Debt crisis : Europe’s zombie parties
4 June 2012
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
European political parties are in crisis. And ideological bias aside, they now deal more in special interest groups. These include senior citizens, whose pensions they cheerfully promise to save, when for years they have been eaten away.
The crisis, which has just begun in Europe, is no longer being limited to the currency and its devastating effect on more than one economy. One of the fundamental authorities of modern democracy has been dragged ever deeper into the whirlpool: the political party.
The fact that for over two years governments from Slovakia to Portugal have been kicked out of office in bunches and without regard to political stripe is only the earliest indication of a systemic disease. In truth, the law of democracy – democratic forces competing to offer political alternatives – has been finished off by the dictates of the economy.
That is seen most clearly in the Greece experience. The motherland of democracy is now carrying out a spectral round of voting about nothing. No party has dared to write into their election manifesto their stance on the only real decision remaining – namely, to withdraw from the euro and possibly the EU and to let Greece go bankrupt. Instead, the parties are campaigning as shadows of their erstwhile ideologies – zombies from a time when there was still something to hand out.
Greedy overlook the reality
The traditional parties, which often grew out of the poverty of the post-war years, seem ill-suited to getting a grip on the gap between public revenues and public spending. In Italy, the billionaire Berlusconi, tribune of the plebs, was driven from office by the debt. Even the supposed opposition parties of the Left, though, failed to push through the huge breach that had yawned open.
Instead, the entire fatted caste of politicians capitulated, leaving the austerity to an external “government of experts”. The big fear of business circles now is that the most expensive political caste in the world will take over again after the next election and once more set the rudder towards the abyss.
Europe's citizens have coped with the gravity of the situation so far with the instincts of the ostrich: by sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that the worst is over and everything will stay as rosy as before. The sugary poison of the paternalistic state running on debt has struck most clearly in, of all places, the heartland of Europe – France.
Its newly elected President Hollande, an economist, has trapped himself politically by his sole focus on promising growth: more social spending, more bureaucrats, and to make matters worse, an earlier retirement, which has become the paragon of the noble European utopia.
While the entire world is squinting at Germany today as ostensibly the last solvent economy, the greedy overlook the reality that Germany’s pension system has long been paying out borrowed money.
Grasping populists and blackmailers
The parties have been behaving wholly irresponsibly, but not without logic. Who wants to win elections must continue to lie. In Holland, the clever populist Geert Wilders has turned aside from hating Islamicism and is now preaching against the wasters in Brussels and the euro and lauding the good old welfare state in homage to the white-skinned and aging natives, whom in his simple logic he has baptised ‘Henk and Ingrid’.
Henk and Ingrid and all the millions of European retirees, early retirees, officials or other beneficiaries of tax-financed redistribution have long been deciding the winners of the elections. Politicians who come bearing gifts of cuts will not win them. When in Austria not long ago a closed-door meeting of the two major parties was supposed to adopt measures to tackle the pension shortfalls, no one could agree on any cuts – except for bringing in a semester fee for students and restricting child benefits. Those cuts hit precisely those who ought to be delivered some relief and on whose shoulders rests the future of the welfare state.
In truth, Europe’s mainstream parties are not governed by their leaders but by the senior stewards, who since the seventies have been dispensing the largesse and now want to steer their white-haired clientele royally through retirement. It is no coincidence that the only political utopia left after decades of socialism, environmentalism and Europeanism boils down to appointment as a tenured civil servant for life for the youth of France too: jobs with the State – and no structural reforms – is what Hollande’s young voters are calling for.
In Germany, the Pirates want a basic personal income from the State for doing nothing and free use of content on the Internet, which the creative minds of the world will have to fork over gratis.
Those political parties in Europe that are benefiting from the crisis are all singing the hosanna of the watering can: “Our money for our people.” Which translates as: “Your credit card for our people.”
And so the political life of an organisation once built on solidarity and integration is degenerating into a contest of grasping populists and blackmailers: Europe as the front garden of a pensioner who will defend his little plot by force if need be. Once powerful movements like the Social Democrats are already intellectually and morally washed up in Italy and Greece because they have degenerated into little more than clientele groups for trade unionists and civil servants, while the needs of immigrants, youth, the unemployed and the uneducated have vanished entirely from the focus of the sated Left.
Where is this leading?
Elsewhere, as in the Netherlands or France, the Christian Democrats are in steep decline because their aging core supporters from the provinces feel safer now in the retirement idyll of the right-wing populists.
As long as the European bourgeoisie remains convinced that politics is solely about the redistribution of surplus value, as it has been over recent decades, the misery of the parties will go on.
Where is this leading? In Greece, party politics have become wholly irrelevant to the elections; panic reigns instead. In Italy, the bourgeois elites legitimately fear the return of the political caste that has no wish to cut back on anything, especially not on their own privileges. In France, the mercantilist redistributors have won. In Belgium, the state has been ticking over successfully for a long time now without political parties and is now headed, with no credit and with no reforms, for the next period of ungovernability.
In the Netherlands, which lives off Europe, two of the three biggest parties will soon reject Europe as it is today – and the euro as it is today. In a number of countries being ruined by credit, countries with more than thirty-percent youth unemployment – Spain, Portugal, Ireland come to mind – it makes no difference what political ideology is administering the misery.
Eventually, Europeans will probably have to grasp that it is not blundering party programs that are causing them grief, but that they themselves are the problem that they are running away from. It will be interesting to see what will still be left of the party system.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer