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Meet the Next Country That Might Explode into Protests Against Corporate Plunder and Slave Labor Working Conditions
Meet the Next Country That Might Explode into Protests Against Corporate Plunder and Slave Labor Working Conditions
Will the wave of global unrest crash on Indonesia next?
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Originally published on AlterNet
Indonesia – a Southeast Asian archipelago that is home to the largest Muslim population on Earth – is a key global hot spot for corporate plundering, worker exploitation, land grabs and environmental devastation. Simultaneously, the country is becoming a tinderbox for militant labour unrest, peasant rebellion and indigenous resistance. After 500 years of domination by imperial powers, the population of Indonesia is organizing and resisting the ‘new order’ of global corporate colonization. Much like Brazil and Turkey, Indonesia has been praised by the imperial powers as a “model democracy” and the IMF hails its progress as an “emerging economy.” The illusions of Turkish and Brazilian state-capitalist ‘democracy’ have been revealed by massive urban uprisings. The conditions are present for Indonesia to become home to its own national uprising, the only question may be: what will be the spark?
Indonesia: A “Model Democracy” and “Emerging Economy”
Indonesia has been roundly praised by the major imperial powers as a “model democracy” – assuming they have any legitimacy to judge what that may be, with former World Bank president and Pentagon official in the Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz, having written that Indonesia was “an example for other aspiring democracies,” having shown a “remarkable” achievement in “building democratic institutions.” Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the “great transformation” of Indonesia since the dictatorship of Suharto, stating: “If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”
President Obama even praised Indonesia’s “extraordinary democratic transformation” which demonstrated “that democracy and development reinforce one another.” British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that Indonesia could “inspire” young Muslims around the world “to choose democracy as their future.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germans “view Indonesia as a model of peaceful and tolerant development,” and even suggested that the way in which Indonesia tackled its debt was “an example of what can be achieved and what Europe has to achieve.” Perhaps, Greece and Spain – in time – could become what Merkel views as “model democracies” along the lines of Indonesia.
Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and one of the top 20 economies in the world – listed among the major “emerging economies” – with one of the cheapest labour forces in Asia, which the New York Times explained was “a main reason [corporations] are attracted to Indonesia.” In 2013, Indonesia was listed as the world’s 12th largest exporter of textile products, with the minimum wage averaging $80-160 per month (as determined by local governments), compared with $75 in Cambodia and $37 in Bangladesh.
In a country of 240 million people, roughly 120 million live on less than $2 per day, though the government maintains that only 12% of the population – 30 million – live in poverty (which it defines as less than 86 cents U.S. per day), while 40% of children under the age of five suffer from moderate to severe ‘stunting’ due to malnutrition.
Despite the mass poverty and increasing growth of slums, a small section of Indonesian society has witnessed a remarkable growth in wealth, with the explosion of shopping malls, luxury cars and goods, and high-rise buildings. For Indonesia, “wealth and poverty are both on the rise.” The combined wealth of the country’s 40 richest individuals equaled that of its 60 million poorest citizens. Standard Chartered Bank noted that, “despite the rhetoric about middle classes contributing to growth in Indonesia, 82 percent of the population is living on less than four dollars a day.” Further, most of the economic ‘growth’ was experienced only by the consumer elite within the country.
A Pew Research Poll released in 2013 noted that only 37% of Indonesians felt their economy was “doing well,” with the number one concern needing to be addressed was that of rising prices, ranked above economic disparity, unemployment and sovereign debt. Roughly 75% of Indonesians felt that the economic system “generally favors the wealthy,” with 60% saying inequality had increased in recent years.
A Human Rights Watch researcher noted that with the “routine” trampling of rights for religious and ethnic minorities in Indonesia, along with brutal repression of peaceful protests, the imprisoning of political prisoners, along with torture and denial of medical care for prisoners, “the country is by no means a bastion of tolerance.” A former Indonesian economic minister recently noted that “the outlook for Indonesia becoming a well-functioning democracy is fast deteriorating,” with a tiny elite controlling the country while most people “have few prospects for improving their lives.” A former Indonesian foreign minister suggested that the country was fast in need of “a second wave of democratic reforms,” as when economic conditions worsen, “we will have a reaction on the street” since there existed within the country, a “dissatisfaction at a deeper level with the current state of democracy.” Even the Wall Street Journal noted that with the country’s continuous economic growth, “underneath lies a restlessness for real change that would affect the common person.”
But let’s not let facts get in the way of further praise; the IMF certainly doesn’t.
The Rising “Restlessness” from “Underneath”
The IMF has written in glowing terms of the success of Indonesia’s “structural reforms” which have led to “healthy” balance sheets for corporations and financial institutions. Growth forecasts remained above 6%, though more work could be done, noted the IMF: ending fuel subsidies, investing in infrastructure (meeting the demands of corporations), and to continue with “reforms” to labour laws, allowing for reduced wages, less benefits and protections for workers, and thus, attracting “foreign investment.”
In April of 2013, the IMF warned that “emerging Asia” needed to be careful about asset bubbles – like those that helped plunge the U.S. economy into crisis – and recommended the countries of the region “liberalize rigid labour and product markets,” thus allowing for cheaper labour in what is already a region for some of the cheapest labour on Earth.
Being the 12th largest exporter of textile products in the world, Indonesia is home to a significant sweatshop economy, marred by pervasive exploitation of labour. One Taiwanese-owned sweatshop employs nearly 10,000 people, mostly women, who work for 50 cents per hour making shoes for Nike, where the employees were verbally and physically abused. Indonesia is home to Nike’s third largest manufacturing base, following China and Vietnam, exploiting roughly 140,000 workers.
Indonesia’s ‘labour law’ – which was passed several years earlier – provided for slightly increased wages and severance pay in the event that a company decides to ‘downsize’ its workforce. Corporations have gotten around this law by hiring labour as ‘contract workers’ and firing them without benefits (what Indonesians call “outsourcing”). While corporations have been able to find legal loopholes – or simply ignore the law altogether – they have been facing increased pressure from labour unrest in recent years, and not merely in the textiles sector.
As the economy boomed in recent years, the labour force wanted a greater share of the benefits. Strikes had been increasing with demands for higher wages by mine workers, supermarket clerks, pilots and others who have “disrupted business operations – and could potentially deter foreign dollars.” The country had 53 strikes in the first seven months of 2010 alone, and they were continuing through subsequent years.
A strike took place at a plant owned by the French retail giant Carrefour in 2011 in protests against the company’s avoidance of adhering to Indonesia’s labour laws and in demand of higher wages. The strike was organized by one of the country’s largest trade unions – Kasbi – which represents 130,000 workers and has as its slogan, “Young, brave, militant.” Increasingly, labour organizers and workers have been connecting through social media, gaining access to more information than ever before and facilitating new ways to organize.
During the strike wave of 2011, Indonesia’s investment chief complained about the labour unrest in his country in an interview with the New York Timeswhere he expressed his fears that it would “reduce profit margins and competitiveness,” adding: “My concern is this will trigger a domino effect … it may trigger pressure for a rise in wages that not all companies can afford.” In May of 2013, Basri would go on to be appointed as the country’s finance minister.
In early 2012, Nike paid a $1 million out-of-court settlement for not having paid 4,500 workers at a factory for over 600,000 hours of overtime over the course of two years. The chairman of Indonesia’s trade union Serikat Pekerja National noted, “This has the potential to send shockwaves through the Indonesian labour movement… We have only just begun.”
In October of 2012, roughly 2.8 million factory workers across the country went on a one-day strike supported by several unions in 24 cities. In the capital of Jakarta, more than 700 companies were shut down for the day, while the government deployed 11,000 police officers and 4,000 military personnel to “secure” the rallies throughout the city. The mass protests were in opposition to companies hiring labour as “contract workers” and in demand of higher wages. Rallies were held across Jakarta and the country, where trade union leaders gave what the Financial Times referred to as “fiery speeches,” while the managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia complained that corporations viewed the existing labour laws as “counter-productive.”
The mass protests continued into November, at which point the government announced it was considering a minimum wage increase of up to 50%, though corporations were warning they would move their factories elsewhere. Following continued agitation over the course of the month, which saw demonstrators entering factories, urging workers to join them and shutting down production, the new governor of Jakarta approved a 44% increase in the province’s minimum wage. Tens of thousands of workers continued to protest, while business leaders complained that, “the minimum wage should be lower.” As the protests threatened the President’s major infrastructure development plans, one large corporate group warned: “The frequent protests are obstructive… They are getting to be too much and must be stopped.”
As the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned earlier in 2012, while many governments in Asia had been experiencing rapid economic growth, rising inequality had become a major problem that could lead to social unrest and create “pressure to take on populist policies that are economically not very wise.” It advised Asian countries “to do something about it.”
In December, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly known as SBY) declared an end to the “era of cheap labour,” noting that wages were set to increase in a few provinces, though added that the government could not tolerate “disturbances in the production process.” A government economic minister stated in a speech that, “We should also take sides with businesses. Companies unable to comply with the minimum wage increases should immediately file a report with the government to demand a wage freeze. We will definitely facilitate them.” The threat of unrest and resistance had prompted several Asian countries – including Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and China – to begin increasing their minimum wages by the end of the year.
As 2013 arrived and the wage increases were set to take effect, companies were finding their way around the new laws. Several Nike plants hired police and military officials to intimidate workers into signing away their rights to higher wages. Even before the New Year, roughly a thousand companies were seeking exemptions from the government in paying the higher wages. By mid-January, 941 companies had sought exemptions, by which time the government had granted 47. Thousands of workers took to the streets in protest, often met with police brutality or violence from “organized thugs.”
By early February, the government announced that of the total of 941 companies wanting exemptions, “we will grant about 80 percent of them.” Instead, 500 companies were given a “delay” in paying higher wages, with more expected. Labour groups were increasingly threatening action and agitation in response. Tens of thousands of workers continued to take to the streets in protest, demanding companies adhere to the law, that the government enforce it, and requesting a health insurance and pension system. Business groups were threatening to layoff up to a million workers and close 1,300 factories if they were forced to follow the law. One business group complained that companies were “facing tough times.”
On May 1 – the international labour day known as ‘May Day’ – tens of thousands of workers in Jakarta went on a one-day strike and march, bringing the city to a “standstill.” Roughly 50,000 people protested outside the Presidential Palace, not only demanding better wages and conditions, but also opposing the government’s new plan to raise fuel prices (by cutting subsidies). The Indonesia press reported that roughly 135,000 workers joined the May Day marches, as business groups complained such protests were a threat to “economic growth.”
Like any good state-capitalist ‘democracy,’ Indonesia went on to ignore the will of the people and bow to the will of the IMF. Following the advice of the IMF and World Bank, the government of Indonesia passed a law in mid-June to reduce fuel subsidies and increase the cost of fuel by 44% over the coming weeks. Thousands of protesters took to the streets over several days, met with tens of thousands of police and security personnel. Students and other groups joined demonstrations across the country, noting that increased costs of fuel raise the prices of other goods and services, such as food, clothing and public transportation. The cut to subsidies was designed to “ease investor concerns” about Indonesia’s finances. During the protests, the police used excessive force – as well as hiring “local thugs” – to attack protesters, and arrested 229 students in 62 cities, with roughly 118 students injured during protests, often by being fired upon with rubber bullets.
Can it really be said that Indonesia is a “model democracy” when so much of its economic “growth” is built on the backs of the mass exploitation of workers, and for the benefit of undemocratic global corporations? Indonesia is a model, perhaps, but not of democracy: it is a model for the global corporate plutocracy.
Though it has been fifteen years since the end of dictatorship, Indonesia’s transition to democracy has barely begun. The democratic aspirations of Indonesians are not seen in the luxury cars, shopping malls or high-rises that span the cityscapes – as the idolatries of economic ‘growth’ – but rather, it is seen in the workers who emerge from the factory sweatshops and take to the streets en masse, demanding the promises of democracy and economic growth be realized at long last.
Extractive Industries and Exploited Communities
Suharto’s ‘New Order’ witnessed the carving up of much of Indonesia’s wealth for American, British, French, German, Japanese and other corporations from the powerful countries of the world. The neoliberal era – from the 1980s onward – witnessed an exponential increase in corporate colonization, a process that accelerated with Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to ‘democracy.’
In the early 1970s, the American oil company Mobil Oil discovered one of the world’s largest natural gas fields at Arun, located in Aceh province. For three decades, the Indonesian military waged a battle against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which sought autonomy from the country, leaving 10-30,000 people killed. When Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, it retained control of the Arun project, and the military continued to attack local villages with the direct support of ExxonMobil. A lawsuit against Exxon alleges that the company “supervised, controlled and directed” military personnel who committed major human rights abuses between 1999 and 2001.
The region of West Papua was not part of Indonesia, but was a separate Dutch colony struggling for independence in the early 1960s. The U.S. and U.N. negotiated an agreement in 1962 where West Papua would be under the “interim control” of Indonesia for six years, at which point the country would vote for independence or to be part of Indonesia. When Suharto took full power in 1967, he negotiated an agreement with Freeport to grant a mining concession in the region. When the election in 1969 saw overwhelming support for independence, Suharto declared the area “a military operation zone” and sent in the military to crush the people’s local movement. Repression was rampant for decades, with up to 100,000 West Papuans having been murdered since 1969 in what some have referred to as a “slow-motion genocide.” Despite the region’s immense natural wealth, it remains as Indonesia’s poorest province. The Freeport mine itself has created “irreversible ecological devastation” to the region, with hundreds of thousands of tons of waste dumped into waterways and valleys daily.
The U.S.-based Freeport mine in West Papua – the largest copper and gold reserves in the world – experienced a three-month strike in 2011, where workers were demanding higher wages. Workers were paid as low as $1.50 per hour, while the mine made the company $5 billion in 2010 alone. Eventually, after a great deal of violence and injuries, including one death, the workers agreed to a 37% wage increase (far from their demands for a five-fold increase), but one union official noted, “This is not the end of our struggle.” Freeport had been paying millions of dollars directly to the police which guard its facilities, who had – on occasion – opened fire on the workers as they were protesting against the mine. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011, Freeport had given $79.1 million to Indonesian police and military forces.
As Amnesty International has noted, the police and security forces in Indonesia were often implicated in “torture, excessive use of force and unlawful killings.” Freeport’s chairman in 2005 explained: “There is no alternative to our reliance on the Indonesian military and police… The need for this security… as well as the decisions regarding our relationships with the Indonesian government and its security institutions, are ordinary business activities.”
Tin mining on the Indonesian island of Bangka has been popular among imperialists since the Dutch colonized the country in the early 19th century. Combined with the neighbouring island, Belitung, tin mining on these islands accounts for 90% of Indonesia’s tin, with the country being the second-largest exporter of tin in the world, used largely for consumer electronics. Indonesia supplies companies such as Samsung, Foxconn, Apple, Sony and LG with tin from these islands. The miners get paid low wages and workplace injuries (and deaths) have been on the rise in recent years. Further, the “lucrative but destructive trade… has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, [and] killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs.” This destruction has often resulted in protests, some numbering over tens of thousands of locals.
In November of 2012, the U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez, stated that the United States hoped to “double its trade with Indonesia over the next five years,” as U.S. corporations were getting “excited about the opportunities” in the country for ‘growth.’ Sanchez traveled to Indonesia to encourage more trade between the countries, and he was accompanied by a delegation of corporate leaders from Cisco Systems, General Electric, and Honeywell International, among others.
Among the “opportunities” for growth – inspiring the ‘excitement’ of multinational corporate plunderers – is the profit that can be extracted from partaking in major land grabs and the destruction of the environment, with the added bonus of displacing thousands of peasant and indigenous communities in the process.
