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Richard Wolff reports on the mass movements against austerity policies in Europe

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Across Europe, tens of thousands of people from Spain to Greece to France and many other countries have protested against austerity measures, which they say are shifting the burden of the crisis onto ordinary people and making them pay for things they say were mostly triggered by the American financial crisis and underlying issues within the system, whereby a few people own a lot of stuff and most people don’t. Now joining us, recently returned from his trip to Europe, is Professor Richard Wolff. Professor Wolff is a professor emeritus at the University of Amherst–I should say–let me back up–professor of University of Massachusetts Amherst. And he’s also a visiting professor at New School in New York. Alright. Thanks for joining us, Richard.


JAY: Okay. So talk a bit about your recent trip to Europe. What did you find?

WOLFF: Well, the thing that was most arresting for me was the clear recognition by Europeans of all stripes that their dreams of somehow getting through this global crisis more easily, more smoothly, more quickly than the United States, those dreams are quickly fading. They’re beginning to recognize that they’re in for a long period of difficult struggles. I think it centers on the failure of the bailout of Greece, the contagion from Greece to Portugal, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and so on, and the sense that the policies that they’re following, which are basically rather like the United States, trying to make the mass of people pay by using the taxes raised across Europe to bail out the creditors, mainly banks, of the defunct governments is a strategy that will get them through. I think they’re becoming aware that the amount of money involved is very high, and that therefore the amount of austerity they have imposed on their people and will need to impose to raise all that money is very high, and that the mobilization and anger building in the mass of people is threatening their political lives. You can see it most dramatically in Angela Merkel, the leader of the most important economy in Europe, Germany, who had to hang tough on making sure that there was at least some suffering on the part of banks–very modest in this latest bailout, but at least some. And she did that despite being a conservative politician, because the people of Germany have been voting against her party in rage that they are being asked to pay to bail out basically for a second time the German and French and other banks that lent to Greece.

JAY: Of course, that’s also being positioned as an extreme nationalist argument, both in Germany and in France, that, you know, why should we bail out Greece, why should we bail out Spain and Portugal. What are you seeing in terms of the rise of a kind of hard-right nationalism? Of course, you have, you know, a kind of sociopath like the guy in Norway, but he–at least he had some ideological kinship with this right-wing movement. I don’t think that’s the agenda, to go kill people with that movement. But there is a more official right-wing nationalism developing, is there not?

WOLFF: Right. There’s a struggle. That is, the left in a sense is saying, you are imposing austerity to bail out the banks and to save the credit institutions at the expense of the mass of people. The right-wing really has no answer, because the bailout is obvious and has been in the newspapers and the TV. So the attempt of the right-wing is to convert that from an issue of austerity of the people to bail out banks internationally into a nationalist issue posed as though the German worker was being asked to take it on the chin in favor of a lazy Greek worker. That isn’t really working too well, and Americans have to understand that, because the power of the left in places like France and Germany, the hard, dominant economies in Europe, is much stronger than what we have here in the United States.

JAY: Now, if some of the people that are leading the austerity measures are supposedly left-of-center parties, you know, Papandreou in Greece, and in Spain you’ve got social democrats that are essentially designing or signing on to the austerity measures.

WOLFF: Yes, you have that. And, again, I think the parallel is watching more or less the same thing being performed by Obama here. It is producing in Europe what it is producing here, namely, the systematic splitting of whatever the left was–Obama here, if you like, the Democratic Party, and in Europe, the Socialists are splitting, giving space for new developments. Again, Germany is the best example, where you see the decline of the Social Democratic Party that supports austerity, and the rise of the Left Party and the Green Party in Germany, which are, at least on paper, opposed to it. And so I think you’re going to see a struggle in which the right tries to pose this as a nationalist issue, Greek workers versus German workers, but the left (in both countries, to be fair) is trying to argue, and has been pretty successful, that this is a program to impose austerity everywhere in favor of taking care of the banks, the insurance companies, the wealthy folks who are the basic creditors of the government and who had to lend money to those governments precisely because those governments chose not to tax corporations, insurance companies, and the rich, which, had they done so, they wouldn’t have had to borrow this money.

JAY: Why do you think the mass protest movement in Europe seems to be so–not just bigger, but more mature politically than anything we’re seeing in North America?

