Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The contagion of revolt

Protests by students and teachers throughout Europe are mounting as governments try to offset savage reductions in education budgets with increased fees in the losing race to prevent state bankruptcy.

Students marched throughout Britain yesterday as well in Italian cities yesterday in protest against attacks on education, blocking roads and railway lines in some of the biggest demonstrations seen in decades.

Hopes that the feverish activity resulting in an €85bn loan package for Ireland would inhibit the debt contagion spreading throughout Europe and the rest of the world were dashed as global investors immediately sent the rates soaring for lending to Portugal, Italy and Spain as well as Ireland and Greece.

"The crisis is intensifying and worsening," said Nick Matthews, a credit expert at the Royal Bank of Scotland. "Bond [government debt] purchases by the European Central Bank are the only anti-contagion weapon left. It needs to act much more aggressively."

Agreement on a European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to be launched in mid-2013 will be far too late to prevent a string of state bankruptcies. The loan package for Ireland itself postpones the intention of the ESM to force banks and hedge funds to take losses if a country runs out of money. The UK’s contribution to the Irish package is an attempt to ease the strains on the interdependence of the failed Irish economy and UK-based banks.

The ESM, if it comes into force, will not only test the power of the Eurozone governments against the global banks and non-banks, but will require a long process to arrive at unanimous agreement among Eurozone countries that a country is insolvent and qualifies for help.

As the crisis continued to spread, French Minister for the economy, Christine Lagarde says that each European country is facing very different conditions and each should be treated on a case by case basis. Whilst it is true that the levels of indebtedness vary, the development of the global economy means that debt is universal and the fate of each country is entangled with the fate of the whole world system, not just that of the Eurozone or even the whole of Europe.

In the US, the fallout from the mortgage defaults that triggered the global meltdown in 2008 is continuing despite the launch of a second round of quantitative easing or printing of money. US house prices fell for the third month running in September and at a quicker-than-expected rate.

The end of the government’s tax incentive for first-time homebuyers joined persistent unemployment, high rates of foreclosure and an excess of vacant homes. Home prices have plunged by 28.6 per cent since peaking in June 2006.

As every desperate economic measure stokes up social unrest, the time has come for a new kind of politics. Iceland was the first country to be driven into bankruptcy by the global financial meltdown of 2007/8. It has just elected a 25-person Constitutional Parliament to re-write its constitution for the first time in the Republic’s history.

It is a small indication of the much bigger political changes needed to resolve the economic, social and ecological catastrophe caused by capitalist production. The December 11 event in London on creating People’s Assemblies would be a good place to start.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

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