The Class War in Europe
Ed Lewis speaks to Steve McGiffen about the class politics driving both the euro and the ever-deepening austerity in Europe, Neo-Nazism in Greece, and how to frame a left response to the EU.
What do you think is most salient about the ongoing turmoil in Europe that has been passed over or distorted in mainstream discussion?
It’s hard to isolate specific points from what is in fact nothing more than a collection of lies, distortions and misunderstandings. There are a few honourable exceptions, such as Larry Elliot in The Guardian and Paul Krugman in the New York Times, but in general the presentation of the eurocrisis in the mainstream media has been misleading to the point where you wonder whether these people are living in a parallel universe.
Firstly, as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, has pointed out, this isn’t a crisis of debt at all, it’s a crisis of policy failure. Personally I would avoid the word ‘failure’, because I think given its real goals, the euro has been a great success, but I’ll come back to that. For the moment, let’s go with failure, which in terms of their stated goals the EU member states’ austerity policies have certainly been and will certainly continue to be.
Look at Greece. We are told that Greece will only be able to pay off its debt if it reduces public spending and starts collecting tax. When people hear that, it sounds logical. If you have debt as a private individual or household, it’s a good idea to see where you can trim your spending and whether you can find new sources of income. But this doesn’t always apply even at that level, as there are circumstances where you might need to borrow more money in order to invest in order to get out of debt. For example you might need to upgrade your qualifications. Taken to the national level it is not going to work under any circumstances that I can imagine. Spending cuts in Greece and taxes which hit the poor and middle income groups will exacerbate the already precipitous levels of ‘negative growth’. The same applies to Italy, which is a much bigger economy and therefore a much bigger problem for Europe and the world.
Though in the longer term only the revolutionary transformation of the global economy can avoid crises of this kind from regularly afflicting one part of the world or another, you are obviously not going to find calls for revolution in the media or mainstream political life. So it is the fact that reformist solutions exist to all of this, alternative approaches which we might expect to crop up in mainstream discussion, which is odd. In fact, such solutions are discussed by the likes of Krugman, Elliot, Weisbrot and others who do see their work in the mainstream media.
Some of these I could go with and some not, but each represents some kind of policy alternative to the frontal assault on the rights and living standards of workers, people dependent on benefits, low income groups in general. The Greek debt could be restructured and some of it written off as odious. In the film Debtocracy, allegations are made that some of the debt results from the bribing of Greek politicians and other decision-makers by German business people. These and other such charges should be thoroughly investigated. At the same time, the ECB could be buying Italian and Spanish bonds in order to reduce interest rates on them and attack speculation and increasing the money supply.
I’m not an economist and can only quote the views of economists I respect, such as Weisbrot, but anyone can see from reading the debate that a range of alternatives exists. Yet every EU member state government has chosen, to one degree or another, the path of austerity. The question therefore is why? And for me, this is the real issue raised by this crisis. In the late 90s I was active in the campaign to stop the introduction of the euro. If you look at what I was saying, as well as material put out by Tom Megahy, the Labour Euro-MP for whom I worked until his retirement in 1999, or the Dutch Socialist Party, which I worked for after that, you’ll see that our predictions for what would be the single currency’s results were uncannily accurate.
Now I can’t really believe that all of those highly-qualified economists who advise the Commission and the ECB were simply too stupid to see what was obvious to our side of the argument. From this I can only conclude that they knew what would happen as well as we did, but saw this not as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity to complete the work of the neoliberal ascendancy. Austerity in this scenario is not something forced upon the political elite by previous mistakes or bad luck, but rather the latest stage in a plan to transform the European economy by destroying the welfare state – or at best reducing it to a US-style ‘safety net’ – and removing any real powers over the economy from parliamentary democratic institutions and thus from the people.
Two final points. Firstly, Greece is Europe’s biggest arms importer. Secondly, there are Neo-Nazis in its government (editor's note: this interview took place before the recent exit of the LAOS ministers, to whom McGiffen is referring here, from the Greek government). I actually had the chance to confront a member of the European Commission, an old acquaintance of mine, as to why nothing had been said by Council or Commission on these matters, and he said that it was because the media had ignored them. This begs the question as to why that was the case, of course, as well as revealing the corporate media-driven nature of our decision-making process. Clearly Greece, a country with no enemies and no money, should not be continuing to spend billions on armaments. Clearly also, rabid anti-Semites for whom almost nobody votes should not be in government, especially when you consider that PASOK and New Democracy have a parliamentary majority without them. Even though I think the coups-d’état organised by the EU authorities and the IMF in Greece and Italy were an outrage, now that they are done deals I feel that this is a point that ought to be given more publicity.
