Austerity: from suites to streets

As massive street protests rock Europe, Americans accept tax-cuts for the rich with little outrage.

 Across Europe, protests against budget cuts are becoming more militant [EPA]

William Shakespeare put a key question this way: “To be or not to be?” Today’s economists and policy makers pose a different choice: to spend or not to spend.

Governments throughout the west are in a panic as debt mounts and economies contract.

Their solution is cut, cut, cut, in the name of a doctrine called austerity. They are slashing budgets, trimming public payrolls and arguing fatalistically in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s philosophy, “There is no alternative.” (TINA)

Austerity is the other name for it. Confronting massive deficits and fearful of losing investor confidence, European governments are pulverising budgets and shutting down public services. The plan by England’s new Tory government is considered among the most painful, if not draconian. It is justified as being absolutely necessary.

This view is being challenged in the realm of ideas and with a growing spasm of street protests rocking European cities.

You have probably seen the pictures: a bloodied former minister in Athens as rioters denounce the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is demanding concessions from their government. Strikes in France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy had the SWAT teams out in force. A meeting this week in Germany by Eurozone ministers is unlikely to please anyone.

Cutting versus spending

At a time when most people are saying the path out of the financial crisis and European debt problem is for individuals and governments around the world to cut back, the American economist Paul Krugman wants us to spend, spend, spend.

What is behind the fervour for austerity, he asks? “The answer is” he writes, “to reassure the markets – because the markets supposedly won’t believe in the willingness of governments to engage in long-run fiscal reform unless they inflict pointless pain right now.”

This argument has moved off the op-ed pages and into the streets. These protests conjuring up a revival of the class war confrontations of the 1930’s are erupting as the Eurozone is fracturing. The marches are becoming more militant and bitter, as clashes between the police and angry protesters grow in intensity marked by scattered violence.

Symbolically, the one incident that received massive coverage was a student attack on British Royalty when Prince Charles’s car was attacked with some protesters chanting, “off with their heads”.

The Telegraph newspaper in the UK reported that:

“Demonstrators kicked the Rolls-Royce as it travelled to the Royal Variety Performance in central London. White paint and bottles were thrown over the car and a window shattered. The Prince and Duchess (Camilla Parker-Bowles were “unharmed” and continued with their engagement at the London Palladium, a Clarence House spokesman said. When asked how she was as she left the London Palladium, the Duchess said: ”I’m fine thanks – first time for everything.”

It may have been the first time, but as more austerity measures are expected, it is unlikely to be the last.

Broader anger

These protests reflect more than dissatisfaction with a single issue but seem to be a reflection of growing public disenchantment with unresponsive government, an untrustworthy media and a failing economy.

So far, conservative governments are ignoring the criticisms and moving forward with their slashing of worker and unemployment benefits as well as the social safety net. In England, Parliament voted to raise tuitions – the cap is set to rise to $14,500 by 2012, higher than the current average of $7,605 at US state universities – but the student protests are surprising officials by their tenacity.

Student activists are becoming radicalized and can become contagious, argues Gary Younge in The Guardian newspaper:

“As these protests intensify – as they are bound to – we can expect them to be routinely disparaged on the right as either privileged kids acting out or innocents led astray by revolutionaries…That students and youth in Europe have erupted at this moment, however, should come as no surprise. More than one in five people under the age of 25 in the EU is unemployed.  Meanwhile the principle that education is a public good, to which all are entitled, all contribute, and all benefit through a more competitive economy, is in its death throes.”

US acquiesces

In the United States, a Republican-dominated Congress– swept into power on the backs of right wing Tea Party activism spurred by Fox News and other fear-driven conservative media– promises to roll back government programs even as it “compromises” with Democrats to keep tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.

So far, there has been little street activism in the United States. Perhaps it is because of the Christmas shopping season, the inundation of entertainment shows and sporting events or just so little oppositional leadership, especially among Democrats unwilling to challenge a Democratic President who has just negotiated a compromise deal with Republican tax cutters.

Only one Senator, Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont had the guts to take on Barack Obama in an eight hour and 37 minute near filibuster speech that drove up the ratings of CSPAN, the congressional TV channel.

David Seth Michaels, a political blogger, commented that: “it was the most important political speech – by far – of the past two years. Seldom, if ever, has anyone seized the spotlight to discuss and examine so thoroughly the plundering of the nation by its wealthiest citizens.”

But his supporters did not pour into the streets, at least not yet. Sanders has been challenging what he calls his: “progressive friends” on these very issues. “I have long been concerned that some progressive activists do not stand up and fight effectively or pay enough attention to the needs of ordinary Americans,” he said.

When they do speak out, many prefer sending emails or organising Facebook pages. Where is the outrage and sense of solidarity or militancy? The unions are quiescent, the polls seem incapable of inspiring anyone. Has this generation been seduced by their Ipads and emails? Has everyone forgotten that call to get involved?

Remember it is not the ship that makes the waves, it is the motion on the ocean.

It may take time, but it is likely in the not too distant future that American activists will emulate the movements now emerging in Europe.

Governments have the power to impose their austerity measures, but not without a fight. As things get worse, Bob Dylan’s pithy blast from the past may be back to characterise the times ahead: “A Hard Rain Is Going To Fall?”

Mediachannel editor News Dissector Danny Schechter directed the film Plunder The Crime Of Our Time He was part of the student protest movement in Europe when he attended the London School of Economics in the late 1960s.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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