By Paul Kellogg
May 3, 2010 -- The bailout of the debt-ridden Greek government seems finally to be
complete. The European Union (EU) – most centrally the French and German
treasuries – along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will
provide €110 billion ($150 billion) in emergency loans. The price for
these loans will be high. Along with steep tax increases and cuts in
spending, the loans are conditional on a public sector wage freeze being
extended through to 2014. This is in reality a wage cut, as there
will be drastic changes to the so-called “bonuses” – holiday pay that
has become an essential part of the income package of low-paid public
The anger at these cuts is everywhere in Greek society.
Giorgos Papadapoulos is a 28-year-old policeman who normally confronts
demonstrators. But in March he put aside his riot shield and joined the
mass protests which have become a regular part of life in Greece. “It’s a
different feeling for me”, he told journalists while he was on the
demonstration. “But this is important. It hurts me and my family.”
However, the crisis in Greece has revealed not just a shift to the left
in Europe. It has also brought to the surface a seamy reactionary
underside to politics in the EU portion of the Eurasian landmass.
The April 29, 2010, front page of the mass circulation
German daily Bild screamed out: “The Greeks want even more
billions from us!” The echoes of a half-forgotten German nationalism
gave shivers to those with an historic memory. One who has such a memory
– Greece’s deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos – reminded Greek
voters of the horrors of World War II. “They [the Germans] took away the
gold that was in the Bank of Greece”, he said. “They took away Greek
money, and they never gave it back.” It was a thinly disguised
attempt to divert attention from a crisis over which his party (the
Panhellenic Socialist Movement or PASOK) has helped create. These kinds
of reactionary nationalisms were supposed to have been superseded by the
progressive cosmopolitanism of the EU.
That many have clung to a
hope that the EU contains within it the seeds of a progressive
capitalism is not in itself news. Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire,
supported a call for a “yes” vote on the European constitution in
2004-2005. His rationale was explained very well by Salvatore Cannavò,
then deputy editor of Liberazione, the daily paper of Italy’s Rifondazionie
Empire, for Negri, is the new globalized,
capitalistic society. He thinks of Europe as being a “brake on the
ideology of economic unilateralism which is capitalist, conservative and
reactionary. So Europe can become a counterweight against US
Another with faith in the EU was
Christopher Hitchens, who describes himself as “one of the few on the
Left to advocate enlargement of the European Union and to identify it
with the progressive element in politics”. But really, Hitchens
needn’t describe himself as being so alone. In their hope that the EU
represents a “nicer” capitalism than that in the United States, the very
radical Negri and the ex-left gadfly Hitchens are actually trailing
behind the very mainstream “social liberal” politics of very traditional
European social democratic parties, still by far the principal force in
the workers’ movement and the left in Europe. Hitchens’ and Negri’s
pro-EU stances place them within the hegemonic project of European
capitalism, mediated – as is so often the case – by European social
This hope for a progressive EU has been sorely tested
by the most recent slump in the capitalist economy – the so-called
“Great Recession” of 2008-09 – the trigger for the debt problems in
Greece and elsewhere. November 2009, 57 per cent of the 53 per cent who
participated in a referendum in Switzerland voted to ban the building
of mosque minarets in that country. This reactionary trend is not restricted to
Switzerland. In April we learned that the home affairs committee of the
federal parliament in Belgium voted unanimously to ban Muslim
women from veiling their faces in public. “Support for the ban ...
transcended party lines, ranging from the Greens to the far right.”
Similar restrictions are being contemplated elsewhere in Europe,
including in France and the Netherlands. That this reflected a rise in
Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism is revealed by the fact that “only
four modest sized or small minarets exist in Switzerland”, and that
in Belgium “very few women wear the full veil, and there has been little
public debate about the need to ban it”.
It needs little
analysis to see what is at work here. The deep crisis of 2008 and 2009
triggered huge government-spending programs across the continent. That
spending worked to stem the crisis, but left governments saddled with
unsustainable debts. Every government is now preparing to address this
debt crisis by slashing government spending. The anti-Arab racism is a
deeply reactionary, very old-fashioned and very predictable way for
ruling elites to try and “change the channel” and make working people
and the poor look at scapegoats, rather than at the deep attacks on
social services and public sector workers that are around the corner
throughout the continent. The anti-Greek nationalism in Germany – which
threatens to derail a bailout sorely needed by German as well as Greek
capital – reflects this politics of scapegoating getting out of the
hands of German capital, and opening the door to populist far-right
forces, an increasingly sombre menace on the fringes of the European
This shift right is not a big step for
politics in the EU. The EU could present itself as a force for progress,
given the barbaric history of European civilisation. A collection of
nations – whose continent had, in a century and a half, witnessed the
bloodiest wars ever seen in human history – had found a way to unite and
partially reduce their divisions. Holders of an EU passport could
travel easily from one country to the next – and more importantly work
in any country of the EU. The emergence of a common currency for some
of the EU states seemed to indicate an even greater reduction in
tensions in a continent comprised of historic rivals.
progressive surface appearance masked another aspect of the barbarism
that has been European civilisation. Its roots are not just in the 150
years of intra-European rivalry which resulted in the Napoleonic Wars,
World Wars I and II. Those roots are even more in the 500 years of
colonial conquest of the global South, which resulted in the
depopulation of whole sections of Latin America and the Caribbean, the
horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the long humiliation and
plunder of three of the four most populated regions in the world –
China, the Indian sub-continent and the Indonesian archipelago. If the
creation of the EU muted intra-European rivalries, it did not lessen
European pressure on the global South. If anything, it led to an
intensification of European imperialism abroad.
from Latin America to Africa to Asia, have been as much a part of the
story of imperialism in the late 20th and early 21st century as has been
the much more recognisable hand of the United States. In fact, an
argument could be made that the very reluctant decision to embark on the
process of European integration was spurred not so much by a desire to
create a progressive Europe, but rather by the recognition that another
round of wars between the European states would make all of Europe
incapable of participating with the United States in the ongoing plunder
of the great riches in the global South. It was either all in or not at
all – and the EU was the result.
