An alternative programme for Europe

The euro debt crisis is reaching a new level.   Greece is now close to defaulting on its state debts.  This threatens to cause a new banking crisis that could trigger another economic slump.  This dire scenario may yet be avoided, but the odds against it are dropping.

The latest hot spot has been highlighted by the news that European Central Bank chief economist Juergen Stark has resigned.  Stark has done this because he opposes the decision of the ECB board to start buying the bonds of the Spanish and Italian governments.  The ECB decided to do this because these bonds were falling so much in value, they threatened make it impossible for the governments of these major European economies to raise money to finance their debt at anything like reasonable rates of interest.  It had already become impossible for the Greek government to do so.  Lenders to Greece were demanding 45% interest on one-year bonds!

The Eurozone governments had set up an emergency fund called the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to ‘bail out’ Greece, Ireland and Portugal so they did not need to borrow money from bond markets.  But over the summer, the same problem began to arise for Italy and Spain.  Europe’s leaders have dithered about whether to increase EFSF capacity to fund these big states too.  So the ECB was pressured into providing emergency support and agreed to buy Italian and Spanish bonds as a temporary measure until Eurozone governments decided what to do.

This is what has upset Stark.  For him, as  a German, this is not what the ECB was set up to do.  Its role is to keep inflation under control by manipulating interest rates, not bailing out governments by buying their bonds.  Stark sees this as exposing the ECB to the possible losses on this government debt if Eurozone governments default on their debt, thus forcing German and other governments to bail out the ECB itself.    Stark wants either the government leaders to come up with more funds themselves or to allow Greece and the other states to ‘restructure’ their debt, or even better just do what they are told on fiscal austerity.

Increasingly, the German leaders are split between ‘bail out’ or ‘kick out’.  Stop bailing out Greece and the other states and just kick them out of the euro, says one wing.  While the other wing says: make the Greeks meet their austerity targets but bail them out to save the euro in its current form.  The latter group is still the majority, but the former group is growing.

In the meantime, the Greek people face yet another round of cuts in living standards, jobs and services as the pressure grows from other Eurozone governments and their leaders for the Greek government to meet draconian targets set for government spending and taxation.  The so-called Troika (officials of the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF) come back this week to Greece to tell the ‘socialist’ PASOK government in Athens that they must do more to meet these targets or the next tranche of the bailout funds agreed last July by the heads of the Eurozone to pay for the Greek government’s debts that it owes banks and pension funds across Europe and elsewhere may be stopped.

What was the reaction of the Greek government?  The finance minister Venizelos announced that all public sector employees would lose their permanent posts and would have to reapply for them on a stand-by basis, while receiving just 60% of their salaries for the next 12 months.  Up to 120,000 would not be re-employed.  Health Minister Andreas Loverdos remarked to a parliamentary committee that “1 million employees have been burdening the other 10 million… the fact that civil service positions are permanent is what got us into this mess in the first place,” he said.  So, according to Loverdos (no love there, I think), the reason for the economic crisis in Greece is not the banking collapse or the Great Recession, but the burden of too many lazy workers in public services that other Greeks can’t afford.  This is from a socialist minister.

