As if the summer holiday were a veil of forgetfulness, the media have tried to distract us the brutality of the crisis with massive doses of collective stupefaction: the European Football Championship, the Olympics, the summer adventures of celebrities, etc. Do they want us to forget that a new wave of cuts is on the way and that the second bailout of Spain will be even more painful? But they haven't succeeded. This fall will be a hot one.
In a public conversation I had last August in Benicassim, Spain, with philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, we agreed on the necessity of breaking with the reigning pessimism of our society, which is disappointed by traditional politics. We must stop being isolated individuals and become agents of change, interconnected social activists.
"We have a duty to take control of our own lives," Bauman argued. "We are living in a period of profound uncertainty in which citizens do not really know who is in charge, and because of this we have lost confidence in our politicians and traditional institutions. This creates a condition of constant fear and insecurity in the people.
"The politicians encourage this fear as a way of controlling them, abridging their rights, and limiting their individual liberties. This is a very dangerous time because all of this affects our daily lives: we are told repeatedly that we must hold onto our jobs despite the harsh work conditions and precariousness because in this way we will earn enough money to spend…Fear is a very powerful form of social control."
If the people do not know who is in control, it is because power and politics have broken away from one another. Until not long ago, it was hard to tell them apart. In a democracy, the candidate who won the presidency through elections was the only figure who could legitimately perform that function. Today in neoliberal Europe this is no longer the case. Winning at the polls does not guarantee a president real power because two unelected supreme powers (in addition to Berlin and Angela Merkel) trump the presidential mandate and control the president's actions: the technocrats of the European Union (EU) and the financial markets.
The latter entities impose their own agendas. The Eurocrats demand blind obedience to treaties and EU mechanisms that are quintessentially neoliberal, while the markets then punish any deviation from the ultraliberal orthodoxy. Thus imprisoned between these twin embankments, the river of politics flows in a single direction with no manoeuvring room whatsoever – or, to put it another way, without power.
"The traditional political institutions are less and less credible," said Bauman, "because they do nothing to help solve the problems the people find themselves suddenly trapped by. Democracy (what the people voted for) has suffered a collapse as the dictates imposed by the markets are shredding people's fundamental social rights."
We are witnessing an epic battle between the Market and the State in which the market, with its totalitarian ambitions, wants to control everything: the economy, politics, culture, society, and individuals. And now, allied with the media, which serve as its ideological apparatus, the market wants to dismantle the edifice of social advances and what we call the "Welfare State".
What is at stake is fundamental: equality of opportunity. Consider, for example, the effects of the fact that education is quietly being privatised, transferred to the private sector. Funding cuts will give rise to a level of public education in which working conditions are onerous for both teachers and students. Public schools will have a harder time preparing children from humble backgrounds, though for the children in economically comfortable families, private education will play an increasingly significant role and become the midwife of a new privileged class and a stepping stone for national leadership positions. Those in the bottom tier, in contrast, will have access only to grunt jobs as opposed to leadership roles. This is intolerable.
In this regard, the crisis will probably serve as a shock in the sense used by sociologist Naomi Klein in her book 'The Shock Doctrine': the economic disaster will be exploited as an opportunity to impose the neoliberal agenda. Mechanisms have been created to monitor and control national democracies so that (as we now see in Spain and have seen in Ireland, Portugal, and Greece) savage structural adjustment programmes can be imposed and overseen by a new authority: the "troika" comprised of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, all non-democratic institutions whose members are not elected and do not represent the citizens.
These institutions – with the backing of the media, which obey the economic, financial, and industrial lobbies – are charged with creating the systems of control to reduce democracy to mere theatre – with the complicity of the major governing parties.
What is the difference between the budget slashing of current Spanish president Mariano Rajoy and that of his predecessor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero? Very little. Both caved in to financial speculators and blindly did the bidding of the Eurocrats. Both liquidated national sovereignty. And neither did anything to rein in the irrational behaviour of the markets. Both had the same response to the dictates of Berlin and the attacks of speculators: like some cruel ancient ritual, the only solution was to sacrifice the population as if the torments inflicted on society might mitigate the greed of the markets.
In conditions like these, do the people have any chance of rebuilding politics and reviving democracy? Yes. Social protests continue to spread. And movements for social justice continue to proliferate. For now Spanish society still believes that this crisis is just an accident and that things will soon return to the way they were. This is an error, a mirage. When the people realise that this is not the case and that the adjustments imposed are not "crisis measures" but structural changes intended to be permanent, social protests will probably reach a critical level.
But what will the protesters demand? Our friend Bauman is clear about that: "We must build a new political system that allows for the emergence of a new model of life and a new and true democracy of the people." What are we waiting for?
Ignacio Ramonet is editor of Le Monde Diplomatique en Espanol.
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