All entries for June 2011

June 13, 2011

Landslide effect

currentcovereu.jpgTwo weeks ago I commented, in rather enthusiastic tones, about my participation in Milan's rejection of Berlusconi. But that was still by just about 35% of the electorate (55% of 66% turn out). For today's referendum against water privatisation, nuclear power (which Italy had already rejected by 70-30% in a referendum in 1987 - my first vote, unforgettable) and against Berlusconi's right to delay trials, 50%+1 of the whole adult population including Italians abroads was required. Impressively, 57% (early estimate) did go to vote, and 95% voted YES. That's more than 25 million people - the maximum Berlusconi and his allied ever got in an election was 17 millions.

Beside the merit of the specific referenda, this had become a plebiscit against one man and the result is overwhelming by the standards of modern political participation. That man can now go do to himself what an influential newspaper, this week, alleges he did to his country.

After 'yes we camp'

Summer is arriving and the protest camp of the treeless Puerta del Sol, after 4 long weeks, is over. The indignados, in these four weeks, have made the world news but also very fast through all the dilemmas and difficulties of direct democracy. From technicalities –how to run assemblies under the rain – to stall – the near-impossibility to reach decisions by universal consent – to bureaucratisation – dozens ‘commissions and commissions’ commissions – to organisational boundaries – from the initial total openness they moved to the opposite of extreme distrust towards any newcomer, for fear of infiltration – to gradualism – once the original demand of a ‘real democracy now’ started to appear a bit too difficult to achieve within days. Worst of all, at a very fast speed, the sectarianism vicious cycle. When the protest is in a camp, the natural outflow of militancy occurs particularly fast, and the core that remains is particularly ‘tough’; this core, with its radicalism, puts even more people off, and so on. This explains why the camp went on for at least two weeks more than it was necessary.

Yet this is far from the end and far from a defeat. Uniquely for a radical, numerically rather small movement, the indignados are very popular: opinion polls show that a majority considers the protests justified. On Saturday, protesters have been again in the spotlight, contesting the investiture of the new mayors across the country. The protest is now starting to be more focussed, whether on local issues or against the labour market and collective bargaining reforms just passed by the government: a direct effect of the movement has been to add a bit of backbone to the Spanish unions, that have rejected the reform. Moreover, also thanks to an effective use of new technologies, the movement is spreading, also to new countries and especially Portugal. Stéphane Hessel's Indignez-vous! pamphlet that inspired the protests has spread like wildfire across continental Europe, although not the UK that is as usual quite insulated from outside world’s ideas (it is not even published in English, apart from a translation in the magazine Nation).

Indignados in Sant CugatIndignados in SitgesI have become aware of the widespread extension of the movement only now that I have left Madrid’s city centre for Barcelona. You find indignados everywhere, not just in the central Plaça de Catalunya, but in the central squares of all little towns across the region. Even in conservative Catalan Sant Cugat del Vallès. Even in tourist-packed Sitges. Thinking about it, if I were 20-year old and had to choose a place and time to start a revolution, I would choose Sitges beach in the late Spring over St Petersburg in November any time.

June 06, 2011

Neoliberalism is dead, long live neoliberalism…

And now Portugal. In all EU countries most affected by the economic crisis that was caused by the market, elections have been won, paradoxically, by free-market conservatives: first in Latvia, then in UK, Hungary, Ireland and Portugal. Spain will surely follow within a year, judging from the PP victory in the recent local elections. By contrast, the Left has lost – with the partial exception of Ireland.Mirador

Despite the apparent absurdity, there is a logic behind. The crisis, much more than undermining neoliberal logic (see also Colin Crouch’s recent The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, Polity 2011), has destroyed the ‘Third Way’ argument (do you remember? only 4 years ago Giddens was defending it in Over to You, Mr Brown). After all, the most keen supporters of market reforms in the last twenty years have been centre-left, not centre-right parties. The Right was supporting the market because it was in the long term efficient, not because it was just; and at times it also compensated with identity politics, e.g. nationalism, xenophobia, or moral conservatism. By contrast, ‘Third Way’ social-democrats have supported the market twice: because it was efficient (ideological defeat) and because it was fair, in terms of opportunity. After the crisis, the Right can still say that we consume more than 10 or 20 years ago, and that crisis is just a temporary downside of capitalism. The spending cuts are not hurting their voters, who already, as savers, benefited from the state rescue of the banks. It is this Centre-Left’s argument that has gone to the dogs: redistribution before and after the crisis has been enormously regressive, and the crisis has shown that there is nothing fair in the markets: those earning millions managing banks or companies do not deserve it on merit – they are by and large total w***ers. Their remuneration is the opposite of motivational: it insults the values of reason and work, which should be the values of any Left.

It remains to be explained why more radical Left also loses – most visibly in Portugal. The easy explanation is that it is not that their argument is weak – rather, that they have no argument. It is also very fragmented among countries, and a progressive answer probably requires co-ordination: each country left alone is placed in apparent ‘There Is No Alternative’ positions. An orderly restructuring of debt, by shifting the losses to creditors and those who have rather than on those who have not, could be politically attractive (after all it has worked so many times in Asia and Latin America, while the current tough measures in the EU have just no chance). But nobody proposes it.

Let’s at least enjoy the relief that Latin America is much cleverer than Europe. It’s now Peru to have chosen progressive politics over a return of criminal conservative ones – I share the joy of so many Peruvian immigrants here in Madrid, and of the Andean people I spent some time with in 2006.

June 2011

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