Land Grabs Lay Waste to Indonesia
Massive land grabs have been accelerating around the world since 2009, driving Indigenous peoples and farming communities off the land as foreign investors lay waste to the environment and create cash crops for export to rich countries. Oxfam noted in 2011 that the global land grabs were “already leading to conflict, hunger and human rights abuses,” since the ‘investment’ deals ignore the rights of those who live on the land, “leaving them homeless and without land to grow enough food to eat and make a living.” Land grabbing has been encouraged by the World Bank and IMF, most aggressively in Africa, but have spread across the world, from Central America to Indonesia.
In April of 2013, a Canadian mining company – East Asia Minerals Corporation – announced that it was working with the Indonesian government to “re-zone” nearly 2 million hectares of protected forest in Aceh for “industrial activities,” including mining, logging, and palm oil plantations. The company announced in a press release that they were working with the government to reclassify zones from “protected forest” to “production forest.”
Environmental groups warned that the reclassification could put biodiversity at risk, including endangered rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and tigers. Scientists from the Asia chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation released a declaration stating: “Aceh forests are essential for food security, regulating water flows in both the monsoon and drought seasons to irrigate rice fields and other cash crops… Forest disruption in Aceh’s upland areas will increase the risk of destructive flooding for people living downstream in the coastal lowlands.” Despite opposition from environmental groups, scientists, human rights groups and local communities, the “model democracy” government said it hoped to approve the plan “as soon as possible,” which the mining company said was “positive news.”
This “positive news” has the effect of not only destroying what’s left of the third largest rainforest on Earth – and causing irreversible harm to its biodiversity – but it is also displacing the Indigenous and small farmer communities that live off the land and forests, most of whom are not compensated and forced to either migrate to urban slums or work for minimal wages at the companies that stole their land. Many communities resist, but are met with the “heavy-handed security and paramilitary forces.” In the previous ten years, more than 10 million hectares of land was “given away and converted to plantations,” destroying thousands of communities and laying waste to the environment in the process.
Over 600 conflicts over land in Indonesia were reported in 2011, including 22 deaths and hundreds of injuries. A national human rights commission in Indonesia reported over 5,000 human rights violations in 2012, largely linked to companies involved in deforestation. The founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union – with a membership of 700,000 – noted that the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations “has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger,” marred by forced evictions, violence, torture and even death.
A director of Friends of the Earth in Indonesia noted: “Who controls the land in Indonesia controls the politics. Corruption is massive around natural resources. We are seeing a new corporate colonialism. In the Suharto era you were sent to prison for talking about the government. Now you can be sent there for talking about corporations.” The police presence around plantations has been increasing, as has violent repression as the government “is trying to clamp down on mass protests.”
In the span of thirty years, global agribusiness, pulp and paper companies have turned the islands of Sumatra and Borneo – the third and sixth largest islands in the world – into near wastelands, threatening the incredible biodiversity – including endangered tigers, rhinos and elephants – to develop biofuels, vegetable oil and toilet paper. Scientists and environmentalists recently warned that “one of the 21st century’s greatest ecological disasters is rapidly unfolding.” In a matter of years, more than half of the third largest rainforest on Earth has been destroyed, and 70% of what remains is marked for “transition” into plantations. Nearly one million hectares of rainforest are destroyed every year in Indonesia, with scientists suggesting the endangered wildlife on the region will be extinct within a couple decades.
One Greenpeace official in Indonesia explained: “This is the fastest, most comprehensive transformation of an entire landscape that has ever taken place anywhere in the world including the Amazon. If it continues at this rate all that will be left in 20 years is a few fragmented areas of natural forest surrounded by huge manmade plantations. There will be increased floods, fires and droughts but no animals.” A director of Indonesia’s largest environmental group, Walhi, noted, “The legacy of deforestation has been conflict, increased poverty, migration to the cities and erosion of habitat for animals. As the forests come down, social conflicts are exploding everywhere.” Coal, copper, and gold mining companies are moving into Sumatra and Kalimantan, causing widespread deforestation and violent conflicts with local communities. The rare of deforestation is also increasing rapidly in the poorest province of West Papua.
In May of 2013, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported that Indonesia – with the third largest tropical forest coverage in the world – was “not doing enough to protect its forests.” While Indonesia passed a moratorium on deforestation in May of 2013, a number of loopholes make it almost meaningless.
Due to its rapid rate of deforestation and the draining of peatlands, Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Australia, Brazil and France. The large paper company – APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings) – has come into conflict with multiple villages in Sumatra as it undertakes a project to destroy 450,000 hectares of rainforest, an area which holds roughly 1.5 billion tons of carbon. A local village leader noted: “We would die for this [forest] if necessary. This is a matter of life and death. The forest is our life. We depend on it when we want to build our houses or boats. We protect it. The permits were handed out illegally, but now we have no option but to work for the companies or hire ourselves out for pitiful wages.”
The devastation to rainforests has not merely been confined to Indonesia, but has spread at an alarming rate across much of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, largely being driven by export-led growth, monoculture plantations, and the construction of dams and other large-scale infrastructure projects. The increasing rates of deforestation are exacerbated by the global explosion in land grabs, with the World Bank and other financial institutions like Deutsche Bank funding land grabs across Southeast Asia in which Indigenous people “are bearing the brunt of the seizures.”
In late June, fires started on or near major palm oil plantations owned by large companies became so large that the pollution spread across Malaysia and Singapore, causing a “hazardous” pollution warning in Singapore in the “worst haze” the country ever faced. Soon after, the Indonesian government announced it was investigating eight companies that might have started the fires on Sumatra, though the companies immediately blamed small landholders. An official from the Rainforest Action Network noted, “This recent smog is just the most visible part of the serious deforestation and human rights crisis sweeping Indonesia… Widespread, illegal burning to clear rainforests and peatlands for palm oil and pulp and paper plantation expansion is unfortunately a well-established yearly ritual in Sumatra.”
Farmers, workers, Indigenous people, women, youth, students and NGOs have been forming groups in which they pledged “resistance” in an “alliance against land grabbing” by the government and international corporations. Police have been using excessive force against protesters and Indigenous communities, and several peaceful activists have been imprisoned for opposing land grabs, deforestation and the construction of plantations.
The Indonesian People’s Alliance (IPA) formed in 2013 as an alliance of dozens of civil society groups, seeking to unite forces across Indonesia and internationally to oppose trade “liberalization” and respect national sovereignty. An IPA coordinator declared: “We have been told to preserve our forests, but large industry continues to wreck our environment and marginalize our own people. We cannot continue washing their dirty laundry.”
In June, a “militant peasant organization” – the Alliance of Agrarian Reform Movement (AGRA) – protested in the thousands against land grabbing in Indonesia, stating that the land “needs to be distributed back to the peasantry through genuine agrarian reform.” An official from the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) – a regional Asian alliance of peasant organizations – noted that resistance was growing not only within Indonesia, but across much of Asia, where peasants were working to launch an “anti land grabbing campaign.”
Is an Indonesian Revolution in the Making?
The circumstances certainly exist – with 120 million people living on less than $2 per day, mass exploitation of workers, labour unrest, violent state repression, land grabs and corporate plundering, peasant and indigenous resistance, environmental devastation, and political corruption – for Indonesia to potentially witness a mass uprising. Workers are organizing across the cities against labour exploitation, while peasants and indigenous communities are organizing across the countryside against land grabs and environmental degradation, and increasingly, they are organizing and working together.
While the leaders of the imperial powers and institutions of the world praise Indonesia as an “emerging economy” and “model democracy,” the population of Indonesia is rising up against the corrupt, plutocratic elites, violent repression, environmental devastation, widespread exploitation and plundering that comes with those buzzwords. In short, the people of Indonesia are struggling to turn their country into a real model for democracy, and for the economy to emerge in respect of that ideal, not against it.
The demolition of a park in Istanbul sparked the urban uprising in Turkey, and the plan to raise bus fare sparked the urban uprising in Brazil. So perhaps the question is not ifIndonesia will experience similar circumstances, but rather: when, and what will be the spark?
Only time will tell, and no doubt, the Indonesians will let us know when it has happened.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, the research director of Occupy.com’s Global Power Project, and has a weekly podcast with BoilingFrogsPost.
Tunisia’s Unfinished Revolution: From Dictatorship to Democracy?
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
On January 14, 2011, Tunisia’s 23-year long dictator Ben Ali fled the country he ruled over in the face of a popular uprising which began the previous month. Tunisia represented the spark of what became known as the ‘Arab Spring.’ Over two years later, Tunisians are back in the streets protesting against the new government, elected in October of 2011, now on the verge of collapse as ministers resign, protests increase, clashes erupt, violence flares, and the future remains unknown.
So the question lingers: what went wrong? What happened? Why are Tunisians back in the streets? Is this Tunisia’s “unfinished revolution”?
Tunisia had been ruled by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from 1987 until the revolution in 2011, a regime marred by corruption, despotism, and repression. While the revolution itself is generally traced to the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, on December 17, 2010, leading to protests and clashes which spread across the country, there was a longer timeline – and other profound changes – which led to the actual revolutionary potential.
Tunisia’s revolution was largely driven by economic reasons, though political and social issues should not be underestimated. Tunisia has a recent history of labour unrest in the country, with the General Union of Tunisian Workers – UGTT – having led protests which were violently repressed in 1978, bread riots in 1984, and more labour unrest in the mining region of Gafsa in 2008. There were also a number of political clashes from the 1990s onward, between the state and the Islamic movement an-Nahda (Ennahda). After the UGTT was repressed in 1978, it was permitted to exist in co-operation with the state, following along the lines of labour and union history within the West itself. While the state felt it had a firm control of Tunisian society, there were growing divides with the youth, who for years would lead their own protests against the state through human rights organizations, the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), or other associations.
Within Tunisia, a crisis had emerged among young graduates in higher education from the mid-1990s onward, with a serious lack of employment opportunities for an increasingly educated youth. From this period up until the revolution, most protests in Tunisia were organized by youth in university organizations and student unions, using tactics such as sit-ins, chaining themselves to buildings, or hunger strikes, which were often met with state violence. Suicide had become another tactic of protest, “a political manifesto to highlight a political demand and to underline the social fragility it implies,” in the words of Mehdi Mabrouk from the University of Tunis. This was understood as the “emergence of a culture of suicide,” identified in a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as “a culture which disdained the value of life, finding death an easier alternative because of a lack of values and a sense of anomie,” which was “particularly true of unemployed and marginal youth, so that death was more attractive than life under such conditions.” It was within this context that Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide became the spark for the wider protests, first in Sidi Bouzid, and quickly spreading across the country, with youth leading the way.
With the help of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, the youth activists in Sidi Bouzid were able to share their revolt with the rest of the country and the world, encouraging the spread of the uprising across Tunisia and the Arab world at large. A relative of Bouazizi described the protesters as having “a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other.” Thus, while Tunisian media ignored the protests in Sidi Bouzid, international media and social media became increasingly involved. Tunisia had 3.6 million internet users, roughly a third of the population, who had access to live news about what was taking place within their country, even though the official national news media did not mention the events until 29 December 2010, twelve days after the protests had begun. The government began to arrest bloggers and web activists in the hopes that the protests would fade or diminish in fear, yet it only motivated the protests further. From the first day, the Sidi Bouzid branch of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) was engaged in the protests, while the national leadership of the UGTT was considered to be too close to the regime and national ruling class to act independently. However, the regional branches of the UGTT had “a reputation for gutsy engagement,” wrote Yasmine Ryan in Al-Jazeera. The Sidi Bouzid branch of UGTT was one of the main organizing forces behind the protests, and when protesters were killed in neighbouring regions, it erupted nation-wide. Thus, students, teachers, lawyers, and the unemployed joined together in protest first in Sidi Bouzid, and then across the country.
Dictatorship or Democracy?
Tunisia happened to be a “model US client” in the words of Richard Falk: “a blend of neoliberalism that is open to foreign investment, cooperation with American anti-terrorism by way of extreme rendition of suspects, and strict secularism that translates into the repression of political expression.”
Just in line with the closest of American and Western allies – and ‘clients’ – in the region, the strategy for the West is one of unyielding support for the dictatorship, so long as “stability” and “prosperity” and ensured. The term “security” is a euphemism for control of the population, while “prosperity” is a euphemism for economic exploitation and profit for the rich few, domestically and globally.
American attitudes toward Tunisia were often reflected in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, in which as early as 2006 the U.S. Embassy in Tunis reported that the issue of succession from Ben Ali was important, but concluded that, “none of the options suggest Tunisia will become more democratic,” however, despite US rhetoric for support of democracy, the cable noted, “the US-Tunisian bilateral relationship is likely to remain unaffected by the departure of Ben Ali,” that is, assuming the departure does not include a transition to democratic government. If problems arose for Ben Ali, and he became “temporarily incapacitated,” reported the U.S. Embassy, “he could turn over a measure of presidential authority to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi,” who had close ties to the West and Americans, in particular. Ghannounchi, incidentally, was implanted as the interim president following Ben Ali’s escape to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, though shortly thereafter had to resign due to popular opposition, since he was a high official in Ben Ali’s government.
In July of 2009, a diplomatic cable from the American Embassy in Tunis noted that Tunisia is “troubled,” and that, “many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities.” The Ambassador noted that while America seeks to enhance ties with Tunisia commercially and militarily, there are also major setbacks, as “we have been blocked, in part, by a Foreign Ministry that seeks to control all our contacts in the government and many other organizations.” America had successfully accomplished a number of goals, such as “increasing substantially US assistance to the military,” and “strengthening commercial ties,” yet, “we have also had too many failures.” The same cable noted: “Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.” Ben Ali’s regime relies “on the police for control and focus[es] on preserving power,” while “corruption in the inner circle is growing.” The Embassy noted, however, that with “high unemployment and regional inequalities” in the country, “the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.”
So how did the United States seek to preserve “stability”? Imperial powers do what they do best: provide the means to continue repression and control. Between 1987, when Ben Ali came to power and 2009, the United States provided the government of Tunisia with a total of $349 million in military aid. In 2010, the United States provided Tunisia with $13.7 million in military aid alone.
Tunisia, which was a former French colony, also had strong relations with France. During the outbreak of the crisis in December of 2010, the French suggested they would help Ben Ali by sending security forces to Tunisia to “resolve the situation” in a show of “friendship” to the regime. The French foreign minister suggested that France could provide better training to Tunisian police to restore order since the French were adept in “security situations of this type.” Jacques Lanxade, a retired French admiral, former military chief of staff and former French ambassador to Tunis noted that the French had “continued public support of this regime because of economic interests,” and added: “We didn’t take account of Tunisian public opinion and thought Ben Ali would re-establish his position.”
This imperial logic has been given terms and justifications from establishment intellectuals and academics in the United States and other Western powers. Academics with the Brookings Institution, an influential U.S. think tank, suggested in 2009 that this was the logic of “authoritarian bargains,” in which dictatorships in the region were able to maintain power through a type of “bargain,” where “citizens relinquish political influence in exchange for public spending,” suggesting that: “non-democratic rulers secure regime support through the allocation of two substitutable ‘goods’ to the public: economic transfers and the ability to influence policy making.”
In 2011, those same academics wrote an article for the Brookings Institution in which they asked if the “Arab authoritarian bargain” was collapsing, noting that as economic conditions deteriorated and unemployment rose, with neoliberal reforms failing to provide economic opportunities for the majority of the populations, the bargain – or “contract” – between dictators and the populations was “now collapsing,” adding that, “the strategies used by Arab leaders to maintain power may have run their course,” noting: “Partial political liberalization may not be enough at this point to make up for the current inability to deliver economic security and prosperity, spelling the final demise of Arab authoritarian bargain.”
