Austerity is Losing, But What's the Alternative?
The fight back against austerity is in full swing. This will be the overwhelming conclusion made as people look upon this weekend’s election results in France and Greece.
In both countries, the electorate decisively rejected the status quo – Nicholas Sarkozy failed to win a second term as the President of France (the first time this has happened in more than 30 years), while the two main parties in the Greek parliament barely scraped up one-third of all votes between them, paving the way for parties from the extremes of the political spectrum to gain significant portions of the vote.
Greece has, for many, been the poster child of the debt crisis. Politicians across the world (and especially in places like the United States and Great Britain) have taken every opportunity to warn their electorates that they could be ‘the next Greece’ if they don’t elect the right leaders (i.e., them). With images of rioting and destruction, and news reports about huge wage cuts and unbelievable levels of unemployment, such rhetoric rightly instills a huge amount of fear into populations.
Austerity has been at the center of these politicians manifestos, their plans of action to get Europe out of the mess it finds itself in. But now those self-same politicians are falling by the wayside, to be replaced with those who have campaigned vehemently against the austerity measures that have led to those scenes in Greece. At least a dozen Governments have been kicked out by their electorates since the start of the debt crisis.
At the same time as national elections in France and Greece, local elections in the UK and Germany also condemned the ruling parties to dismal electoral outcomes – according to The Atlantic:
“This weekend also saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), take their worst results in 50 years, in an election in Schleswig-Holstein. Their coalition partners, the Free Democrats, did poorly as well.”
More than 700 local government officials from the two-party coalition that leads the British Government (the right-wing Conservatives and the ‘who-knows-what-they-stand-for-anymore’-Liberal Democrats) lost their seats in local elections across the UK, a dramatic statement from the British public at the economic plan that the government has been trying to administer. And it appears that Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, are still unwilling to admit that austerity is not what the population wants.
All across the European continent (and yes, Britain too), proponents of austerity are losing the argument and facing the political consequences. It is a concept that brought many of them to power in the fallout of the debt crisis, has now become “a dirty word”, and one that the ‘resurgent’ European Left continues to disavow.
While we all know that “it’s the economy, stupid,” what effect do these one-issue elections have on the health of our world? What happens when we become so focused on the money in (or not in) our pockets, that other vital issues fall by the wayside?
In their attempts to prove the ‘austerians’ (very different people from the Austrians) wrong, have those who see stimulus of the economy as the path to prosperity inadvertently lost sight of what is really important to the societies that they govern? Is there a risk that economic growth becomes an end goal, rather than a means to something greater – true human prosperity and investment in human capital?
And not only do the foundational attributes of good governing get pushed to the wayside when the only debate being had is austerity vs. stimulus, but the political process also thrusts those on the extremes of the spectrum into the mainstream. When people are fearful, there is a worrying tendency for them to seek comfort from those not considered mainstream. We have seen this in Greece with far-far-right party Golden Dawn winning a number of seats in the parliament, and in France as President-elect Francois Hollande and Sarkozy both courted far-left and far-right supporters as they sought the winning votes in their run-off.
Indiscriminate cuts of national budgets are not the answer to economic hardships. And the electorate in Europe is showing their agreement with that observation at the ballot box. But their votes also risk creating new and potentially even more worrisome situations, with ramifications far beyond their nations’ budgets.
Here’s hoping that the new leaders in France, Greece and the rest of Europe don’t forget that their role is not just one of counting nickels and dimes (or, in their case cents and euros), but is also about governing for the common good of their populations. Success in the former most certainly does not guarantee similar outcomes in the latter.
Jack Palmer is the communications assistant for Sojourners. You can follow him on Twitter @jackpalmer88.