collaborative effort, made here by Crisisjam, Greek Left Review, New Left Project, ZNet and Irish Left Review serves to collect and disseminate the emerging views of the radical left movement. We have endeavoured to work with as many shades of left opinion as possible in order to present and promote news, views and commentary explaining and advancing alternative strategies, theories and campaigns.

Our hope is that, with the development of this forum, radical voices from Europe and the world can build a new wave of leftwing activism, fit to meet the challenges of this seminal point in our history.


Irish Left Review and Crisisjam – Colin Coulter, Eadaoin O’Sullivan, Gavan Titley and Donagh Brennan

Greek Left Review – Costas Douzinas and Mattheos Tsimitakis

New Left Project – David Wearing, Edward Lewis, James Quinney and Jamie Stern-Weiner

ZNet – Michael Albert

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