WOLFF: Because over the last 50 years, the decline of the left in Europe–and there has been one–is nothing like what happened in the United States. Americans have to understand, we on the left–and that’s where I sit–we allowed, for a whole host of reasons, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the trade union movement in the United States to atrophy, to decline almost on a continuous, year-by-year basis to the point where they barely can survive now. Nothing like that happened in Europe. That is, they had declines, but if one left party declined, it was replaced by another left party and another surge. We had the development of the Left Party in Germany, which is a real model for all of Europe, and they preserved their trade unions and their left organizations. So when this crisis hit, they had the organizational muscle, the years of people accustomed to working with one another to change policy, so that they could find a way to mobilize and express in politically effective ways the left perspective. By contrast, in the United States we have as many left folks as they do, we have a left criticism of what’s going on, but we have let atrophy the organizations that we would need to translate left perspectives into into politically effective, organized activity.

JAY: Now, one of the things that doesn’t seem to get as much attention, but it’s–from what I can observe, is one of the main features of what’s taking place through these austerity measures, is not just an attack on social programs and things, but it’s very much about privatization, taking advantage of this crisis to take things that are from the public domain and privatize them, especially in Greece. I mean, how much is that an issue in amongst the, you know, opposition there? And to what extent does this find parallels in the United States?

WOLFF: I think it’s a very serious question in Europe. I think all eyes in Europe are on Greece to see whether this second bailout will be effective, as it is supposed to be, in forcing the Greek government to basically sell off in the neighborhood of EUR 50 billion worth of public property. They’re going to watch, also very carefully, what those sales mean. Will the private enterprises that buy at cheap prices from the Greek government, ’cause it’s forced to sell these properties, will they cut back employing? Will they move production out of Greece? How will it affect Greece? So it’s not only a test case of will privatization happen, but it’s even more of an examination of what privatization means. And if it hurts Greece in the way that the Greek left predicts, it will harden the determination all over Europe, including in Greece, to reverse it, to prevent it, and to make a struggle against that part of what is going on. I think you need to see that we are at an early stage in Europe in this conflict. There is still the hope, although it is shrinking, that they will get through this crisis soon. Like Americans, they don’t want to face the fact that the way they’re proceeding has to do with a long-term decline of what they call the basic covenant for the mass of people and what we in America tend to call the vanishing middle class. And as that settles in, the lines of battle in Europe, like here, will harden. But the difference is the Europeans are organized for that fight and the Americans are not.

JAY: And in terms of Europe, how much strength does the hard right have? And how likely are we to see something that looks like a 1930s scenario?

WOLFF: Well, I think they’re struggling to get stronger. Their biggest problem–and I think that will replicate itself here, although we do have differences here–but the biggest problem in Europe for the right is that they are seen as stalking horses for big business. Big business is blamed in general for the crisis much more solidly than it is in this country. Europeans, unlike Americans, do not immediately blame the government when economic problems arise. If they’re being fired by private employers, they blame them. Americans fired by private employers leap over the employer and blame the government in a kind of a magical, imaginary notion of what going on. So the right wing in Europe is seen as the plaything of the business community, and the business community is heavily in the doghouse. And so I think the left has a stronger position. But they will be attacked and they will be portrayed–business community there, like here, portrays workers, as much as it can, particularly foreign workers, to each country’s working class as though they were lazy and being carried by the workers in each country, in order to make this a nationalist struggle. But my guess is that’s not going to work and the right is going to be pretty much as it remains–marginal. On the other hand, to be fair, it is the case that as economic suffering spreads, as social safety nets are frayed, as social welfare supports are reduced, angry people look for scapegoats. And the hard right in Europe is kind of unified around a horror of the immigrant and to blame the immigrant, whether that person is Muslim or not, as the scourge that is taking your job, that is depleting the government of resources that it uses to sustain these immigrants who do not work. This scenario is being played out and attracts a certain portion of those being hurt. But there’s a powerful left that has daily newspapers in every country that appears on the radio on every occasion and on television, and they keep before the minds of the European people a very different story. And in the end, that story is about the capitalist class being the ones that are hurting you. And that plays a role in the consciousness of Europe that has no analogy here in the United States.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Richard.

WOLFF: Thank you for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Richard D. Wolff is a Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School University in New York. He is the author of many books, including Democracy at Work: A Cure or Capitalism, and Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.