The Neoliberal Experiment and Europe’s anti-Austerity Strikes: Governments must Lower Wages or Suffer Financial Blackmail

Published on Global, by Michael Hudson, Sept. 30, 2010.

(First my comment: that’s the moment when Unions should produce much more than only strikes: they/we all have to re-think the whole system … yes, since Adam and Eve! … since the real beginning. If not, we will fail).

(3 excerpts): While Labor Unions celebrate Anti-Austerity Day in Europe, the European Neoliberals raise the ante:

Most of the press has described Wednesday’s European-wide labor demonstrations and strikes across in terms of the familiar exercise by transport workers irritating travelers with work slowdowns, and large throngs letting off steam by setting fires. 

But the story goes much deeper than merely a reaction against unemployment and economic recession conditions. At issue are proposals to drastically change the laws and structures of how European society will function for the next generation. If the anti-labor forces succeed, they will break up Europe, destroy the internal market, and render that continent a backwater. This is how serious the financial coup d’etat has become. And it is going to get much worse – quickly. As John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, put it: “This is the start of the fight, not the end” … //

… The problem is Europe-wide and indeed centered in the European Union capital in Brussels. This is why the major protests were staged there. On the same day that the strikers demonstrated, the neoliberal European Commission (EC) outlined a full-fledged war against labor. Fifty to a hundred thousand workers gathered to protest the proposed transformation of social rules by the most anti-labor campaign since the 1930s – even more extreme than the Third World austerity plans imposed by the IMF and World Bank in times past.

The neoliberals are fully in control of the bureaucracy, and they are reviving Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, TINA: There Is No Alternative. But there is, of course. In the small Baltic economies, pro-labor parties have made it clear that the alternative to government shrinkage is to simply repeal the debts, withdraw from the Euro and break the banks. It is either the banks or labor – and Europe has just realized that this is truly a fight to the economic death. And the first test will come this Saturday, when Latvia holds its national parliamentary elections … //

… The result is economic shrinkage. Europe is creating economic suicide – and demographic and fiscal suicide too. Every attempt to “solve” the problem of this shrinkage, neoliberal style, only makes things worse.
Latvia’s public-sector workers have seen their wages cut by 30 percent over the past year, and its central bankers have told me that they are seeking further cuts, in the hope that this will lower wages in the private sector as well. What these cuts are doing, hardly by surprise, is spurring emigration – and also is destroying the real estate market, leading to defaults, foreclosures and a flight of debtors from the country. The emigration is headed by younger workers seeking employment in the shrinking economy. Indeed, Latvia’s working conditions also happen to be Europe’s most neoliberalized, that is, dangerous, unpleasant and almost neofeudal.

For starters in yesterday’s Action Day, there was the usual stoppage of transportation and an accompanying honk concert in Latvia’s capital city of Riga for 10 minutes at 1 PM to let the public know that something was indeed happening. What is happening most importantly is the national parliamentary elections this Saturday (October 2), where the leading coalition, Harmony Center, is pledged to enact an alternative tax system and economic policy to the neoliberal policies that have reduced labor’s wages and workplace standards so sharply – along with public infrastructure – over the past decade.
Altogether about 10,000 Latvians attended protest meetings, from the capital in Riga to smaller cities as part of the “Journey into the Crisis.” Six independent trade unions and the Harmony Center organized a protest meeting in Riga’s Esplanade Park that drew 700 to 800 demonstrators, relatively large for so small a city. Another union protest saw about half that number gather at the Cabinet of Ministers where Latvia’s austerity program has been planned and carried out.

To highlight the economic issue, a bus tour drove journalists to the victims – schools and hospitals that had been closed down, government buildings whose employees had seen their salaries slashed and the workforce downsized. Crowds were reported to gather, re-igniting the anger expressed early last year in the cold of mid-January when Latvians had demonstrated to protest the start of these cuts.
These demonstrations seem to have gained voter sympathy for the more militant unions, headed by the hundred individual unions belonging to the Independent Trade Union Association. The other union group – the Free Trade Unions (LBAS) lost face by acquiescing in June 2009 to the government’s proposed 10% pension cuts (and indeed, 70% for working pensioners). Latvia’s constitutional court was sufficiently independent to overrule these drastic cuts last December. And if the government does indeed change this Saturday, the conflict between the Neoliberal Revolution and the past few centuries of classical progressive reform will be made clear.

The Neoliberal Revolution seeks to achieve in Europe what has been achieved in the United States since 1979, when real wages stopped rising. The aim is to double the relative share of wealth enjoyed by the richest 1%. This involves reduce the population to poverty, breaking union power, and destroying the internal market as a precondition for blaming all this on “Mr. Market,” presumably inexorable forces beyond politics, purely “objective” rather than a political power grab.

It is not really “the market” that is promoting this destructive economic austerity, of course. Latvia’s Harmony Center shows that there is a much easier way to cut the cost of labor in half than by reducing its wages: Simply shift the tax burden off labor onto real estate and monopolies (especially privatized infrastructure). This will leave less of the economic surplus to be capitalized into bank loans, lowering the price of housing accordingly (the major factor in labor’s cost of living), as well as the price of public services (by having owners take their returns as a return on equity rather than factoring interest charges into their cost of doing business). The tax deductibility of interest will be repealed – there is nothing intrinsically “market dictated” by this fiscal subsidy for debt leveraging.

No doubt many post-Soviet economies will find themselves obliged to withdraw from the euro area rather than see a flight of labor and capital. They remain the most extreme example of the Neoliberal Experiment to see how far a population can have its living standards slashed before it rebels. (full text).

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