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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed in ...

Eye for Detail?

£41000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Eye for Detail? S...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: Britain isn't the most sexist country in the world

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back

Nigel Farage
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?