Can you expand on your comments about the problems built into the euro project from the outset and how they are reflected now?
Although I’m not, as I say above, an economist, when the euro was about to be brought in I met, discussed and campaigned with numerous economists who confirmed what I suspected was the case, that the single currency as planned was completely unworkable and would lead to economic catastrophe. One of these was Ewout Irrgang, who had been recruited direct from the Netherlands National Bank as an adviser to the Socialist Party and who is now an MP and the party’s principle spokesperson on financial matters. And he confirmed that the major problem would be the imposition of a single monetary policy under a single European central bank operating a single rate of interest. Now this even causes problems in a relatively homogenous currency area such as the UK, where although there are big regional differences in income and wealth – I believe the richest region is the South East of England while the poorest is Northern Ireland – these are nothing compared to those which would separate the richest from the poorest in the proposed eurozone. We used to employ an analogy of a thermostat controlled by the temperature in a temperate region such as Brittany. You’d freeze in Finland and roast in Crete. As Irrgang put it at the time “in all of these extremely different economies the stove will be stoked to the same level of heat and the temperature will be determined undemocratically and adjusted to the situation in the biggest countries, Germany, France and Italy. That will create irrevocable problems, problems which will be scarcely solvable.”
In the last few years of the last century I wrote a number of articles for my then employer, Tom Megahy, which we kicked around together and he approved, that hammered away at a number of arguments. These remain at the core of any critique of the euro which takes the single currency project on its own terms and attacks it from that point of view. To rehearse the main points, Tom and I argued the following:
If governments and national banks give up the economic leverage they gain from an ability to determine their own levels of spending and borrowing, if they can no longer decide interest or exchange rates, they will have only one means left to maintain or enhance competitiveness: our wages, our pensions, our welfare rights, our children’s education, will all have to cost less – this is of course what has since been called ‘internal devaluation’; the single currency would deprive governments of vital tools they need to address immediate and long-term economic difficulties; it would create unemployment in countries and regions deemed to be “uncompetitive” and put downward pressure on wages and working conditions, as such areas attempt to regain “competitiveness”; it would undermine social security and welfare systems; it would hand control over vital economic decisions to unelected bankers.
These predictions have of course been borne out since 2008, as the banks and their obedient servants in governments and in Brussels have dragged the whole of Europe into an unprecedented economic crisis.
Where I differ from much progressive criticism of the euro is that I actually see what is happening not as proof of massive incompetence – though some of those involved clearly have simply been led to a very misguided view of economic reality, in general by a combination of their own naivety and the mendacity of others – but as, in fact, a tremendous success, though one which puts its perpetrators at enormous risk. The euro’s purpose was not to facilitate the creation of a Europe of transfrontier love, peace, harmony, boosted trade and economic efficiency, but to attack the economic, social and political gains of working people, accumulated over two centuries in the most bitter struggles. What is happening in country after country, starkest of all in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, but also – just as visibly to anyone who is paying attention - in Britain, is nothing less than the opening salvoes of a new, more intense and more dangerous phase of class war.
So there are two ways of answering this question. The first is to take the euro’s supporters’ own explanations of what they were trying to achieve, and along with progressive but essentially bourgeois economists – in the sense that they don’t really question capitalism per se – say, ‘wow, guys, you really screwed up’; and the other is to congratulate the enemy generals on a pretty good opening to their campaign and see what we can do to counter it. And of course all we can do to counter it is organise, on every possible front, and get out and explain to people what’s really going on and discuss with them how we can fight it. The trouble with the class war is that there is so often only one side that understands that it’s being fought, and that’s what we have to change.
In the British media there has been passing reference to the presence of far right elements in the Greek government but no direct claims of Neo-Nazism. Tell us more about who these people are and what their Nazi credentials are. (See editor's note above.)
The Minister of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks is Makis Voridis. In the 1980s Voridis was the leader of a Nazi group called the Student Alternative. He was thrown out of law school in 1985 and sued by Greece’s equivalent of NUS for taking part in attacks on his fellow law students, during which he often armed himself with the tool from which he takes his nickname, Hammer, or a kind of home-made axe.
