Statewatch article: RefNo# 33124
Editorial: Signs of the times, by Ben Hayes
Statewatch Journal; vol 23 no 1 March 2013
It seems appropriate that the first of our newly thematic Journals should focus on the nexus between austerity, civil liberties and democracy. The financial crisis that began in the banking sector five-and-a-half years ago has devastated European economies. In the time since this collection was conceived, Cyprus has become the latest country to accept crippling austerity in return for EU-IMF life support for its stricken financial sector. Few would bet against further bailouts in the Eurozone and only the foolhardy dare suggest that the worst is over. Regardless, the impact of austerity programmes already underway will be with us for years to come.

Across Europe, the working class and the disenfranchised are being hit hardest by austerity [see Peio Aierbe on Spain]. Their ranks are growing by the day as the devastating costs of the bailouts and economic contraction continue to accumulate. The articles in this collection show how the imposition of austerity is not simply an economic sanction: it requires extraordinary levels of surveillance and coercion (increasingly outsourced to the private sector) that often fly in the face of liberal democratic assumptions about the state and the supposed “social contract” [see in particular Chris Jones, Peio Aierbe, Yasha Maccanico and Kees Hudig].

States have dealt harshly with the increasing numbers who challenge their authority on the streets [see Nick Moss]. As Laurie Penny pointed out recently, those who ask why there has not been greater resistance to austerity measures overlook the fact that many people are scared to participate in protests for fear of arrest, serious charges and permanent police records. Formidable state responses to demonstrations, strikes, occupations, protests, direct actions and riots are steeped in the narrative and imagery of counter-subversion. Fear is used to help coerce the wider population into accepting the cuts [see Peio Aierbe]. Long prison sentences are handed down to those whose violence or activism must be made an example of [see Nick Moss], while the people who caused the crisis have escaped largely unpunished.

“Shock doctrine” is rightly used to describe the imposition of neo-liberal austerity policies on states that effectively cede control of their economy to the IMF et al. But the coercive elements of the state are also using the crisis to impose or justify exceptional measures in the name of justice or security. For example in Italy [see Yasha Maccanico] where the “technical” government’s measures to combat tax-evasion include compulsory bank accounts, financial surveillance and profiling against the “redditometro” (income-meter), limits on cash transactions and IDs for infants.

Nowhere is the “shock doctrine” more evident today than in the powers that EU institutions have exercised and accrued in the name of dealing with and preventing future crises. This volume of the Journal includes a lengthy essay on “anti-politics” and “post-democracy” by Leigh Phillips which suggests that the EU, already suffering from a long-standing crisis of legitimacy, continues to move further away from the liberal democratic ideals upon which it was ostensibly founded. He argues that contrary to claims about “emergency” powers and “exceptional” measures, the crisis is consolidating the “rule-by-expert” mentality that already dominates many EU and national institutions of government. Left unchecked, Phillips warns, “post-democracy” will become “the mechanism through which the unravelling of the post-war compromise between capital and labour will be completed”.

Leigh Phillips argues that the widening democratic deficit is undermining public confidence in governments and institutions of state alike – a gap that is being filled by “anti-politics”: a “cynical rejection of the entire political class as inevitably venal and out to swindle the public”. This breakdown of confidence in authority creates space for populist movements of all stripes. The emergence of organisations like the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” in Greece – a growing force on the streets as well as in the corridors of power – is made all the more frightening by the “deafening silence of Europe” [see Jerome Roos].

This collection only scratches the surface of the nexus between austerity and civil liberties. It might also have discussed the positives emerging from the crisis: across Europe a new generation has been radicalised and is organising in ways which challenge the failures of the mainstream political Left and the pragmatism of “civil society”. We might also have looked to Iceland, the first state ravaged by the crisis and the only European country where propping up the banks gave way to letting them go (while protecting domestic savers and the welfare system). Powerful people were held responsible for the crisis and sent to jail. A vibrant multimedia sector premised on freedom of information, expression and investigative journalism is among the relatively radical initiatives to emerge from the ashes of the financial sector. The EU was born of the same political traditions – cooperation, human rights and accountability – but the political space in which it operates has been circumscribed by neo-liberalism, the “War on Terror” and post-democratic forces.

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