Owen Jones: This austerity backlash across Europe could transform Britain

The truth is that the real world has paid the high priests of austerity an unwelcome visit

Share

When I first read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine a few years ago, I had no idea how prescient the book was. It was a polemic about "disaster capitalism", arguing that sudden crises are intentionally manipulated to push through extreme free market policies that were otherwise not politically possible. But early 2008 was a completely different era: although Northern Rock had just suffered the first bank run for 150 years, it seemed like a bizarre blip. The US sub-prime crisis was rumbling away, but it was like sheet lightning from a distant storm. "The deficit" was not an everyday term of political debate. It was not at all clear that the world was about to be utterly transformed.

And yet the past four years have proved a total vindication of Klein's argument. A crisis of the market was cleverly transformed by free market ideologues into a crisis of public spending. Across Europe, the biggest slump since the 1930s has been used to push through policies straight out of some right-wing wet dream: the slashing of taxes on the rich and major corporations; the selling off of public services; and a bonfire of workers' rights. It is disaster capitalism on speed.

But, this week, the great revolt against the Shock Doctrine began. That is exactly how we must understand the sudden sea change in European politics: not least, the election of Socialist François Hollande in France, and the stunning breakthrough of anti-austerity leftists in the Greek elections.

Before I am accused of a swivel-eyed left-wing conspiracy theory, it is worth pointing out that even some proponents of austerity are candid about their strategy. Last November, I was in Portugal, which – after being bailed out by the EU and IMF – is pushing through a far-reaching free market agenda. The first wave of the most radical privatisation programme in the country's history is under way, including the selling off of energy, water, public transport and the national airline. VAT on electricity and gas has been hiked from 6 per cent to 23 per cent, driving up energy bills; many public sector workers are facing a drop in income of a quarter; and unemployment benefits have been slashed by nearly a fifth. Austerity has plunged the country into a deep recession, and debt-to-GDP ratio is soaring: but that is not the point. Portugal is being remade in the image of neo-liberal dogma.

Free market economists in Portugal had long supported such policies, but knew they could not get away with them in normal circumstances. "The thing with deep reforms is that democracies have a strong bias in favour of the status quo," I was told by Professor Ferreira Machado, the Dean of one of Portugal's leading business schools, who boasted that he was just a phone call away from the country's Prime Minister. When asked if there was a collision course between democracy and the radical reforms he thought necessary, he was candid. "I think there is a difficulty reconciling it," he said, and mentioned an opposition leader who had caused a political storm by suggesting the suspension of democracy for six months. "Of course, she was not advocating that – she was actually expressing that collision course between the two things, and what she was saying was that it would be much easier to do the necessary reforms if we could put democracy in brackets."

Democracy in Europe has not been suspended, and the collision course is more apparent than ever. "Stop the world, we want to get off!" was The Wall Street Journal's verdict on the mounting European anti-austerity backlash. The truth is that the real world has paid the high priests of austerity an unwelcome visit. Their policies have sucked growth out of the economy, failed to tackle debt, dramatically increased unemployment, and devastated living standards. It would be utterly baffling if people did not fight back.

No wonder Greece is at the forefront of the backlash. A modern European society is being dismembered by austerity. The economy has shrunk by nearly a fifth, and the country's debt continues to mount. Over half of young people are without work; the minimum wage has been slashed to desperately low levels; and wages have fallen by a third since 2009. Then there's the ultimate indicator of despair: the number of people taking their own lives. Greece had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, but experts suggest it may have doubled since the crisis began. Austerity is literally killing people.

But, along with the booting out of France's Nicolas Sarkozy, the Greek elections could mark the beginning of the end for Europe's Shock Doctrine. "This is a message of change, a message to Europe that a peaceful revolution has begun," declared Alexis Tsipras, the leader of radical left coalition Syriza, which trebled its seats in Parliament and came second. Given the failure of any party to form a government, new elections beckon, and Syriza can expect to do even better. But, already, the results have boosted the confidence of all those taking on the austerity offensive across Europe. In the Netherlands, the anti-austerity Socialist Party looks set to stage a breakthrough in the upcoming elections. Those calling for a "No" in the upcoming Irish referendum on the EU Treaty – slammed as an "Austerity Treaty" by opponents – feel momentum is on their side, too. "The people of France, the people of Greece are against the policies of austerity and it is now the moment for Ireland to add our voice to that," declared Mary Lou McDonald, a leading anti-Treaty politician.

For the first time since this crisis began, the momentum is with those taking on the Shock Doctrine. It has the potential to change the whole political climate here in Britain. Polls show two-thirds reject the Government's economic programme. The Tories and their Lib Dem allies got a kicking in the recent elections. Cameron's approval ratings are in freefall.

Until now, Britain's anti-austerity movement has been fragmented and lacking in direction. The new winds blowing from the Continent could change all of that. An attempt to use this crisis to transform society in the interests of the top is floundering here and across the Channel. The prospect of building alliances across Europe is no longer fanciful. It is a moment of transition: what happens next is uncertain. As the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci put it as he languished in fascist jails in the 1930s: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links