In other words, there has
always been a reactionary side to the EU project. Internal migration for
holders of EU passports was wonderful for the workers of Europe. But
for those outside the EU, what it meant was “Fortress Europe” – a wall
of anti-immigrant rules and regulations from Italy to Spain to Germany.
And while it was one thing to push forward with a unity project so long
as each country in the project was in its majority white and Christian –
when the project faced up to its next task, expanding to include the
largely Islamic country of Turkey – a sudden reluctance showed its hand,
a reluctance which could only with difficulty conceal its xenophobia
There is another aspect to the imperialist roots of
the project of European Union – the unequal relations between states
inside the EU. Doug Saunders, writing in the Globe and Mail, is going
too far when he calls Greece, Portugal and Spain “economic colonies” of
Germany. But he is highlighting something important about the unequal
structure which is the EU. There is an inner core of dominant countries –
on the continent, Germany and France in particular – and an outer layer
of countries which has a very unequal relationship with that core.
is the world’s second-largest exporter, ahead of the United States and
exceeded only by China, and its largest markets are its European
neighbours. These countries are net importers ... These importing
countries have more money flowing out of their borders than they have
coming in – for Greece, an amount equivalent to a tenth of the entire
economy – and Germany has a surplus, with piles of it stacking up. Money
cannot sit still, and nature abhors a vacuum, so German banks disposed
of those heaps of surplus export-payment cash by lending it to
companies, especially property developers, in those same countries at
low interest rates. And they lent it to their governments, too, to fill
their need for missing cash, which would in turn be spent on more German
goods and services.
This is the toxic brew which is now
bubbling over as the EU finalises details on its bailout of the debt in
Greece. The fact, outlined by Saunders above, that much of this debt is
held by German banks, means that there is every reason for German
capitalism to support such a bailout – but the terms that are being
demanded are very severe, and it is Greek workers who are being asked to
pay the price.
These conditions also run counter to the lessons
learned so painfully in 2007 and 2008. The biggest lesson of the Great
Recession was that it is neoliberal folly to cut government spending
when economies are shrinking. Such cuts make economic decline even
worse. In fact what is needed is an increase in government spending, so
that government demand can compensate for declining private sector
But if Germany has returned to economic growth and can now
contemplate cuts to government spending, Greece has not. It is estimated
that the Greek economy – after contracting through all of 2009 – will
shrink by a further 4% in 2010 and another 2% in 2011. The cuts
being demanded by the EU and the IMF will make a bad situation worse in
the coming weeks and months.
There is hope in the situation – the
evolving resistance emerging in Greece. One poll indicated that “more
than half of Greeks say they will take to the streets if the government
agrees to new austerity measures”. The growing mass movement and
opening to the left underway in Greece is extremely encouraging. It is
with that movement that hopes ultimately lie for the emergence of a
really progressive Europe.
But we should temper these hopes with a
sober assessment of the reality of the situation. Social democracy –
and the union bureaucracies on which it stands – is deeply implicated in
the construction of the structures which are today being used to
orchestrate an attack, across the continent, on social services and the
working class. Social democracy remains the leading force in the
workers’ movement, and we can have no illusions in its capacity to lead a
In Greece the movement has necessarily broken in
part with PASOK, as it is a PASOK-led government which is implementing
the attacks. But in Greece, as throughout Europe, social democracy is
only a reflection of the problem. The material foundation of social
democracy is comprised of the union bureaucracies entrenched in the
workers’ movements in Europe and throughout the global North. Ultimately
the task facing the workers’ movement and the left is not just a
political break from social democracy, but organisational independence
from these union bureaucracies.
Winning that independence will be
bound up with creating a counter-hegemonic project whose horizons are
not just the internal politics of Europe, but the fact of Europe’s
implication in the imperialism which oppresses the majority of the
world’s population. Our counter-hegemonic project, in other words,
cannot simply focus on economic issues. A counter-hegemonic project in
Europe – as in North America – has to simultaneously involve a break
from chauvinism and racism.
Such a recognition has practical
implications. Greece’s small role in Europe’s noxious imperialism has
been a series of chauvinistic rows over Macedonia and Cyprus, and its
irresponsible and long-running feud with neighbouring Turkey. This has
translated into an inflated military budget, keeping “Greek military
spending well above that of other EU members, reaching €14-billion, or 6
percent of GDP, in 2007 and 2009”. In other words, fully half of
the deficit problem – which stands at between 13 and 14 per cent of GDP –
is caused by inflated spending on war preparation. Breaking from
chauvinism and militarism opens the door to a simple demand which can be
a modest, but necessary part of the counter-hegemonic project – cut
spending on war, not spending on welfare.
[Paul Kellogg, based in Canada, is an
assistant professor in the
Department of International Development Studies at Trent University. He
is also affiliated with the Centres for Global and Social Analysis and
State and Legal Studies at Athabasca University. He has published
articles in several journals, including Canadian Journal of Political
Science, New Political Science, Labour/Le Travail, International
Socialism, Praxis (Brazil), Science & Society, Studies
in Political Economy, Canadian Dimension and Contemporary
He is a founding member of Coalition Venezuela We Are With
You/Coalición Venezuela Estamos Contigo and Toronto Bolivia Solidarity.
He maintains an occasional blog at www.polecon.net/, where this article first appeared. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]
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