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Demonstrators in front of a banner reading "TROIKA: unemployment" in the May Day rally in downtown Lisbon on May 1 (Henriques Da Cunha / Getty).

The Subversive Summit

In Europe, austerity’s failures open radical opportunities.

BY Randy Malamud

The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.

ZAGREB, CROATIA—What is often described in media, political and financial circles as the global “debt crisis” actually poses even more insidiously widespread dangers than the ubiquitous doom-filled reports commonly inform. “The greatest catastrophe threatening Greece and Europe is not the economic crisis,” says Costas Douzinas, professor of law at Birkbeck, University of London, “but the total destruction of the social bond, the way we see ourselves, the way we see our relation to the community. This is long-term. Economic crisis, fiscal deficits, can be restored in the medium term. But once you lose the social ethos, then there is no way back.”

That was the takeaway in May as scholars, writers, politicians and activists came together at Zagreb’s sixth annual Subversive Forum to plumb the depths of the current malaise, but also to propose remedies for the five years of European economic upheaval that has produced personal hardship, civic unrest, governmental instability and a general sense of paralysis.

For two weeks every year, Zagreb’s civic festival welcomes hordes of progressive lecturers and audiences to a program of films, debates, roundtable discussions and protest-planning sessions. Running past midnight in the city’s elegant 1920-vintage movie house Kino Europa, standing-room-only keynote speeches attract staunch partisans for advancing the interests of the public sphere against the authoritarian mediocracy that now prevails.

The cataclysm of human and social devastation in Europe is this generation’s defining moment. But calling it a debt crisis, as Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis explains, is like going to the hospital with advanced inoperable cancer and having the doctor diagnose your suffering as a pain crisis.

Yes there is pain, but the pain is symptomatic of bigger problems. The “debt crisis” is also a food crisis—people can’t afford to buy enough to eat. It’s a housing crisis, an education crisis, an unemployment crisis, an immigration crisis, a human rights crisis. In Greece, the New York Times reports, prostitution has surged 150 percent in the last two years as a direct result of social desperation, with supply-and-demand dynamics driving prices for sex work as low as five euros.

The Left rightly rejects austerity, despising it as collective punishment of citizens who had nothing to do with the financial collapse. Public health scholars David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu explain in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills that such spending cuts drastically lower life expectancy due to a higher prevalence of suicide, HIV, alcoholism, heart disease and depression.

Underlying all these other crises is the steady transformation of the over-bureaucratized European Union into a democracy-free zone. Voter turnout is in decline (especially for European Parliament elections, but also in national contests), as constituencies manifest apathy or disenfranchisement. Decisions that people should be able to make for themselves and that are consequential for their lives—how much society spends on healthcare, on education, on defense—emanate instead from afar by EU administrators. A “Merkiavellian” regime, some call it; a secular empire of finance.

The principles of democratic self-determination are hamstrung by the powerful Troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission (the EU’s legislative and operational council)—which a disempowered citizenry increasingly views as an automaton that squelches democracy as it protects the interests of the power elite.

A teachable moment

But as many Europeans grow resigned to the “new normal,” a passionate movement of social democrats and subversive activists aims to recast a fatalistic narrative of inevitable capitulation. From the rubble of this financial catastrophe, they are extrapolating a systemic critique of how this mess came to pass and more importantly, how to use the collapse as a teachable moment. The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.

The EU had been promoted as a strong “single market” (by many reckonings, the world’s largest economy) that would defuse Europe’s centuries of conflict: shared economic prosperity would generate cooperative unity. But clearly the EU has not delivered the promised transnational harmony. Capitalism is, after all, inherently a competition, which means there are winners and losers. Labor, always a weak player in this competition, loses the most in a race to attract foreign investment. Consequently, the labor movement fears a descent into what Slavoj Žižek calls a tyrannical “capitalism with Asian values.”

