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Scandalous obfuscations of crisis in Europe

by Ian Bruff on March 31, 2016

Europe’s post-2008 landscape has obscured from view both the gendered, authoritarian nature of crisis responses and the genesis of political crises in the greater burdens placed on households.

ScandalMy chapter with Stefanie Wöhl in the Scandalous Economics volume focuses on the role of the state at the national and European level in shaping the trajectory of Europe’s political economy before and after 2008. We ask two questions: what trends and patterns can we observe in crisis responses across Europe? And can these observations help us understand the growing political volatility and polarisation that we see across the continent? Our answers highlight the highly gendered and precarious nature of capitalist states.

If anything, our claims have become even more relevant since we completed the chapter in 2015. Spain and Ireland, featured in our chapter, have in recent years been characterised by widespread discontent with the status quo. Yet, these two countries are now among the best economic performers in the European Union, especially in terms of economic growth, meaning that they are being touted as the ‘models’ of successful austerity programmes that should be followed by Greece, Portugal and others.

We should not be surprised at this apparent contradiction. The gendered nature of the European political economy has been reinforced since 2008, with clear political consequences. For example, women’s disproportionate employment in part-time and temporary jobs has been exacerbated. The disappearance of ‘gender budgeting’ from state policies has demonstrated that gender equality is an optional ambition rather than a ‘necessary’ measure such as welfare cuts. Moreover, these cuts have affected women more than men and have forced households – and usually women within them – to take on increasing levels of unpaid care and related duties. And finally, there has been a strong bias in European crisis responses to protect financial institutions and neglect households with mortgages by bailing out the former, insisting the latter continue to meet their obligations. The impact of these responses has been to strengthen the public-private distinction drawn in the political economy, perhaps the key indicator of the unequal gendering of society. The artificial distinction between public labour (‘productive’) and household labour (‘domestic’) generates a continual devaluation of the latter work in both financial and symbolic terms, with much of it remaining unpaid and feminised. Hence the private household is constructed as a site which is ‘naturally’ more appropriate for women to dominate, for the norms and capabilities associated with women – such as care, emotions, passivity and sharing qualities – are also present in this construction.

Central to these processes has been the state. European states and the EU itself have gradually reconfigured into increasingly authoritarian entities, with many countries having constitutionalised austerity via changes to legal mechanisms that mandate a balanced budget. This makes it more difficult for future generations to reshape public policies and institutions in more progressive, equality-affirming directions. In tandem, the EU has developed a range of new legal mechanisms, such as the ‘Six-pack’ and the ‘Fiscal Compact’, which reinforce or prescribe such constitutional changes in member states (i.e. even in those countries which are not struggling). These developments violate European law, with, for example, the European Parliament being sidelined and proposed measures being implemented not if there is agreement, but only if no objections are raised within just ten days of them being submitted. Such measures regularly promote seemingly permanent austerity as the only game in town.

All of this reflects a masculine political and economic order that increasingly relies on unpaid household work and more generally on private households rather than the state to absorb the effects of crisis. It also promotes competitiveness and austerity on a symbolic and material level through the emphasis on ‘quick’ (i.e. undemocratic) decision-making and ‘necessary’ legislation (noteworthy here is the term Six-pack itself). Further, these reforms are especially painful for people in countries which were ‘bailed out’ by the ‘Institutions’ (the former ‘Troika’ of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund), because the protection of banks led to large budget deficits and rapidly increasing levels of state debt. Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus were bailed out via the European Stability Mechanism, which imposed strict austerity measures in the name of balanced budgets. This has damaged public services such as education, health and care, as well as other public goods and provisioning, and overall has led to a rapid escalation of inequality. In Ireland, examples include the introduction of new, highly regressive taxes, and in Spain there have been savage cuts imposed on regions and therefore on public services.

In all, the combined pressure on households from unemployment, lower incomes, debt repayments and reduced state provisioning has left them increasingly the target for an intensified ‘accumulation by dispossession’, with consequences such as increasing levels of homelessness, inequality and emigration. Households are not infinitely malleable, able to absorb everything that is thrown at them, and examples can be found across Europe, not just in so-called crisis countries (see the rise in food bank use in Germany).

It is not surprising that there has been widespread discontent with these developments. Spain has witnessed massive resistance against austerity and especially housing evictions – notable are the Platform of Those Affected by Mortgage Debt and the Indignados movements and the rise of the new left-wing party Podemos, which won 20% of the vote in the December 2015 election. Ireland has often been viewed as more accepting of its fate, but there was an Occupy campaign in 2012, which has since diffused across the country, informing more local protests (such as against the water charges). Moreover, the continued fall in overall support for the dominant parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and also Labour) indicates a gradual delegitimisation of the political establishment, as shown by the February 2016 election (combined, they won 57% of the vote as opposed to 73% in the ‘earthquake’ election of 2011). At the time of writing (4 March 2016), both countries are struggling to cobble together any kind of government: if one is formed then it is likely to be unstable, and if fresh elections are called then they are unlikely to produce a significantly different outcome.

Therefore, although our chapter paints a largely negative picture, it is clear that the growing entanglements between authoritarian governance practices and households which are the target of such practices are producing – and will continue to produce – new forms of social and political struggle. These struggles often seek to create and live in a different, more equitable, kind of world to the one being imposed on them. This story is far from over.

Ian Bruff
Ian Bruff is Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. He has published widely on capitalist diversity, neoliberalism, and social theory. He recently completed a large cross-country project on the diversity of contemporary capitalism(s) with Matthias Ebenau, Christian May and Andreas Nölke, which produced two German-language collections in 2013 (with Westfälisches Dampfboot and the journal Peripherie) plus an English-language special issue in 2014 (the journal Capital & Class) and an English-language volume in 2015 (with Palgrave Macmillan). He is currently researching the political economy of authoritarian neoliberalism in Europe, and is the Managing Editor of the Transforming Capitalism book series published by Rowman & Littlefield International.

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