F. Gregory Gause III, writing in Foreign Affairs, the establishment journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, the most prominent foreign policy think tank in the United States, referred to this as “authoritarian stability” theory. Following the initial Arab Spring uprisings, he wrote about the “myth” of authoritarian stability, noting that many academics had focused on trying to understand “the persistence of undemocratic rulers” in the region, though implicitly without questioning the imperial relations between the local governments and the dominant Western powers. Gause himself acknowledged that he had written an article for Foreign Affairs in 2005 in which he argued that, “the United States should not encourage democracy in the Arab world because Washington’s authoritarian Arab allies represented stable bets for the future,” and that, “democratic Arab governments would prove much less likely to cooperate with U.S. foreign policy goals in the region.” Gause then reflected in 2011 that, “I was spectacularly wrong.”
Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, a prominent American think tank, and was previously foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the Jordanian dictatorship. Following events in Tunisia, Muasher wrote an article for the Carnegie Endowment in which he explained why the events were not foreseen, noting that: “The traditional argument put forward in and out of the Arab world is that there is nothing wrong, everything is under control.” Thus, wrote Muasher, “entrenched forces argue that opponents and outsiders calling for reform are exaggerating the conditions on the ground,” an argument which he noted, “has been fundamentally undermined by the unfolding events in Tunisia.” Because Tunisia had comparably low economic problems, a small opposition, and a “strong security establishment,” it was thought that “the risk of revolt was considered low.” Muasher wrote: “It wasn’t supposed to happen in Tunisia and the fact that it did proves that fundamental political reforms – widening the decision-making process and combating corruption – are needed around the entire Arab world.”
This concept of “there is nothing wrong, everything is under control,” has been referred to by Noam Chomsky as the “Muasher doctrine,” noting that this has been consistent U.S. policy in the region since at least 1958, when Eisenhower’s National Security Council acknowledged that the US supported dictators and opposed democracy, and that this was a rational policy to serve American interests in the region.
The National Security Council document stated that the Middle East was “of great strategic, political, and economic importance to the Free World,” meaning the West, and United States in particular, and this was largely due to the fact that the region “contains the greatest petroleum resources in the world.” Thus, the National Security Council stated, “it is in the security interest of the United States to make every effort to insure that these resources will be available and will be used for strengthening the Free World.” The document further wrote that: “In the eyes of the majority of Arabs the United States appears to be opposed to the realization of the goals of Arab nationalism,” and that the people in that part of the world “believe the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress,” which included US support for “reactionary” regimes and America’s “colonial” allies in Europe, notably France and Great Britain. These beliefs, the report noted, were indeed accurate, that “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led… to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries.”
Acknowledging this, the NSC document stated that instead of “attempting merely to preserve the status quo,” the United States should “seek to guide the revolutionary and nationalistic pressures throughout the area into orderly channels which will not be antagonistic to the West and which will contribute to solving the internal social, political and economic problems of the area.” Though this would of course include providing “military aid to friendly countries to enhance their internal security and governmental stability,” which essentially amounted to maintaining the status quo. The same document also added that, “we cannot exclude the possibility of having to use force in an attempt to maintain our position in the area.”
And so then we come up to present day, where the United States maintains the same policy, as Chomsky suggested, “the Muasher doctrine” of “there is nothing wrong, everything is under control.” But everything is clearly no longer under control, and there are many things that clearly are wrong. Just as the 1958 National Security Council document suggested guiding “revolutionary and nationalistic pressures” into “orderly channels which will not be antagonistic to the West,” so too were US planners in recent years seeking to do the same.
Top US policy planners at the Council on Foreign Relations produced a report – and strategic blueprint – for the United States to follow in 2005, entitled, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How, co-chaired by former Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute, and chair of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The other co-chair of the Task Force report was Vin Weber, former Congressman and member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US-government-supported organization promoting state-capitalist “liberal” democracy around the world, so long as it aligns with U.S. strategic interests. Other members of the Task Force which produced the report held previous or present affiliations with First National Bank of Chicago, Occidental Petroleum, the Carnegie Endowment, the World Bank, Brookings Institution, Hoover Institution, the U.S. State Department, National Security Council, National Intelligence Council, the American Enterprise Institute, the IMF, AOL-Time Warner, and Goldman Sachs. In short, the report was produced by no less than a select group of America’s strategic and intellectual elite.
Published in 2005, the report suggested that “democracy and freedom have become a priority” for the United States in the Middle East, though there are conditions to Washington’s ability and interest in promoting these concepts: “First, does a policy of promoting democracy serve U.S. interests and foreign policy goals? Second, if so, how should the United States implement such a policy, taking into account the full range of its interests?” To the first question, the report suggested that it was in the U.S. interest to promote democracy in the Arab world, noting: “Although democracy entails certain inherent risks, the denial of freedom carries much more significant long-term dangers. If Arab citizens are able to express grievances freely and peacefully, they will be less likely to turn to more extreme measures.” However, as the report noted: “the United States should promote the development of democratic institutions and practices over the long term, mindful that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable.” Most importantly, the report suggested: “America’s goal in the Middle East should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution.”
The United States was not interested in rapid change, since, the report argued, “if Washington pushes Arab leaders too hard on reform, contributing to the collapse of friendly Arab governments, this would likely have a deleterious effect on regional stability, peace, and counterterrorism operations.” The report itself concluded: “While transitions to democracy can lead to instability in the short term, the Task Force finds that a policy geared toward maintaining the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East poses greater risks to U.S. interests and foreign policy goals.”
Thus, when it comes to the issue of choosing between supporting a “dictatorship” or “democracy,” the issue is one of interest: which regime supports U.S. and Western interests better? In the short-term, dictatorships provide “authoritarian stability” and maintain control, however, in the long-term, a transition to a Western-style democratic system allows for less pressure built up against the system, and against the West itself. Dictatorships provide short-term “stability” (i.e., control), while top-down democracies provide long-term “stability.” The question, then, is merely of managing a transition from one to the other, no small task for an imperial power: how to maintain support for a dictator while encouraging the slow evolution of democratic governance.
The issue of “democracy” is further complicated by how it is defined or pursued. For the United States and its Western allies, “democracy” is not the goal, but rather a means to a goal. The goal is, always has been, and always will be, “stability and prosperity,” control and profit. When the dictatorships fail to bring about stability and prosperity, “democracy” – so long as it is constructed along Western liberal state-capitalist lines – will be the preferred option. The European Union, when reporting on its own efforts to promote democracy in the Mediterranean region, noted that, “we believe that democracy, good governance, rule of law, and gender equality are essential for stability and prosperity.” In other words, democracy is not the goal: control and profit is the goal. The means are merely incidental, whether they be through dictatorships, or top-down democratic structures.
The problem in the Arab world is deepened for the United States when one looks at public opinion polls from the region. Just prior to the outbreak of protests in Tunisia, a major Western poll on Arab public opinion was conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, published in the summer of 2010. The results were very interesting, noting that only 5% and 6% of respondents in 2010 believed that “promoting democracy” and “spreading human rights” were the two factors (respectively) which were most important in America’s foreign policy in the region. At the top of the list of priorities, with 49% and 45% respectively, were “protecting Israel” and “controlling oil,” followed by 33% each for “weakening the Muslim world” and “preserving regional and global dominance.” Further, 92% of respondents felt that Iran has a right to its nuclear program if it is peaceful, and 70% feel that right remains even if Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Roughly 57% of respondents felt that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, things would be “more positive” for the region, compared to 21% who thought it would be “more negative.” The poll asked which two countries posed the largest threat to the region, with Israel at 88% and the United States at 77%, while Iran was viewed as one of the two major threats to the region by only 10% of respondents, just above China and equal to Algeria.
In other words, if truly representative – or genuine – democracies emerged in the region, they would be completely counter to U.S. strategic interests in the region, and thus, real democracy in the Arab world is not in the American interest. This makes the American strategic interests in the transitions of the ‘Arab Spring’ all the more important to attempt to manage and control. Genuine democracy would bring an end to American and Western hegemony, yet, the “Muasher doctrine” of “everything is under control” has failed in the case of both Tunisia and Egypt. What then, is left for Western interests?
Tunisia’s Transition to “Democracy”
Immediately following Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, the land of exiled dictators, a “caretaker” government was quickly established in order to “lead the transition to democracy.” Mohamed Ghannouchi, Ben Ali’s prime minister (and the American favourite to replace him), helped to form a “unity” government, but after one day of existence, four opposition members quit the government, including three ministers from the UGTT trade union, saying they had “no confidence” in a government full of members from Ben Ali’s regime. Hundreds of people, led by trade unionists, took to the streets in protest against the transitional government.
Six members from Ben Ali’s regime appeared in the “unity” government, presided over by the former Parliamentary Speaker Fouad Mebazaa. Ghannouchi stepped down in late February following popular opposition to his participation in the “unity” government, though he was replaced by Ben Ali’s former foreign minister. In February of 2011, the United States offered “military training” to Tunisia in the follow-up to the planned elections for later in the year, to make Tunisia a “model” revolution for the Arab world.
A public opinion poll conducted in Tunisia in May of 2011 revealed that there had been “a steep decline in confidence for the transition period,” noting that in March, a poll revealed that 79% of Tunisians believed the country was headed in the right direction, compared to only 46% who thought so in May. Roughly 73% of Tunisian’s felt that the economic situation was “somewhat bad or very bad,” and 93% of respondents said they were “very likely” to vote in coming elections.
In October of 2011, Tunisians went to the polls for their first democratic election, “the first vote of the Arab spring.” The election was designed to elect an assembly which would be tasked with one mission: to draft a constitution before parliamentary elections. The An-Nadha (Ennahda) party, an Islamist party which was banned under Ben Ali, was expected to receive most of the votes, though most Tunisians felt guarded in terms of seeking to protect their “unfinished revolution.” Lawyers lodged complaints that in the nine months since Ben Ali fled Tunisia, torture and police brutality continued, while human rights activists noted that cronies from Ben Ali’s regime continued to dominate the corrupt judicial system. One human rights activist noted, “We are overwhelmed with cases of human rights abuses. You wouldn’t believe there had been a revolution… Torture is the way things are done, it’s systematic. They have not changed their practices at all,” referring to the police.
On October 23, 2011, the Tunisian elections took place, with the Islamist party Ennahda winning 89 out of 217 seats, after which it joined with two secular parties to form a ruling coalition known as the ‘Troika.’ A year after the Troika had been in power, by October of 2012, Tunisians felt disheartened by the pace of the revolution. One young activist stated that, “They are failing on security, they are failing on the economy, and they are failing when it comes to liberties and rights… They have nothing to do with the revolution. They are completely disconnected.” Amnesty International even noted in October of 2012 that: “The authorities need to seize this historic opportunity and confront the painful legacy of abuse and violations of the pasty and enshrine in law and in practice universal human rights with the aim of making the rule of law a reality in the new Tunisia.”
Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s chairman (no relation to Mohammed Ghannouchi), said that Ennahda “pledges to continue working with our national partners towards building a national consensus that takes Tunisians forward towards the protection of their revolution and achievement of its aims.” Over the previous year, the opposition within Tunisia had time to develop better than it did prior to the October 2011 elections, with new parties and organizations emerging. One, a decidedly non-mainstream party, the Tunisian Pirate Party, advocates direct democracy and freedom of expression, with its leader stating, “The classic political parties are trying to buy and sell people. The youth of Tunisia, we refuse this masquerade, this system… All they want is power, they don’t listen to us. They have betrayed the people.” On the other hand, the government was facing increasing pressure not only from the left opposition, but from the more conservative Salafists, ultra-conservative Islamists, who reject democracy and want Ennahda to take a firm grip on power.
At the time of Ben Ali’s overthrow, Tunisia had an unemployment rate of 13%, but by the end of 2011 it had risen to 18%, where it remains to this day, and was as high as 44% among young university graduates. Strikes, sit-ins, and protests had continued throughout 2012, and with 800,000 unemployed Tunisians, some were looking to new avenues for answers. The Salafists were providing poor young people with a different path. A former director at Tunisia’s UGTT trade union noted, “Salafism taps its social base into a pool of often deprived people inhabiting the so-called poverty belts surrounding inner cities… The rise of salafism is a socio-economic phenomenon before being a religious one.” Salafists call for a strict enforcement of religious law, and have taken part in protests which shout anti-Semitic and homophobic chants at times, leading many to fear the potential for women’s rights as well as those of various minority groups.
Salafists have also been linked to attacks on individuals and groups, opposition meetings and organizations. When complaints are made to the Ennahda government’s police forces, little is done to address the issues to persecute crimes. Human Rights Watch noted: “There is an unwillingness or an inability to arrest individuals… People have been attacked by people they identify as Salafis; they file a complaint to the judicial police, and in many cases the guy is never arrested.”
The Obama administration sought to contribute to the “stability” of the new regime in Tunisia by providing $32 million in military aid from January of 2011 to spring of 2012. An American General and head of the U.S. Africom (Africa Command) noted that on top of the military aid, the United States was continuing to train Tunisian soldiers, having already trained 4,000 in the previous decade. It would appear to be no less than the Muasher Doctrine with a difference face.
Clashes have increased between opposition parties and trade unionists with pro-government supporters as well as Salafists. In October of 2012, an opposition figure died after clashes between his supporters and pro-government forces calling themselves the League for the Protection of the Revolution. On December 17, 2012, at an event commemorating the two-year anniversary of the protests that began the revolution, angry protesters hurled rocks at the Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki and the parliamentary speaker in Sidi Bouzid. As the president and speaker were hustled away by security forces, protesters chanted, “the people want the fall of the government.”
By December of 2012, it was clear that the frustration of Tunisians unsatisfied with the failure of the subsequent governments to meet their demands was “starting to overflow again.” In late November, the government had even sent troops to Siliana following four days of protests spurred on by demands for jobs and government investment. President Moncef Marzouki stated that, “Tunisia today is at a crossroads,” though admitted that the government had not “met the expectations of the people.” With unemployment remaining at 18%, a third of the unemployed being college graduates, one publishing company owner noted that, “Ben Ali ignored the blinking red lights on the economy, and that is what got him thrown out… The unemployed are an army in a country the size of Tunisia.” Since the revolution, the United States had provided Tunisia with $300 million, with the European Union providing $400 million, and the World Bank approving a $500 million loan, all in an attempt to prop up the new government, though it remained incapable of meeting the demands of its population.
A poll conducted by the International Republic Institute was published in October of 2012, revealing that for Tunisians, “employment, economic development, and living standards were chosen most often as top priorities for the current government,” though 67% of respondents felt the country was moving in the “wrong direction.” In another survey from late 2012, nearly half of Tunisians reported that they were “worse off” since prior to the revolution, with only 14% who felt their personal situation had improved. For Tunisians, the success of the revolution was defined more in terms of economic issues, with 32% stating that democracy “means the distribution of basic necessities – food, clothing, and shelter – to all citizens,” while 27% define democracy as the right to criticize leaders, compared to only 25% who defined it “as alteration of leaders through elections.”
The Second Spark?
On February 6, 2013, a secular party leader and opposition figure, Chokri Belaid, a major critic of the Ennahda government, was assassinated outside of his home, shot in the head and neck, marking the first political assassination in Tunisia since the colonial period. Belaid was a major critic of the government’s failure to prosecute the criminal activities of violent religious groups linked to Salafists and pro-government forces. His death triggered widespread protests, many of which turned violent as government forces dispersed them using tear gas, while Tunisia’s biggest union, the UGTT, called for a general strike. Many felt that Ennahda was responsible for his murder, if not directly then by failing to reign in the radical Islamists.
