Resistance and Austerity in Europe

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network.
I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Across Europe,
tens of thousands of people from Spain to
Greece to France and many other countries
have protested against austerity measures,
which they say are shifting the burden of
the crisis onto ordinary people and making
them pay for things they say were mostly triggered
by the American financial crisis and underlying
issues within the system, whereby a few people
own a lot of stuff and most people don’t.
Now joining us, recently returned from his
trip to Europe, is Professor Richard Wolff.
Professor Wolff is a professor emeritus at
the University of Amherst–I should say–let
me back up–professor of University of Massachusetts
Amherst. And he’s also a visiting professor
at New School in New York. Alright. Thanks
for joining us, Richard.
RICHARD WOLFF: Thank you very much for inviting
JAY: Okay. So talk a bit about your recent
trip to Europe. What did you find?
WOLFF: Well, the thing that was most arresting
for me was the clear recognition by Europeans
of all stripes that their dreams of somehow
getting through this global crisis more easily,
more smoothly, more quickly than the United
States, those dreams are quickly fading. They’re
beginning to recognize that they’re in for
a long period of difficult struggles. I think
it centers on the failure of the bailout of
Greece, the contagion from Greece to Portugal,
Italy, Spain, Ireland, and so on, and the
sense that the policies that they’re following,
which are basically rather like the United
States, trying to make the mass of people
pay by using the taxes raised across Europe
to bail out the creditors, mainly banks, of
the defunct governments is a strategy that
will get them through. I think they’re becoming
aware that the amount of money involved is
very high, and that therefore the amount of
austerity they have imposed on their people
and will need to impose to raise all that
money is very high, and that the mobilization
and anger building in the mass of people is
threatening their political lives. You can
see it most dramatically in Angela Merkel,
the leader of the most important economy in
Europe, Germany, who had to hang tough on
making sure that there was at least some suffering
on the part of banks–very modest in this
latest bailout, but at least some. And she
did that despite being a conservative politician,
because the people of Germany have been voting
against her party in rage that they are being
asked to pay to bail out basically for a second
time the German and French and other banks
that lent to Greece.
JAY: Of course, that’s also being positioned
as an extreme nationalist argument, both in
Germany and in France, that, you know, why
should we bail out Greece, why should we bail
out Spain and Portugal. What are you seeing
in terms of the rise of a kind of hard-right
nationalism? Of course, you have, you know,
a kind of sociopath like the guy in Norway,
but he–at least he had some ideological kinship
with this right-wing movement. I don’t think
that’s the agenda, to go kill people with
that movement. But there is a more official
right-wing nationalism developing, is there
WOLFF: Right. There’s a struggle. That is,
the left in a sense is saying, you are imposing
austerity to bail out the banks and to save
the credit institutions at the expense of
the mass of people. The right-wing really
has no answer, because the bailout is obvious
and has been in the newspapers and the TV.
So the attempt of the right-wing is to convert
that from an issue of austerity of the people
to bail out banks internationally into a nationalist
issue posed as though the German worker was
being asked to take it on the chin in favor
of a lazy Greek worker. That isn’t really
working too well, and Americans have to understand
that, because the power of the left in places
like France and Germany, the hard, dominant
economies in Europe, is much stronger than
what we have here in the United States.
JAY: Now, if some of the people that are leading
the austerity measures are supposedly left-of-center
parties, you know, Papandreou in Greece, and
in Spain you’ve got social democrats that
are essentially designing or signing on to
the austerity measures.
WOLFF: Yes, you have that. And, again, I think
the parallel is watching more or less the
same thing being performed by Obama here.
It is producing in Europe what it is producing
here, namely, the systematic splitting of
whatever the left was–Obama here, if you
like, the Democratic Party, and in Europe,
the Socialists are splitting, giving space
for new developments. Again, Germany is the
best example, where you see the decline of
the Social Democratic Party that supports
austerity, and the rise of the Left Party
and the Green Party in Germany, which are,
at least on paper, opposed to it. And so I
think you’re going to see a struggle in which
the right tries to pose this as a nationalist
issue, Greek workers versus German workers,
but the left (in both countries, to be fair)
is trying to argue, and has been pretty successful,
that this is a program to impose austerity
everywhere in favor of taking care of the
banks, the insurance companies, the wealthy
folks who are the basic creditors of the government
and who had to lend money to those governments
precisely because those governments chose
not to tax corporations, insurance companies,
and the rich, which, had they done so, they
wouldn’t have had to borrow this money.
JAY: Why do you think the mass protest movement
in Europe seems to be so–not just bigger,
but more mature politically than anything
we’re seeing in North America?