Well, you know, youthful indiscretions and all that. I dare say in the unlikely event that I ever became a government minister the Daily Mail would find the policewoman who once arrested the young Steve McGiffen for telling her to fuck off! Not quite as serious as violent attacks on political opponents, but I expect the Mail could make it seem so. But there’s more to be said about Voridis than this, and it involves much more recent events. Voridis’s party, LAOS, is an amalgam of previously existing far right groups. One of these, the Hellenic Front, formed a common electoral list as recently as 2004 with a party headed by Konstantinos Plevis. Plevis is the author of Jews: the Whole Truth, whose contents include the following:
“Adolf Hitler: The tragic leader of the German Third Reich is certainly the most impressive leadership figure of the modern age… Human history will blame Adolf Hitler for the following: 1. He could have rid Europe of the Jews, but did not; 2. He did not use the special chemical weapons, which only Germany possessed, to gain a victory... 3.Because of the defeat of Germany then, the White Race and Europe are at risk now.”
LAOS itself was founded by Giorgos Karatzeferis, a well-known Holocaust denier who says that Jews have “no legitimacy to speak in Greece” and who has referred to the Holocaust, Auschwitz and Dachau as “myths.”
Like France’s Front National, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and the UK’s British National Party and far right Tories, LAOS makes much of its opposition to the European Union. Yet they have been happy to join a government appointed by the European Commission and European Central Bank.
Do you think there is any significance at all to Cameron's antics at the recent EU summit, by rejecting the proposed new treaty and leaving other states to develop an accord without the UK?
To be honest, I didn’t attach much importance to Cameron’s stand and so didn’t give it much thought. Of course, he was right not to sign up to the agreement, but he is hardly likely to have done it to protect the democratic rights of the British peoples. The agreement itself is a further step towards the abolition of democracy, and a big one.
Despite your many criticisms of the EU, when I interviewed you in 2010 you said that you find the question of the UK withdrawing from the EU ‘a bit tiresome’ and that it is unhelpful because ‘it isn’t going to happen’. Does the increased isolation of the UK in the EU make this a more meaningful question now? More generally, how do you think a left critique of the undemocratic nature of the EU and eurozone should be framed, especially given that the right continues to dominate this narrative?
Well, I still don’t think it will happen, but there seems an increasing chance I’ll have the pleasure of being proved wrong. Having lived outside the UK for almost two decades and having no intention of ever returning to live, moreover, I don’t tend to see things in terms of whether Britain should get out or not. I’d like Britain to leave the EU because I want to see the EU destroyed, and British withdrawal would be a major blow to its continued existence. Things look different from where I’m sitting, which is a mixture of rural France, where I live, Paris, where I teach, the Netherlands, as I still work as a translator and occasional advisor for the Dutch Socialist Party, and Belgium, as I maintain close contacts there after twelve years living and working in Brussels. I have to teach a very wide-ranging international relations course, and so don’t have much time to keep up with the details of British politics. Frankly, competition between three right-wing parties for who can best manage the destruction of the welfare state and royal screwing of the working class doesn’t really grab my attention.
A case in point which illustrates how things are different in the UK is what you mention here, the association of EU-critical politics with the right. This isn’t a problem in France or the Netherlands, where the 2005 ‘no’ campaigns against the European Constitution were spearheaded and dominated by left forces. The left critique of the EU is very well known in western Europe generally, and all you can do in the UK is hammer away at it. I generally treat different aspects of it in my monthly Morning Star column and on my own website, Spectrezine. The EU treaties - from Rome through Maastricht and on to Lisbon institutionalise - in a way which deepens with each new text - neoliberal capitalism. They outlaw the basic tools of social democracy, let alone socialism. They have removed the democratic rights of each of the member states’ peoples to decide for itself what sort of economic system it favours. They remove popular influence and create the conditions for handing power to a corporate elite.
My concrete advice is this: read the treaties, make sure you understand them, then explain them to people, how they do all of the things I’ve said above. Invite people over to your meetings who come from EU-critical parties such as the Dutch Socialist Party, Sweden Left Party, Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance and so on. And put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the xenophobes of the Tory right, who are the kind of Conservatives Aneurin Bevan characterised as ‘lower than vermin’.
Ed Lewis is a co-editor of NLP, a teacher and political education advisor to Platform. Steve McGiffen has had a long involvement with left politics in Europe. He is a former official of the United European Left Group in the European Parliament and has been associated in various capacities with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands since 1999. He is also the editor of Spectrezine.
The photo, by Roger Joly, shows a victim of a police tear gas attack.