On February 8, a general strike brought tens of thousands of Tunisians into the streets in protest and in mourning of Chokri Belaid. Belaid was a respected opposition figure, but also a prominent trade unionist and lawyer, and was “one of the most outspoken critics of the post-revolution coalition government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.” The day before his assassination he had appeared on television criticizing the increased political violence in the country. One barrister noted during the protest, “not since colonial times in the early 1950s has Tunisia seen a clear political assassination in the street.” Many spoke out against the shadowy Leagues of the Protection of the Revolution, made up of small groups of men “who are accused of using thugs to stir clashes at opposition rallies and trade union gatherings.” Belaid was a prominent critic of these groups, which he had publicly condemned as being linked to the ruling Ennahda party, a claim the party denies. The president of a Tunisian NGO, Jalila Hedhli-Peugnet, stated that Belaid “was not assassinated under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, now he is assassinated under the democracy of Ennahda.”
Coincidentally, on the day of Belaid’s assassination, Human Rights Watch released a report raising concerns about Tunisia for “the slow pace in reforming security operations and the judiciary, the failure to investigate and prosecute physical assaults by people apparently affiliated with violent groups, and the prosecution of nonviolent speech offenses.” The worry for the region over two years since the Arab Spring began, reported HRW, was whether the new governments would respect human rights, which “will determine whether the Arab uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply spawn authoritarianism in new clothes.” Throughout 2012, the courts in Tunisia applied already-existing repressive laws of the Ben Ali dictatorship to persecute nonviolent speech which the government considered harmful to “values, morality, or the public order, or to defame the army.” Artists have been charged for sculpting artwork deemed “harmful to public order and morals,” while two bloggers received prison terms of seven-and-a-half years for writing posts considered “offensive to Islam.” Over 2012, “assaults were carried out against intellectuals, artists, human rights activists, and journalists by individuals or groups who appear to be motivated by a religious agenda.” After reports had been filed on multiple occasions, “the police proved unwilling or unable to find or arrest the alleged attackers.”
In January of 2013, Amnesty International noted that after two years since Ben Ali fled Tunisia, the abuses of the police forces and judicial system had yet to be addressed, specifically in relation to the period of the uprising between 17 December 2010 and just after Ben Ali fled, when roughly 338 people were killed and over 2,000 injured in protests. While Ben Ali was tried in absentia for the killings, only a few members of the security forces had been convicted for killing protesters.
Following the assassination of Belaid, Amnesty International immediately called for an “independent and impartial investigation” into his murder, noting that attacks against political opposition groups had been increasing, and that a meeting which Chokri Belaid had attended the Saturday before his murder was violently attacked and that Belaid had been receiving death threats. The Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International noted: “Two years after the ousting of former President Ben Ali, there is an increasing mistrust in the institutions that are supposed to protect human rights and Tunisians will not be satisfied with a sham investigation.”
Following the assassination, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali suggested that the coalition government should dissolve and form a non-partisan, technocratic government, though this was immediately rejected by members of his Ennahda party itself. All across Tunisia, a general strike was observed while tens of thousands took to the streets in multiple cities to mark the funeral of Belaid and to protest the government, often clashing with security forces.
The Congress for the Republic (CPR), a secular party which was a member of the coalition government and whose leader, Moncef Marzouki, is president of Tunisia, said on Sunday February 10 that its party members would quit the government in protest against the handling of the political crisis, as tensions between the parties continued to accelerate. Meanwhile, pro-Ennadha government supporters also took to the streets, though in significantly less numbers than the opposition, to voice their support for the government.
Thus, with the Tunisian government on the verge of collapse, with the people seemingly on the verge of another uprising, and with increasing tensions between secular and Islamist groups, Tunisia continues its unfinished revolution. It is tempting to draw the comparison to Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party holds power, and where the population is again rising up against the government and in support of the revolutionary ideals which led them into the streets two years prior. As thousands again took to the streets in Egypt on February 8, they were met with riot police and tear gas. It would appear that the Western-sponsored attempts to prop up Islamist governments to establish control over their populations is backfiring. Where the revolution goes, only posterity can say, but one thing is clear: the unfinished revolution in Tunisia – as elsewhere – is only finished, and democracy is only achieved, when the people themselves have made it and declared it to be so.
For those of us in the West, we must acknowledge that there is a stark contrast between the rhetoric and reality of our nations, as in, the difference between what our governments say and do. For all the blather and trumpeting about democracy we hear, the actions of our nations go to arming, training, and supporting repressive regimes, whether they take the form of secular authoritarian dictatorships, or Islamist “democratic” coalitions.
As we continue our own struggle for democracy at home, whether it is students in the streets of Quebec, Indignados in Spain, anarchists in Greece, Occupy Wall Street activists in New York, or the indigenous movement of Idle No More, we must realize that the same tax dollars which are used to have the police assault and repress protesters at home, are also used to assault, repress, and kill our brothers and sisters abroad in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and beyond. Their revolution is our revolution. Their democracy is our democracy. Their freedom is our freedom. And their future… is our future.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, with a focus on studying the ideas, institutions, and individuals of power and resistance across a wide spectrum of social, political, economic, and historical spheres. He has been published in AlterNet, CounterPunch, Occupy.com, Truth-Out, RoarMag, and a number of other alternative media groups, and regularly does radio, Internet, and television interviews with both alternative and mainstream news outlets. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project and has a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
 Mehdi Mabrouk, “A Revolution for Dignity and Freedom: Preliminary Observations on the Social and Cultural Background to the Tunisian Revolution,” The Journal of North African Studies (Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2011), pages 626-627.
 Ibid, pages 629-629.
 Yasmine Ryan, “How Tunisia’s revolution began,” Al-Jazeera, 26 January 2011:
 Richard Falk, “Ben Ali Tunisia was model US client,” Al-Jazeera, 25 January 2011:
 US Embassy Cables, “US embassy cables: Finding a successor to Ben Ali in Tunisia,” The Guardian, 17 January 2011:
 The US Embassy Cables, “US embassy cables: Tunisia – a US foreign policy conundrum,” The Guardian, 7 December 2010:
 Daya Gamage, “Massive U.S. Military Aid to Tunisia despite human rights abuses,” Asian Tribune, 18 January 2011:
 NYT, “Challenges Facing Countries Across North Africa and the Middle East,” The New York Times, 17 February 2011:
 Samer al-Atrush, “Tunisia: Why the Jasmine Revolution won’t bloom,” The Telegraph, 16 January 2011:
 Steven Erlanger, “France Seen Wary of Interfering in Tunisia Crisis,” The New York Times, 16 January 2011:
 Raj M. Desai, Anders Olofsgard, and Tarik M. Yousef, “The Logic of Authoritarian Bargains,” Economics & Politics (Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2009), pages 93-94.
 Raj M. Desai, Anders Olofsgard and Tarik Yousef, “Is the Arab Authoritarian Bargain Collapsing?,” The Brookings Institution, 9 February 2011:
 F. Gregory Gause III, “Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring: The Myth of Authoritarian Stability,” Foreign Affairs (Vol. 90, No. 4, July/August 2011), pages 81-82.
 Marwan Muasher, “Tunisia’s Crisis and the Arab World,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 24 January 2011:
 Noam Chomsky, “Is the world too big to fail?,” Al-Jazeera, 29 September 2011:
 Document 5, “National Security Council Report,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, 24 January 1958.
 Madeleine Albright and Vin Weber, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How (Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report, 2005), pages 49-54.
 Ibid, pages 3-4.
 Ibid, page 4.
 Ibid, pages 12-13.
 Michelle Pace, “Paradoxes and contradictions in EU democracy promotion in the Mediterranean: the limits of EU normative power,” Democratization (Vol. 16, No. 1, February 2009), page 42.
 Report, “2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll: Results of Arab Opinion Survey Conducted June 29-July 20, 2010,” The Brookings Institution, 5 August 2010:
 Angelique Chrisafis, “Tunisia’s caretaker government in peril as four ministers quit,” The Guardian, 18 January 2011:
 “Tunisia: Key players,” BBC, 27 February 2011:
 Tarek Amara, “US offers Tunisia security aid for ‘model’ revolution,” Reuters, 21 February 2011:
 “IRI Releases Tunisia Poll,” International Republican Institute, 12 July 2011:
 Angelique Chrisafis, Katharine Viner, and Becky Gardiner, “Tunisians go to the polls still in the shadow of the old regime,” The Guardian, 22 October 2011:
 Yasmine Ryan, “Tunisian politicians struggle to deliver,” Al-Jazeera, 23 October 2012:
 Anne Wolf and Raphael Lefevre, “Tunisia: a revolution at risk,” The Guardian, 18 April 2012:
 Alice Fordham, “Tunisia’s revolution and the Salafi effect,” The National, 11 September 2012:
 “Obama administration doubles military aid to Islamist-led Tunisia,” World Tribune, 27 April 2012:
 AFP, “U.S. Gave Tunisia $32 million in Military Aid: General,” Defense News, 24 April 2012:
 “Tunisia clash leaves opposition official dead,” Al-Jazeera, 19 October 2012:
 Agencies, “Angry crowd hurls stones at Tunisian leaders,” Al-Jazeera, 17 December 2012:
 Neil MacFarquhar, “Economic Frustration Simmers Again in Tunisia,” The New York Times, 1 December 2012:
 “IRI Poll: Employment, Economy Most Important Priorities for Tunisians,” International Republican Institute, 3 October 2012:
 Lindsay J. Benstead, Ellen Lust, and Dhafer Malouche, “Tunisian Revolution Is Work in Progress,” The Epoch Times, 27 December 2012:
 Editorial, “An Assassination in Tunisia,” The New York Times, 8 February 2013:
 Eric Reguly, “Chaos in Tunisia tarnishes a revolution’s success story,” The Globe and Mail, 7 February 2013:
 Angelique Chrisafis, “Tunisia gripped by general strike as assassinated Chokri Belaïd is buried,” The Guardian, 8 February 2013:
 Rachel Shabi, “Tunisia is no longer a revolutionary poster-child,” The Guardian, 7 February 2013:
 HRW, “Tunisia: Slow Reform Pace Undermines Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 6 February 2013:
 “Document – Tunisia: Two years since the uprising, justice must be done and be seen to be done,” Amnesty International, 14 January 2013:
 Press Releases, “Tunisia: Urgent need for investigation into Chokri Belaid’s killing,” Amnesty International, 6 February 2013:
 “Tunisia mourns murdered politician Chokri Belaid,” BBC, 8 February 2013:
 Angelique Chrisafis, “Tunisian president’s party ‘to withdraw from coalition’,” The Guardian, 10 February 2013:
 “Egypt protests turn violent,” Al-Jazeera, 8 February 2013:
Stand Strong and Do Not Despair: Some Thoughts on the Fading Student Movement in Quebec
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
As eight of the fourteen CEGEP preparatory schools have voted to return to class, and thereby end the strike which began in February, Quebec is beginning to witness the fading away of the first phase of the student movement, mobilized by the planned tuition increases, and which expanded into a broader social movement known as the ‘Maple Spring.’ As some students have returned to class, they were met with a heavy police presence, no doubt to ensure ‘order’ during such a “dangerous” situation in which students enter school property. After all, Bill 78, which was passed by Jean Charest’s government back in May (now known as Law 12), made student protests on (or within 50 metres of school property) an illegal act.
Bill 78 was, quite accurately, described as “a declaration of war on the student movement,” and included an excessive amount of violations of basic rights and freedoms. Regardless of the specific details of the illegalities of the Law, we – the people – do not need even our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to tell us what is right and wrong, just or unjust. The legal system itself, after all, has very little to do with ‘justice’, and far more to do with legalizing injustice. Not only was the Law a violation of legally guaranteed rights and freedoms, such as freedoms of assembly and expression, but it was an affront to a very basic sense of decency, an insult to a very common sense of democracy, and an attack on a very basic conception of freedom.
This Law remains in effect. The tuition is set to increase. And as students vote to end the strike, some are mourning the seemingly vanishing potential of the student movement to effect a real, true, and lasting change. But all was not for nothing, all is not lost, and resistance is not futile. We have witnessed but the starting actions, initiative, determination, and voice of a generation which, around the world, from Egypt, to Greece, Spain, Chile and Mexico, are standing up, taking to the streets, innovating new actions and forms of collective resistance and even revolution. Our generation is beginning – and only just beginning – to awaken our wider societies to resist and challenge a system which, in the wake of this new great global depression, which in the wake of new wars of aggression, has revealed its true nature: all for the powerful, and nothing for the people. It is a system which benefits the few at the expense of the many.
The most prominent symptom of this system is what we call ‘neoliberalism.’ I emphasize that this is a symptom, and not the cause, because neoliberalism was born of the very ideas, individuals, and institutions that have comprised and continue to comprise our system and structure of national and global power. Neoliberalism is but the malignant phase of a wider social sickness. Neoliberalism manifests itself by promoting the wholesale privatization of state and public assets, of resources, of industries, of services, of infrastructure, of roads, ports, electricity, railways, water, and yes, of education itself. It is the handing over of what is public – and thereby what is yours – to private hands: to corporations and banks. Neoliberalism is further represented by the deregulation of anything and everything that would benefit private corporate and financial interests. This means that everything from regulatory oversight of the institutions that plunged the world into economic devastation, however slight it may exist at present, will be completely dismantled. This means that any protections granted to workers, in the form of wages, collective bargaining rights, union rights, pensions and benefits… will be no more.
When economic crisis hits, there is a common scenario of reaction and response: the State moves in to bailout the banks and corporations that caused the crisis (in cooperation with the state itself, of course). As a result of the bailouts, the State buys the bad debts of banks and corporations and hands you, the people, the bill. The next phase is called “austerity.” Austerity is an economic and political euphemism for impoverishment. Austerity means that all social spending is reduced or cut entirely; so, no more public funding for social services, welfare, pensions, healthcare, education, public sector workers are fired, social housing is dismantled, and taxes are raised. The effect is obvious, more unemployment, lower incomes, higher costs for services, higher taxes, and a rapid acceleration of poverty.
The next phase, then, is what is called “structural adjustment” or “structural reform.” This means the privatization of everything, which also includes mass firings, deregulation, and an attack on labour, unions, and workers’ rights. The specific assault upon workers, by reducing their wages, eliminating pensions and benefits, and denying them the right to organize in unions, is called “labour flexibility,” meaning that the labour force becomes “flexible” to the demands of the powerful: it becomes a cheap source of easily exploitable labour for the corporations that now own everything they didn’t own already. Thus, when these corporations begin to open factories and employ the newly-impoverished population at sweatshop wages, this is called “investment.”
The result of “austerity” and “adjustment” is a massive program of social genocide. If you want to see the effects of austerity and adjustment, look to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where the Western nations, banks, corporations, and international financial institutions – like the World Bank and IMF – have imposed neoliberalism, austerity, and adjustment over the past 40 years. You witness the dismantling of healthcare, education, social services and protections, you see the exploitation of workers, the spread of disease and hunger, and widespread dehumanization. If you think this cannot happen in the Western industrialized world itself, look to Greece, where this system is currently manifesting itself at its most extreme, and where all the same effects that took place in the so-called ‘Third World’ are now coming to the ‘First.’ What our nations and dominant institutions of power have done abroad, they are now doing at home. And just as it spread abroad through a manufactured debt crisis, so too is that how it is now manifesting at home. In June, 146 Greek academics signed a letter of solidarity with the student and social movement in Quebec, writing: “We, Greek academics, declare our solidarity to your wonderful struggle, which is our struggle!” We must begin to recognize that their struggle is ours, as well.