“Peripheral countries,” a label that has become so prevalent in the EU discourse, typifies the fault lines in the “union.” At the Subversive Forum, I noticed how keenly language highlights these tensions and fissures. Not surprisingly, people don’t like being thought of as peripheral—a lesson that might have been learned in light of the offense that the “third world” has always felt about that similarly condescending term. They also don’t appreciate being called PIIGS, the acronym that lumps together Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (the extra “i” doesn’t soften the blow). The term is outdated anyhow as more countries slide into severe downturns. With France and the United Kingdom falling into recession and Cyprus imploding, we can expect even coarser acronyms in the future.

It’s not just about nomenclature. The discourse of “othering” reveals old and supposedly effaced neocolonialist prejudices at their worst. In the minds of those who oppose humane terms of support, the “pigs” are lazy and corrupt, unsophisticated and out of date. They have brought their troubles on themselves and forced austerity will do them good.

The idea of Europe and even the word itself, has become toxic, unstable; co-opted by the bureaucrats’ failed vision, nobody knows exactly what it means. Is the UK in Europe? What about other EU but non-Eurozone countries—like Poland or Sweden? Is Iceland, the canary in the coal mine for financial meltdown, European? Euro-Asiatic hybrids such as Russia and Turkey? Non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland? Can a country be expelled from Europe?

“Europe” is uttered with a sneer or a spasm of abjection. “Euro,” which once denoted simply a strong cosmopolitan currency, is now a root that has spawned a more cynical vocabulary: Eurocritic, Euroskeptic, Europhobe. But if the establishment’s lexicon is becoming degraded, the radical retorts are more fiercely honed. “Union” and “unity” have been exposed as feckless in the face of European inability to sustain these, inspiring a more rousing synonym, “solidarity,” that resounds among those who are focused on social equality rather than financial technicalities. Paradoxically, the counter-rhetoric of the Left has expanded the context of the crisis by contracting the terminology. What was originally construed as “the global economic crisis” morphed into “the Eurozone crisis,” or “the Eurocrisis,” then became more tightly compressed into “the crisis,” and finally—stripping away everything else to convey simply a primordial vortex of personal agony and social decrepitude—the definite article dropped off, leaving just “crisis.”

“Crisis” has mobilized a radical critique of European capitalism. It’s not as simple as debating whether countries should leave the EU, or the euro—as bad as things are now, the alternative is probably catastrophic. But the Left has embarked upon a deep analysis of what sort of society has grown out of the EU’s financial autocracy. “Criminals, disguised as statesmen, were robbing us blind,” says Slovenian poet and critic Aleš Debeljak. “Crisis made us realize this truth.”

The radical mission is to uncover and expose the roots of this incompetence and institutional corruption, to question the motives and hidden agendas lurking beneath the “bankruptocracy” (another salient coinage), to educate and motivate suffering masses, and to reform the system.

“We can’t leave economic issues to the experts any longer,” says Maja Breznik, from the Slovenian Peace Institute. “It’s time for amateur investigations.”

These investigations, an end-run around the self-interested strategies of bankers and other EU cronies, begin from the premise that the vicious circle of debt is not the fault of immoderate spending by governments or households. Instead the primary goal of “recovery” has been a non sequitur: protecting the interests of private moneylenders and multinationals and refilling their coffers after their financial miscalculations and chicanery. The problem as it is being addressed bears little relation to the actual predicament, so society has plunged into deep recession.

As Europe tries to emerge from crisis, an exclusive focus on debt represents a class struggle designed by financiers to transfer losses from their books on to the taxpayers. Troubled countries are forced to sell off their economies to foreign investors. The Troika arranges bailouts under the harshest terms, with the heaviest burdens borne by agencies that support public welfare, because reducing social spending allows countries to pay more money, more quickly, back to the banks.

Privatization of the commons en- sues: everything that can be liquidated is sold, then rented back to the most disempowered classes. Much of the population is perpetually indebted and the idea of “permanent work” becomes a rarity, replaced by piece-work, part-time work and frequent lay-offs. The social contract has been broken.

We “amateur investigators” must ask questions about real value, as opposed to the merely monetary expressions of value that the Troika fetishizes. It seems reasonable to proclaim “bankrupt” (figuratively and literally) the discourse of valuation that culminated in the exotic, abstruse financial products that precipitated the crash.

