The economic elites on both sides of the Atlantic have suddenly seen their plans for the future run into a volatile foe: democracy. I say sudden because who would have thought, say five years ago, that an aroused popular will would be shaking the foundations of the political order from Los Angeles to Bucharest? Said elites do have plans. They are intent on – amongst other things – using the current economic crisis to dive down wages, curtail public spending on things like healthcare and education, compel people to work more years before retirement and reduce social benefits available to the elderly and the poor. It's been called the Berlin Consensus, which University of Missouri law and economics professor, William K. Black, writes rests on "austerity today, austerity tomorrow, austerity always" and is "a road map to ever greater inequality."
Then, along came Occupy and the mass protests in the streets of Europe calling attention to the gross inequalities the system has already produced. Now this year, resistance to the cutback schemes began to take the form of protest at the ballot box.
"Europe is experiencing a process of political renewal," the editors of the Financial Times declared last Friday. "Voters in Greece, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France, are understandably turning away from a disconnected political class and looking for those offering new ideas and solutions. This sentiment is acute among the young, whose opportunities have been damaged by the crisis and feel particularly excluded from political discourse."
At the moment there is dismay and consternation in European political circles, particularly in Germany where government policies have been most in tune to the interest of the big banks and other multi-national financial institutions. For months now, we have been told repeatedly that the political conflicts on the continent were characterized German resentment toward the neighboring nations to the south which were viewed as irresponsible and undeserving supplicants. Then came Sunday's election in state of North Rhine Westphalia, which includes the cities of Cologne, DÃ¼sseldorf, Essen, and the industrial Ruhr region. There, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered a humiliating electoral defeat. At once it became clear that the program of economic austerity her government has attempted to foist off on less-well-off European countries won't fly too well at home as well. Merkel "will face a harder time securing backing for her austerity policy at home, at a time when resistance to it is building across Europe," said Der Spiegel.
"While CDU politicians sought to label the SPD-Green government as irresponsibly profligate, calling it `pro debt', campaigners for the coalition made a point of holding election rallies in disused swimming pools and derelict recreation facilities to emphasize the result of decades of under-investment and neglect in the state, which suffers from high unemployment and declining industry," wrote Kate Connolly in the Guardian.
"Rejecting the conservatives' hard-line platform of more austerity and finger-pointing, German voters instead voted for the Social Democrats, for a platform of more spending and, shockingly, for more debt," wrote Robin Wells in the Guardian Monday. "This caps a series of defeats in state elections for Merkel and makes it increasingly clear that her government is in serious jeopardy."
Meanwhile, across the continent the democratic revolt continues in earnest. In Poland, the Solidarity union and other labor organizations are threatening to cause havoc at the European football championships next month in Warsaw to protest a government decision to push the retirement age up to 67 years. Last week, as the parliament was voting to approve the measure, demonstrators rallied outside the building blocking traffic. News reports say they set fire to pictures of government officials and a huge Prime Minister Donald Tusk in effigy. Voter sentiment continues to move leftward in The Netherlands and also in Sweden where Ewald Engelen, a professor of financial geography at the University of Amsterdam, told the Financial Times, "The lower-educated, more vulnerable parts of the electorate are sensing that these austerity policies are breaking down the last bulwarks that protect them from globalization, all in the name of saving the euro."
Meanwhile, Ireland's May 31 referendum on the EU fiscal treaty could well be an important indication of the democratic response to austerity there as well.
"The recent election results in France and Greece are a massive blow against the failed policies of austerity in Ireland and across Europe," says Sinn Fein's deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald. "`A "no" vote in Ireland on 31 May will strengthen the hand of all those arguing for jobs and growth."
"Sunday's regional German elections offer a small ray of hope. Merkel's party received a thrashing in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to nearly one in five Germans," economist Wells wrote in the Guardian. "Rejecting the conservatives' hard-line platform of more austerity and finger-pointing, German voters instead voted for the Social Democrats, for a platform of more spending and, shockingly, for more debt. This caps a series of defeats in state elections for Merkel and makes it increasingly clear that her government is in serious
"Perhaps, just perhaps, German voters are waking up. And therein lies the possibility that the euro can be saved."
"The next 100 days promise to be the most important in a generation for Europe," wrote columnist Guardian columnist Will Hutton this week. "Unless Germany can be persuaded by, primarily, the new French president, but also by the grim march of events to change tack fast, there is now a 50/50 chance that euro membership could be reduced to a cluster of small states around Germany. A series of uncontainable bank runs and financial collapses could not be handled by the current structures. The result would be a European depression from which Britain would not be immune. It is the one part of the world to which our exports are currently rising."
The implications of the European voter revolt are being noticed here on this side of the pond as well.
It's funny how a dramatic political crisis can focus the mind, how things like the Occupy movement and the European voters' revolt can shift perception – even the public expression – of the powers-that-be in politics and the media. For instance, the editors of the Los Angeles Times now maintain that they have "long argued that faster growth is crucial to solving the U.S. budget problems." Well, they haven't actually made that case very forcefully or urgently. But now, they say it "may" be a "good idea to mitigate the harsh spending cuts with stronger economic growth." Why? Because, "If the political turmoil in Europe derails the hard-won agreement over a rescue plan for Greece and other teetering economies, the result could be an even deeper recession that spreads across the continent, if not the total collapse of several countries' economies. Such a turn of events would inflict pain around the world."
American Prospect publisher Robert Kuttner recently asked if the fall of French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy would "help Democrats learn what he never could?" "Democrats should consider Sarkozy's fate a cautionary tale – and a call to action. If they rally around the cause of growth, jobs, and optimism, the nation will benefit and they'll be rewarded at the polls," he concluded. As Campaign for America's Future's Richard (RJ) Eskow put it, "When it comes to Democrats these days, you've got to fight for their party against its right."
"The United States economy is doing better than most of Europe. But the austerity debate continues here, too," said the New York Times following the French election. "So is there a warning for House Republicans who have endorsed Representative Paul Ryan's draconian budget? And for Mitt Romney, their party's presumptive presidential nominee? Controlling deficits is important, but too much austerity too soon will stall a recovery, or worse, and wreak havoc on lives. Europe's grim growth numbers prove that. And voters in Europe have figured it out."
"There has always been a gap between public policy and public will, but it just grew astronomically," Professor Noam Chomsky writes in his new book Occupy. "You can see it right now, in fact. Take a look at the big topic in Washington that everyone concentrates on: the deficit. For the public, correctly, the deficit is not regarded as much of an issue. And it isn't really much of an issue. The issue is joblessness. There's a deficit commission but no joblessness commission. As far as the deficit is concerned, the public has opinions. Take a look at the polls. The public overwhelmingly supports higher taxes on the wealthy, which have declined sharply in this period of stagnation and decline, and the preservation of limited social benefits.
"The outcome of the deficit commission is probably going to be the opposite. The Occupy movements could provide a mass base for trying to avert what amounts to a dagger pointed at the heart of the country."
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union.