The population of Greece is being punished into poverty, their healthcare system is in total collapse to the point where hospitals report shortages of aspirin, gloves, syringes, toilet paper, and band-aids; families abandon children on the streets because they can no longer care for them; people go hungry and children faint in school because their family had not eaten in several days; their taxes increase, they rely upon food banks and charity for the basics of survival; homelessness explodes, social housing is dismantled, pensions for the elderly vanish, and suicide rates rapidly accelerate. Why does this take place? Because the IMF and the European Union force Greece to impose ‘austerity’ and ‘adjustment’ in return for massive bailouts which only go toward paying the interest on debts owed to German, French, Dutch, and British banks. Each bailout becomes added debt with higher interest, and thus, Greece, just like the ‘Third World’, becomes enslaved to the global institutions of domination and exploitation.
The tuition increases in Quebec are but the first signs of austerity emerging in this province and country. At the national level, Stephen Harper has begun his campaign for austerity with his budget bill, cutting public sector workers, reducing spending on social services, and increasing subsidies to corporations. His government already bailed out Canada’s big banks back in 2008 and 2009 to the tune of $114 billion, approximately $3,400 for every man, woman, and child in Canada. That is almost the same amount that Quebec students will be forced to pay under the increases in tuition. Meanwhile, the banks announce record profits, and the government then cuts their taxes. Across Canada, student debt amounts to roughly $20 billion, yet Canada’s Prime Minister is planning to spend roughly $25 billion purchasing fighter jets from an American arms manufacturer so that Canada could jump at the opportunity to help the Empire bomb poor people in foreign countries so that our corporations and banks can freely plunder their resources. Our governments, through so-called “aid” programs, fund and train the militaries and police of oppressive foreign governments, so that they may establish ‘order’ over their populations while our corporations steal their wealth and future. The same tax dollars that help foreign governments crush their own populations pay the wages of the riot police that have beaten, tear gassed, pepper sprayed, attacked and arrested the students in Quebec. Again, what we do abroad is now being done at home.
In Canada, and in Quebec, we have seen but the start of austerity, but the vague rumblings of the captains of capital, the plunderers of people, and the exploiters of everything, who are now telling our corrupted parasitic political elites that the time has come: they now want it all, everything, and to leave us with nothing. The time has come for ‘austerity’ and ‘adjustment,’ the time has come, therefore, for impoverishment and exploitation. And mark my words, as they impose this system at home, they will blame us, the people, the entire way; they will blame us for amassing large personal debts, for buying mortgages we could not afford, for taking student loans we could not pay back, for spending credit on consumption, for living above and beyond our means. They will tell us, as Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, has told the Greek people, “it’s payback time.”
Payback time for what, you ask? It’s payback time for our naivete in believing our political leaders, for engaging in a culture constructed by corporations, for doing what we were told was the right thing to do, for doing what was expected of us, what was designed for us, for being passive, obedient consumers. Simply put: the elite feel quite strongly that the population is too stupid, too malleable, to ignorant and irrelevant to decide for itself the direction society should take, or the purpose their own lives should have. Thus, it’s payback time for the slight concessions, for the minor benefits, and for the mirage of democratic trappings that they have begrudgingly granted our populations over the past century: it’s payback time for the once-radical workers movements that challenged industry and government and won rights for workers; it’s payback time for social movements that demanded revolutionary change and got minor reforms; it’s payback time for all of our ‘demands’ as purportedly free and independent beings.
Our elites, much like Marie Antoinette, looked upon the massive unrest and anger of the population and declared, “Let them eat cake”: let them have elections, let them buy televisions, iPods, and game systems; let them choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Democrat and Republican, Liberal and Conservative; let them buy a house and have a car, let them go to school and get a job, let them think and feel as if they are free and in charge… but do not let them take freedom or take charge. So now, it’s payback time for all the small concessions they have granted us, each one in their eyes, an unjust and undeserving sacrifice, always proclaimed to have catastrophic consequences to the economy and society and “free industry” and “enterprise.” So now, it is “all for them, and none for us.”
Now, we don’t even get our cake.
Greeks now know this story well. But here in Canada, and here in Quebec, we are only seeing the starting shots of a race to repression and poverty. The students have seen the reaction from elites, from police, and from the media, that even such a relatively small issue (as compared to the situation in Greece or Egypt or elsewhere) such as struggling against a tuition increase, can result in so much violence, demonization, condemnation, misrepresentation, propaganda, and repression. Our political elites have begun to show us their true colours, something which First Nations and other internally colonized peoples (such as the black population in the United States) have known for a great deal of time. We’re now starting to catch up, to see our elites for who and what they truly are.
Jean Charest is not the problem. Jean Charest is but the vile mucus and malingering bile coughed up from a sick and struggling society. Charest is nothing but a symptom of a deeply suffering society, of a society whose priorities are all wrong, of a society that is so bizarre and incoherent that it is capable of producing and supporting political leaders as obscene, arrogant, and repulsive as Jean Charest himself. But again, he is not the problem. Altering the symptoms is pointless if you do not address the sickness, itself.
The media is now telling Quebec students that the “answers” to our struggle lie in the ballot box, not the streets. That our solutions can come through voting for politicians, not taking collective action. It’s a funny thing, growing up in the West, where we were always told how our societies were so free and democratic, and that our youth went to go fight wars abroad so that youth at home would have the right to go out into the streets and protest, to struggle for rights and freedoms, that these were the very actions and definitions of our democracy. We were told that this was the expression of our freedom… unless of course, we decide to take that course of action ourselves. Then, we become criminals, vandals, even terrorists. It’s an ideal of democracy unless we decide to actually act upon it: then we are portrayed as violators of democracy. Our elites complain that they already gave us our damned cake, why do we feel that we are so “entitled” as to ask for more, like Oliver Twist asking for a mere extra bowl of non-nutritional work-house sludge. Poor Oliver was met with the aghast and shocked, “MOOOORE?! You want MOOORE?!” How dare you. How dare you step out into the streets and demand more equality, more freedom, more accessibility, more opportunity, more POWER. How dare you demand that the elites should follow the direction of the people. What the hell kind of society do you think you live in, a democracy?! Well, that’s what riot police are for: to put you in your place. That’s what Bill 78 was for. That’s what Jean Charest was and is for.
So, while we have witnessed but the starting putrefaction of our society in the form of austerity, we have also only witnessed but that starting signs of hope, of struggle, of resistance, and of action in an age of rage, and a coming world revolution. We have been fortunate enough to witness and partake in the beginning of what will be a long struggle, of what will be the defining feature of the world in which our generation is entering into as young adults. We have witnessed but the start at home of what has already been starting elsewhere in the world, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Greece, Spain, Italy, in Chile and Mexico; the start of our generation – both locally and globally – standing up to our rapacious elites, of rejecting their insane ideologies, and of opposing with both our bodies and our minds, their physical and psychological oppression.
They may look down upon us in disgust and with confused mental constipation, ask, “MORE?!”
But then we will look upon them, in larger numbers, in massive and ever-expanding varieties, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around this small little planet, and look at these morally vapid, small little people, who place themselves at the top of our world, who support themselves with hallow values and empty ideas, and we will say, “No more.”
So, to my fellow students, to my brothers and sisters in Quebec and beyond, I can only say, do not mourn the fading strike, do not regret your struggles in the streets, and do not despair: we are only in the beginning of our lives, and in the beginning of our struggle. And look, simply, upon the mass mobilization, the manifestation, the hope, and yes, the energized frustration that we had accomplished thus far. The strike was but the start of a much wider, much larger and longer social struggle, which we can only see the vague, misty hints of, which we can only hear like a distant train, but fast approaching.
We have shown to those who rule over us, that if this was the reaction to the issue of tuition, just imagine how terrified they are about what we can accomplish, about what we can represent and implement, when they decide to undertake expanded austerity and adjustment. The people have given the powerful reason to fear our mass awakening. Make no mistake, that is an accomplishment, even if you cannot see or hear it, it is there, and you can feel it.
Do not despair. Our generation is but rumbling and grumbling awake from centuries of injustice, groggy and confused, unaware entirely of our surroundings, not knowing yet which direction to go, but we know this: where we are, and where we are being led, is not where we want to be or go, and we have stood up and said so. We are finding our freedom the only way any people have ever found it: by taking it and acting on it, not asking for it. You do not demand cures from cancers. You must find and create them yourselves.
The strike might end, but the streets won’t be empty for long. So stand strong, students and supporters. Your energy, ambition, and inspiration will be needed for some time to come. The whole world is waiting for it, even if they don’t know it yet.
The future is ours, but only if we recognize that it can be, and only if we decide that it will be. And only if we act as if it already is.
I’ll see you in the streets.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer living in Montreal, Canada. His website (www.andrewgavinmarshall.com) features a number of articles and essays focusing on an analysis of power and resistance in the political, social, and economic realms. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, and is currently writing a book on the global economic crisis and resistance movements emerging around the world. To help this book come to completion, please consider donating through the website or on Indiegogo.
Super Mario Monti and the Dictatorship of Austerity in Italy
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is Part 2 of a two-part excerpt on ‘Italy in Crisis.’ These excerpts are rough-draft, unedited samples of a chapter on the European debt crisis to be featured in my upcoming book (as yet ‘Untitled’), to be done by the end of the summer. The book covers the following: the origins, evolution, and effects of the global economic crisis; the acceleration of international imperialism; the elite global social engineering project of constructing a system of ‘global governance’; emerging resistance and revolutionary movements (and elite attempts to co-opt, control, or crush them), including the Arab Spring, European anti-austerity protests, the Spanish Indignados, the Chilean student movement, the Occupy movement, the Quebec ‘Maple Spring’, and the Mexican student movement, among others. This sample allows you to see the research that is going into this book, and if you would like to see the book come to completion, please consider making a generous donation to The People’s Book Project. With a fundraising goal of $2,500 the Project has raised $810, and just $1,690 to go!
In Part 1 of this series (The Decline of the Roman Democracy and Rise of the ‘Super Mario’ Technocracy), I examined the Technocratic coup in Italy, which removed the democratically-elected Berlusconi and replaced him with an unelected technocrat, Mario Monti, an economist, Bilderberg member, former European Chairman of the Trilateral Commission, former European Commissioner for Competition, and a former adviser to Goldman Sachs International, was also on the board of the Coca-Cola Company, and founded the European think tank, Bruegel. Mario Monti was installed by the European elites with one purpose: punish the population of Italy through ‘fiscal austerity’ and ‘structural adjustment.’
The Technocracy of Austerity
Monti wasted no time in punishing the people of Italy for the crimes and excesses of Europe and the world’s elite. On December 2, 2011, Monti announced a 30 billion euro ($40.3 billion) package of austerity measures, which included “raising taxes and increasing the pension age.” Monti described the measures as “painful, but necessary.” He told a press conference that, “We have had to share the sacrifices, but we have made great efforts to share them fairly.” Monti, who is both Prime Minister and Economy Minister, said he had renounced his own salaries from those positions. Considering that he was – until taking those positions – an adviser to Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs, among other prominent jobs, those salaries likely would not make much of a difference to Monti’s bank account, anyway. The Deputy Economy Minister Vittorio Grilli (who is still on the board of the Monti-founded think tank Bruegel), said that, “the package should ensure that Italy meet its target of a balanced budget by 2013.” The Welfare Minister Elsa Fornero broke down into tears as she announced an end to inflation indexing on many pension bands, which would essentially amount to “an effective income cut for many retired people.” Unions spoke out against the cuts, stating that they would “hit poorer workers and pensioners disproportionately hard.” Deputy Economy Minister Grilli said that 12-13 billion euros of the package would come from spending cuts, and the rest of the 30 billion euro package would come from tax increases. The minimum age for pensioners (that is, the retirement age) was set to be raised for both men and women to 66 by 2018, as well as providing “incentives” to keep people in the workforce until the age of 70.
The austerity package was passed by an undemocratic decree which Monti named the “Save Italy” decree, and while the union leaders denounced the package, the main business lobby in Italy, Confindustria, praised the package as vital “for the salvation of Italy and the euro.” As Elsa Fornero, the Minister for Welfare, began crying as she announced the austerity measures, she explained, “We know we are asking for sacrifices, but we hope they will be understood in the name of growth and to avoid collective impoverishment.” Of course, austerity is just that: “collective impoverishment.”
In response to the austerity package, Italy’s three largest labour unions began a week of strikes on December 12, with port, highway, and haulage workers stopping work for three hours on the 12th, while metalworkers, including employees of Fiat, put down their tools for eight hours. Printing press operators stopped working for a full shift, and most newspapers were expected to not publish the following day. Public transport strikes took place on December 15-16, and bank employees were set to stop work in the afternoon of December 16, while the public administration closed down for the entire day of December 19. Susanna Camusso, the head of the largest and most militant labour federation, CGIL, said, “We’re not giving up on the idea that the austerity package must be changed… It hurts workers, pensions and the country as a whole.” Mario Monti held a last-minute meeting with the union leaders to unsuccessfully attempt to stop the strikes that were set to begin the following day.
CGIL leader Camusso said that as a result of the austerity measures, “We see every risk of a social explosion.” CGIL, which represents six million members, half of whom are pensioners, stated that, “We are flexible in the face of the emergency but we are not willing to accept everything… You can’t ride roughshod over people.” With only 57% of Italians working, raising the retirement age, as dictated by the austerity package, would amount to “closing the door on the young unemployed,” warned Camusso, adding that Monti had done nothing for “young people and women who can’t find work, and when they do it is badly paid.”
In late December, the Italian Senate passed a vote of confidence on Mario Monti’s government when they approved the new austerity package. Monti commented: “Today this chamber concludes a rapid, responsible, complex job… on a decree that was passed in extreme emergency and that enables Italy to hold its head high as it faces the very serious European crisis.”
Prior to the European Summit held at the end of January 2012, Mario Monti was holding meetings with Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. Italy, wrote the Economist, “it seems fair to say, is back at the top table after being quietly shoved off under the leadership of Silvio Berlusconi.” Monti emphasized to Merkel, Sarkozy, and other leaders that the EU needs to not simply “enforce fiscal discipline,” but to stimulate growth. This would mean, according to Monti, “not only finding ways to lower interest rates, but encouraging liberalisation wherever possible.” Monti even suggested that Germany should “liberalize” (meaning: privatize) some of its services. Monti, in an interview with the Economist, stated that, “It is rather unusual for Italy to be at the forefront of pro-market initiatives,” but that he planned to undertake a major liberalization of Italy, saying: “I am convinced that it is also in Italy’s national interest.” Acknowledging that his government is “unelected,” Monti told the Economist that, “there was in Italy a hidden demand for a boring government which would try to tell the truth in non-political jargon.” Monti warned, however, that, “Austerity is not enough, even for budgetary discipline, if economic activity does not pick up a decent rate of growth… A lowering in interest rates does not depend only on Italy’s efforts but also, and essentially, on Europe’s ability to confront the crisis in a more decisive way.” Monti stated that Italy’s domestic political situation is getting problematic for the EU, with a growing appeal to ‘Euroscepticism,’ warning: “What I see now, week after week, in parliament is a widening of the spread of this attitude… The degree of impatience-cum-hostility to the EU, to Germany and to the ECB is mounting.”
Monti warned Merkel and other EU leaders that Italian sacrifices alone would not get Italy out of crisis, that Italy needed some form of outside support, without which, he warned: “a protest against Europe will develop in Italy, also against Germany, which is viewed as the ringleader of E.U. intolerance, and against the European Central Bank… I cannot have success with my policies if the E.U.’s policies don’t change.” In particular, he was referring to the need to bring down Italy’s interest rates, something that could likely only be achieved through the ECB purchasing large amounts of Italian bonds, which would increase “market confidence” in Italy and bring down interest rates. Otherwise, Monti lamented, the popular discontent of the people with the economic situation could push Italy to “flee into the arms of populists.” Spoken like a true unelected technocrat. Imagine that, a government which dares to serve the interests of the people over whom it rules! Not in the ‘New Europe.’
