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Austerity is a hard untruth for Europe to swallow

MerkelTsiprasThe most galling aspect of the Conservative Party’s ongoing political success is that its all-important austerity narrative is objectively, straightforwardly untrue. Every Conservative politician of note must be fully aware of this, and there are no words to describe the cynicism that it requires to keep trotting out the flagrant lie, year in, year out. The imposition of harsher austerity in the government’s first two years was almost certainly related to the choking-off of growth in that time; in the course of 2012 and 2013, the Treasury quietly sidestepped into the milder fiscal approach advocated by Labour in 2010.

Public sector and welfare cuts have had devastating humanitarian impacts, but the government still sends vast amounts of money sloshing through the economy through Quantitative Easing and other approved channels. David Cameron and George Osborne have carved out a political existence based on a policy which neither man either believes in or has ever fully implemented.

Down in the nations of Southern Europe, the story is very different. The adverse effects of austerity on growth cannot here be denied, even by the policy’s champions. Spain has youth unemployment of 50%; Portugal is succumbing to one of its devastating cyclical waves of emigration and brain drain; and in Greece the crisis and the deranged austerian response to it has hacked a quarter off of GDP. The Right-wing Spanish and Portuguese governments, like their British counterpart, peddle a distorted mythology in which spending cuts will ultimately create conditions for growth, but they cannot imitate the sheer cheek of Northern European politicians who market these cuts as having anything other than an immediate depressive impact.

The basic fact that harsh spending cuts are not conducive to economic expansion is entirely inimical to the stated technical and ethical groundings of the latest eye-watering austerity programme imposed by international lenders upon the Syriza-led Greek government, and in turn by that government upon its population. The term ‘pro-growth reforms’ has been used, over and over again, to describe measures that are visibly aimed at stifling growth; the moralistic insistence that one must ‘pay one’s debts’, long recognised in any case as impractical in many international situations, has been used to justify an agreement which can only result in less money changing hands, as the flat-lining Greek economy fails to generate revenues.

That the negotiations were always a matter of power-play rather than of economic problem-solving is demonstrated by the fact that creditors chose to go further than any normal loan-shark by dictating not only the quantity of money to be repaid and the timescale for its repayment, but also the qualitative nature of the internal measures by which that money was to be raised. Syriza is the only party committed to dismantling the system of cronyism and corruption among the powerful which has long been a bottomless sinkhole for government money; creditors consistently rejected any attempt to broach the subject during negotiations. Jürgen Habermas, one of the intellectual leading lights of European integration, concluded: “Forcing the Greek government to agree to an economically questionable, predominantly symbolic privatisation fund cannot be understood as anything other an act of punishment against a leftwing government.”

The dynamic is not particularly complex or historically unique – it is identified in Orwell’s 1984 long before the European project existed in embryo. As Winston Smith learns in the Ministry of Love, one man imposes his power over another ‘by making him suffer.’ Indeed, the sufferer must be made to suffer for no real purpose beyond their own abasement; the needlessness of the pain is the crux of the whole exercise. Winston also learns the power of doublethink: one further demonstrates power by forcing another to recite dictated gibberish, and if the gibberish is internally contradictory, or wildly changeable from day to day, then so much the better. Ice is heavier than water; two plus two equals five; spending cuts are ‘pro-growth reforms’.

Of course, the Greek spectacle is also intended for a broader European audience, above all the electorates of Spain and Portugal. Much could be said about the recurrence of Calvinistic moralism in the language that Northern European leaders use to discuss their sectional advantage over the Mediterranean nations; the travails of the poorer, less capitalistic South are being endlessly portrayed as the product of natural or divine law, rather than of artificial and appealable human decisions. And of course, the international assertion of these values in the alleged national interest of creditor states makes for excellent backing music as these states’ governments implement their own, much milder domestic variants of austerity.

What can a Leftist now say about the European project? Stathis Kouvelakis, a well-known Greek commentator and senior Syriza member, recently opened up about some of his colleagues’ “almost religious belief in Europeanism,” commenting that the notion of “some core values like respect for the democratic mandate” was a badly misplaced assumption on the part of Greek negotiators. Certainly, it is now difficult to disagree with the early-and-often Tory agitators who smelt something totalitarian as the EU and the Eurozone advanced – the willingness of European leaders to sacrifice millions of people in a sweeping act of political symbolism does not bode well. One increasingly feels the presence of a great and opaque historical project, coursing towards some unknown destination.

When we vote on EU membership next year, the immediate choice will be between the ‘banker’s ramp’ foretold by the Bennites and an undiluted British strain of pungent Thatcherism. The EU and Eurozone machinery has never looked less reformable, and yet the countries that are most affected – and it’s no coincidence that Spain, Greece and Portugal all spent the final quarter of the last century racing to recover from wild-eyed reactionary dictatorships which celebrated under-development and poverty – do not yet wish the project to end. Anyone who feels that they can vote one way or another without misgivings is not paying full attention.

One Comment

  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    We really do have to question the integrity of our own Labour politicians that talk in terms of austerity, the idea that they are just looking to appeal to a wider audience than Labour supporters is really just white wash and takes us all for fools.

    There is a clear ideological divide between those on the right and those on the left, and that is the first thing to recognise, these are Neo-Liberals in every sense, those that persist that we pay down the deficit are really hiding the truth from people at large; who understand that something is wrong, that it just doesn’t add up but have no means of finding out the facts for themselves.

    I do have to challenge the main contenders to Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham both were part of the last Labour government, both implemented the privatisation policies of that government and do not have any apologies for doing so.

    Yvette talks of talking tough to Cameron and will persuade business to invest in jobs that will pay real wages, which is just fantasy and I believe she knows it.

    Andy Burnham was part of the team that privatised the NHS and his version of protecting it, the “preferred provider” left the privatisation process in place, and I have obtained information through an FOI that show the cost of our own CCGs outsourcing body.

    Commissioning support units: £3,515,721

    How many full time posts are there in teams responsible for commissioning:

    29.7 posts

    costing £729,216.80

    How much did CCG spend on additional temporary staff or consultants involved in commissioning etc.


    What proportion of the CCG management overheads is allocated to commissioning, procurement or contract management:


    This is the ongoing cost of our local commissioning body that Andy Burnham was happy to spend on his preferred provider.

    Just multiply up those figures for every CCG in the country, apart from the cost of the failed private sector companies operating in our NHS, and note also, THAT WHEN ANDY APPEARS ON PROGRAMS LIKE THE POLITICS SHOW, NOBODY QUESTIONS THESE COST ADDED TO OUR NHS.

    please feel free to use this information and ask Andy and the rest of the pro business lobby how they can justify these costs.

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