The self-protection of European society (inside and outside the EU)

Growing political turmoil in Greece, Spain and Turkey could be a precursor to a Polanyian ‘great transformation’ away from neoliberalism

Owen ParkerMany commentators on the global financial crisis and its aftermath in the European context have sought to make sense of the widespread political resistance and protest that has emerged in its wake.  Karl Polanyi, a well-known figure among political economists, similarly sought to make sense of the emergence of opposition to laissez-faire liberalism in the 19th century in Britain.  As he said of such opposition, it ‘possessed all the unmistakable characteristics of a spontaneous reaction.  At innumerable disconnected points it set in without any traceable links between the interests directly affected or any ideological conformity between them.’

Broadly speaking, the political reactions to the ongoing crises of European capitalism can be characterised in similar terms.  They have, in many instances, been spontaneous and have not displayed clear ideological positions and affinities.  They encapsulate the political right and left, nationalists and pro-Europeans, and they cut across the generations.  They are, for many, uncertain reactions in what has been characterised as an age of great uncertainty.

As participants at a recent SPERI event in Thessaloniki – focused on Greece, Spain and Turkey – noted, those that took to the streets in countries such as Spain and Greece were coalitions of disparate groups manifesting their indignation at a mainstream politics that was creating widespread ‘precarity’ and suffering.  In these countries opposition has, in some cases, crystallised into new political parties, but continues in the form of disparate and malleable entities at a local level.

Such spontaneous opposition is manifest in the non-Eurozone EU too.  In the UK this encompasses both the populism of UKIP and the emergence of a more radical left around the Corbyn phenomenon.  In Polanyi’s own country, Hungary, we have witnessed the emergence of a dominant political force which combines an ethno-nationalism – disturbingly apparent to the whole of Europe in the context of the refugee crisis – with the economic interventionism of a developmental state.

And beyond the EU/Eurozone, but not entirely beyond its influence, Turkey has witnessed similar spontaneous and disparate opposition movements in recent years.  In terms at least of resilient growth rates, it initially seemed to weather the storm of the global financial crisis better than most.  But the Gezi park protests brought together a coalition of young and old from across the social classes in a movement of opposition to what many perceived as an increasingly authoritarian government, embodied in the figure of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  The slogan ‘Everywhere is Taksim’ referred at once to the local context – the public square where much of the protest took place – and the transnational synergies with protest elsewhere.

In all these contexts (and, indeed, many others) a mainstream political status quo has either been shattered or is being eroded.  The two-party systems in Spain and Greece appear to be a thing of the past and in Turkey the HDP – a new party rooted in the Kurdish issue but aligned to some extent with the broader popular protests – has made a significant electoral breakthrough.

Polanyi characterised opposition to 19th century laissez-faire liberalism as ‘the self-protection of society’.  The recent, often seemingly disparate, opposition of our times can be regarded in similar terms – as a response to the excesses of commodification which Polanyi also highlighted.  This includes the longstanding commodification of labour, which has intensified further in the crisis leading to both falling wages and unemployment, but also embraces the commodification of land and homes which has, for instance, been at the heart of movements against repossession in Spain and the privatisation of public land for commercial exploitation in Turkey.  And all this stands against the backdrop of an intensified commodification of money itself, apparent since the 1970s and manifest in processes of global financialisation and indebtedness at the heart of the financial crisis.

Despite these attempts at the self-protection of society, the second part of what Polanyi called a ‘double movement’ – a move away from commodification and the ‘re-embedding’ of the market – has not, as yet at least, taken place in contemporary Europe.  Indeed, neoliberalism remains resilient, although this arguably relies increasingly on an authoritarian and anti-democratic turn, as the country-cases considered at the recent SPERI event illustrate.

In Greece the capitulation of Syriza to Greece’s creditors revealed the continued strength of a Frankfurt-Brussels consensus, even if the summer 2015 chapter in the Greek crisis left that consensus a little more fragile than it was before.  The room for manoeuvre for any Greek government is delimited to the point that the latest national elections for many felt like (yet another!) empty performance.  While Syriza maintained its electoral mandate in last Sunday’s poll, voter turnout dropped yet again.

In Spain in late 2015 voters will go to the polls with Podemos looking to challenge the post-transition dominance of the socialist and conservative parties – the PSOE and PP respectively.  The hypothetical question for many on the left in Europe is whether a Spanish national government of the left would fare better in challenging the status quo in Europe than Syriza.  Podemos has said that it would, because of Spain’s size and ‘systemic’ importance.  The incumbent PP, unsurprisingly, disagrees.  With increasing regularity it points to Greece as Spain’s likely future under a government of what it relentlessly terms the ‘populist left’.  Indeed, the show of strength by the ‘troika’ in the Greek case may yet prove decisive in undermining the electoral prospects of Podemos.  Some have speculated that this was in large part the reason for the EU’s particularly hard line on Greece.

More disturbingly, the governing PP in Spain has sought to curtail the right to manifest opposition to the status quo and adopted an increasingly inflammatory tone in relation to the question of Catalan self-determination – arguably another contemporary manifestation of the societal self-protection described by Polanyi.

In Turkey the governing elite has been even more authoritarian in dealing with opposition.  Police brutality was widely condemned in the context of the Gezi protests and the government has periodically imposed restrictions on social media.  Following the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish HDP in June 2015 – which attracted votes not only from Kurds but many liberal and left-leaning secular groups – Erdogan has, according to some, actively instigated the end of the peace process with the Kurds in an effort to damage the electoral prospects of the HDP.  It would be simplistic to view this authoritarian turn only in terms of a self-protective backlash against the market order, but in part at least it reflects a desire to undermine those very actors that seek to challenge the neoliberal status quo that has prevailed in Turkey in one form or another since the 1980s.

If growing political turmoil in these countries is the precursor to a Polanyian ‘great transformation’ away from a neoliberal market order, then this will clearly not be without struggle.  The ‘re-embedding’ of the market in society in early-twentieth-century Europe was preceded by devastating war and unrest.  In the context of Europe’s current existential crisis we should therefore beware throwing out the baby of European Union with the bathwater of contemporary neoliberal governance.  Opposition will only be fully effective when manifest also at EU and global levels.

In effect, this is to argue for the maintenance of a transnational and global sensibility in these spontaneous opposition movements that might so easily be seduced by parochial nationalisms, as we see in some responses to the ongoing refugee crisis.  It is also to sound a note of caution against the narcissism of small difference which has the potential to undermine the cohesiveness of a transnational political left.