“Growth” is, once again, the buzzword of the moment among Europe’s politicians, thanks to Francoise Hollande, the milquetoast Socialist recently elected to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France. “My mission now,” Hollande told supporters on the night of his electoral victory, “is to give European construction a growth dimension.” President Obama praised Holland at Camp David, telling reporters he would urge “other G8 leaders” to adopt a “strong growth agenda.” The previous buzzword, “austerity,” is meanwhile in decline.
Considering this shift a victory for the anti-austerity movements occupying Europe’s historic plazas over the course of the last two years mistakes both what the elites mean when they say “growth” and what the dissidents want instead of austerity. It is similar to the way liberal commentators in the United States reliably recite the official line that Occupy Wall Street “changed the conversation” on “income inequality” (which we grown-ups will take care of now from our D.C. office buildings, so please shut up now).
The dissidents do express antipathy toward austerity, of course, but that doesn’t imply a desire for what Hollande means when he says “growth.” Both “austerity” and “growth” are cognates of capitalism—”growth” is the Keynesian form, “austerity” the Hayekian—and the dissident movements have by and large rejected the confines of this debate, challenging us to imagine alternatives to either. “Another world,” as they say, “is possible.”
In Madrid, the organizing banner held that, “We are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians.” In Athens, the first vote of the people’s assembly of Syntagma Square declared, “We are here because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us.” In New York, the Declaration of the Occupation insisted “no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.” The indignados and the aganaktismenoi and Wall Street occupiers did not merely pick a side in the capitalists’ ideological tiff. Rather, they have expressly rejected the underlying assumptions and mechanisms of capitalism—the primacy of the profit motive, a perverse incentive on corruption and fraud, the capture of ostensible democracy by the interests of wealth, its tendency toward state monopoly, environmental appropriation, and global conquest, and so forth.
The movements gained a reputation as being merely anti-austerity because austerity is the most abusive, exploitative form of capitalism, and the one on offer since Wall Street bulldozed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had exactly the same effects in Europe—in Greece and Spain above all—as it has in the Global South ever since the IMF began structurally adjusting impoverished former colonial states: rising homelessness, shrinking access to health care and education, a persistently crushing job market, and privatization of collectively owned natural resources.
Hollande’s agenda, even, has deceptively liberal features. It includes lowering the retirement age, hiring teachers, and raising taxes on rich people and corporations. Hollande, like Obama, emerged from the elite political consensus at G8 convinced that growth is the most desirable organizing economic principle, that what every nation is after is the endlessly accelerating progression of ever more production, consumption, expansion, credit and business. Booming employment, booming consumerism, booming profits and booming innovation.
Growth, however, does not address the crux of the crisis: governments’ susceptibility to manipulation by the forces of global capitalism. It certainly doesn’t help a planet suffocating from our economies’ growing energy requirements. However, the discussions in the halls of power presuppose capitalist supremacy and disagree from positions within those parameters. That is, the recent supposed “death of austerity” constitutes Keynesian capitalists’ exploitation of the insurrectionary political mood to steal from Hayekian capitalists the trajectory of global capitalism.
Or steal back, rather. Because, as readers may recall, we have already done growth. French socialists might pine for the economy of the 1960s (as American Democrats might miss Glass-Steagall), but it was the socialist Mitterrand who introduced austerity in the 1980s (and Democratic President Bill Clinton who enacted the repeal of Glass-Steagall). Regard what growth hath wrought in Greece.
It was growth that drove Greece to take out a secret deal with Goldman Sachs in 2001, whereby the country would borrow €2.8 billion and hide the loan under a credit default swap in order to stay within Eurozone debt limits. As part of the deal, Goldman used exchange-rate trickery to slap big-time fees on Greece, to the tune of $739 million, or 12 percent of Goldman’s record $6.35 billion revenue that year. (Lloyd Blankfein, who headed the Goldman unit responsible for the deal, is now Goldman’s chairman and CEO.)
It was growth that drove Greek officials to accept bribes from Siemens, the German-based company active in—get this—industry, energy, healthcare, equity investments, IT solutions and financial services. Siemens wanted lucrative state contracts around the 2004 Olympic Games, and officials on both sides of the Greek aisle were more than happy to oblige, so long as their palms were sufficiently greased. The Siemens deal only cost Greek taxpayers €2 billion in the process.
And the result? Consider the story of 60-year-old Greek musician Antonis Perris. He lived with his Alzheimer’s-stricken 90-year-old mother on the latter’s €340 pension—roughly $427. When Perris himself developed what he called “serious health problems,” he sold everything he could, but still lacked funds on which to survive. “Is it possible to live this way without food?” he asked on a popular Internet forum. “Do any of you know the answer?” The next day, he pushed his mother out of their fifth story window and leapt after her. Greece’s suicide rates rose a breathtaking 22 percent in the two years after the crisis, before which it had one of the lowest in the world.
Growth ballooned Greece’s debt. Austerity just put it in a chokehold. Perris’s desperation is an emblem of a people crying uncle. But crying uncle doesn’t mean you want to go back to being bullied after the bully lets go. People in the squares of Europe and the United States, not to mention the Middle East, want to abolish the bully altogether and move to a new set of property relations. It is a set they have already erected in their encampments, one based on mutual aid, solidarity, sustainability, attention to historical oppressions and personal freedom.
What remains is the question of scale. For the solidarity-driven free economies and horizontal polities of the world’s occupied squares to supplant global capitalism, the number of people willing to fight to generate that change will have to grow massively. The challenge before international dissidents is how to grow the already widespread insurrectionary spirit and avoid getting sidetracked by celebrating minor adjustments in political rhetoric.