Tag Archives: austerity

Mission accomplished, George?

Osborne’s recovery is just like Darling’s – only slower, weaker and later.

George Osborne’s crowing over the economic recovery reminded me of George W Bush, strutting around on the USS Abraham Lincoln celebrating the ‘end’ of the Iraq War on 1 May 2003. As Bush spoke, a huge banner behind him read ‘Mission Accomplished’. Shortly afterwards, all hell broke loose. The war wasn’t over after all. It’s arguable if it’s even over now.

GeorgeOsborne2012

Like Bush, Osborne is in a tearing hurry to declare victory and move on. He doesn’t want you to think too hard or too long about what victory looks like, in case you conclude that it doesn’t look much like this.

It’s not just that two quarters of growth at 0.3% and 0.7% is hardly setting the Thames on fire. It’s not just that this is the slowest recovery for a zillion years (you can take your pick how long, but we could go with the broadly pro-Osborne IEA, who say it’s the slowest for 170 years), making Osborne a less effective recovery Chancellor than Alistair Darling, Norman Lamont, Geoffrey Howe, Denis Healey, Tony Barber or even Neville Bloody Chamberlain). And it’s not just that falling living standards, spiralling house prices and frozen wages are making this recovery feel almost as bad as the disease.

There’s also Osborne’s own view on what constitutes economic recovery. You see, this is our second attempt to recover from the great slump of 2008. Our first recovery – far more promising than this one – was cancelled just as it was getting going by no other than Gideon George Osborne himself.

When Osborne moved into Number 11, the economy had grown by 0.5%, 0.4% and 1.0% in the preceding three quarters. But Osborne said that was no good. He threw out Alistair Darling’s more considered strategy – a successful strategy – and reached for his austerity blunderbuss. The economy collapsed back into recession, then drifted sideways for two years. Living standards, especially for working people, plunged.

Osborne said the Darling recovery was unsustainable because government debt was too high. He said we were on the road to becoming Greece, although how a growing economy and a level of national debt on a par with Germany’s merited comparison with Greece was, and remains, beyond me. He said the economy was too reliant on a house price ‘bubble’ and households were borrowing too much. Darling’s recovery wasn’t really a recovery at all and we’d have to start all over again.

Three years later, the economy may finally be crawling out from under the rock Osborne dropped on it. But the national debt will be £533bn higher at the next election than at the last. Osborne’s recovery has barely begun and there’s already talk of a ‘house price bubble’ in many areas. And with stagnant or falling wages, rising house prices can only be accommodated by ever-higher borrowing.

If Darling’s recovery wasn’t real, then neither is Osborne’s. And it’s three years late.

Talking therapy

The left needs to dispel Europe’s political depression before it can tackle the economic gloom.
Spain's Mortgage Victims Platform holds protests outside ministers's homes, but also help families fight evictions at local level.
Los Indignados: Spain’s Mortgage Victims Platform holds protests outside ministers’s homes, but also help families fight evictions at local level.

Europe seems to be in the grip of a political depression every bit as deep as the economic one. Spinoza wrote that we feel depressed when we are cut off from our power to act. Faced with the economic depression (let’s call it what it is), Europeans seems to be suffering just such a collapse in will brought about by utter hopelessness. The British pollster Peter Kellner said recently that politicians need to find ‘a narrative to dispel the gloom’. This is exactly what ‘talking therapies’ aim to do for people suffering from depression. But if it’s hard to find that narrative for an individual, it’s harder still for a whole nation or even a whole civilisation.

One reason the European left hasn’t done very well out of the global economic crisis is that many voters don’t believe politicians can to do anything at all to end the slump, or even to protect the gains working people have made in the last one hundred years or so. The left runs on hope and there isn’t much hope about.

Kellner was commenting on a recent poll in Britain which found that most voters didn’t believe there was anything politicians could do to restore living standards to pre-crash levels anytime soon. Even among Labour party voters, only 56% thought there was anything to be done. The same fatalism seems to lie behind the vertiginous collapse in support for François Hollande’s socialist government in France. Most French people seem to believe that the President’s widely derided ‘toolbox’ for dealing with the crisis is empty, and probably always was (of course there is a small but vocal minority who claim he is the willing stooge of international capitalism, but in France there always is). But the mainstream centre-right UMP (Sarkozy’s party) remains in disarray and the main beneficiary has been Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Note: the Front National not the Front de Gauche. The surge in support for so-called ‘anti-politics’ parties – the FN, UKIP in Britain, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy and Golden Dawn in Greece – is largely confined to those on the right. On the ‘alternative’ left, nothing stirs. But if this is rage, it feels like an impotent rage – one of Spinoza’s ‘sad passions’. I doubt even supporters of these parties have much real confidence in them as potential governments. Grillo certainly made an electoral breakthrough, but then ran away from the responsibilities of power. And how many people who will vote for UKIP in Thursday’s local elections in the UK can put their hand on their heart and say that a lot more Thatcherism and flouncing out of the EU will deliver jobs and growth? Really?

