We saw the reemergence of broad and disruptive anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain this week. Although the causes of fiscal crisis and dramatically increased borrowing costs in the two countries, the proposed remedy from Europe was the same: strict
austerity, based on downsizing spending and government. There’s doubt whether this strategy will preserve the Euro, in Greece particularly, but everyone seems certain that it will mean harsh declines in the standard of living for most people living through it, and no one suggests this that austerity will mean even a relatively quick correction. The Spanish and Greek governments are bracing for years of cutbacks.
Every time a new round of reforms is announced, people take to the streets. Although most people seem to want to save the Euro, most people also seem to think that protecting the people is even more important the defending the currency. In Greece, activists staged a general strike, and some took to the streets of Athens throwing petrol bombs. It’s hard to imagine that governments can continue to tighten fiscal constraints further, step by step, and not provoke even more disruptive protests. Importantly, these actions are not spontaneous, but are organized by groups with broad bases of support and particular interests and constituencies to defend. The unions are critical here.
In Spain, thousands of protesters tried to surround the parliament in opposition to austerity policies, and the Catalonian independence movement reemerged. Policy makers are caught between domestic democratic pressures and the demands of mostly German bankers. There’s not an obvious or easy solution for governments. The protests are raising the costs of austerity; presently, most elected officials don’t see viable alternatives. Meanwhile, riot police are defending the parliament with force, including rubber bullets, and activists are streaming video of their efforts (http://www.livestream.com/ICBcn?t=782341).
Activists elsewhere have seized upon the reemergence of broad public protests against austerity to try to restart their own campaigns. Occupy Wall Street has posted a call for a global “surround the Congress” campaign, announcing protests in major cities around the world today. And Adbusters has announced a Halloween Party in Washington, DC (October 31).
Days before a presidential election in the United States, it’s hard for me to imagine a huge turnout in DC. Even if Adbusters describes the election as a choice between Coke and Pepsi, most activists are going to see more substantial differences between administrations headed by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. But in European countries embracing austerity, where elections have generated broad coalitions or caretaker technocratic governments, it’s easier to imagine that frustrated people will see no more promising approach than street protest.