At the same time, the Greek government, accompanied by investment bankers as consultants, are going around Europe in a ‘road show’ trying to sell off the country’s assets.  In London, 29 Greek listed companies, 174 analysts and 121 funds attended on such show where Special Secretariat for Asset Restructuring and Privatisations, George Christodoulakis outlined his plan on the implementation of privatisations, including ports, water companies and the post office, as well as banks.  Christodoulakis said that it was difficult to assess precisely the worth of what was being offered since the portfolio is ‘so huge’!
The right-wing German coalition government have made it abundantly clear that there is only one ‘way out’ for Greece and the Eurozone in its ‘debt crisis’.  And they are joined by all the other right-wing governments in Europe (as well as the ostensibly left governments, what’s left of them).  The Greeks, Portuguese, Irish, Italians and Spanish must cut their public services to ribbons; sack public sector workers in schools, hospitals and government services and raise taxes while lowering benefits and pension entitlements.
If these governments cannot get the public debt levels down or balance their budgets and can no longer raise funds to meet their debts in the private bond market except at huge interest rates, they will not be ‘bailed out’ with funds unless they carry out the measures demanded.  If they fail to do so, they may be ousted from the Eurozone and face the long drop into hell.
Apparently, meeting repayments on loans provided by the banks and pension funds of Europe is more important than providing public services and maintaining the living standards of millions.   But then that is the stark choice under Europe’s capitalist institutions.  You must pay your bills or we shall ostracise you and destroy your living.
But Europe’s leaders have some problems.  Under the rules of Eurozone’s Maastricht treaty, no member state can be expelled from the Eurozone.
As one investment bank put it, in the words of the song Hotel California, “You can check out any time, but you can never leave”.    Anyway, if Greece was thrown out or decided to leave, the Greek government would probably not honour all its debts and so German, French and other banks would suddenly have a large hole in their balance sheets.  Also, investors in banks and government bond in Europe would not stop at just Greece.  They would expect Portugal, Ireland and above all, Italy and Spain to default too.  Then Europe’s financial system would implode, credit would dry up and Europe would drop into another slump.   The investment bank, UBS reckons that if Greece left the euro, it would cost up to 11,500 euros per person or around 50% of Greek GDP.    But it would also cost the Germans more than three times what it would cost to bail out the likes of Italy, Spain and the rest to avoid a default and euro collapse.
It would be cheaper in the short term for the Germans to bail out the others and ‘save the euro’.  But the German elite is not sure now about whether it is better to save the euro or opt for a new, stronger ‘northern European’ currency.  Longer term, that might be cheaper by getting rid of all these weak capitalist states that were included under French insistence as part of the big euro project agreed back in the late 1980s.  The Germans don’t want the euro to fail, but they don’t want to be seen handing money over to all these weak euro states forever, especially if they don’t get their public finances ‘in order’.
What a mess for European capitalism.  Could there not be a better opportunity for a socialist alternative to this nightmare?  Apparently, the socialist leaders in Europe cannot see one.  But there is.  The Greek government should never have agreed to pay back its debts to the bankers in full.  If that means these banks around Europe go bust, then they should be taken into public ownership and recapitalised with government funds and used as public services to help industry and households and revive the economy.
We can spell out an alternative economic programme for Europe further.  In a recent paper*, Ozlem Onaran has developed a more expanded alternative set of policies.  I don’t agree with Onaran’s explanation of the euro crisis as one caused by a lack of purchasing power for European workers.  That follows the currently popular left view of ‘underconsumption’ as the cause of capitalist crisis.   I have dealt with that in other posts.
But Onaran has some good ideas for alternative policies.  She says:“A pro-labor solution of the public debt crisis in the periphery as well as the core countries like Italy requires debt default, and a joint struggle can create a stronger offense to this multinational lobby. In that respect the EU could be turned into a leverage to bring together peoples’ opposition to the budget cuts in different countries rather than being perceived merely as an obstacle despite its anti-democratic and technocratic structures.

Onanran correctly opposes the solution of leaving the euro,  as suggested by the socialist economist Lapavitsas among others.  Onaran says that “we would prefer to push for an alternative Europe and changes in the economic policy framework within which the Euro operates…
Public finance has to be unchained via debt default in both the periphery and the core. This has to be coordinated at the EU level as part of a broader public finance policy to make the responsible pay for the costs of crisis and to reverse the origin of the crisis, i.e. pro-capital redistribution. This involves a highly progressive system of taxes, coordinated at the EU level, on not only income but also wealth, higher corporate tax rates, inheritance tax, and tax on financial transactions. A progressive income tax mechanism could also introduce a maximum income with the highest marginal tax rate increasing to 90% above a certain income threshold in relation to the median wage. A progressive wealth tax on government bonds with the highest marginal tax rate reaching to 100% for holdings above a certain amount of bonds could be formulated as a way of restructuring the debt; this would make the banks, the private investment funds, and the high wealth individuals pay the costs of the fiscal crisis.”

Moreover, fiscal policy “should completely abandon the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, and public spending should aim at the multiple targets of full employment, ecological sustainability, equality, and convergence via generating public employment in labor intensive social services as well as public investments in ecological maintenance and repair, renewable energy, public transport, insulation of the existing housing stock and building of zero energy houses.”  
And “the ECB should be turned into a real central bank with the ability to lend to member states…to serve  the priorities of development, sustainability, full employment, and equality.”

As for employment, “a minimum wage should be coordinated at the EU level… and regional convergence should be supported by fiscal transfers and public investments to boost productivity in poorer regions. Furthermore a European unemployment benefit system should be developed to redistribute from low to high unemployment regions. This requires a significant EU budget financed by EU level progressive taxes.”