In late January, Philip Stephens, writing for the Financial Times, stated that, “Italy is back,” and that while Merkel “sits at the top of Europe’s power list,” and Sarkozy “can lay claim to be the continent’s most energetic leader,” it is Mario Monti who “is its most interesting.” Stephens declared that, “Mr. Monti’s fate may turn out to be Europe’s.” Barack Obama’s White House announced that in a future meeting between Obama and Monti, the two leaders would discuss “the comprehensive steps the Italian government is taking to restore market confidence and reinvigorate growth through structural reform, as well as the prospect of an expansion of Europe’s financial firewall.” Stephens translated this as: “Mr. Obama is behind Mr. Monti all the way – including when he puts pressure on Ms. Merkel.” Lamenting the Italy of Berlusconi, who was “shunned by his European Union peers,” though always embraced as a friend by Russia’s Putin, Stephens wrote that Monti, “a serious-minded academic with a serious plan, is different in every dimension.” He also noted that there was “a second Italian at the top table,” meaning Mario Draghi, the new President of the European Central Bank, “the other Mario,” who in terms of economic orthodoxy, “styles himself an honorary German.” Stephens wrote that Monti is so important because “it is in Italy that the euro’s long-term prospects will be decided,” as Italy is the euro-area’s third largest economy (after Germany and France), and if Italy “cannot chart a credible economic course, the euro does not have a future as a pan-European project.” While praising Monti’s austerity package, Stephens said that, “the real test will come in liberalizing the economy,” which “will not be easy,” but “the choices are unavoidable.”
Mario Monti, upon unveiling his “liberalization” plans in late January, stated: “Italy’s economy has been slowed down for decades by three constraints: insufficient competition; an inadequate infrastructure; and complicated administrative procedures.” Thus, Monti passed a decree opening the occupation of taxi drivers up to “competition,” prompting taxi drivers to block central streets in Rome. As liberalization brings in higher petrol prices (which were previously under more control), truck drivers and agricultural workers set up barricades in Sicily. One Italian paper (owned by the Berlusconi family) headlined: “Half of Italy is ready to wage war on the government.” Once decrees are issued, they go into effect immediately, but require parliamentary approval within two months. Monti’s liberalization decrees of January (following the austerity decrees of December) also targeted the gas and electricity markets, as well as the insurance sector and public services. Next in Monti’s target: the labour market. One analyst at Roubini Global Economics told the Financial Times: “Although structural reforms are necessary to boost long-term growth, they will take several years to bear fruit and, in a period of economic contraction and government retrenchment, will have an adverse effect on short-term output, deepening the recession which will last through 2013.”
In his first interview since resigning as Prime Minister, Berlusconi told the Financial Times in early February that he was “stepping aside” from frontline Italian politics and had no intention of running for prime minister again. Berlusconi gave his “strongest endorsement to date of the technocratic government led by Mario Monto,” specifically in “its intention to implement labour market reforms opposed by trade unions.” Berlusconi declared: “I have now stepped aside, even in my party.” He explained that he resigned the previous November because he had been attacked “by an obsessive campaign by the national and foreign media that blamed me personally and the government for the high spread of Italian state bonds and the crisis on the stock market.” Thus, he contended: “After having evaluated the causes of the crisis, which did not rest in Italy but in Europe and the euro, I believed that if I had stayed in government I would have damaged Italy as we would have had more terrible media campaigns… With a sense of responsibility, though having a majority in both houses of parliament… I stepped aside and with elegance.” One can always rely upon a politician to sing their own praises, especially if they are undeserving. He did suggest, however, that he would consider running for parliament, quipping: “I still have strong popular backing, almost twice as much as my colleagues Merkel and Sarkozy… In opinion polls, I personally have 36 per cent support. If I walk out in the street I stop the traffic. I am a public danger and I cannot go out to do the shopping.” Berlusconi concluded:
The hope is that this government, which is supported for the first time by the whole of parliament, will have the chance to propose great structural reforms, starting from the state’s institutional architecture, without which we cannot think of having a modern and truly free and democratic country.
Martin Wolf, perhaps the most influential financial columnist in the world, writing for the Financial Times in January of 2012, asked if the two Marios – nicknamed by the media as the “Super-Marios” – will be able to “save the eurozone?” Wolf wrote that they “bring sophisticated pragmatism to the table,” and hoped that they would “shift policy in a more productive direction.” Wolf referred to the ECB’s new long-term refinancing operation announced in December of 2011, which is essentially a bank bailout with a three-year yield at the ECB’s average interest rate (which stands at 1% currently). When the ECB began this new program, roughly 523 banks took 489 billion euros, described by Wolf as “a bold and cunning move by Mr. Draghi and probably the most he could get away with right now.” Wolf also referred to Monti’s willingness to argue that the creditor countries “do more to lower his country’s borrowing costs,” or interest rates, warning in the Financial Times against a “powerful backlash” among voters in the EU periphery states. Wolf wrote that, “Mr. Monti is in a strong position to make this argument,” as Monti “is a well-respected official with staunchly pro-European views and a strong sympathy for German attitudes to competition and fiscal and monetary stability.” Wolf explained that, “Draghi and Monti are addressing two interlinked fragilities: the vulnerability of the banking system and the unsustainable terms on which weaker countries can now borrow.” While praising the “Super-Marios,” Martin Wolf said that they alone could not save the eurozone, whose problems run very deep, and where even the ‘solutions’ to the crises felt by various EU states can make larger, structural reforms even more challenging. As Wolf correctly noted: “In Italy’s case, for example, the combination of high interest rates and vulnerable banks with fiscal austerity is likely to lead to a lengthy and deep recession and so to a rise in cyclical fiscal deficits [debt incurred during and because of the economic crisis at the time] as the structural deficit falls [the debt acquired by spending more than what is brought in through revenue].” Naturally, though, this simply means that the overall debt will increase. Wolf wrote, ultimately, that if “break-up [of the euro] is ruled out, one must choose reforms, however painful.” This is because, according to Wolf, “the costs of failure are so large that the possibility of domestic and eurozone reform must be kept alive.” On this, the “Super-Marios” can be leaders.
When the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Italy’s debt in January by two notches to BBB, “with a warning of more to come,” Mario Monti stated that he “agrees with almost everything in S&P’s analysis,” and “jokes that he could almost have written it himself.” He told the Financial Times that, “If I ever dictated anything, it must have been what S&P had to say about domestic Italian economic policy,” and then laughed. As a result of the downgrade, Italy had the lowest credit rating of any eurozone country which did not receive a bailout, apart from Cyprus. Why was Monti so pleased with the downgrade? He quoted the report to the interviewer from the Financial Times, going through the risk factors associated with Italy, but adding: “Nevertheless, we have not changed our political risk score for Italy. We believe that the weakening policy environment at European level is to a certain degree offset by a strong domestic Italian capacity.” In other words: “Mr. Monti’s 60 days in office have been enough to convince the agency that his government is on a path of reform that could return the country to growth and shrink its debt levels, but that European Union mismanagement of the eurozone debt crisis is dragging down struggling countries, including Italy.” Mr. Monti stated, “I think I’m the only one in Europe not to have criticized the rating agencies.”
In discussing how his government came into existence, as in, not through democratic means, Monti told the Financial Times that he agreed that he could be helping to bring a “revolution,” referring to the number and extent of measures he intended to pass before democratic elections take place. He explained that if Italy’s borrowing costs (interest rates) fall, “the political parties will not dare stop the experiment [in technocracy] before it has to stop… And in my view the political parties will not dare go back to the acrimonious, superficial and tough confrontation that animated parliament. The image and style of public debate has changed.” He added: “If and when success comes, you will find us not really taking credit… My ambition is that Italy becomes a boring country, in relative terms. It is really in the hands of Europe.”
In February of 2012, Mario Monti gave an interview with PBS Newshour in which he continued to heap praise upon austerity measures, saying that because Greece’s debt had been so high, “it would have been hard – let’s face realities – to have a soft landing from those excesses of deficit without a recession.” He added, “I think there is a valid point if we say that Europe needed to be put under a safe place as regards the public finances of each member state.” Monti thanked “German and other pressures” for pushing countries in that direction of austerity. And now, he claimed, “the time has come to focus more energies on how collectively we can achieve more growth in Europe.” Growth, of course, simply means growth of profits for big banks and multinational corporations.
Super Mario’s ‘Structural Adjustment’: The Meaning of “Growth”
When Europe’s political and financial elite discuss “growth” in the current context as an added “solution” on top of austerity, what they really mean is to implement major structural changes: to liberalize the economy, privatize all assets, state subsidies, services, industries, and resources. This will allow corporations and banks to come in and purchase all of these assets and industries, and since this process takes place in the midst of a deep crisis, they are able to take control of all the assets for very cheap prices. This is called “foreign direct investment.”
The major corporations of Europe, of North America, and elsewhere, will be able to control directly a much larger share of the economy. Their purchases provide short-term funds for the state, thus increasing short-term revenue. However, since state industries are privatized and sold for pennies on the dollar, they are actually losing long-term revenue, but that isn’t mentioned. Markets respond to the short-term, not the long-term, and of course, we want to have our world and its social, political, and economic stability determined by forces that theoretically do not look more than a couple months ahead. The process of liberalization and privatization is also sold on the prospect of “creating jobs,” because the theory goes that corporations will enter the market with the ability to invest and thus, create jobs for workers. The reality is that the corporations buy up the industries, and generally shut them down to relocate elsewhere for cheaper labour. This means mass firings. This also means that unions and labour rights in general have to be dismantled and people have to be kept in line, under control.
Austerity measures are aimed at redistributing wealth from the mass of society to the very top percentiles, which is achieved through increased taxation, mass firing of public sector workers, cuts to social spending, health care, welfare, education and other areas. This, quite predictably, creates a massive social crisis. Many austerity packages – such as Monti’s in Italy – also include efforts to undermine labour and unions. This prepares the work force for the period and programs of “growth,” in which workers will be forced to submit to exploitative working conditions with no collective bargaining rights, or else the industries will simply fire them all, close up shop, and go elsewhere. This is why we hear all the Eurocrats and politicians in Europe and elsewhere explain that austerity and growth are not mutually exclusive, that they can and should co-exist together. Indeed, from the view of the ‘effects’ of these policies, a joint program of “austerity” and “growth” makes perfect sense: commit social genocide (through fiscal austerity), and exploit, plunder, and profit from the spoils of economic war (growth through structural adjustments).
In the ‘Third World’ over the past three decades, these policies were imposed by the IMF, World Bank, Western imperial powers, and Western banks and corporations. With the primary engine being the International Monetary Fund (IMF), countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which were in the midst of a major debt crisis in the 1980s, were forced to sign what were called ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs) with the IMF and World Bank if they wanted to get any loans or aid from Western banks or institutions. The SAPs would be a set of conditions that the countries would have to adhere to if they were to get a loan, and the conditions included a mix of ‘fiscal austerity’ and ‘structural adjustment’: devalue the currency to make it cheaper to invest in the country (but which creates inflation and increases the costs of food, fuel, and other commodities, hurting the poor and middle classes); cut social spending to reduce the deficit (but which saw the destruction of education, health care, welfare and social programs, as well as mass firings from the public sector); trade liberalization, to allow for foreign countries and corporations to more easily invest in the country, and thus, bring in revenue (which meant dismantling all tariffs, trade barriers, price controls, state subsidies, and resulted in the easy exploitation and cheap purchase of the country’s wealth by foreign corporations and banks); and privatization, meant to encourage investment and allow for the market to make state-owned industries and asset more “efficient” (but which resulted in mass firings, closing of entire industries, mass corruption, and total control of the economy being handed to foreign banks and corporations).
The result of SAPs – the combination of “austerity” and “growth” – over three decades has been devastating: poverty has rapidly accelerated and expanded; wealth becomes heavily polarized, with a tiny minority owning the economy, and everyone else with next to nothing; the small elite become increasingly dependent upon and integrated with a global elite (based primarily in the West), and disassociated from their fellow citizens; mortality rates go up as health care and social services are dismantled or made incredibly expensive at a time of deepening poverty in which more people need the services more than ever before; social unrest and repression become rampant, as the people rise up against ‘Structural Adjustment,’ the state resorts to increasingly authoritarian and brutal measures to control or crush resistance to the programs and to protect the dominance of the tiny minority, locally and internationally.
This, essentially, is the fate of Europe and the rest of the industrialized world. Europe, simply being the most integrated region of the world (a trend which is accelerating everywhere in the world), is experiencing the brunt of this crisis before the rest of the industrialized nations of the world. So when politicians and financial elites say that Europe needs “growth” in conjunction with austerity, and this will lead to “recovery”, remember what “growth” means: exploitation, plundering, and profits. When you remember this, suddenly everything the politicians and pundits have been saying for years, suddenly makes sense.
When asked if he felt that there was a danger of “a backlash” in Italy against what people “may see as E.U. imposed changes to their way of life that are very, very painful,” Monti replied that, “there was such a risk of backlash,” but he explained: “I try to avoid that backlash by always presenting the necessary sacrifices that Italians have to go through not as an imposition from Brussels or Germany or the European Central Bank, but rather as a necessary step that Italians have to undertaking — to undertake also at the suggestion of Europe, but basically for their own interests, for the interests of ourselves and of future generations of Italians. This is precisely meant to avoid backlashes.” Interesting statement: saying that austerity is for the interests of Italians and “future generations” is done not to speak truth, but “to avoid backlashes” against the E.U. Monti emphasized that, “it is very, very important” to ensure that the single currency, “which was meant to be the culminating point of the European construction,” does not become, “through psychological negative effects, a factor of disintegration of Europe.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in early February, Mario Monti publicly outlined his strategy for “growth” in Europe, which he proposed privately to other European governments the previous month, pushing Europe beyond austerity and suggesting “tougher European rules aimed at prying open member states’ national industries,” of course to “encourage economic growth and competition in the euro zone.” Monti explained that if this is not done, “Europe will not be a nice place to live in five years from now if we haven’t solved the problem of how to grow… We have to say what growth will look like in a fiscally compacted union.” His proposal “would speed up the process by which European authorities sanction nations that violate the tenets of the EU’s single market.” For Monti and other technocrats like himself, this “growth” does not include government spending. Since Italy is supposed to knock off 30 billion euros ($39.8 billion) – 2% of its GDP – from its public debt “every year for decades,” this means, explained Monti, that “any thought of budget-stimulated growth ideas will have to go away.” Instead, Monti suggested that the European Union “should back single markets more forcefully to support economic growth,” which instead of having Berlin sign off on the EU spending its way to prosperity, would mean “to push Germany to liberalize its own economy,” which, claimed Monti, “would have a trickle-down effect.”
Monti was undertaking various programs of “liberalization” in Italy, such as liberalizing major professions and sectors, such as pharmacies, taxis, and notaries. To handle Italy’s “unemployment” issue, which is significant to say the least, Monti was seeking to “introduce new measures aimed at making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers,” which, he said, “will increase the overall flexibility of the labor market,” meaning that it will allow for cheaper and more easily-exploited labour by corporations. Monti even stated that the changes he was making in the labour market were aimed at “reducing the segmentation of Italy’s labor market between those who are protected, sometimes hyper-protected, and those, particularly the young, who can’t really get into the labor market.” So, instead of having various work forces that are “protected” (or “hyper-protected” in Monti’s words), it would be better to simply bring everyone down to the same level to allow for “flexibility,” or in other words, easy exploitative capacity. For “Super Mario,” no protection is better than any protection when it comes to workers. Imagine if there were politicians who thought the same thing about bankers.