WOLFF: Because over the last 50 years, the
decline of the left in Europe–and there has
been one–is nothing like what happened in
the United States. Americans have to understand,
we on the left–and that’s where I sit–we
allowed, for a whole host of reasons, the
Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the
trade union movement in the United States
to atrophy, to decline almost on a continuous,
year-by-year basis to the point where they
barely can survive now. Nothing like that
happened in Europe. That is, they had declines,
but if one left party declined, it was replaced
by another left party and another surge. We
had the development of the Left Party in Germany,
which is a real model for all of Europe, and
they preserved their trade unions and their
left organizations. So when this crisis hit,
they had the organizational muscle, the years
of people accustomed to working with one another
to change policy, so that they could find
a way to mobilize and express in politically
effective ways the left perspective. By contrast,
in the United States we have as many left
folks as they do, we have a left criticism
of what’s going on, but we have let atrophy
the organizations that we would need to translate
left perspectives into into politically effective,
organized activity.
JAY: Now, one of the things that doesn’t seem
to get as much attention, but it’s–from what
I can observe, is one of the main features
of what’s taking place through these austerity
measures, is not just an attack on social
programs and things, but it’s very much about
privatization, taking advantage of this crisis
to take things that are from the public domain
and privatize them, especially in Greece.
I mean, how much is that an issue in amongst
the, you know, opposition there? And to what
extent does this find parallels in the United
WOLFF: I think it’s a very serious question
in Europe. I think all eyes in Europe are
on Greece to see whether this second bailout
will be effective, as it is supposed to be,
in forcing the Greek government to basically
sell off in the neighborhood of EUR 50 billion
worth of public property. They’re going to
watch, also very carefully, what those sales
mean. Will the private enterprises that buy
at cheap prices from the Greek government,
’cause it’s forced to sell these properties,
will they cut back employing? Will they move
production out of Greece? How will it affect
Greece? So it’s not only a test case of will
privatization happen, but it’s even more of
an examination of what privatization means.
And if it hurts Greece in the way that the
Greek left predicts, it will harden the determination
all over Europe, including in Greece, to reverse
it, to prevent it, and to make a struggle
against that part of what is going on. I think
you need to see that we are at an early stage
in Europe in this conflict. There is still
the hope, although it is shrinking, that they
will get through this crisis soon. Like Americans,
they don’t want to face the fact that the
way they’re proceeding has to do with a long-term
decline of what they call the basic covenant
for the mass of people and what we in America
tend to call the vanishing middle class. And
as that settles in, the lines of battle in
Europe, like here, will harden. But the difference
is the Europeans are organized for that fight
and the Americans are not.
JAY: And in terms of Europe, how much strength
does the hard right have? And how likely are
we to see something that looks like a 1930s
WOLFF: Well, I think they’re struggling to
get stronger. Their biggest problem–and I
think that will replicate itself here, although
we do have differences here–but the biggest
problem in Europe for the right is that they
are seen as stalking horses for big business.
Big business is blamed in general for the
crisis much more solidly than it is in this
country. Europeans, unlike Americans, do not
immediately blame the government when economic
problems arise. If they’re being fired by
private employers, they blame them. Americans
fired by private employers leap over the employer
and blame the government in a kind of a magical,
imaginary notion of what going on. So the
right wing in Europe is seen as the plaything
of the business community, and the business
community is heavily in the doghouse. And
so I think the left has a stronger position.
But they will be attacked and they will be
portrayed–business community there, like
here, portrays workers, as much as it can,
particularly foreign workers, to each country’s
working class as though they were lazy and
being carried by the workers in each country,
in order to make this a nationalist struggle.
But my guess is that’s not going to work and
the right is going to be pretty much as it
remains–marginal. On the other hand, to be
fair, it is the case that as economic suffering
spreads, as social safety nets are frayed,
as social welfare supports are reduced, angry
people look for scapegoats. And the hard right
in Europe is kind of unified around a horror
of the immigrant and to blame the immigrant,
whether that person is Muslim or not, as the
scourge that is taking your job, that is depleting
the government of resources that it uses to
sustain these immigrants who do not work.
This scenario is being played out and attracts
a certain portion of those being hurt. But
there’s a powerful left that has daily newspapers
in every country that appears on the radio
on every occasion and on television, and they
keep before the minds of the European people
a very different story. And in the end, that
story is about the capitalist class being
the ones that are hurting you. And that plays
a role in the consciousness of Europe that
has no analogy here in the United States.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Richard.
WOLFF: Thank you for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real
News Network.

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