Wed Nov 10th, 2010 at 05:47:22 AM EST
Closer to home, accross the Channel from here, our neighbours in the UK await the impact of austerity measures agreed by a centre-left/rightwing coalition government, the result a a systemic failure by the previous centrist Labour government to represent its core constituency: workers.
NLR's latest issue editorializes on what this means for Britain, and in fact, for all of us:
As elsewhere in Europe, working-class desertion is in part a disaster of Blair and Brown's own making. Thatcher famously dealt with the problem of Britain's chronic economic decline by tearing up the welfare-state settlement and throwing the City of London open to Wall Street financiers. But it was only under Major, with recovery from the crippling recession and post-erm sterling devaluation of 1989-92, that a new model began to emerge. Tax revenues from the fast-growing financial and business-service industries fed a reflation of the public sector, now opened up to private capital on the most favourable terms. Under Blair and Brown, the City of London was pumped up into the most deregulated trading centre in the world, just as global financial activity entered Minsky's `Ponzi moment', a phase of accelerating and unsustainable speculation. For a brief spell, the Anglo-Saxon model was the wonder of the Western world. In the UK, a high pound ensured cheap imports and easy credit. In a miniaturized version of the US economy, household debt and house prices, led by the southeast, began to soar; the value of a London home went up by 500 per cent within a decade.
The New Labour years saw the rise of a new financial `mass elite'--half-a-million sterling millionaires--and a property-rich rentier middle class, owning a disproportionate fraction of the housing stock. They also brought a levelling-down for the `property-poor' who live by their labour. The median wage is £21,000 and 80 per cent of Britons earn under £35,000. Crippled by the high pound, domestic manufacturing has shrunk to 13 per cent of gdp, a significant proportion of which is made up by the heavily subsidized arms industry. British manufacturing has shed a million jobs under New Labour, the majority from the medium-sized firms of the Midlands and Greater London region. Blair's decision in 2004 to reward the `New Europe' countries' support on Iraq by flinging open the door to their job-seekers, at that time barred from Germany and France, led to the largest influx of immigrant labour Britain has ever known. Educated, hard-working young East Europeans flooded the service sector, especially in southern England, toiling for minimal wages, cash in hand. uk unemployment started to rise in 2005, with the official number over 2.5 million by 2009; another 7.7 million are in part-time jobs, or have taken reductions in their hours and wages. It is workers in these regions that have deserted New Labour in greatest numbers over the past decade--in many instances, constituencies that swung to Thatcher in the 1980s, turned New Labour in 1997, and have now gone Conservative again.
A richer country, in some respects Britain faces a more advanced and complex crisis than Greece or Spain. The Anglo-Saxon model crashed in 2008. A perilous unwinding of its mega-banks and `quantitative easing' lies ahead, with no prospect of growth on the horizon. The UK's principal market, the Eurozone, is undergoing a severe retrenchment; the immense stimulus applied to the us economy will be coming to an end; in China, the ccp has slammed on the brakes to prevent overheating, to as-yet unknown effect. Post-crash Britain may be returning to a new era of chronic decline. At any event, a period of sharp restructuring lies ahead, as its rulers attempt to squeeze higher profits for investors from public-sector pensions, wages, taxes, hospitals and schools. As Wolfgang Schäuble recently pointed out, each European government can use the crisis to push through capital's wish list of structural reforms: in Germany, softening up the labour force by cutting unemployment benefits; in Spain and France, stripping out the gains--`rigidities'--of older employees; in Italy, slashing the Mezzogiorno public sector.  The widely proclaimed end of neo-liberalism looks more and more like the continuation of its agenda by other means.
For the time being, the political fall-out of the global economic crash remains in suspension. New Labour's defeat is the result of a longer-term erosion of support, and response to the crisis in Britain has been delayed by pre-election stimulus measures. Mobilizations against Papandreou in Greece, Zapatero in Spain, Sócrates in Portugal or Cowen in Ireland must also reckon with the fact that their political opposite numbers, if brought to power, would do just the same. It could be said that the crisis itself has not yet produced any major anti-incumbent swing. A pattern seems to be emerging in which moves towards restricting finance, or making it foot some part of the bill for the crisis, are taken under political pressure: the Merkel government banning naked short trading after the loss of North Rhine-Westphalia; the European Commissioner issuing a harder directive on hedge-fund regulation, following the turmoil in Greece; Obama, after the loss of Massachusetts, calling in Volcker and telling Goldman Sachs he was `ready for a fight'. Without real political will behind them, such measures are swiftly eroded by the back-room influence of the financial institutions, as with Congress's finance regulation bill. It hardly needs to be added that, in the us, leave alone in Britain, there are no signs to date of a capitalist alternative to the Wall Street model. But these are still early days.
Again, a reminder. These are early days, the crisis is not over, and the responses to it to date, in the absence of any credible alternance, serve only the class which profited from the economic system which is now in decline (and perhaps on the verge of tipping in our lifetime). Now is not the time to put down one's arms, rather, it is a time to press forward, think outlandishly and join up with like-minded people (even if we don't agree on everything, and we don't...)
In Britain, moreso than in other countries in Europe, the future of workers was tethered, with disasterous results, to an extreme movement towards financialisation of the economy, no moreso pushed for than by the party which putatively was to represent those workers: Labour.
The failures of the centre-left parties, in Spain, Greece, the UK, are a function of the corruption of our democratic and technocratic institutions whose elites have lost any sense of accountability. So, in these early days, think differently about action. Here in France, the streets are a propitious place for action, one of the key reasons Sarkozy had as a strategic necessity to ignore social movements in the streets, the factories, the refineries, in public services and in transport (and those social movements are far from over). To the extent the crisis hasn't taken hold of the imagination of those who are succesfully struggling to carry on, feed clothe and house their families (many of whom still see our social movement as an inconvenience for now), it may feel as though the weight of apathy pushes inexorably against us. But, as the crisis drags on, and more and more people- retirees, public servants, jobless, homeless, workers on near-poverty wages in great precarity- are dragged out of their quotidien and into a vaccuum of inability to maintain the basics of dignified existance, we will find, I believe, a more fertile ground on which to build.
Now is no time to give up.