Testing democracy

Across Europe, governments are trying to shore up their economies by cutting spending and benefits while raising taxes and social security fees. They do this knowing that they will pay the political price. The greater the citizens’ reaction, the greater the impasse. The demonstrations in France, where massive crowds have rallied in opposition to raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, indicates in the clearest way that the logic of economic discipline provokes irrational responses – responses which undermine both the economy and politics. Because austerity measures must be taken – and these will provoke reactions – every effort at substantial reform leads either to a government’s being weakened (or even falling) or to governments taking measures that will limit the possibility of dynamic protests. Democracy itself will be put to the test. On the one hand, we will have governments which cannot govern (which cannot carry out policies that need to be adopted); on the other, we will have others that impose their policies on their citizens. These examples are not exaggerated: Greece is «Exhibit A» as an example of the deadly consequences of a political class governing not with the country’s long-term prospects in mind but their own political gain; China has based its phenomenal growth on a combination of tightly controlled political power presiding over an open market. Neither version resembles the liberal democracies which developed over the past century, which centered on the well-being and sociopolitical advancement of their people. And this is why we should worry: Democracy, as it took shape among developed Western societies and then spread across the world, is a short experiment, a brief interval in the long dominance of autocratic forms of government. As the flame of democracy went out in ancient Athens, so it might go out in our societies. Where we are headed depends on how long the economic crisis lasts, what reforms will be attempted and what reactions these will provoke. The dynamic «no» of the French to the slightest change to their social security system suggests that Greece’s lesson has not been heeded. France’s budget deficit for last year is estimated at 7.7 percent of GDP and this must be reduced to 3 percent by 2013. This cannot be achieved without reforms. But when the vast majority of French citizens (and especially the young) support ongoing strikes and demonstrations, at some point the government will back down, it may fall or it will find a way to impose changes without taking the reactions into regard. In every case, the relationship between citizen and government is pushed to the limit, mainly because the people have lost confidence in their political and economic leaders’ intentions and abilities on a national but also on an international level. Each spending cut, each sacrifice, each job lost is taken by the people as an attack on citizens, whether all together or in groups. But the indebted countries are obliged to pay their debts. Britain has adopted a harsh austerity program aimed at saving 113 billion pounds by 2015. It is followed by Germany with 80 billion euros by 2014 and France with 40 billion in 2011. Countries such as Greece, Romania and Hungary are still functioning thanks to support from the EU and the International Monetary Fund – support which came in exchange for harsh austerity. Because of such measures, governments are in danger of losing power in the next elections or earlier. And how does Europe react? With an intense debate aimed at adopting a system of «automatic» punishment of any country that exceeds the limits on debts and deficits. This is one more example of how Greece’s travails have pushed Europe toward the creation of a superstate – one that will take decisions without regard for political circumstances in whichever country breaks the rules. This will relieve governments of responsibility for unpopular measures and will undermine national sovereignty. The very fact that such a discussion is taking place shows that the deficit in political thinking is more dangerous than any fiscal deficit. Now it is not only the vision of a united Europe that is at risk, but democracy itself.