Crisis of the eurozone and the Left: Responses to the global economic downturn

Constructivist propaganda figure, 1931 (photo by Ernst May)

Constructivist propaganda figure, Moscow 1931 (photo by German architect Ernst May)

Jerzy Sobotta, Moritz Roeger, Thodoris Velissaris, Haseeb Ahmed, Valentin Badura, and Cengiz Kulac

July 3rd, 2012 • Related • Filed Under
Platypus Review 48 |
July–August 2012

The following transcript is from an event that took place on April 2, 2012 at the University of Chicago, in conjunction with the 2012 Platypus International Convention, titled “Responses to the Global Economic Downturn.” Members and contacts of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Europe were invited to speak on their experience of leftist responses to the economic downturn. The speakers included Haseeb Ahmed (Netherlands), Valentin Badura (Austria), Cengiz Kulac (Austria), Moritz Roeger (Germany), Jerzy Sobotta (Germany), and Thodoris Velissaris (Greece).

Opening remarks

Jerzy Sobotta: I want to give a brief picture of peculiarities of the German Left regarding their responses to the crisis. There are massive effects from the economic meltdown in Europe, particularly in places like Greece and Spain, with mass unemployment and social upheaval. On the other hand, some countries like Germany are relatively stable and even experiencing significant economic expansion recently. This is telling, in terms of the structure of Europe and the causes of the crisis as well. Germany was one of the main players in European integration, and a major German export industry was one result. Germany competes every year with China for first place in the volume of exports, and a lot of it goes to the EU. Exports of high-tech goods and very high productivity form a solid infrastructure for the German economy. The last decade was also marked by the decline of the welfare state in Germany: significant cuts in social services, a steep decline in wages, and deregulation in the wage sector. Temporary employment is common. Low budget employment, insecure jobs, and the unions have, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, caused a lot of anxiety about losing jobs to other countries within Europe. The EU has low-wage countries like Poland and Bulgaria, and of course there is always the fear that industries will move to Asia. The unions played a crucial role in avoiding this possibility by choosing not to demand higher wages, so as to do their part in keeping Germany competitive. This is also reflected by the response of the German government: There is an imposition of financial reforms and especially austerity measures on other countries.

Since Germany is one of the major economies in the European union, it will be affected by the general decline of Europe insofar as it bails out banks in other countries. Since it is one of the main backers of the financial support system, one could say that Germany is in large part to blame for the crisis itself. This situation is reflected in many leftists’ political responses to the crisis, where we can see, especially on the more social democratic and union side, a great deal of nostalgia for Keynesianism. For example, the unions demand welfare state reforms, and Die Linke wants to keep up national sovereignty in light of the dictation of cuts and austerity measures in other countries. They want to keep democratization within the Euro realm. Their response is a “New Deal in Europe,” calling for massive investment and building up social infrastructure — basically, a re-play of the rise of the welfare state economy. The major trade unions in Germany — which differ from those in the United States in that they represent a more institutionalized mass — blame finance capital for destroying wages. What they demand is a strong state that is supposed to be in charge of the economy; they demand that the market should work for the people, rather than the people for the market. Yet it is unclear whether such Keynesian responses are really adequate to the situation, given that the neoliberal era is itself a response to the crisis of Keynesianism. Such responses tend to understand the problem in a national framework, even if they use phrases like “a New Deal for all of Europe.” The disparaging relationship between the EU countries will necessarily require some sort of response in Germany as one of the major economies.

One way or another, the German working class will play a role in shaping German policy. With the above-mentioned responses from Die Linke and the mass unions, it is hard to see how that role could be a progressive one. Even in the ultra-left groups, the issue is primarily about nationalism. An anti-national stance is common as a response to the nationalism of the unions and the more established left parties. Nevertheless, the anti-national left groups do not really have an international orientation in terms of their politics. They strive to get certain catch phrases out there, in the context of neighborhood organizing and so forth. Frankly, there is a great deal of cluelessness regarding the international crisis. The confusion of the German left groups in this situation is concurrent with a lack of imagination in terms of how to address the crisis, or even how to use it productively for their own causes.

Moritz Roeger: Under the name M31 (March 31), there was a Europe-wide event recently that provides something of a cross-section of the Left’s response to the economic crisis. M31 operated under the idea of a European-wide day of action against capitalism; they said they don’t want to save capitalism, but to overcome it. Generally speaking, M31 was comprised of the radical groups on the German left, for example antifascist groups, Krisenbünis in Frankfurt, the Free Workers Union in Germany, the Greens, and ums Ganze. The Vienna antifascist groups were also there. What they organized over the previous four or five months were demonstrations and events in over 23 cities and 12 countries, with a connection to the #Occupy movement in New York. They had support through various groups and two newspapers, one of which was M31 Times, wherein they published a few articles in response to the Euro crisis, an interview with one of the organizers, and laid out what they wanted to achieve with this European day of action.

One main point was to build a Europe-wide network of groups that can be more efficient in protesting the Eurocrisis than fragmented smaller groups dispersed throughout various cities, so that, for instance, you could have greater cooperation between people in Thessaloniki and groups in Frankfurt against privatizing of water supplies in Thessaloniki by a German company. What really struck me was that this drive toward really broad networking was something new, or at least something I hadn’t seen before, for the radical left in Europe. Twelve European countries in one network is something I have not experienced in my decade of involvement with the radical left.

There were between three and six thousand people in Frankfurt’s day of action and it was pure activist-ism. What the newspapers showed were people from the radical left and black bloc sacking the downtown area until late at night, attacking a police station, and so on; it was quite intense. There were also two demonstrations to mobilize for that event, each leading to a different story. The first one was in Wiesbaden, where there was a great deal of tension with the police. Afterwards, people who were organizing this demonstration remarked, “Oh yeah, that’s what you get when you see how the police are treating us. We have to fight police. See how we stand against police.” But on the other hand we had a demonstration in Göttingen that didn’t face that problem. It didn’t really see any police intervention. What you read about in reports of that event was that everyone had a really fun time — there was a nice rave in the middle of the city. One line that really struck me said of this event, in effect, “We told the police to hold back and they did.” So the left has two responses at work all the time, no matter what happens.

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