On Europe’s ‘Progress’

January 23, 2013   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

By Costas Panayotakis:

In an editorial disguised as a piece of business reporting Liz Alderman and Jack Ewing inform New York Times readers that ‘Despite Signs of Progress in the Euro Zone, Fears of Complacency Linger.’ (i) The idea that the Euro Zone is making progress is obviously a value judgment that depends on one’s priorities and what one considers to be good or not good. As the article makes clear, the value priorities of the New York Times reporters in question are more in line with those of European capitalist elites than those of ordinary European workers and citizens.

In particular, the signs of progress that Alderman and Ewing cite have to do with the fact that there is less fear right now of an imminent collapse of the eurozone and that European politicians and central bankers have taken some steps to tighten the architecture of the eurozone and to signal to financial markets that, should the need arise, they are willing to take more drastic steps to make sure that the eurozone does not collapse. At the same time, the article suggests that European leaders have to take more steps in the direction of stabilizing and unifying the eurozone economies and that there is a danger that a period of calm in the financial markets may make political leaders complacent, preventing them from completing the job.

Interestingly, however, the reader who continues the article to its end eventually comes across the following paragraph:

“[T]he severe effects of prolonged austerity in several European countries are leaving deep social scars. Tax increases and steep spending cuts have ground many European citizens deeper than ever into hardship … Recessionary economies in those countries are expected to get worse before they improve.”

How peculiar! The article rejoices over European progress when it itself admits that the economic situation is getting worse. One might object here that the paragraph in question primarily refers to the economies of the European South, which are the weak links of the eurozone. So let’s see what the article says about Germany, which is the central pillar of the economically stronger European North:

“Germany … itself is being tugged into a slowdown as its cash-poor southern neighbors continue to refrain from buying Audis and other high-price German goods.”

And what does the article say about other aspects of economic performance in the eurozone as a whole? Well, consider unemployment:

“Unemployment in the euro zone continues to climb: the jobless rate in the 17 countries of the bloc hit a record 11.8 percent in November. Youth unemployment has surpassed 50 percent in Spain and Greece, a stratosphere of despair. Thousands of bright young people continue to flee Greece, Ireland, Spain and other countries every month for the booming economies of Australia and Canada.

“Portuguese workers are even going to Africa in search of a better future…”

So what it boils down to is that Europe is making progress because, despite the deepening economic crisis and immense social catastrophe that this crisis continues to produce, the eurozone project does not face a prospect of imminent collapse. One may ask, why is this project so much more important than the lives of millions of people across Europe, which, according to the article itself, are getting worse and more desperate by the day?

The article does not pose or answer this obvious question and yet the answer is not that hard to figure out. The eurozone project has in the last few decades functioned as the vehicle through which European societies have been restructured in a neoliberal direction. This project was tailored to the needs of European financial capital (but also industrial capital, especially in the European North) and has slowly but surely eroded the model of welfare capitalism with a human face that Europeans used to take pride in. Its real function notwithstanding, the Eurozone project legitimized itself by appealing to the idea of convergence towards the top. The universal prosperity that the spread of free markets and the fall of economic barriers across Europe would usher in was supposed to ensure that the less affluent countries of the European South would catch up with the living standards of the affluent North.

By now, of course, the neoliberal model and its promises are in deep trouble both in Europe and around the world and the goal of capitalist elites is to weather the crisis by entrenching the failed neoliberal model even further. From that standpoint Europe is indeed making progress. The calm in the financial markets makes it seem a little more likely that capitalist elites may yet get their way, on the backs of ordinary workers and citizens, of course.

For this to happen, however, the legitimizing discourse has to change. The ordinary workers and citizens of the European South now have to be told that, far from being able to look forward to an equalization of their living standards with those of workers and citizens in the European North, they have to recognize that their living standards have to be adjusted downwards, so that their countries become competitive with even less affluent European countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania and the other countries of the former Eastern bloc.

Progress, indeed… No wonder that this violent assault on people’s livelihoods is producing great disorientation for large numbers of people and the dramatic rise of neo-Nazi violence in Greece, the country that first served as the guinea pig for the policies that have brought so much progress throughout Europe! Perhaps if the politicians of other countries heed Alderman’s and Ewing’s warnings not to grow complacent in the application of these policies, their countries too can experience the most unmistakable sign of ‘progress’ of all, the proliferation of neo-Nazi gangs roaming the streets in search of immigrant victims…


Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).



(i) See



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