French Labor Law, Brexit, and Greek Austerity: Class War Against European Workers
Economist Richard Wolff says the old European elite believed it could fix their broken capitalism on the backs of the masses and that has proved to be a fatal mistake
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Labor and student-led protests continue in Paris in opposition to labor conditions that are being rolled back in a bill that is forcing France to conform to EU demands. The bill is being voted on on Tuesday. There have been dozens of protests in France since March inciting discussions against neoliberal economics. Europeans are still [scorching] from the Brexit vote last week that throws the whole relevance of the European Union into question.
Our next guest, Richard Wolff, argues that recent political realignment in Europe are the result of a working class disgruntled by the effects of capitalism. Richard Wolff is joining us now from New York, although he’s just been to Europe, and France in particular. Richard 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’s the author of many books, including Democracy at Work: A Cure or Capitalism, and the just-released book Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens.
Thank you so much for joining us, Richard.
RICHARD WOLFF: Glad to be here.
PERIES: I know you’re preoccupied with the disgruntled working class in Europe at large, but let’s discuss France first, the number of labor unions and student movements out there protesting this labor bill. Give us a sense of what’s going on, and why this bill has been introduced.
WOLFF: Well, it’s full of ironies that are wonderful signs for what is going on, because they point so clearly.
Here’s the basic story. A government, voted in by the French working class, a socialist government–Mr. Hollande as the president is a socialist, and the socialists have a commanding majority in the parliament, et cetera–this socialist government, voted in on the promise of not allowing austerity in France the way it has been imposed on so many other countries, like Greece, and Spain, and so on, is now in a sense showing his true colors. He’s turned completely around. Forgotten are the promises to undo austerity, and what’s worse, he’s pushed through a labor reform law which basically does everything that the employers in France could have dreamed for a president to do.
It allows employers to fire workers more easily than they could before. It allows employers to command overtime. It allows less to be paid to workers. It is, in short, a bill that is so lopsided and so one-sided in its effects that first students and now the CGT, the most important trade union federation in France, have basically declared war on the government and on this law, and every day there are clashes in Paris, mostly now between the CGT, the unions, on the one hand, and the government.
But the newspapers are filled with spectacles of helmeted police being sent by a socialist government to beat the very people that put that government into office. And if anything were more clearly a sign of the collapse of what the very word “socialism” meant, as well as the collapse of conventional politics, it’s being acted out on the streets of Paris.
PERIES: Now, Hollande initially initiated this bill by decree. Now, it’s standing up for a vote today. What is that vote, and is it expected to pass?
WOLFF: Well, it’s become a very contentious issue. The reason it was originally done by Hollande as a decree was because it was quite clear that if it had been submitted to the parliament it would not have passed. Whether enough arms have been twisted, whether enough polarization has happened, whether enough under-the-table and above-the-table promises have been made to get it through, all the vote will mean is yet another maneuver, another step, in what is now a standoff between the labor movement and its supporters on the one hand, and this socialist so-called government on the other.
And how that plays out now is nobody’s clear call. Passing the bill, not passing the bill. This is a moment of enormous historic importance, in its way as important as the Brexit vote in Britain.
PERIES: And of course, what happened just a year ago in Greece, where in spite of the referendum to not accept the terms of the bailout package, the Syriza government went ahead and did it anyway in spite of the vote and the popular vote that turned out and said, you know, we don’t mind even leaving the European Union in order to maintain and stop the austerity measures on us. So this is definitely a trend that’s going on across Europe. Give us a sense of the other developments that you see that contribute to this division in terms of the working classes, and the discontent and disgruntled working classes, as you say.
WOLFF: Let me pick up from what you said, because it’s a perfect starting point. In Greece you had a classic situation. A poor, small corner of the European economy, only freshly part of the unified Europe, is overwhelmed by the economic crisis of capitalism’s dissolving itself in 2008. No one in their right mind could have blamed the Greek government or Greek policy for causing that crisis.
However, in the years since 2008, the European rich countries, led by Germany, have beaten into submission the Greek people, making them pay through austerity programs, cut wages, cut government services, all of that, pay a heavy, heavy price for an economic crisis they didn’t cause, and an economic crisis that had already hurt them in the private sector. But now they’re going to be savaged by the Europeans in the followup as they tried to cope with this crisis. They got away with it, just as you said. Even when the Greek people clearly voted by a majority not to go down the road of austerity, it was forced on them by the French, the Germans, and by their complicity, the British, as well.
That emboldened the old elites that run Europe to believe that they could do pretty much what they want. Fix their broken capitalism on the backs of the mass of people, with cut government services, cut government employment, all of the austerity programs properly, so-called, without worrying about the consequences. And that has proved to be a fatal mistake.
You may have been able to run over the Greeks, but nobody missed the message. Not the Greeks, and not the French, and not the British. They could see what was being done, and they began, through their suffering since 2008 and watching this process unfold, they began to recognize that this was a capitalism in the West, at least, that was bringing them bad news. It wasn’t delivering the goods. It was delivering lower wages, less secure jobs, fewer benefits, and less government help. And this is really what is going on.
In the case of Britain, it’s perfectly clear that the mass of people wanted to send a message to the old, established, austerity-committed government of David Cameron, that they don’t want him, they don’t want what he does, they don’t believe in any of this. They believe that the leadership of the European Union, what is crushing Greece, et cetera, is not something they want to be part of. They feel victimized by all of that. And the Brexit vote gave them a chance to say no, we don’t want it. Sure, there were racist elements and anti-immigration elements. That’s part of the British political scene. Of course it’s going to play its role, seeking its objectives as part of this.
But the bigger story is what’s happening to the working class as it begins to enter into a real historical fight. That’s why the unions in France have been able to mobilize very strong popular support for their anti-government demand that workers’ lives not be damaged more than they already have.
And finally, here we are in the United States, where again the same scenario, in my judgment, is being played out. The old establishment that ran the Republican Party and then ran the Democratic Party for decades find itself surprised, amazed, just like Mr. Cameron in England, by what’s unfolding. Mr. Trump, considered by the old establishment to be a clown, is now a presumptive leader. And on the other side, Mr. Sanders, who is expected to be a marginal 2-3 percenter, is turning out to be a massively popular leader despite calling himself a socialist.
You’re seeing everywhere that the traditional, old, capitalist-maintaining center-left, center-right, is dissolving. And the polarization is the new issue on the horizon. It is surprising the old elites, but that’s really only a sign of how out of touch those governing elites have become as they become not only richer than everybody else, but have become basically spokespersons for those who’ve done real well in the last 70 years. But those are not more than 5-10 percent of the people, and everybody else is now looking in new directions for new solutions.
PERIES: Richard Wolff, such a pleasure to have you on the Real News, and we look forward to ongoing analysis from you.
WOLFF: My pleasure, I’d be glad to do it.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.