Friday, September 14, 2012

The future political economy of post-crisis Europe

Two weeks ago George Soros wrote an article where he explained the essential political dynamic of the Eurocrisis, by invoking a specific historical comparison:
There is a close parallel between the euro crisis and the international banking crisis of 1982. Then the IMF and the international banking authorities saved the international banking system by lending just enough money to the heavily indebted countries to enable them to avoid default but at the cost of pushing them into a lasting depression. Latin America suffered a lost decade. 
Today Germany is playing the same role as the IMF did then. The details differ, but the effect is the same. The creditors are in effect shifting the whole burden of adjustment onto the debtor countries and avoiding their own responsibility for the imbalances. Interestingly, the terms “center,” or “core,” and “periphery” have crept into usage almost unnoticed, although it is obviously inappropriate to describe Italy and Spain as periphery countries. In effect, however, the introduction of the euro relegated some member states to the status of less developed countries without either the European authorities or the member countries realizing it. In retrospect, that is the root cause of the euro crisis. 
Just as in the 1980s, all the blame and burden is falling on the “periphery” and the responsibility of the “center” has never been properly acknowledged. In this context the German word Schuld is revealing: it means both debt and guilt. German public opinion blames the heavily indebted countries for their misfortune.
This is precisely the argument I made two years ago. Back then I made the exact same comparison, and explained why this German approach to the resolution of the Eurocrisis put into question the very existential and moral premise of European Union:
The question is whether the Germans can get away with imposing what amounts to a structural adjustment program (SAP) on their fellow euro-zone members. In other words, are the Germans going to be allowed to do to PIIGs what the US did to Latin America in the aftermath of the 1982 debt crisis
That story is worth remembering in some detail. What happened in that case was that US banks, flush with petrodollars from the Middle East, had gone on a huge lending spree in the 1970s to Latin American governments, which used the money on a mixture of corrupt payoffs for rich elites and promises of social welfare for the middle classes. By the early 1980s, as interest rates skyrocketed, these countries were no longer able to service their debts. Mexico declared in 1982 that it was not going to pay, several other Latin American countries followed suit, and for a few months that winter it looked possible that the entire global capitalist banking system might implode. 
To make a very complicated story short, what happened next was that the U.S. and the IMF agreed to restructure the Latin Americans' debts, in exchange for the imposition of "structural adjustment." The SAPs contained a number of critical elements, which in principle were designed to ensure the fiscal health of the debtor governments, but which also entailed a form of national and transnational class warfare: the rolling back of state ownership of key industries; the lowering of tariff barriers; the restriction of the autonomy of unions; the curtailing of price controls on food, water and other life essentials; and the scaling back of social welfare promises. 
This process of economic restructuring is most often remembered as having been responsible for producing a so-called "Lost Decade," in which economic growth rates plummeted across Latin America. But arguably what went lost was something much bigger than a mere decade of productivity. In fact, the SAPs ultimately involved the wholesale abandonment of an entire social-political vision, namely the promise of "development" as a process of building "social modernist" welfare states akin to those enjoyed in the Global North. In other words, it spelled the end of a certain kind of social dream, a certain kind of political ideal -- the dream that they would one day converge with the wealth and lifestyle of the North. 
Now, the U.S. bankers and politicians could get away with destroying this dream in part because they themselves didn't really believe in that dream any longer (if indeed they ever had); in part because the U.S. people felt no political or social solidarity with the Latin Americans; and in part because Latin American elites were disunified in their response to the demands of Washington and New York. 
By contrast, the whole point of the European Union is supposed to be about pan-continental political solidarity in the name of building social welfare states. Furthermore, the social democratic nature of all the European governments means that throwing the middle classes under the banking bus is anathema - especially if it's "our" (Greek, Spanish, etc.) middle classes and "their" (German, French) banks. 
So that's the key question: Is the European Union a fundamentally socially democratic institution? a collection of social and political equals who will stand together in a time of hardship? If that's the case, then the Germans will have to pay. Or alternately, will the Germans succeed in getting the taxpayers and social service consumers in the PIIGs to pay? In which case the beautiful dream of pan-European solidarity will be revealed as a lie, and it's hard to see how the European Union survives as a political project.
Soros's analysis from two weeks ago makes precisely the same point about what the outcome of imposing such a structural adjustment program will be for the comity of European nations:
The European Union that will emerge from this process will be diametrically opposed to the idea of a European Union that is the embodiment of an open society. It will be a hierarchical system built on debt obligations instead of a voluntary association of equals. There will be two classes of states, creditors and debtors, and the creditors will be in charge. As the strongest creditor country, Germany will emerge as the hegemon. The class differentiation will become permanent because the debtor countries will have to pay significant risk premiums for access to capital and it will become impossible for them to catch up with the creditor countries. 
The divergence in economic performance, instead of narrowing, will become wider. Both human and financial resources will be attracted to the center and the periphery will become permanently depressed. Germany will even enjoy some relief from its demographic problems by the immigration of well-educated people from the Iberian Peninsula and Italy instead of less qualified Gastarbeiter from Turkey or Ukraine. But the periphery will be seething with resentment.
Is that really the Europe the Germans want? Or maybe it's just the only Europe they're willing to pay for.

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