Popular rage erupting in Europe

With the motto ‘Stop the misery,’ the European Union (EU) has declared 2010 ‘The year for combating poverty and social exclusion.’ In the 27 countries of the EU, there are some 85 million poor (a) One in six Europeans lives in poverty. (b) And the situation is getting worse as the effects of the global economic crisis spread.

Popular rage has erupted over the austerity plans in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, etc. Strikes and violent protests are multiplying. Many citizens are also rejecting the political system (abstaining from voting or casting white ballots) or joining extreme factions (the far right and xenophobes). Poverty and social desperation are creating a crisis in the democratic system itself.

In Spain, 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. There are particularly extreme cases, like that of the children of non-EU immigrants (more than half of whom live in poverty) and the homeless, who number 30,000 (about half a million in total EU). Hundreds die of cold each winter.

Exploitation

Who are today’s poor? Peasant farmers exploited by major agro-firms, isolated pensioners, single mothers, youth with low paying jobs, couples with children living on a single salary, and of course the giant number of people who just lost their jobs in the crisis. Never have figures like these been seen in the EU: 23 million poor (5 million more than a year ago). The worst part is that the violence of unemployment effects most intensely those under 25. In Spain youth unemployment stands at a catastrophic 44.5 per cent, more than double the European average of 20 per cent.

If the social question has become such a pressing issue these days it is because it coincides with the crisis of the European welfare state. Since the 1970s, with the peak of economic globalisation, we moved from industrial capitalism to savage capitalism, the fundamental dynamic of which is desocialisation and the shredding of the social contract. This is why there is so little respect for the concepts of solidarity and social justice.
The greatest transformation took place in the organisation of labour. The professional status of salary workers has eroded. In an environment of massive unemployment, looking for a job is no longer just a rough uncertain period; it has become a permanent state. This is what French sociologist Robert Castel labels ‘precariousness’, a new condition now found throughout Europe.

In Portugal one out of every five salary workers has what is called a ‘green receipt,’ or freelance, contract: though one may have worked for years in the same office or plant with fixed hours, his employer is simply a client he invoices for his services and who can, without any penalty, break the contract from one day to the next.

Such degradation of the status of salary workers aggravates inequality by excluding an ever increasing number of people (youth above all) from the protections of the state welfare system, isolating, marginalising, and crippling them.

Abandoned to themselves, in the fierce competition of all against all, individuals live in a sort of jungle, which is disturbing to many unions, once powerful and now tempted to collaborate with the employers.

Economic efficiency has become the central focus of businesses, which shift their obligations of solidarity to the state. The state, in turn, shifts its obligations to non-governmental organisations or private humanitarian organisations. In this way the economic sphere and the social sphere are drifting further and permanently apart. And the contrast between the two grows more and more scandalous.

From the beginning of the crisis in the fall of 2008, central banks made massive loans at minimum interest rates to private banks, which lent this cheap money at higher interest rates to families, businesses, and even their own governments. This is how they made their billions. Now sovereign debt is reaching shocking levels in numerous countries whose governments have had to impose drastic austerity plans on their citizens to be able to meet the needs of the financial actors — which caused the crisis in the first place.

The rich get richer while the number of the unemployed and in-danger rises, their purchasing power shrinks, work conditions worsen, and physical and symbolic violence spreads through a society that is falling apart as social relations grow increasingly brutal. How far will social disgust and anger grow? The International Monetary Fund warned on March 17 that if the financial system isn’t reformed, “there will be social uprisings.”
IPS

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