In Greece’s Austerity Intifada, a Challenge to Western Economic Orthodoxy

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Tens of thousands of young people — and many older ones, too — gather in the main square of the capital, driven to protest by the despair of unemployment and a social system that cannot meet their aspirations for a decent life. And also by their realization that those in power serve outside agendas that have nothing to offer their own people in need. No, it’s not Cairo; it’s Athens, where a two-day general strike has brought the city grinding to a halt as hundreds of thousands protest outside parliament. Inside the building, a centrist social-democratic government is desperately to force through a deeply unpopular economic austerity program, the price of further high-interest loans from the European Union essential to prevent Greece defaulting on its debt. Outside, hundreds of thousands vow to fight the measures and any government that would impose what they see as a vicious assault on their living standards, dictated by foreign banks and institutions.

Think of it as the Austerity Intifada, young people figuring out that playing by the rules of the system is a dead end, and choosing to upend the table. And it looks set to spread across Europe this summer. Spain and Portugal have already seen similar protests, and more can be expected, while in Britain, trade unionists and students are planning their own offensive against government austerity measures. Just as the youth of the Arab world rebelled against a status quo that offered most of them little hope of a decent life and livelihood, so are the young people of Western Europe are, as Bruce pointed out last week,  beginning to take matters into their own hands to protest the failure of their own social systems to meet their aspirations.

The “Arab Spring” was named for the Czech rebellion against Soviet rule that began in Prague in 1968. And what was notable about that year was that a rebellion within a quite different social system behind the “Iron Curtain” was nonetheless paralleled by a massive uprising of Western European youth, particularly in France and Germany. The youth rebellion spread like wildfire, the sociologists noted, because the baby boomers were the first generation connected by television.

Flash forward 43 years, to a continent facing massive, endemic unemployment — and resentment of austerity policies based on the needs of credit markets rather than of citizens intimately connected, in real time, via a plethora of communications technologies unthinkable in 1968 — and you get some idea of the scale of the specter now haunting Europe.

Egypt’s youth unemployment rate at the time of the rebellion had been around 25%; in Spain today the figure is 40%, in Greece it’s above 35% and likely to rise as a result of the austerity measures; in Portugal it’s around 27%; and even in Britain and France it stands at around 20%.

While governments insist that austerity is the only way forward under the circumstances, that answer is not accepted by millions of Europeans for whom austerity means long-term unemployment and impoverishment. As far as they’re concerned, their politicians are following self-serving rules dictated by bankers, in keeping with a post-Cold War economic consensus in which governments shaped their policies to the requirements of global credit markets.

The political crisis unfolding in Greece — where a centrist social democratic government is stewarding the austerity program demanded by European banks and financial governance bodies — is an advance warning that not just Greece and the Euro currency, but the economic policy consensus itself is under threat. The logic that requires austerity may be treated as conventional wisdom, or even as a set of immutable natural laws, by their governments, but young Europeans — and many older ones — see little to gain by accepting those rules.

Greek protestors see the austerity-linked-loans arranged by the EU as catering to the needs of French and German banks who made the original bad loans to Greece’s elites, and are now trying to impose an externally-managed privatization program and harsh economic cuts on millions of poorer Greeks. The new loans, whose interest rates are even higher than those Greece is struggling to service, are required to avoid a default on Greek debt — which, of course, would mean the German and French banks taking the proverbial “haircut”. The austerity program, the malcontents say, is “saving the banks at the expense of the people.”

Nobel-laureate economist Amartya Sen sees Greece struggling with an EU approach to economic management that “allows the international financial institutions and rating agencies the unilateral power to command democratically elected governments.”

He and others have warned that besides shifting the burden of the crisis on to the shoulders of those most vulnerable, the austerity measures being demanded of Greece will actually shrink the economy, choking off prospects for future economic growth and maintaining the downward spiral. Indeed, it’s that logic that has the conservative Greek opposition hesitant to support the latest austerity package.

Banks can do well while the economy as it affects the majority of citizens continues to flounder, as the “jobless recovery” that followed the bank bailouts of two years ago in Europe and the U.S. have amply demonstrated. And Greece may herald a new trend of European citizens forcefully challenging an economic orthodoxy that presses them into penury.

Anti-austerity protests in Spain, Portugal and Britain are likely to escalate this summer, particularly among younger people for whom the social contract — economic security and prosperity for those who study and work hard, and play by the rules — has long ago expired.

This is not the Arab Spring, of course: The governments of Western Europe are democratically elected, and are unlikely to massacre protestors. But they also have no easy answer to the demands of their young people, who simply don’t accept that their futures will be decided by bankers in some distant capital.

The world’s bankers are hoping that the showdown on the streets of Athens is just some Quixotic tilt by a profligate people romantically inclined toward radicalism at the immutable laws of global finance. But millions of Europeans may instead see in Greece the beginning of a fight-back against an economic consensus tailored to the needs of bankers at the expense of ordinary folks.  That portends a long, hot summer on Europe’s streets, as the consensus of the credit markets meets the seething anger of young people who see their futures being mortgaged away. And it’s far from clear that the banking-centered orthodoxies driving the austerity programs will survive as the conventional wisdom of policy makers by the end of it.