Regarding employment in the private sector, “it is important to prevent firms from making use of the crisis to implement their long-term downsizing strategies. An alternative would be legal measures to ban firing during the crisis and implement wage floors: if the firing ban leads to bankruptcy in certain firms, these firms can be re-appropriated and revitalized under workers’ control, supported by public credits. Widespread examples of that were seen in Argentina after the crisis in shut-down companies.”

In cases of sectors that are under the threat of mass layoffs, like the auto industry, nationalization of the firms and restructuring of these public firms should be considered, e.g. the auto industry, a shift of focus towards the production of public transport vehicles, and a gradual transfer of labor towards new sectors.”

And finally, the banks: “Financial regulations including capital controls are important but not enough. Finance is a crucial sector which cannot be left to the short-termism of the private profit motive. This sector has already been de facto nationalized, but without any voice for the society and with a commitment to privatization as soon as possible.  …. Instead what needs to be done is to build a public banking sector with the participation of the workers and other stakeholders to decision making and the transparence of the accounts.”

Above all, “this crisis calls for a major shift in decision making to facilitate economy wide coordination of important decisions. This in turn requires public ownership and the participation and control of the stakeholders (the workers in the firms, consumers, regional representatives etc.) in critical sectors for the society, such as banking, housing, energy, infrastructure, pension system, education, health.

This is the way forward, not the programme of austerity that brings even lower economic activity; or the slogan of leaving the euro and resurrecting a national currency.  The Greek or even British working classes will not be saved by having their own currency in a capitalist Europe.

*Ozlem Onaran (Fiscal crisis in Europe or a crisis of distribution?) Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst,

14 thoughts on “An alternative programme for Europe

  1. Michael Roberts wrote: “So, according to Loverdos (no love there, I think), the reason for the economic crisis in Greece is not the banking collapse or the Great Recession, but the burden of too many lazy workers in public services that other Greeks can’t afford.” But this seriously misrepresents things. Greece has a bloated and corrupt state bureaucracy, which mismanaged public funds and persistently spent money it did not really have. This is not a deformed rightwing idea, but wellknown on the Left as well. That condition has existed for decades. It was merely that the 2008/2009 slump brought things to a head – suddenly lenders and investors who had previously propped up the Greek state refused to supply more capital. A radical reorganization of state operations will have to occur in Greece, quite regardless of how the economic conjuncture will develop or how high the public debt is. You can of course criticize the precise way in which they go about this, but that something has to happen in this regard is beyond any doubt.

    1. Jurriaan

      You are right in one way about Greek public finances. The General Secretariat for Information Systems (GSIS) has just published a detailed list of the corporate entities that owe more than €150,000 in tax arrears. There are 6,000 companies on the list with arrears of €30.9 bn. 10 companies alone owe €4.4 bn with train company OSE leading the way; the top 100 companies owe €11.7 bn. Of the 6,000 companies with arrears, 212 make up 50% of the total. And collecting 40% of tax arrears would eliminate the 2011 budget deficit. Weak tax collection forms a big part of Greece’s fiscal problem. In June 2011, the Ministry of Finance reported that tax arrears amounted to €41 bn. Of that number, 90% came from just 6,500 people and from 8,200 corporations that owe over €150,000 each. Collecting those arrears would more than cover the projected 2011 budget deficit of less than €17 bn. It’s not ‘fat cat’ public sector workers in hospitals, schools etc that bear a responsibilty for the mess but the corruption of top civil servants and the evasion of the rich in paying their taxes.

      1. OSE, OTE, PPC are all state owned companies: there is no difference between tax arrears and public deficit. Why are you so surprised that top “civil servants” behave like “public manager” in former USSR?

        I live in Italy and I can tell you that especially in the South political consensus is very easy to buy. A lot of “fat cat” public workers are simply tax consumers like elected officials voted by them. Ok, the worst get on top and take the bigger piece of the cake just for themselves. And… so what? Shouldn’t common people be blamed for all the time that they colluded with politicians? Are they so much different from a moral standpoint?
        My aunt worked as a public teacher and “retired” after 16 years of works, at 40 years old and she still get a pension well above the salary of many workers. Is this “social”? She perfectly knows that it’s a privilege but, as usual, she says “I didn’t pass the law, I just exploited it since I had the opportunity – like everyone else when I was younger”. Considering that spare time worth something, her life has been surely much more enjoyable than the life of thousands of small business owner who spend 12 hours every day to run their company. Is this “social”? Does this make the society better off?
        Millions of stupid lemmings approving or exploiting corrupted laws aren’t less guilty just because they’re small.

