Dec 2011

The Final Countdown?

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the negotiations, tantrums, pratfalls and other shenanigans that go to make up European politics of late. My mind has been well and truly boggled by the cavalier fashion in which politicians from across the political spectrum (though mostly on the centre-right, for it is they who hold the balance of power in Europe these days) have relegated the interests of the people below the interests of financial institutions and other corporations.

Fractured EU FlagOf course, it has become part of the standard rhetoric of the left (and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone) to suggest that our political establishment has effectively ceased representing those who elected them and now focus exclusively upon representing the rich and powerful. It’s a line that’s gotten old through constant use. But rarely has this claim been so self-evidently true as during the past few months.

Now, there are those who would argue that there’s no reason why the interests of financial institutions and other corporations should necessarily conflict with those of the population at large. And I’m more than willing to concede that. There are all manner of hypothetical scenarios (and even a few historical ones) in which the interests of the rich and powerful complement the interests of the rest of us. However it is only the irredeemably partisan or the unfortunately half-witted who would claim our current situation qualifies as such a scenario.

We have allowed ourselves to be manoeuvred into a position where the very people we elect to represent our interests are gleefully handing our collective wealth over to the already super-rich. Where hospitals and schools are being closed in order to funnel public money into banks. Where croneyism and outright corruption have become the basic modus operandus of government. And where those who are already poverty-stricken – or in danger of becoming so – are expected to tighten their belts so that the wealthy may accumulate ever more obscene fortunes.

Both politics and finance are supposed to serve the wider population. We elect politicians to represent our interests directly. The financial institutions that make up modern Market Capitalism are, theoretically at least, permitted to exist by society in order to make the distribution of wealth an efficient process. Certainly there is nothing written into the rules of the Free Market system that says the wealth much be distributed equitably, but there should be a basic fairness to the system… one that, at the very least, allows the vast majority of people to live comfortably. If the Market does not achieve this aim then it is failing society as a whole and needs to be replaced with something else. After all, it’s supposed to be The People who ultimately call the shots and decide how society is structured. Not a handful of bond traders, political insiders and bankers.

Right now, however, we have arrived at a situation where politics and finance have united against the wider population. For several decades they have been united in self-interest and marginal cranks such as myself have been decrying this and warning against the inevitable tragedy that would result. However, at the same time, this unholy cabal was careful to provide a half-decent standard of living for the wider population (yes, yes, largely at the expense of the billions of poor in the so-called “developing” world, but I’m talking specifically about the people, governments and institutions of Europe). This staved off revolution and also effectively muted much of the criticism from the marginal cranks in the anti-capitalist brigade. It’s difficult to convince someone that they’re being screwed-over by the wealthy elite when they are flush with endorphins from their purchase of a 42-inch HD LED-backlit flat screen TV. We’re all monkeys after all, and easily distracted by shiny toys (me as much as anyone… a recent gift of an iPad2 has left me cooing and swiping the touch-screen like any other monkey – and I don’t even like Apple!)

But the past couple of years have seen the beginnings of a shift… we are leaving the world of Huxley and rejoining that of Orwell. No longer are the financial and political elites willing to share even the crumbs of the great wealth they are accumulating. They have become so self-assured in their positions of power that their rapacious appetites extend now even to those crumbs. Public services are slashed to the bone, yet increased taxation on the rich cannot even be considered. In nations without jobs, welfare benefits are cut and then grudgingly distributed, yet corporate tax rates are sacrosanct. The few remaining assets of a demoralised populace are flogged to ultra-rich investors at rock-bottom prices in order to pay off debts run up by those self-same ultra-rich investors.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister)Last Friday this wealth-grab by the powerful played out in an odd fashion in the theatre of European politics when David Cameron (the right-wing British Prime Minister) threw a strop and stormed out of negotiations supposedly designed to solve the European debt crisis and save the euro. Well, he “used his veto”, which amounts to the same thing in Brussels. His stated reason for this break with the rest of Europe was his desire to protect the City of London… in other words, the UK’s financial sector.

There was much that was odd about this whole process. Firstly, Cameron’s veto doesn’t really protect the City of London… I could write a whole post on why this is the case (and may yet do), but in reality he may actually have exposed The City to significant harm should the other 26 EU members draw up a treaty that covers financial services. It’s also worth pointing out that while about 10% of Britain’s GDP is generated by the financial sector, a whopping 40% is generated by exports to the EU… his veto doesn’t affect Britain’s position in the Common Market, but it may well foreshadow a serious strain in the relationship between the UK and Europe; a strain that places the 40% at risk despite doing little to protect the 10%. He was effectively attempting to place the interests of his City Chums ahead of the interests of the general populace and may simply have succeeded in shafting both.

Also, by playing to the rabid euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party, he has driven a massive wedge down the middle of his coalition government which may or may not turn out to be a political disaster. Incidentally, every time I see that over-fed jubilant Tory MP call Cameron’s strategy a triumph for Britain’s “bulldog spirit” I can’t help but think, “yeah, you waddle around shitting where it’s inappropriate, only pausing briefly to lick your own balls… truly an appropriate image for the modern Tory”.

Increasing the oddness of the Cameron sulk, though, is the fact that the draft treaty on which he has turned his back is a right-wing financial-political-elite wet dream. What’s being proposed by the Franco-German alliance and eagerly lapped up by the rest of the nations involved is a terrible betrayal of the people of Europe. It runs the risk of legally restricting future national governments from adopting left-wing economic policies. It runs the risk of setting back the power of labour unions by a hundred years. It runs the risk of permanently transferring sovereignty from national populaces towards international financial institutions. And all the while it – bizarrely – completely fails to address the current European debt crisis or do anything to stabilise the euro.

Last week’s summit can be summarised as an attempt by the European elite to use the current crisis as cover for imposing a permanent state of austerity on the wider public without even trying to solve that crisis. It’s the kind of thing that Cameron should have eagerly embraced, but was too beholden to his own marginal cranks to do so. And by being the only nation outside the proposed treaty, Britain may end up being damaged as a whole, despite the treaty being a betrayal. It’s all very odd.

What Europe needs right now is a couple of socialist revolutions followed by mass nationalisations. I can only hope that the Irish government, for one, is quietly printing new banknotes and making plans – however provisional – to exit the common currency. I have my doubts they’re smart enough for that, but we may well find out in the coming months.

Cameron photo courtesy of TopNews

Posted in: Opinion