While Europe agreed to a ‘Fiscal Compact’ to ensure austerity, Monti felt that the EU should add to this a growth pact, and felt that the supranational and undemocratic European Union should have “an efficient mechanism to swiftly sanction countries that don’t open up their economies to competition,” meaning exploitation and plundering. Thus, the previous month, Monti submitted a proposal “aimed at giving the European Commission – the EU’s governing body – greater power over sanctioning member states.” This proposal, which had not been reported prior to this interview, “could speed up the process by years, by making it easier for the commission to impose rulings rather than having to take member states to court, as it often does now.” When asked what this has to do with growth, Monti replied: “A lot, because if you give more teeth to the commission to remove national obstacles to the functioning of the single market, we’ll create a large level playing field, which the business community always insists is a key component of growth.” Well that answers that: it will lead to “growth” because the business community says so. Thank you, Prime Minister.
Monti acknowledged that this creates obvious concerns, especially with countries like the U.K. and France which would likely oppose the proposal for fear of its encroachment on their sovereignty, and the existence of a “democratic deficit” which will continue “as member states gradually hand over more of their fiscal and economic policies to the central oversight of European institutions.” But for this, Monti has a solution: “Much of the reconciliation between more centralized governance and the scope for democracy will be resolved through an even stronger role of the European Parliament,” which is, in effect, utterly useless.
The Most Important Man in Europe?
In late February, Time Magazine published an article reporting on an interview they conducted with Monti in which they referred to him as “the most important man in Europe.” The article described Monti as “the tough taskmaster Italy so desperately needs,” though he “has the aura of a gentlemanly grandfather.” Time reported that Monti was “fixing a deadlocked democracy,” no doubt by ruling as an unelected technocrat, “and charging forward with greater European integration,” in a “wholesale overhaul of Italian society.” Monti told Time, “I believe that reforms will not really take hold if they do not gradually come into the culture of the people.” Time declared that for the problem of Italy’s partisan politics, “the solution was Monti.” Monti said that the request to rule came “at such a severe time of crisis for Italy that I could not refuse.” Thus, declared Time Magazine: “Today he reigns over Rome like a new Caesar.” In effect, “the democratic process has been suspended to allow an unelected technocrat to implement policies that elected politicians could not.” Monti himself refers to this as a “temporary mutual disarmament” of the left and right, a technocratic euphemism for “dictatorship of austerity.”
The publication praised Monti’s austerity package in December, his liberalization program in January, and his new plan to overhaul the labour market; then lamented that Monti is taking on “entrenched interest groups,” such as taxi drivers (no joke, the article referred to taxi drivers as “entrenched interest groups”), who staged strikes in Rome and other Italian cities, and pharmacists who were threatening to do the same thing, or truckers that blocked roadways in protest of a fuel-tax hike. The president of a national taxi union stated, “In Italy, the economy was more based on rules that used to be applied to create wealth for the general public… I don’t understand why suddenly the only solution is to get rid of the rules.” He added: “Monti has always lived in the salons… He really doesn’t know the problems of ordinary people.” To this, Monti replied, “Maybe they’re right,” but he felt this was an advantage: “Italy has piled up huge public debt because the successive governments were too close to the life of ordinary citizens, too willing to please the requests of everybody, thereby acting against the interests of future generations.” Monti earned a reputation – and the nickname “Super Mario” – back when he was an EU Commissioner, where he came into conflict with some major global corporations, such as blocking a merger between GE and Honeywell, which prompted the then-CEO of GE, Jack Welch, to refer to Monti as “cold-blooded.” Monti acknowledged that as he is more successful in pushing “reforms,” the effects of those reforms would put pressure on the political parties to abandon him, and make it more difficult for him to continue his programs before he leaves office in 2013. “The point,” explained Monti, “is how to keep this pressure even once the most visible elements of emergency hopefully are over.” This would largely be left to accelerating the process of European integration: “I think there is a genuine wish on the part of the E.U. and Germany and France to again play an active game with Italy for a relaunch of European integration… I think we will be seeing an acceleration of the good news.” Apparently, accelerating the integration and institutionalization of an undemocratic, technocratic, supranational structure is “good news.”
When Mario Monti went to visit Wall Street on the seventh floor of the New York Stock Exchange (to visit his actual ‘constituents’), he received a long, standing ovation when he entered the room with an audience of 200 people. Charlie Himmelberg, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, commented that, “It’s been impressive how quickly the sentiment has changed on Italy.” Blaise Antin, the head of sovereign research at TCW said, “It is a good thing Monti visits investors… But plenty will ultimately depend on the Italian parliament” in the tough choices ahead. Monti told the crowd of Wall Street financiers that, “What’s important is that this improved governance of the euro zone is almost there and the euro zone crisis is almost overcome, I believe.” Monti later reflected at a new conference in New York that he was “warmly greeted by the financial community” on Wall Street. No doubt.
Super Mario Wages War on Workers
After making the rounds in interviews, state visits, meeting Obama, and visiting his constituents at Wall Street, Mario Monti went back to Italy in late February to push forward on his “labour reforms” to undermine and destroy unions and workers’ rights. By March, the effects were being felt among Italians. Monti went to great pains to denounce what he described as Italy’s “two-tier labour market,” dividing generations and leaving the young out to dry. The New York Times wasted no time in supporting Monti’s calls to dismantle this system. Framing the discourse around the generational divide, in which “older workers came of age with guaranteed jobs and ironclad contracts granting generous pensions and full benefits,” the younger Italians, “the best-educated in the country’s history… are lucky to find temporary work, which offers few benefits or stability.” Thus, one of Monti’s “solutions” was to “make it easier for companies to hire and fire.”
Very typical of the neoliberal economic discourse, is to draw conclusions based upon these facts alone: older workers have benefits, younger workers have few opportunities; thus, older workers are destroying future generations with their “entitlements.” Solution: dismantle entitlements and benefits so all can work on an “equal playing field.” The discourse divides workers and people against each other, meanwhile, there is no mention of the fact that the reason why the youth have so few job opportunities has more to do with the lack of state and business investment, the deregulation and privatization of industries over the 1990s (while Mario Draghi was head of the Treasury), the effects of the euro (creating an economic hierarchy between the Northern nations of the EU and the Southern states), or the very obvious fact that Italy is in a severe crisis because its corrupt government colluded with global banks and suffered under the institutions and rules of the E.U., which promote elite interests and undermine democracy and self-determination. No, mentioning the massive – and elite-driven – causes for the crisis Italy faces, and the unemployment issues which are symptomatic of that crisis, is too inconvenient for the New York Times. Instead, it is simply easier and more acceptable in the popular discourse to pit workers against each other, in an effort to undermine them all, collectively.
An economist at Bocconi University, of which Mario Monti was president until he became Prime Minister of Italy, supported this discourse for Italy, arguing: “Reforming contracts, unemployment benefits and salary levels would permit labor productivity to rise, which would in turn permit the country to grow… It’s a central theme for improving a country like Italy.” Undertaking all of these labour “reforms,” in actuality, would allow for youth to enter the job market to a certain degree, as it would mean that other “hyper-protected” workers no longer have protection, and all of Italy’s workforce is left vulnerable to exploitation. Thus, youth could be hired as extremely cheap labour, since for them, some work – even horrible work with little pay – is better than nothing at all. If workers who had protections attempt to organize and salvage various labour rights, companies can simply fire them and hire cheap, young workers with no benefits as replacements. This is called “youth opportunity.” This is how sweatshops became so popular in the ‘developing’ world over the past several decades, which were also brought about through fiscal austerity and structural adjustment: undermine labour/worker rights for easy exploitation, and if they attempt to organize, strike, or obtain rights, foreign corporations can fire them all and hire cheaper labour, close their factories and outsource elsewhere, or ship in cheaper immigrant labour forces. This has the effect of bringing the standards and conditions of the entire work force, and indeed, the global labour market, down to a more easily exploitative position: equality of exploitation (what economists and bankers call “labour flexibility”).
Monti declared: “We have to get away from a dual labor market where some are overly protected, while others totally lack protection and benefits when unemployed.” Thus, he said, “equity and growth” would be the “watchwords” of his government. Since “growth” means profits, plunder, and exploitation, “equity” is a logical addition to this: equity in exploitation. The New York Times, reporting on a 33-year old graduate without job opportunities, said she would “welcome” such changes, as she, “like so many in her generation, feels thwarted, overly reliant on her parents and uncertain of her future.” Amazingly, in the same article, it was acknowledged that the two-tier labour system was not created by “entitlements,” but rather as a result of policies the government undertook nearly a decade previous (in facilitating Italy’s entry into the euro-zone), in which the state made it easier for Italian corporations “to hire younger workers on a range of temporary contracts and internships,” while many of the early-retirement benefits for older workers were put in place during the mass privatizations (undertaken by Mario Draghi), in order to facilitate the reduction of staff “and cutting costs in the period before Italy joined the euro zone.” The article then went on to blame the unions, claiming that “younger Italians have come to see them as part of the problem.”
One must actually pause in appreciation of the intellectual gymnastics displayed by the New York Times in publishing an article which quietly acknowledges that the causes of Italy’s two-tiered labour and employment issues were the result of demands and policies put in place in order to join the single-currency, yet still concluded that the main problem was “overly-protected workers,” and thus, that the solutions lie in undermining labour and workers’ rights. The article even acknowledged that the government’s policies of making it easy for Italian corporations to exploit youth labour were designed “to make the market more flexible,” yet does not question the logic in Monti’s program of solving the crisis brought on by this “flexibility” by implementing measures to make it “more flexible.” The Monti-logic, which the New York Times readily endorses, is to look at policies that didn’t work (in terms of what people were ‘told’ they were meant to achieve), and then to advance and accelerate those same policies in the hopes that it will have the opposite effect as to that which it has always had before. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again, expecting different results. If we actually apply that definition, almost the entire discipline of economics – and most especially neoliberal economics – is absolutely insane. Either that, or they simply use coded rhetoric which sounds like one thing, means another, and is done so to promote a global social, political, and economic agenda which would otherwise be impossible to publicly justify: preserving and accumulating for a tiny minority, and exploiting and punishing the vast majority.
Right on cue, the effects of the economic crisis over the previous year, exacerbated by Monti’s labour reforms and austerity package, was being felt across Italy. In Naples, one of Europe’s poorest cities, by late March it was reported that child labour has returned, as “thousands of children are leaving school to help their families make ends meet,” an increasing trend in the country, in which children work in the black market or “are recruited for sinister purposes by the mafia.” The most common job for child workers is as a “shop assistant,” earning less than a euro an hour. This trend had been developing in Italy over a number of years, as one local government report in the Campania region revealed that between 2005 and 2009, more than 54,000 children left school to join the work force, with 38% of them under the age of 13. The deputy mayor of Naples, located in the Campania region, commented: “Of course, we were the poorest region in Italy. But we haven’t seen a situation like this since the end of the Second World War… At age 10, these kids are already working 12 hours a day, which is a clear breach of their right to development.” The succession of financial reforms put in place by the Italian government since 2008 introduced drastic cuts, and in June of 2010, the Campania region had to end its minimum welfare program, “plunging more than 130,000 families into poverty.” Children from poor families face three options: struggle to stay in school, drop out to work in the black economy, or “join the ranks of the Camorra, the Neopolitan mafia.” Since the beginning of the crisis, support for youth and their families has been cut by 87%, and roughly 20,000 educators in the Campania region had not been paid for two years. Perhaps this is what Mario Monti means by “labour flexibility.”
In late March, reported the Economist, as Mario Monti was engaged in talks with employers and unions, trying to get them to accept labour-market reforms, “when it became clear that unanimity was impossible, Mr. Monti declared the talks over and said his government would press ahead regardless.” It is quite appropriate, one must acknowledge, that for a government which was created through undemocratic means, it should only continue to act and rule undemocratically as well. Such is the path Mario Monti has taken with Italy. On March 16, the Italian parliament’s three largest parties endorsed Monti’s reforms, on the warning from President Napolitano that, “failure to agree would have serious consequences.” The main problem for Monti came from the largest union federation, the CGIL, an historic ally of the Democratic Party (PD), which had endorsed Monti and his austerity packages, leading one senior leader in the PD to suggest that the party leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, “could face a backbench revolt or a party split.”
The Wall Street Journal naturally congratulated Monti, in an article entitled, “Monti pulls a Thatcher,” for showing “political courage” in walking away from negotiations with Italy’s labour unions, announcing that he was “going to move ahead with reforming the country’s notorious employment laws – with or without union consent.” Italy had stringent rules regarding the ability of employers to fire workers, what the Wall Street Journal referred to as a “job-for-life scheme,” which Monti’s reforms will replace with a “generous system of guaranteed severance when employees are dismissed” for what are called, “economic reasons.” The Journal heaped praise upon Monti, as “standing up to Italy’s labor unions takes courage, and not only of the political sort,” noting how there was an economist ten years prior who was shot and killed “for his role in designing a previous attempt at labor reform.” Monti had been ruling by decree since December, but announced in late March that the labour reform proposals would be voted through the National Assembly. The WSJ wrote that as a former economics professor, Mario Monti “has a rare opportunity to educate Italians on the consequences of opposing reform,” to which the Journal suggested, they need only to look at Greece: “If that doesn’t scare them sober, then nothing will help.”
Within a week, Monti allowed for a very slight change to his labour reform bill, which would give judges “greater leeway in determining whether companies were justified in laying off a worker.” The Wall Street Journal then referred to this, in an article entitled, “Surrender, Italian Style,” as a “cave-in to the left side of his political coalition,” and noted that, “Monti was brought in as Prime Minister to retrieve his country from the edge of a Greek abyss,” and that this “labor bill is a surrender to those who are bringing” that abyss to Italy. For the WSJ, any capitulation – no matter how minor (and this particular one was very minor) – to unions and labour, is deemed an absolute “surrender” or “cave-in.” Monti defended himself in a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he explained that this “surrender” was still a move in the right direction of reform, as it “introduces a more predictable [i.e., controllable] and speedier [i.e., systematic] procedure to handle dismissals for economic or other objective reasons.” He elaborated: “First, a fast, compulsory, out-of-court settlement procedure at local level; then, if conciliation fails, the worker can take the case to a judge as happens in other countries.” In “extreme cases” where the “economic or other reason” for firing the worker is deemed “manifestly inexistent,” the judge then has the ability to decide “for reinstatement instead of compensation.” When the “economic dismissal” is “not justified” in other cases (i.e., not an “extreme case”), compensation will be given with a cap at 24 months of wages. Monti said that it was a “complex reform” and deserves “serious analysis rather than snap judgments.” He then wrote: “I would suggest that perhaps the fact that it has been attacked by both the main employers association and the metalworkers union, part of the leading trade union confederation [CGIL], indicates that we have got the balance right.” This reform, claimed Monti, “will make the Italian labor market more flexible” which “lays the foundation for increase productivity, economic growth and employment.”
In mid-April, Italy’s major unions took to the streets of Rome in protest against Mario Monti’s pension-system reforms put in place in January, “saying it traps hundreds of thousands of workers in a legal limbo without retirement pay.” The reform that raised the retirement age affects those who are already retired. Bloomberg gave the example of Maria Dinelli, who had an early-retirement deal in 2008, in which her former employer provided benefits until her pension was to begin in 2015. Under Monti’s reforms, her pension won’t begin until 2017, upon which she commented, “I’ll be without a salary or pension for two full years before the retirement age, and will have to put money aside… You were told you had guarantees, then you lose it all because a new government takes power and changes the rules.” Tens of thousands of Italians took to the streets of Rome on April 13 as the Italian Labor Ministry said the night before that, “there are 65,000 Italians who may be left without support between when they leave work and when their pension kick in as the higher retirement age delays their payout,” while unions say the amount of people affected is five times that size, at roughly 300,000, prompting one union leader to state, “If these figures were correct,” referring to the Labor Ministry numbers, “then we’d have to say that the thousands of workers who’ve turned to the union for help are not real and just ghosts.” A labor law professor in Rome estimated the number may actually be as high as 450,000.
