​Europe’s turn back to the left: Today Greece, Tomorrow Spain?

Roslyn Fuller
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at fullerr@tcd.ie.
People take part in a rally called by Podemos (We Can), at Madrid's Puerta del Sol landmark January 31, 2015. (Reuters/Susana Vera)
A popular theory during the Cold War era demanded that no country could be allowed to adopt a communist government, as this would inevitably set off a chain of other states also becoming communist in a domino effect.

The domino theory was used quite successfully to justify violence against any people clinging to the proscribed beliefs, but at its heart it contained its own paradox – if communism was so bad, why would one state becoming communist prompt people in other states to want to try it out? Wouldn’t people be more likely to learn from the mistakes of their neighbors and shy away from communism themselves? Of course, the answer was that for your typical starving peasant exploited by a rich landowner, colonialist and/or local religious hierarchy and communism was not necessarily a half-bad deal. While a socialist policy like nationalizing natural resources might seem like a raw deal to someone at the tippy-top of the economic pyramid, someone gazing up from the bottom could see that same event from a quite different angle. And most people are at the bottom. It pays to bear that in mind.

Indeed, it explains much of the popularity of the recently victorious left-wing Syriza party in Greece’s last elections, as well as the swift rise of Podemos, the new Spanish party that now looks likely to sweep the polls in Spanish national elections later this year.

Today, of course, despite the much-harped on socialist roots of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras and Podemos front man Pablo Iglesias, both one-time members of Communist Youth Parties, neither Syriza nor Podemos advocates the kind of one-party, centrally-planned state that tends to end in cast-iron statuary and the mandatory singing of comradely hymns. Instead, both parties focus on policies that would have been considered centrist only a few decades ago. Syriza is committed to free medical care for the jobless, electricity subsidies, exchanging a universal property tax in favor of taxation on luxury homes and large second properties, and cracking down on tax evasion. In addition, both Syriza and Podemos want an end to the austerity policies dictated by the European and International Monetary Fund, a renegotiation of national debt, and the institution of more meaningful democratic practices within their countries.

Far from “radical”, it’s perfectly sound policy in a world where one percent of the population will soon control over half of total global wealth. When productivity rises faster than wages do (as it has over the past forty years thanks to mechanization and trade deregulation), the result is surplus production and therefore recession. Keeping wages low and profits high cannot change this. Forcing people to work for nothing to produce goods that they themselves cannot afford to buy cannot change this. Only raising wages in line with increased productivity can. Henry Ford, the famous creator of the Model T automobile and modern assembly line, knew this, but somewhere along the way this obvious truth was transformed from common sense into “radical leftist politics.”

Syriza's leader, Alexis Tsipras (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

It’s an unjust accusation to make to two nations who could be more fairly said to be suffering from “radical” conservative politics – youth unemployment at well over 50 percent in both Spain and Greece (for older citizens, it’s a mere 25 percent), and corruption among the business and established political elite runs rampant. Moreover, it brings back memories of crises past where said “radicalism” was used to justify support for military dictatorships – General Franco’s rule of Spain from 1939-1975 and Greece’s shorter-lived military junta from 1967-1974.

But despite their similar history, fair social policy and debt renegotiation doesn’t just make sense for Spain and Greece; it makes sense for most of the European Union. Thus, it is no surprise to see politicians scrambling to contain the feared ‘domino effect’ of Syriza’s victory. This may take the form of bemoaning the fact that Greece was due to “exit” its bailout this year – despite the fact that exiting a bailout program does not mean you get to exit your debt. It may take the form of claiming that the recession is about to be over any second now. It may simply be a diatribe on the hard work ethic of the allegedly solvent Germans that fails to inform the reader that while Germans might like to scrawl quaint little sayings about the joys of industrious toil all over their quaint little houses, they are also in debt to the tune of 84 percent of GDP, and that German welfare and healthcare have been systematically cut over the past fifteen years while many extremely qualified young Germans languish in the near wageless pits of what they term “generation internship.”

Why Europe needs Syriza, Podemos and any other progressive party it can drum up

Pablo Iglesias Turrión, leader and founder of Podemos (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

The European Union and even the euro currency weren’t necessarily bad ideas. In a world of giant superpowers, having a group of smaller countries band together to form one trading bloc (the EU) for the sake of negotiating with foreign powers was definitely an idea worth considering. In practice, however, it was mainly considered by the invitation-only European Roundtable of Industrialists which was concerned about the “high costs and low profits, fragmentation of the European market, and excessive interference by governments” in Europe and credits itself with having done much of the groundwork on the existence of a single European market, a project made possible by its close contacts with “past, present and [somewhat disconcertingly] future heads of state.” Top European politicians were more than happy to work with ERT in creating a Europe with “lower costs and higher profits” and without “government interference” or, as it is otherwise known, a functioning legal system.

In the service of this endeavor, political power was centralized into the European Union and placed largely within the unelected European Commission. For example, a study showed that between 1998 and 2004, 84 percent of all German laws originated at a European level, and these laws find their origins primarily within the Commission.

European people were only asked to give their blessing to this state of affairs at long and irregular intervals in referenda, and when those referenda were answered in the negative, they were circumvented or simply re-run until the answer came up ‘yes’. Thus, Europeans floated listlessly into the future that their leaders asked them to believe in – on credit, as it were. No one seemed entirely clear on the specifics of this future, but it was going to be much better than things were now, whatever that meant. Perhaps a more sophisticated version of America, where everyone would get free refills on soft drinks and ice cream would come in 31 flavors, but you could still take a skip over to the Sistine Chapel if you fancied a bit of culture. What Europeans were asked to drift into – primarily by the old, corrupt centre-right and centre-left parties who supported quick EU integration – did not, I think it would be fair to say, resemble a vision where people are evicted from their houses, whose kids can’t get jobs and who lose their medical coverage and benefits for the sake of paying off banks and financial speculators only to be told that they themselves are the problem. But such are the inevitable consequences of high profits, low costs and a lack of government interference.

All things considered, it’s not shocking that people from all walks of life – be they hippie liberals or immigration-skeptical conservatives – have decided to pull the plug on the old guard. “Work harder for less for no apparent reason!” is not the most appealing political rallying cry, especially when those at the top are doing nothing of the sort. And considering that this is what Syriza, Podemos and other reformist parties are up against in the form of the traditional parties, the question is not so much “how can they win?” as “how can they lose?” As Podemos’ Iglesias made clear at a weekend march in Madrid: “This is not about asking for anything from the government or protesting. It’s to say that in 2015 there will be a government of the people.” He’s probably right. And it may not end there. The other two ‘PIGS’, Ireland and Portugal, as well as Britain, will hold elections in the next 18 months. While these countries are historically more conservative, anti-austerity movements have gained a lot of ground in the recent past.

Ironically enough, it may be that the EU’s severe fiscal policy achieved what it said it wanted all along – Europeans are deciding that they do have a lot in common with each other, a lot more than their leaders ever thought.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.