It is our turn to open the discussion of what is valued from the perspective of the victims of fiscal malfeasance. (By “us” I refer to non-bankers, non-wealthy, non-functionaries and for good measure a healthy cadré of academic fellow travelers.) GDP itself is a subjective measure of value, a war-accounting mechanism that is not the only way to count. A euro is not just a euro: not every use of money is equally valuable. A different model of social accounting—one that focuses on the bottom, the workers, the poor and middle class, and starts with wages, taxes, social security—will produce a very different economic narrative than the one that has predominated for the last five years.

“We demand a new right,” argues Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a Marxist scholar from Milan’s Academy of Fine Arts, “The right to insolvency. We are not going to pay the tax. If I am insolvent, I don’t have money, so I won’t pay the debt.” Instead, there should be a moratorium on interest payments, some debt should be canceled and some repaid with a growth clause (as Germany did in the 1950s). Countries would pay as they grow, and as they can afford it.

Žižek—the Subversive Forum’s patron saint since its inception—warns that the radical Left has historically had a proclivity to sit on the sidelines: “They prefer sometimes not to take power so that when everything goes wrong they can write their books explaining in detail why everything had to go wrong. There is some deeply rooted masochism of the radical Left. Their best books are usually very convincing stories of failure.”

But today there is an especially high onus to take action, to engage in political reform. Leftist activists and politicians do have a concrete agenda for fixing the crisis. In Greece, defying the eulogies of democracy, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza coalition has shown impressive strength in the last few elections and stands within grasp of parliamentary victory and a majority coalition in the near future. Nearly destroyed by crisis, Greece may soon emerge as the most advanced site of resistance. “The future of Greece is the future of Europe,” Tsipras proclaims, providing a heartening reverberation for the slogan that protestors chant across the continent, “Nous sommes tous des grecs”: We are all Greeks.

The Left’s challenge is to reorganize in a more cooperative, collective way: reclaiming the commons, reappropriating the wealth that is now in the hands of the state and the banks, and reconstituting the social fabric that was destroyed by economic restructuring.

Political platforms like Syriza’s draw on a wealth of theoretical foundations and strategic visions for reform.

Erik Wright, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who wrote Envisioning Real Utopias, is one of many academic subversives who offered Zagreb audiences a sophisticated array of fresh ideas for transcending the status quo of capitalism and replacing it with an emancipatory alternative, a democratic egalitarian pathway that empowers people to take control of their own destinies. Wright described a range of innovations that can be introduced “inside of capitalism” but that embody non-capitalistic principles and more fully reflect the values of democracy: worker-owned cooperatives, participatory budgeting (where citizens help determine civic priorities), freely provided public services like transportation and libraries (which we can think of as anti-capitalist ways to give people mobility and books), and unobstructed access to the commons of intellectual property. Peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia illustrate how a non-capitalist means of production can flourish within capitalism and ultimately displace capitalism altogether (as evidenced by the recent demise of the print edition of that imperialist icon, the Encyclopedia Britannica).

Urban farms organized through community land trusts can support food production divorced from agribusiness. Crowd-sourcing finance like Kickstarter sidesteps the entrenched hegemonies of cultural production. The gift economy in music from the Internet allows people to download songs for free and pay whatever they want. (Wright believes these musicians actually make more income than they would in a conventional sales model because they have created a more palatable moral economy with their fans.)

The crisis of capitalism offers, as a silver lining, the opportunity for us to reconceptualize more democratic and sustainable systems of social and commercial existence. It’s a moment that is uniquely receptive to new ideas, as the old ones have proven so worthless. A subversive smorgasbord can be created in the world as it is, prefiguring things that might be in the world as it could become. Are these just utopian fantasies? A questioner at Wright’s lecture asked whether a smattering of such small-scale interventions could really inspire fundamental social change, to which the sociologist responded sublimely: “We don’t know for sure. The day before Wikipedia was invented, it was impossible.”

Dr. Randy Malamud is regents' professor and chair of the department of English at Georgia State University. He is the author of eight books, including Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (NYU Press, 1998) and An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).   He can be reached at rmalamudgsuedu.

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