This is the second in a series of blog posts following our participation in the recent Abduction of Europe event in Madrid. You can read details of the event and some thoughts on the importance of Europe for social movements in our first post. The event was organised around five working groups, each one looking at a different dimension of European social movements. They were: debt and financialization; democracy; commons; techno-politics and cultural production. We participated in the debt and financialization and the commons working groups. The format itself was interesting, because participants from across Europe worked together consistently for almost three days to develop discussions, common analyses and future lines of action and discussion. In some cases, the groups worked towards producing a document. These will be available soon and we will post them on facebook and here.
This blog post reflects on some of the ideas that arose during the debt and financialization workshop, and continues on from some of the themes developed in our previous post in terms of building the European dimension.
Debt, financialization and Europe
The workshop situated the question of debt and financialization very much in a European context. We had participants from various organisations working around the issue of debt repudiation and default, including Syriza, International Citizen Audit Network and the Corporate Europe Observatory (which participates in the Blockupy process). There were also activists from groups focused on issues around personal (rather than sovereign) debt, including the Plataforma de Afcetados por la Hipoteca and the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City. The issues are obviously connected, particularly in Ireland and Spain were housing booms and mortgage debt are part of the context for the bank bailouts and related sovereign debt crises.
Our discussions were essentially divided into two dimensions: collective analysis of the question of debt and default; and the possibilities for European-wide action. Much of the analysis we developed will be made available by the organizers in a forthcoming text. What we want to focus on here is the question of organizing trans-European movements around debt. Here, some of the issues discussed in the first post of this series are relevant. Debt has emerged as a key mechanism for the economic exploitation of social wealth and also for the political governance of the crisis and the imposition of austerity. This is perhaps most clear in the ‘bailout’ countries, were the Troika adopted the position of ‘lender of last resort’ to impose austerity. However, in other eurozone countries the threat of the dreaded bond yield spread has been mobilised in a similar fashion – from Italy to Slovenia to Belgium. Importantly, however, the relationship between government debt and austerity goes beyond the eurozone countries and the euro crisis. In particular, the UK stands out as country in which the need to control public spending has formed the ideological backdrop to a neoliberal experiment, perhaps as significant as the Greek one, which is completely remoulding the relationship between public and private and the basis of social reproduction in that country.
As such, it is interesting to examine how movements around debt might take on a European dimension, but also how they might play a part in the production of a European political subject. In the workshops we discussed many different projects, but we want to focus here on two: organizing European-wide support for Syriza in the event they become the major party in Greece; and a European ‘escrache’ around the coming European elections.
Current polls indicate that Syriza will win the next general election in Greece. At present, Syriza represent the only political organisation arguing for debt repudiation who are likely to be in a position to act in the immediate term. If Syriza gains a significant majority in the upcoming European elections it is possible that early elections will be called. The current government is also quite unstable, and so elections would be called at any time over the next year or so. Interestingly, Syriza are not operating in a position in which they can work towards the ideal scenario for dealing with the debt issue. From what I understand, they recognise that they are likely to be in power in a situation in which social movements and left parties in almost every other European country are fair to weak to push for default. As such, their strategy is to negotiate with the Troika on the debt and to call for a European debt conference with a view to generating support for a European wide response. If the Troika refused to negotiate with Syriza it is currently unclear what will happen, but the risk is that Syriza’s programme will lose credibility and this raises the consequent danger of a rise in support for the neo-Nazi far right.
The organisation of a collective European social movement to support Syriza and visibilize public support for debt repudiation and/or negotiation could be an interesting strategy here. Although it’s ambitious, mobilizations across Europe (which admittedly are unlikely to be very big) might embolden Greek movements and have an impact on the media narrative, which will of course position Syriza as reckless, ideologically driven Greeks unwilling to take responsibility for the mess ‘they have created’. Moreover, it represents an opportunity to advance arguments against debt and build related movements in each country. Finally, as a simultaneous collective mobilization happening across Europe and sharing a set of common aspirations, objectives or demands such a course of action might be part of producing a collective political project and subject from below. Here it is worth recalling that the production of democratic political subjects is a material, practical process in which actions, words and symbols all play a role.
Our discussion of a potential European ‘escrache’ was also interesting as a potential form of practice that might embody this European subjective dimension. An escrache is a protest action which originated in Argentina but was recently used to great effect by Spain’s Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca. The PAH had prepared a piece of legislation providing for retroactive debt cancellation for mortgage holders in default, a moratorium on evictions and the conversion of empty housing held by banks into social housing stock (which we’ve written about here). In Spain legislative proposals which obtain 500,000 signatures must be brought before parliament. The PAH obtained well over that figure and the legislation was brought before the parliament, but was effectively ignored by the two main parties.
The PAH’s response to this was to say that politicians were ignoring the people. They invited MPs to attend their meetings and to discover the reality of the housing crisis, and when these invitations were not taken up they organised protests outside the workplaces and houses of elected representatives who had opposed their legislation. This was extraordinarily polemical in Spain, but was very effective in visibilizing the crisis of representation, the gulf between the political class and the people, and the former’s clear prioritization of the financial sector with regard to management of the mortgage and housing crisis.
In the debt and financialization working group, we discussed the possibility of an escrache around the themes of debt and austerity and focused on the European elections. A couple of possibilities were flagged here. One example would involve pressuring politicians to sign or support a statement to the effect that if elected they would support Greece or another country seeking negotiation of its debt or pursuing a repudiation of the debt. If they failed to do so, escrache protests would be organised at their workplaces, homes or public appearances.
The immediate political logic here is simple. At home politicians support austerity because ‘the money isn’t there’ and we ‘can’t spend money we don’t have’. When they go to Europe, however, they continue to endorse, with little or no democratic mandate, the same policies (fiscal discipline, the ECB etc.) which create the very ‘lack of money’ they so frequently refer to on the home front.
The benefits, in terms of movement building, of the escrache are numerous. First of all, it draws attention at a local level to the importance of European institutions and their wholly undemocratic nature. Second of all, if it contributes to the electoral success of the left bloc in the European parliament this would be an advantageous result vis-a-vis social movements. Third of all, it would represent an interesting experiment in terms of material practices through which a European subject might begin to take shape. If a European escrache campaign were carried out in many European countries, advancing the same statement re the rejection of debt and austerity, it would make for a network of common practices operating across the European space and sharing a set of visions, demands and discourses.
Something like a European escrache would work quite differently to a process like Blockupy Frankfurt. Thus far, the Blockupy process has been one of the most significant attempts to operate at a European level, engage with European institutions and, given it is primarily pushed by German social movements and takes place in Germany, to challenge the north/south nationalist governance of the crisis. We are not very familiar with the Blockupy process, but we would suggest that it suffers from one potential limitation. Like the anti- or alter-globalization summit protests before it, Blockupy is primarily, if not exclusively, an event which is meaningful and attractive to people who are already participating in social movements. It is an event that brings together existing collectives and activists in Europe in one physical location. No doubt this plays an important role in europeanising the movements. However, there is an important difference between building networks between existing radical social movements and experimenting with practices which bring in to being a European political subject. The latter, oriented towards a Europe of the 99%, necessarily involves practices which transcend the sharp separation between movements and wider society which prevails in most European countries. It must involve practices which are not underpinned by ideological identities and fetishized practices, but instead open out to interpolate and involve wider civil society in the European political and public space anticipated by the practices themselves. This is the difference between networking European movements (an important goal in its own right) and constructing a European political subject.
The escrache is interesting here because it was very much something that resonated with the wider population in Spain, including those who vote for right-wing parties. Whether or not it could achieve similar success in different countries and at the European scale, however, is of course an open question.