  2. YES! States need to be reorganized along the lines of “People first, not banks.” The banks have made their money.

    There also needs to be some coordination (as much coordination as possible) of the international anti-austerity forces. Strikes, occupations and demonstrations need to be coordinated across national boundries so that it’s not just Greece one month, Italy the next, Spain next, etc. ALL AT ONCE!

  3. Avoiding default at any cost is a de facto enslavement of common people. I agree, stupid lenders should suffer the consequences of their decisions. But you seem totally unaware of public choice theory. Assuming “benevolent” and “altruist” policymakers, regulators and civil servants is quite unrealistic. It doesn’t seem to me that state owned local banks in Germany and Spain performed very well before and after the crisis. Any yes, without the threat of being fired some people start to behave in a lazy way while other workers being paid the same start to feel discouraged.
    Finally you seem to assume that all the people want is simply more teachers and more nurses.

  4. The problem is the wage system. The solution is for the majority of society (the work class) to organise to abolish it and directly connect the collective product of labour with its producers.

  5. The ethno-nationalism still embraced by Europeans after multiple wars over hundreds of years is why the Euro won’t work. It doesn’t have all that much to do with bankers, capitalism, or anything else. The comments above about ‘Southern Italians’ just illustrates the point.

    1. Unconstrained social policies create and foster conflicts, especially when the division between tax payers and tax receivers become very significant. When the exploiter class of tax receivers can be easily identified with a different social, national or ethnic group hostility and prejudice arise.
      It is a fact that many low income workers started to support extreme right winged parties because of immigration, not only for cultural reasons or political propaganda, but because they feel their subsides threatened by newcomers.
      Bad policies have long term behavioral and social consequences that can’t be disregarded.

  6. The workers produce wealth when hired for wages. That the capitalist political State can’t pay off the loans they get from the BIG FINANCE CAPITALISTS e.g. the IMF, is more a function of the fact that they charge higher and higher interest rates as loans are refinanced. The Grecian working class produces way more in wealth than they get back in wages. The problem is centered in the fact that the capos want more interest back on loans than the working class can produce in expropriated wealth. The Greek capitalist State will default just as the Argentinian capitalist State did before them.

    1. Bravo! I agree. Speculators should pay the price not the workers. These loans are claims on surplus values. Parasites!
      When capitalists make a ton of profits nobody complains but god forbid if the producers of wealth make a little more which is to say the s/v gets a little smaller.

      On another note, Marxism is not the same as reformism. I don’t think Marx ever tried to find reformist solutions to crises in his time.

      1. Well, If Greece is a “capitalist” State, what is socialism operationally speaking?

        IMF often allow foreign creditors to leave a country facing small losses. It’s a shield against market discipline. At the same time it bails out partially the local political elite. But if you think that political leaders borrowed money for the good of the people you’re a little bit optimist about human nature.

        Government means organization, organization implies elites. You must rationalize elites’ behavior if you don’t want to be disappointed by public intervention.

  7. Where there is wage labour, there is Capital and the separation of the collective product of labour from its producers. Socialism involves reconnecting the collective product of labour with its producers and abolishing wage labour. Socialism is the organisation of classless, common ownership and control of the social product of labour. Socialism requires grassroots democractic control of coordinators necessitated by the modern, industrialised, division of labour.

  8. But I don’t want the product of my labor. Neither my father wanted when he was working as a blue collar before retirement. He (and I) just wanted more real salaries, better living condition for his (and my) family and less taxes. And I don’t want to spend all my spare time talking, voting and deciding about everything. I want to be free to not participate and I don’t want to let the right to decide on everything to the other people… And truly, at the moment I’m not so interested in owning and commanding some kind of mean of production. Democracy tend to produce often short-sighted political elites even with check and balances, do you really think it can perform well in every field of human action, in every kind of social organization? I like to participate in the life of my neighborhood, but is it so necessary always thinking, acting, and imagining “collectively”? Do you think all the individuals desire this? Maybe, if you’re well-off and you’re a little bit disconnected with the ordinary life of ordinary people it could even sound good. How and why do you think people would be better off under you system, operationally speaking and without philosophizing? Why Swedish, Danish or Swiss people should rebel to the wage system or even make a revolution?

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