So, if I cannot solve my problems and they cannot solve them for me, perhaps we can solve our problems together. This idea used to be called ‘solidarity’ (fraternité in France – one of the three founding principles of the 1789 revolution, and the most overlooked). But solidarity has been largely slung out of the left’s toolbox. The traditional channels for expressing solidarity and applying collective pressure for change were mostly closed off even before the crisis began: street protests are often seen as a waste of time (democratic governments make it a virility test not to give in to such protests); trade unions are weak and often discredited, and their traditional weapon – strikes – are almost useless in a depression; and there are no credible revolutionary movements to force governments into offering radical but democratic change.

If there is a ray of hope to pierce the gloom it might come from the example of the indignados movement in Spain, which mixes local grass-roots activism – for example, helping impoverished families fight evictions – with imaginative direct action protests, such as noisy demonstrations outside ministers’ homes. These kinds of social movements, which might also include co-operatives, credit unions and the like – have more practical appeal than fuzzy movements like Occupy and pack more political punch than charities. They offer collective action and individual help with specific problems. There is a ‘narrative’ that most people can relate to.

The conventional left has always been a bit sniffy about anything too ‘grass roots’ or smacking of ‘self-help’, often preferring to operate at the systemic or theoretical level (or even sometimes to not operate at all). But we should remember this is exactly how trade unions and organised left got started in Europe in the first place.

It’s up to Europe’s democrats to save capitalism from itself

Battered by the economic crises of the 1920s and and 30s, European politicians clung to the gold standard because it was the only thing they knew. The gold standard dictated permanent austerity and relentless downward pressure on wages. The result was stagnation followed by collapse, soaring unemployment, and massive social and political upheaval. The dead hand of the gold standard was only lifted when European voters began to flex their muscles and put the austerity parties out of office. It didn’t end happily.

Members of the Golden Dawn party give their version of the Nazi salute after being sworn in as Greek MPs on 17 May.

Today’s European leaders are in the same position, trapped inside a similar orthodoxy. For the gold standard read ‘German’ monetary policy – an obsession with the phantom threat of inflation and a scorched-earth approach to reducing debt. The austerity and wage cuts follow as a matter of course. Voters can see this, which is why they are felling incumbents across the continent like old dead trees.

Europe’s leaders have no political strategy, just a defunct economic one. And without a political strategy there is no hope. It doesn’t matter if orthodoxy dictates that austerity is the ‘right’ economic policy. Parties who keep offering up the same meagre fare will be pushed aside. People who think they can preserve our existing form of capitalism and democracy are deluding themselves in a bubble.

Democratic parties – on the centre-left or centre right – must either reinvent capitalism or be swept away by wilder forces who are no friends of either free-market capitalism or democracy.

Some on the democratic right (mostly in the UK it has to be said) want seize this opportunity to impose more free-market reforms, more deregulation of labour markets, deeper and deeper cuts in government spending. They dream of completing the Thatcherite revolution on the broken backs of the Eurozone economies. We can argue the toss about the economic consequences of this, but politically it’s a dead letter. It’s not the way European voters are facing.

European voters can’t make up their mind whether to turn left or right in response to the crisis. But even those turning to the right are not voting for more of the same. They are flocking to parties like the Front National in France, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland, the True Finns in Finland, even the openly pro-Nazi ‘Golden Dawn’ in Greece. These aren’t free market parties. Their economic programmes often have more in common with the resurgent left-wing groups like Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche or Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza movement in Greece.

Take Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which is locked in a battle to the death with Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP for dominance of the French right. Leave aside the casual racism, xenophobia and repressive social and penal policies that would fill France’s jails with half its workforce (I exaggerate, but only slightly). She also wants to end the European single market, introduce protectionist trade barriers, stop the free movement of European labour, impose capital controls and nationalise banks.

This is not exactly communism, but it’s no free market nirvana either. Sour, insular and repressive, if you want to know what Marine’s Le Pen’s France might look like, look at Putin’s Russia.

But these ideas are gaining hold with European voters because they at least try to address people’s fears. Because they seem to be a genuine break with the past. Unencumbered by economic orthodoxy, parties like Le Pen’s can offer a explicitly political programme.

If Europeans on the centre-left and centre-right, who have more in common than they usually admit, want to preserve liberal democracy and a broadly capitalist economy, they need a political strategy to address (among other things):

Insecurity – austerity and free market ‘reforms’ create insecurity which leads to the instability which markets hate. Fearful people do not make contented or industrious workers. Or voters.

Disenfranchisement of working class people – these are the voters who are turning in increasing numbers to the undemocratic parties of the right and left.

Falling/stagnant wages – in the last 30 years too little a share of economic growth has gone into wages. Working class incomes have been largely stagnant in Europe (and the US) for many years. Now they’re falling off a cliff. In a democracy, this is unsustainable.

Globalisation – those who say we must buckle under and cut our wages to compete with China and India can forget it: you will be swept away long before that happens.

If we can’t reinvent liberal-democratic capitalism so it works for ordinary people, what right do we have to expect that it should survive? Decide now: are you for democracy or the free-market? You might not be able to face both ways for much longer.