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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner