The police believe this is directly linked to the fact that more and more people cannot afford to pay for life’s essentials. As the bedroom tax, council and benefit cuts bite, more and more will be pushed towards tough decisions – “Do I pay my rent and bills or feed my family”?
The article says austerity is the cause of increased food shoplifting but sees the main victims of crime as the small businesses being robbed. In a time of austerity most small shopkeepers are squeezed by the giant corporations who can afford to undercut them and by sections of the working class who cannot afford to use their shops.
Austerity hits sections of the middle class badly – see how many independent shops have gone broke. Local butchers, bakers and greengrocers went bust and were replaced on the high street by pawnshops and payday loan sharks.
A determined working class fightback against austerity would draw in support from large layers of the middle class including small shopkeepers.
Tory media cry crocodile tears for the poor. The Hull Daily Mail’s scandalous ‘solution’ was to name and shame six local offenders caught stealing food. We do not support theft as an answer to poverty. But who are the real criminals here?
Is it the mother who has just had her benefit cut through bedroom tax who steals baked beans worth a few pence to feed her children. Or fat cat businessmen who legally rob millions of pounds a year through exploiting tax loopholes?
The real criminals are the ruling class who run a capitalist system which robs the poor to give to the rich. Join the Socialist Party and fight for a socialist society.
With rampant unemployment, the country’s suffering has never been more acute
Rereading John Williams’ novel Stoner recently, I was struck by the author’s description of the years between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. Williams describes the widespread feeling of desperation that he had seen as a child, before the Great Depression hit in 1929: the men and women whose lives had been destroyed, walking the streets aimlessly, reduced to begging for a crust of bread.
Williams’ description of the years leading up to the Great Depression will be increasingly familiar to many Spaniards. This week, in the early hours of Thursday to be exact, marks the third anniversary of the beginning of what might be called Spain’s age of austerity, the moment when European economy and finance ministers pressured the Socialist Party administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to change its economic policies: from the combination of growth and fiscal consolidation that Zapatero had been trying to apply to a policy of rigor mortis and constant sacrifice that continues to this day and shows no sign of abating. More than 1,000 days of worsening unemployment, reduced spending power and social protection, and a weakened democracy.
Three years ago, Spain’s public deficit was 11.2 percent of GDP, and unemployment was 20 percent of the workforce, or 4.6 million people. The EU communiqué outlined an agreement to create a European Financial Stability Mechanism to help countries in difficulty, in exchange for which, Spain and Portugal would intensify their fiscal consolidation and structural reforms. Three days later, a bruised and battered Zapatero appeared before Congress and left deputies speechless by announcing a series of unprecedented spending cuts: public sector workers’ salaries would be reduced and pensions frozen; the 2,500-euro payment to new parents aimed at increasing the birth rate would be stopped; state investment slashed, some of the payments to families caring for dependents ended; and huge savings imposed on regional governments, among other measures.
Zapatero was desperately trying to save Spain from the fate of the PIG nations of Portugal, Ireland and Greece, where the EU had sent in the men in black from the so-called troika of the IMF, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the European Commission to run things, or would soon do so. These states would be subject to deep-rooted adjustment programs in return for money to keep their near-bankrupt economies functioning. Spain’s economy would be spared this indignity, but only at the cost of Zapatero having to apply the same policies. It would cost him the leadership, and his party the next election in a defeat from which it is still struggling to recover.
More important for millions of Spaniards is that on May 9, 2010, an age of austerity was ushered in that has changed the way that most people live and see the world: an economy based on fear (on uncertainty, economic insecurity, being left behind in an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, of being made permanently unemployed…) has morphed into one based on suffering (unemployment, impoverishment, no social protection and the demise of countless businesses…).
The nearest thing to the constraints imposed on Zapatero three years ago this week took place 19 years before, when French President François Mitterrand, after winning elections amid a kind of collective ecstasy during the high point of Socialist Party hegemony, was obliged by the markets to change his leftwing policies based on increasing demand and forced to backtrack on minimum wage promises, an increase in the deficit to pay for more public investment, a shorter working week, the nationalization of 36 banks and other reforms. Mariano Rajoy would sum up his country’s position in 2012, shortly after winning the general election, by telling Congress: “Spaniards cannot choose; we do not enjoy that freedom.”
The second stop in the “authoritarian austerity” program (so called because it has been imposed) took place one year later. The summer of 2011 was a time of speculative attacks on the Spanish economy, sending borrowing rates to dizzying heights. The volatility of the international markets made the cost of financing Spanish debt ever more expensive, and made life harder for businesses and households denied credit by the banks.
Three important events took place during this long, hot summer. First of all, Zapatero would call elections for November that year. The idea was that the winner (which from the outset was clearly going to be Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), and by a landslide, giving it an absolute majority) would have the parliamentary and moral authority to continue the austerity program. Next, the ECB would send a still largely secret letter to Zapatero and another to Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister of Italy (who made no bones about revealing its contents), obliging them to take bolder steps toward adjusting their respective economies and implement further reforms. In Spain’s case, this would be the second turn of the screw in as many months. In its missive, the ECB, an institution that has always defended its independence, told the Spanish government that it would have to implement a root-and-branch reform of the labor market, eliminate wage increases in line with inflation, impose further fiscal restrictions, and reform the energy, property, and professional services markets.
What makes the letter particularly special is that it is signed by Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez, then governor of the Bank of Spain and a member of the board of the ECB. The next signature is that of ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet. Fernández Ordóñez, obsessed with labor reform, was writing to Zapatero from Frankfurt to demand of him what he could not in his capacity as governor of the Bank of Spain. In exchange for the cuts and reforms, Spain would receive the ECB’s help in resisting the international markets’ repeated attacks, which Zapatero had described thus: “The speculative bombardment that Spain is suffering is comparable to that suffered by the Americans at Pearl Harbor.”
Zapatero’s third measure aimed at calming the markets was the most controversial: the reform of the Constitution. In a country like Spain, where two main political parties have been unable or unwilling to reach agreement on updating constitutional issues, the Socialist Party and the Popular Party did just that, and with little fuss, limiting the structural deficit, putting a ceiling on public debt, and above all, prioritizing the payment of loans to meet interest on government borrowing above any other obligation, whether that be health, education, pensions, unemployment or other welfare spending. This had long been a demand of Europe’s rightwing parties: handing over the weapon of fiscal policy, and was undertaken by Spain’s Socialist government without any debate.
The most recent austerity measure has been with us without interruption since 2012. One might say that the first 18 months of PP government in Spain has been a kind of permanent May 9, 2010. When Rajoy took up residence in the Moncloa Palace, he threw out the electoral program that had won him an absolute majority, and began applying the policies dictated by Brussels. He abandoned each and every one of the six pillars of his “Join the change” platform: economic growth and employment creation; education; protecting the welfare state; modernizing the public sector; strengthening the country’s institutions and re-establishing Spain’s international credibility. From December 31, 2011, when Rajoy approved the biggest spending cuts in the country’s history along with a major tax hike, the country has been headed in the same direction. Rajoy’s goals are the same as Zapatero’s: to prevent the troika from sending in the men in black.
We have now seen two Spanish governments unable to apply their own policies to deal with the crisis, and who are subject to outside pressure – governments that, de facto, are not governing on the basis of the programs they were elected on. Spain’s membership of the European Union and the single currency means that whoever is in power is obliged to ignore the wishes of the people. As EL PAÍS columnist José Ignacio Torreblanca notes in a survey on Spain’s democracy commissioned by the Fundación Alternativas think-tank, there is a widespread perception that national governments’ room for maneuver has now been reduced beyond the point where it is democratically acceptable. Voters throughout the EU feel that the policies and decisions that affect their lives are no longer subject to the democratic process. Institutions such as the ECB, which are not elected, are imposing harsh conditions in order to keep the markets happy, while democratic national governments have no alternative but to apply the technocratic policies cooked up in Brussels, Frankfurt or Washington.
This has led to unprecedented levels of disaffection among the electorate. At the start of the crisis, in 2007, some 65 percent of Spaniards said they trusted the EU, with just 23 percent unhappy with it. At the end of 2012, that figure had grown to 72 percent, with barely 20 percent of those surveyed saying they still had faith in the EU. In December 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a non-elected multilateral body, suggested that Spain increase sales tax, make it cheaper to sack workers, limit tax breaks for home buyers, and make it harder to claim unemployment benefit. If any government, regardless of its political affiliation, has to apply such measures, even if it does not agree with them, the main political parties supporting it will end up like Tweedledee and Tweedledum: arguing with each other over trivialities; they will be seen like Pepsi and Coke, or Tintin’s Thomson and Thompson.
In his book Las promesas políticas (or, Political promises), sociologist José María Maravall notes: “Representative democracy requires that the electorate be able to decide between two genuinely different alternatives and that parties with different proposals on important issues compete with each other. If the differences between the parties were to disappear, if they promise different things, but can only apply the same recipes, the electorate can vote, but not choose.”
The street protests organized by the myriad organizations and associations that make up the so-called Indignant Movement are an expression of the former. Slogans such as “they don’t represent us,” or “they call it democracy but it isn’t” reflect a widespread feeling among the electorate that their vote no longer counts for anything and that economic power (which cannot be punished through the ballot box because it is not democratic) will always prevail over political decisions. In the book Democracy’s Intimate Enemies, Bulgarian writer and thinker Tzvetan Todorov argues that the main threats to democracy today do not come from without, from those who openly declare themselves as its enemies, but from within, from ideologies, movements and acts that are supposed to defend those values: “In the fight against totalitarianism, democracy faced forces that impeded the individual’s freedom. This was a kind of hypertrophy of the collective to the detriment of the individual, and the collective itself was subject to a small core of tyrannical leaders. But in the present-day West, one of the main threats to democracy does not come from the uncontrolled expansion of the collective, but has to do with the unprecedented rise of certain individuals who suddenly endanger the wellbeing of the whole of society.”
While some talk about a three-year “dictatorship of austerity,” Pierre Moscovici, the French Minister of Economy and Finance, had redefined the concept: “Austerity is when they kill the patient.” The outcome so far of these 1,000 days of cuts, adjustments and sacrifices is one of increased poverty and inequality: Spain’s per capita income is around the same as it was in 2002: based on that piece of data alone it is now possible to talk in terms of a lost decade. According to Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistics office, Spanish society is now the most unequal in the EU, alongside Portugal, Bulgaria and Latvia. The fall in living standards has been far more extreme than in most other EU member states; poverty is more widespread and deeper. People’s expectations have fallen, hit hard by the lack of any hope that these reforms will have any impact in the short or medium term. Much of the country seems in the grip of a collective psychological malaise, and which has reduced spending on consumer goods; the negative impact on salaries and labor conditions (spurious objectives within an aggressive labor reform) is hard to overestimate.
Novelist and essayist Antonio Muñoz Molina warns in a recent piece entitled Todo lo que era sólido (or, All that once was solid) that it is not possible to reduce spending on education and health, legal aid and emergency services indefinitely without destroying society as we know it. Beyond a certain point, there is no return. Things deteriorate little by little, and then suddenly, one day, instead of continuing along lines that we have grown used to, the whole thing collapses, without transition, in the same way that a house that seemed to be an eternal ruin collapses overnight.
Long-term austerity programs imposed on societies with growing needs due to their economic difficulties do not reduce poverty, and instead generate further inequality. The way out of the crisis imposed on Europe until now has meant a hugely regressive distribution of income, wealth and power: from below upwards, a kind of Robin Hood in reverse.
The economist Joseph Stiglitz’s explanation of the widespread rejection of such policies is hardly surprising: most people see that the markets are not working, and particularly the labor market; they see that the political system we have created (democracy) does not correct the market’s faults; and as a result, there is growing disaffection with democracy and the market economy, something that sadly reminds us of less happier times.
No end in sight: a timeline of Spain’s crisis
This brief report intends to outline the situation within the Irish left following the slow implosion of the United Left Alliance (ULA).
The ULA was an alliance made up of the Socialist Party (affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International, CWI), the Socialist Workers Party (the International Socialist Tendency, IST), the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG, a locally based group with public representation including a member of Ireland’s parliament [TD] and numerous municipal councillors). It also included smaller groups such as the Irish Socialist Network and Socialist Democracy.
The ULA was initially very successful by Irish left standards and won five TDs. Though, it should be understood most, if not all, of these victories did not come only from the unity project itself but from literally decades of work by the various groups.
However, seeing the left under a single banner with a serious electoral challenge did initially attract many activists to its banner.
The ULA unfortunately lasted less than two years and today exists in name only.
Slow death of the ULA
The initial excitement began to fade as activists found that they had little role in decision making, especially in the lack of voting rights in ULA conferences. This was improved quite quickly with the inclusion of independent seats on the steering committee, which allowed a so-called non-aligned group to organise (this included the smaller groups). Following this, a branch council was developed which offered a model for some democratic discourse and decision making. Unfortunately, the ULA was to disintegrate long before there was a chance to develop.
The disintegration of the ULA is quite a complex story, but in short the Socialist Party (SP) seemed to give up on the alliance quite early when they believed it was not attracting enough working-class people. The SP gave little importance to the non-affiliated activists it attracted nor to the benefits of unity in itself. Instead it turned its attention primarily to the anti-household tax campaign that had attracted a wider base, though on a less political level.
The SWP for its part gave up not long after and began to concentrate on building the People Before Profit Alliance as a preferred electoral front. Both parties seemed to be happy enough to keep the ULA as a loose electoral alliance for now, but their members ceased taking part in ULA activities and continued their normal competitive practice, organising separate campaigns, meetings and recruitment strategies.
The ULA therefore was in an extremely weak place when a scandal erupted around Mick Wallace, a left-leaning (on anti-war and social issues) property developer who was close to the Socialist Party’s Clare Daly and active in the anti-housing tax campaign. Wallace became embroiled in a major tax evasion scandal. The scandal eventually led to an acrimonious and personalised split between Daly and the Socialist Party (though Daly maintains the reasons for the split precede the Wallace scandal). This split then led on to the Socialist Party officially leaving the ULA.
The WUAG had previously left on the grounds of a leaked SWP document (which was a study in sectarianism) and the Wallace issue.
Independents had initially called on the ULA to call for Wallace’s resignation (this was vetoed by the SP) but also chose not to go public in deference to relations with the Socialist Party. This in retrospect was a mistake, as months later after the split with Daly the SP would cite softness on the issue by independents for its withdrawal.
Today the ULA exists in name only with no functioning structures at any level.
Coming out of the ULA there are a number of different projects. This is by no means an entire picture of the Irish left which, also includes the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement and numerous campaigns. But for the purpose of this article I will concentrate on the ex-ULA left.
Workers and Unemployed Action
The South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group has registered as a national party under the name Workers and Unemployed Action (WUA). In its opening statement it states:
The WUA like its local predecessor is firmly based in the trade union movement, in the unemployed, and in community organisations and has always opposed coalition with conservative parties in principle and will continue to do so. WUAG has always taken responsibility for the immediate and long-term interests of working people and has refused to involve itself in any way with political representatives who are self-declared tax defaulters or who have admitted participation in compromising activities.
Other left-wing organisations give priority to recruitment of individuals to ideologically based international political tendencies.
The WUA has quite strict rules for membership, it will be centrally organised and thus far will not allow tendencies. It was launched in April 2013 and thus far has not begun organising nationally.
Socialist Workers’ Party
The Socialist Workers Party will continue to act under the People Before Profit Alliance umbrella, although the PBPA has already lost its independent TD and many of the independents within the organisation which means it will be seen by most on the left as an SWP front organisation (see below). The People Before Profit Alliance has been preparing the ground well for the local elections in 2014. The Irish SWP seems not to have been badly affected by the UK SWP’s split.
The Socialist Party has been mainly focused around the anti-household tax campaign. This campaign was very successful last year in organising a major boycott of the tax and its registration. As a voluntary registration process, it allowed for mass passive (as well as active) disobedience. Unfortunately the campaign’s plan to continue the boycott strategy by clogging up the states courts was outmanoeuvred when the state gave powers to the revenue commissioners to collect the tax directly from people’s pay.
The campaign is persisting with the boycott but it has been less than convincing on how that it can be achieved. The first payment is due this northern summer so the situation will become acute for the campaign in a short time. In its latest the campaign conference held on April 27, it decided to offer an electoral alternative in the 2014 municipal elections. It is yet too early to tell whether the slate will entail new forces or the already existing left. (The conference was controversial with some local groups boycotting and others unhappy with the procedures.)
From within the ULA two of the TDs: Joan Collins and Clare Daly, along with the remaining independent activists, have established the United Left. The UL will launch on May 10with the stated aim of campaigning for a new workers’ party as soon as possible. Again it is too early to see how this project will develop, if it will new attract layers of activists and workers and indeed what its political direction may be.
Another initiative, entitled the Left Forum, involving ULA independents and some others from outside the ULA is intended as a process to begin to bring the left together. It is somewhat different in that it has no set blueprint in advance but intends to develop the process through participation. It also hopes to involve both electoralist and non-electoralist activists. The first meeting will be on May 18. The Left Forum callout states:
We have had five years of crisis, five years where no alternative has been able to win support despite the obvious failures of the current political and economic regime, with serious human and environmental consequences.
Can we do better? Can the Left win widespread support for our ideas and build an alternative society? Can we make socialism more than a nice idea? The Left Forum invites you to contribute your views on the state of progressive politics and to discuss how we can do better. The forum will be participatory and exploratory, and will aim to ask and answer key questions about what levels of political agreement are possible, what forms of organisation are useful and what tactics and strategies will be effective.
The Left Forum does not see itself as a rival organisation to any other but hopes to help facilitate left unity. It is of interest as it is a conference that has been organised by independents rather than any of the political parties or groups. Again, of course, it is far too early to see where this process will go.
An article on the Left Forum can be found here: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/04/22/left-forum/
1913 Unfinished Business
Another interesting non-party project is 1913 Unfinished Business, which relates to the great lockout of 1913. The campaign is made up of predominately young workers (some ex-ULA) and is campaigning on trade union issues such as precarious working conditions and economic emigration. See http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/04/23/unfinished-business-1913-youth-bloc-leaving-public-meeting-monday-april-29th-7pm-wynns-hotel/
As can been seen above much of what is coming out of the old ULA is very, very new, some groups have yet to be publically launched or even hold their first meetings. Therefore it cannot be said how things will pan out; the only thing that can be said is that there is a left re-alignment taking place whose outcome is far from certain.
On the objective or material side of the equation, the trade union membership in large numbers have rejected the latest pay and work conditions deal and unions are balloting for strike action. Already the three major teacher unions are balloting together with more set to follow.
At the same time the unemployment, emigration and mortgage crises are unresolved and cracks are beginning to appear in the state’s ideological edifice. The state will face many crises in the future and we can only hope that we are beginning to see a redevelopment of the left rather than simply evidence of further fragmentation.
Socialist Party: http://www.socialistparty.net/
Left Forum: http://leftforum.net/
Socialist Workers Party: http://www.swp.ie/