Monti referred to this plan as “cutting edge.” Well, it certainly ‘cuts.’ Meanwhile, Italians are facing increased taxes and record-high gasoline prices, thus producing a “slump in consumer demand” which pushed Italy into a deeper recession. Nicola Marinelli of Glendevon King Asset Management in London stated: “An overhaul of the pension system was unavoidable because the old scheme was too generous compared to the country’s possibilities and the European standards… That said, the protest of these workers may be a harbinger of future social tensions. I don’t think the younger workers have really realized they will have starvation-level pensions.” Just another “cutting edge” facet of Monti’s reforms. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, Monti’s reforms had not yet included “a heavy hand with the richest taxpayers,” prompting a labor law professor to opine, “I think it’s about time for those who have more to contribute to the needs of the country.” But such is not the nature of austerity.
In fact, in April it was reported that the political class in Italy, the “army of politicians and senior officials” who support Monti and his reforms in Parliament, “are clinging to fat salaries that far outstrip those of their peers abroad.” Monti had issued a decree which aimed to “prevent public servants earning more than U.S. President Barack Obama,” many of whom “earn considerably more.” Italy’s wealthy, however, not simply the top politicians and bureaucrats alone, “are hardly carrying their share of the burden.” One economist noted: “There has not been an equal distribution of sacrifices… In proportion to their salaries, higher incomes are paying less.” Italy has roughly 1,000 lawmakers across the nation, who earn more than their counterparts in the United States, with a base salary of 11,283 euros per month, while the lowest-earning households in Italy, “hurt most by rising fuel, property and sales taxes,” live “on less than 8,000 euros per year, or 667 euros per month, after taxes.” Between 2006 and 2010, Italy’s poorest families already lost almost 12 percent of their real income, according to data from the Bank of Italy. Unlike the political class, most Italian families are “traditionally thrifty,” however, under austerity in 2011, “households saved only 12 percent of their gross income, the lowest level since 1995.” That is the nature of austerity: when you need to save more than ever before, the ability to do so becomes harder than ever before. In March, a Moroccan worker in Italy set himself on fire in protest, and an Italian businessman did the same. Polls in Italy have shown that the people are “increasingly dissatisfied with the parties and politicians that led the country for the past two decades,” as more than 40% of respondents said that they wouldn’t vote for any of them if there were an election today.
Italy Under Austerity
The Wall Street Journal reported in early April that figures from the Italian Treasury revealed that Monti’s austerity measures were “stunting activity in the euro-zone’s third-largest economy,” and while “recent tax increases are helping Italy cut its fiscal shortfall,” they are also “pushing economic activity to contract even faster.” Industry Minister Corrado Passera stated: “With austerity one doesn’t grow.” The majority of tax increases are on the income of workers, though they also include taxes on consumption (such as Value Added Taxes – VAT) and on property assets. As Italy’s GDP contracted by 1% in the first quarter of 2012, yields on Italian government bonds rose, making it more expensive for Italy to borrow. Former prime minister Berlusconi commented: “The cure that the European Union has prescribed for our country is the one that has already caused a disaster in Greece and is beginning to do so again in Spain,” though he continued to throw his support behind the technocratic government. One businessman in Italy warned that, “Consumers have insurmountable obstacles ahead of them, with higher income-tax rates from March, higher property taxes as of June and a value-added tax increase in September.”
By late April, unemployment in Italy had reached nearly 10%, according to “official” statistics (meaning, it’s actually much higher), and in Sardinia, one in two young people were out of work. The construction industry in Italy has been hard hit, leading to one industry businessman killing himself, adding to a wave of “austerity suicides” across Italy, reaching 25 by April for the year of 2012.
In May of 2012, the Italian anarchist group which had claimed responsibility for shooting a nuclear engineering firm chief threatened to target Mario Monti. The group, referring to itself as the Olga Nucleus of the Informal Anarchist Federation – International Revolutionary Front, sent a statement to a newspaper in southern Italy, warning that “Monti was among seven remaining targets after Roberto Adinolfi, chief executive of Ansaldo Nucleare, was shot in the leg last week.” The statement read: “We say to Monti that he is one of the seven remaining and that the people have no interest in staying in Europe, saving the banks and helping to balance the accounts of a state that squandered money for its own interests.” The statement explained that any suicide connected to tax difficulties brought about by the austerity measures would be punished as a “state murder.” This referred to a series of suicides in Italy by businessmen and others, “despairing at the collapse of their livelihoods because of the crisis.” It was the same anarchist group that in the previous year, claimed responsibility for sending letter bombs to several banks, including to Josef Ackermann, the CEO of Deutsche Bank, while the director-general of Equitalia in Italy lost a finger opening one of the letter bombs in December. One of the members of the group, facing prosecution in court, “called for armed revolution… when asked about the Adinolfi shooting.”
Mario Monti had been pushing himself into European politics as a “mediator” between Germany and the weaker euro-zone economies, to seemingly “broaden” decision-making in Europe beyond the Franco-German axis. In the first few weeks of May, Monti’s technocratic administration had been “courting Berlin on two fronts,” trying to draw the parliaments of both countries closer together, and in term of ideology, they had been “trying to convince German officials – in both private meetings and public speeches – that the compromise solution to stoking growth in Europe’s weaker economies is investment in big public projects, such as transportation, Internet networks or electricity grids, while maintaining fiscal discipline.” Some spending, claimed Monti, should be “exempted” from fiscal austerity, something which Germany had long opposed. But with the French elections in early May getting rid of Nicolas Sarkozy and bringing in the Socialist President Francois Hollande, who favoured a strategy of spending on growth, Monti was seeking to find a common ground between Germany and France, but in a way that ultimately was supportive of the European Union, specifically. Nicholas Spiro, who heads a London-based sovereign debt consultancy, stated, “If there’s one European leader whose policies can appeal to both Chancellor Merkel and President-elect Hollande, it’s Monti.” The refined “growth” program promoted by Monti would be based on “creating bonds to fund European Union infrastructure projects and boosting the firepower of the European Investment Bank to fund public investments.” Thus, it would be based upon European spending, not individual nations spending, and so the debt would be pan-European, and controlled by the EU.
In late April, Mario Monti announced that he would be making more cuts to spending by the end of the year, “and appointed an expert from the private sector as a special commissioner to oversee the spending review.” The cuts, amounting to some 4.2 billion euros (or $5.6 billion), “would allow him to avoid proceeding with a plan to raise the national sales tax to 23 percent in October from 21 percent, a move that could hurt consumer spending and slow a return to growth,” reported the New York Times. Monti stated, “Today we are faced with the necessity of making up for the time lost… And not in years, but in months.” The new special commissioner from the private sector to review the process was Enrico Bondi, known as “Mr. Fix-it” for having successfully restructured the bankrupt Parmalat group. The change in austerity measures followed intense pressure from the business community in Italy to push the burden from increased taxation to more government spending cuts.
In mid-May, yields on Italian debt jumped up to nearly 6%, as evidence emerged that Italy was sliding into an even deeper recession, brought on by Monti’s austerity measures and ‘structural adjustments.’ The government in Italy was openly discussing using troops to protect various targets after a wave of violent actions, claimed by various anarchist groups, such as the shooting of the nuclear industry executive, as well as petrol bombs being thrown at tax offices in early May. An Italian banker warned that unless the European Central Bank was converted into a lender of last resort, Italy faces “massive devaluation, three to five years of hyperinflation, and unbearable unemployment.” Moody’s ratings agency downgraded 26 Italian banks in May, evoking the anger of the Italian Banking Association, which called the downgrade, “irresponsible, incomprehensible, and unjustifiable,” and said it was “an attack on Italy, its companies, its families and its citizens.”
Italy held a series of local elections in early May, in which the Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, who is also leading a political party, the Five Star Movement, which “rode a wave of protest against austerity politics” and suggested, “We will see you in parliament.” Grillo had been increasingly critical of Monti’s tax hikes, and in one local election forced a run-off with the Democratic Party (PD), and managed to “trounce” Silvio Berlusconi’s Freedom People party in all the local elections, while the right-wing Northern League party, which has also criticized Monti’s reforms, “was humiliated at the polls.” The major Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, said, following the elections, “As of yesterday, it seems Monti is now more alone.”
In mid-June, police in Italy, Switzerland and Germany arrested 10 people suspected of involvement in “leftwing terrorist activity” in Italy and elsewhere over the previous three years, connected to one of two organizations, the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI) and the International Revolutionary Front (FRI). A general in Italy’s semi-militarized Carabinieri police force said that, “the two groups were in contact with the Greek anarchist movement.” The individuals who were arrested, however, were not suspected of being involved in the major act associated with the groups, the shooting of Roberto Adinolfi in Italy, though the General claimed, “The origin is the same.” The arrests did, however, include suspected involvement in the failed letter bomb sent to former Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann.
In mid-June, as the G20 meeting unfolded in Mexico, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said that the euro area needs a “road map with concrete interventions to make the euro more stably credible,” as well as a “pro-growth plan,” stating, “the two things are strictly complementary.” Even though Monti had imposed his brutal austerity measures upon the people of Italy, the bond rates for the country remained high, prompting Monti to comment, “There must be something wrong if a country that complies still has such high interest rates.” Monti noted that through the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the European bail out fund, Italy had supplied loans to Greece, Ireland and Portugal amounting to 31.5 billion euros, commenting, “Italy has not until now asked for loans… She has made a lot of them and every day that passes, is in fact subsidizing others with the high interest rates she pays in the market.”
In late June, following the G20 summit, Mario Monti announced a “growth decree” for Italy, which included “discount loans for corporate R&D [Research & Development], tax credits for businesses that hire employees with advanced degrees, and reduced headcount at select government ministries.” Also in late June, Italy, Germany, France and Spain agreed to a “growth pact” for Europe with the total value of 130 billion euros ($163 billion), noting that, “austerity alone will not be enough to pull the euro zone out of its deep crisis.” The total sum represents 1% of the European Union’s GDP. Also envisioned are “project bonds” which would be financed through the EU’s budget, and issued “for private-sector infrastructure projects,” or in other words, corporate subsidies.
At the end of June, it was reported that Italy’s economic crisis was deepening, due in large part to the austerity measures, but also as a result of the increasingly high yields (interest rates) on Italian bonds, as Italy had to pay the highest interest rates since December in a 5.24 billion euro auction of 5 and 10 year government bonds (meaning that the country pays high interest rates to the financial institutions which purchased these bonds until they expire in a 5-or-10 year term). The ten-year bonds sold at an average rate of 6.19 percent, while the five-year bonds were at an average rate of 5.84 percent. This, the Financial Times warned, “is the latest sign of a deepening double-dip recession in Italy and will add urgency to prime minister Mario Monti’s demands for short-term measures” to reduce interest rates (such as the ECB purchasing bonds on the market). An Italian business lobby, however, went on to praise the “huge steps, unthinkable only a year ago,” which were implemented by Monti’s technocratic government, though adding, “the process is far from being completed.”
In late June, a bickering Italian parliament passed Monti’s labour reform package, just ahead of the EU summit. Angela Merkel said that Italy had “taken the road towards solid public finances, growth, jobs and competitiveness.” The reform of the labour market has been a major demand of the European Commission and the European Central Bank, and thus, Brussels praised the passing of the reforms, and even the IMF chimed in to cheer on Monti. The reform package was passed in parliament as protests led by the labour unions, took place outside, with police helicopters overhead and demonstrators clashing with security forces blocking the way to the parliament building.
At the EU summit at the end of June, Italy and Spain forced leaders to remain at the summit overnight, forcing an agreement to restructure Spain’s 100 billion euro bank recapitalization plan (the Spanish bailout), allowing funds to be injected directly into banks in Spain, “meaning Madrid can sweep the burden of the bailouts off its sovereign books.” Though this, in turn, requires the “creation of a single banking supervisor to be run by the European Central Bank,” likely as a precursor to a European banking union. Italy also received concessions, though less than Spain received, yet was the main driving force behind the revised rules for the eurozone bailout fund – the EFSF (and later the ESM) – which would have it purchasing sovereign bonds in order to lower the borrowing costs, as it would increase confidence in Italian bonds and thus, lower the interest rates, Monti’s key demand in the previous months. The countries that have their bonds purchased by the bailout fund “will no longer be subject to Greek-style monitoring programmes,” but instead, “they would simply have to maintain their EU debt and deficit commitments.” Monti declared, “It is a double satisfaction for Italy.” For Angela Merkel, who had for months refused to support any short-term rescue measures, “the deal was a significant concession.” Though, of course, every concession comes with a condition: “a German-led group of northern creditor countries will gain more control over all of the eurozone banks through the new single supervisor,” the mechanism through which to establish the banking union.
Upon this news, Spanish and Italian government bond yields fell sharply, with a Deutsche Bank economist commenting, “There was so little expectation and since there was a breakthrough at least on bank recapitalizations, the markets salute that.” The German media reported that, “Italy and Spain broke the will of the iron chancellor by out-negotiating her in the early hours of Friday morning,” on June 29. Der Spiegel reported that, “Monti emerged from the late-night negotiations as a clear victor.” Merkel had to concede to Monti, and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, specifically on the issue of “demands” for the bailouts, as Merkel has been the reigning Queen of austerity. Faced up to Monti, however, the permanent European bailout fund – the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – can loan to countries “which fulfill the budgetary rules laid down by the European Commission… without agreeing to tough additional austerity measures.” Thus, strict oversight by the troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF – would no longer apply.
Monti’s uprising at the summit began at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday evening, when European Council President Herman Van Rompuy wanted to conclude the first working session and announce the growth pact to the press. Monti, furious, asked Van Rompuy where he was going, and then refused to agree to the growth pact until resolving the issue of establishing “concrete measures to fight the high interest rates on Italian government bonds.” Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy supported Monti, adding that he could not support the growth pact either until such an issue had been resolved. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt asked if the attendees “were now all hostages,” and Van Rompuy remained seated. After midnight, representatives from the ten non-euro EU countries left for their hotel rooms, while the 17 eurozone countries “remained in their seats and began a decisive round of negotiations.” After a few hours, Monti and Rajoy convinced Merkel “that countries would in the future be able to receive funds from the ESM without having to submit to troika oversight.” Thus, “only the European Commission’s annual targets will have to be met.” The session ended at 4:20 a.m. on Friday morning, with European Commission President Barroso and Council President Van Rompuy announcing it at a press conference.
This is not to say that austerity and structural adjustment would not be pursued, but simply that the ‘Troika’ (the EC, ECB, and IMF) monitoring and imposition of austerity would cede in favour of general targets set by the European Commission. Those targets, however, would still demand fiscal austerity and structural adjustment, but would not be subject to the same oversight or schedule with which the demands must be met. Ultimately, it was a deal that was not aimed at reducing the imposition and effects of austerity, but rather, was designed to institutionalize more effectively the domination of the European Commission itself (an unelected technocratic institution), as opposed to a more ad-hoc Troika system of oversight.
In the Italy of Mario Monti – and in the European Union at large – austerity is poverty, growth is plundering, labour reform is exploitation, and democracy… is Technocracy. Welcome to Italy, welcome to the new Europe in the age of austerity.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
Please donate to The People’s Book Project to help this book be finished by the end of summer:
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