When a long-expected book deal fell through in the autumn of 2014, I found myself jobless and broke – not for the first time. Unable to keep my London flat, I packed up house, stored my goods and headed off to where the few pounds I had left could stretch me through the winter while I got my next book project to market.
So I left for southern Europe, where the pound was then strong, the sun warmed my heart and the living – well, it’s a lot more affordablee than Boris Johnson’s London. I started in Athens, where I went to cover the January election for a couple of newspapers. This election held a particular fascination for me: I regarded it as the first flowering of a wider social movement whose seeds had first been sown in the 1990s.
Once communism fell in Europe and American economists were jetting off to Moscow and Warsaw to tell governments how to do shock therapy, liberal parties in the West succumbed to the neo-liberal tide. Led by baby-boomer politicians like Bill Clinton, this variant of neo-liberalism represented the cresting of a wave that had first broken in the 1970s. The first wave of neo-liberalism, which had been championed largely by parties of the right — like Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives or Ronald Reagan’s Republicans — had blended the free-market economics of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek with the social conservatism then prevalent on the right. But this marriage wasn’t always happy. A recent book by Eliza Filby, God & Mrs Thatcher, reveals how Thatcher imagined that her form of libertarian economics might turn people back to God, when in fact it led them straight into the hands of Mammon. Neo-liberalism’s celebration of self-interest would appeal most strongly to the baby-boomers, hippies who became yuppies and then gave the world the Me Decade in the 1970s. But the right’s father-knows-best morality left them cold. By chucking social conservatism, Clinton and other politicians of his generation replaced a muddled blend of other-worldly religion and secular materialism with a coherent worldly faith, one which produced an irresistible self-interest-without-guilt doctrine. Looking after the poor would now be sold not as a duty, but a profit-making opportunity. Margaret Thatcher gave the world the TINA commandment – there is no alternative. It took the new centrists, who expunged statism from the left, to make it fact.
Bill Clinton was to this ‘high neo-liberalism’ what Thatcher had been to the first wave of neo-liberalism: the exemplar that served as a model for other like-minded leaders. Within a few years of his 1992 election, UK’s Labour Party had turned ‘New’ and Germany’s Social Democrats found the middle ground. The widespread conversion of the moderate left isolated neo-liberalism’s opponents. While their numbers were still substantial, they were now orphaned. Some retreated to the bastions of the hard left, which drifted once it lost its principal patron in the now-defunct Soviet Union (it wasn’t that anybody much loved the Soviet model anymore, but it had at least stood as testament to the possibility, now seemingly shattered, that there was an alternative to capitalism). By and large, the old communist parties dwindled to the margins (though Greece proved to be one country where the old red guard could still turn out young people).
But while it initially garnered few headlines, a new current was beginning to coalesce out of the fragments of the old left and, more significantly, new strains of youth activism. Not surprisingly, given that high-neoliberalism also took its ideology’s globalisation to its logical conclusion by championing free trade, corporate out-sourcing and financial deregulation, those who rebelled against the new ideology tended to gravitate towards the so-called anti-globalisation movement. To call it anti-globalisation was actually a bit of a misnomer, since the young activists of the movement, with their mastery of the then-emergent technologies of social-networking and the Internet, were really at the vanguard of globalisation. While neo-liberal elites gathered in Davos, the young radicals met in Porto Allegre. And rather than form parties, they tended to fan out into their home-communities, setting up civic organisations that put the think-global-act-local adage into practice, and eschewing grand narratives for the logic of spontaneous organisation. Where the baby-boomers had talked about changing the world – that is, before they settled into Wall Street consultancies — Generation X and the millenials were more likely to set up drop-in centres and eco-friendly coffee-houses.
What brought this dispersed movement of community-organisers together into a coherent political force was the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Public outrage that the bankers who had largely caused the financial crisis with their risk-taking were bailed out while the bill for their failed bets was passed onto public shoulders was widespread. Spontaneous eruptions of street occupations revealed that the new generation had come of age as a political force. Occupy movements spread across the world, and even further afield, with reverberations that were still rattling years later when the Arab Spring began its ultimately sad march through North Africa and the Middle East. Although the forces of law and order quickly put an end to the street occupations, the movement did anything but disappear. Instead, organisers returned to their home communities and began putting their skills to work in the formal system. Some began working for change within existing political parties.In the US, for instance, the youth vote upended Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for the US Democratic presidential nomination when unusually large numbers of young voters turned out in support of Barack Obama. But in Europe, especially where post-crisis austerity has hit the hardest, new parties came into being which brought together the disparate forces of this new generation. The most significant of these so far has been Greece’s SYRIZA (the acronym for the Coalition of the Radical Left),which was formed in 2004 and took flight in the wake of the financial crisis. The party’s mercurial ascent brought it to power in this year’s Greek elections, barely a decade after the party had come into being.
On election night in January, I wandered around Athens. I made my way to the Syriza tent, where a raucous and excited crowd of all ages had gathered to welcome what they hoped would be a new dawn. I heard people break into The Internationale and old communist marching songs, and couldn’t help but wonder if Syriza’s leaders embodied hopes they would struggle to meet. The election catapulted into office young men and women with clean hands and open-collared shirts, who moved around Athens on foot or motorbike and broke with the old, elitist ways of Greece’s governing class. But idealism and inexperience can make for a volatile mix in politics. The new government got off to a rocky start, antagonising most of its European partners, who only hardened their stance against Greece.
Back in 2011, when the global financial crisis morphed into the Eurozone crisis and panicked lenders stopped buying European government bonds, fragile Greece was on the verge of financial collapse. Its European partners pumped money into its financial system, but insisted that the Greek government put order into its books. Serious cuts to government spending created a recession that lopped a sixth off the economy and sent the unemployment lines growing at the very time support for the poor was slashed. Today, the situation in Athens is dire. You come across articulate, multi-lingual, attractive young Greeks who are reduced to peddling tissue packs or rough-sleeping just to survive. Meanwhile, the hollowing out of the public system has created governance gaps which rather unsavoury elements, like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, have been only too eager to exploit (as I noted in a recent commentary for the International Security Network: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=188857). Greece seems to be at a cliff-edge. However Greece’s partners, fed up by years of corruption and mismanagement by previous Greek governments, are in no mood to go soft now.
But if the new government’s rocky start has left many commentators scratching their heads at the ineptitude of the young idealists — the finance minister’s past plain-speaking on a debt-default, in which he suggested Greeks should just give Germans the finger, didn’t go over so well in Berlin — it hasn’t yet taken the shine off the new movement. SYRIZA hasn’t lost its supporters, and its sister-party in Spain, Podemos (‘We can’ in Spanish) did well in March’s regional elections in Andalucia. Part of this may owe to the pain-threshold of the new parties’ supporters. Amid austerity, Greek unemployment famously stands at 24%. Less known is that when you take the young out of the equation, the unemployment rate is no longer so far off the charts. With one in every two young Greeks jobless, the pain of adjustment has fallen largely on the shoulders of the young. And when a German finance minister or representative from the IMF says ‘My way or the highway,’ and you’ve already been left to make your way down the highway on foot, how much worse can it get? The new leaders may yet have staying-power than the older, more comfortable baby-boomers who still dominate Western politics. In a game of chicken, it pays to have nothing to lose.