austerity demo france Anti-austerity demonstration in France (Image: Press TV)

The financial crisis and the subsequent imposition of austerity has led to a deep polarisation of European politics, writes Alastair Stephens

When the Age of Austerity dawned with the ebb of the Great Recession the talking heads of the ruling class trumpeted a turn to the right.

It was a myth, they proclaimed, that in times of economic crisis people turn to the left. Rather than looking to overthrow the system people would look after number one. The days of largesse were over, even the ‘generosity’ of Blairism would now be seen as profligacy. People would want to keep what they earned, and other people – well, they would have to look after themselves.

As evidence of this turn to the right and economic orthodoxy they pointed to the fall of social democratic governments across the continent: in Britain, Spain, Portugal.

This was, in reality, spin. Pretty much whoever was in power when the music stopped was driven from office. Nicholas Sarkozy, the most right wing leader France has had for decades lost the 2012 election to the Socialist Party’s François Hollande, who it might be noted, ran attacking austerity.

Reality of austerity

The actual experience of austerity has proven to be a sobering.

Broad swathes of the population have realised that it has meant that while it has made them poorer, the promised sunny uplands of recovery still seem as distant as ever. European economies have remained, at best, stagnant. Unemployment has remained high across much of the continent and wages everywhere repressed.

The young have been particularly badly hit and face being the first generation to be poorer than their parents. They also seem superfluous: the best educated generation in history, but for whom the economy seems to have no use.

Protest and survive

The affect of austerity has been to undermine faith in the structures of society, and in particular political systems. This has been manifested on the streets in waves of protest. The most significant have been the movements in Greece and Spain.

Greece is a case all of its own. It has been subjected to a degree of austerity unprecedented in Europe. The economy has shrunk massively whilst the country has been treated by the institutions of the Troika (EU, ECB and IMF) more like a colony than a sovereign state. The Greeks have not accepted this passively: there have been 42 general strikes and repeated waves of street protest. Austerity has yet to be reversed but the local social democratic party, Pasok, which implemented much of it was effectively destroyed by the rise of Syriza.

In Spain the 15-M protests and subsequent social movements led to the emergence of Podemos, a new radical party which has upset the political applecart and has eaten into the base of the Socialist Party, the PSOE, who like their Greek counterparts started the austerity bandwagon rolling. The socialists have not suffered alone though. A ‘Podemos of the right’, called Ciudadanos, has now appeared to take votes from across the spectrum.

In Italy the party system continues its meltdown. The right has yet to recover from the implosion of Silvio Berlusconi and his government. The biggest gainer was at first Beppe Grillo’s populist and erratic Five Star movement, which was first hailed as being of the left, though now seems to be hoovering up the votes of the disintegrating right.

Greece may be the most extreme example but political systems across the continent are creaking as their failure to deliver on the economic front has undermined public support.

Return of the national question in Britain

Some states are also having their legitimacy challenged as the national question has re-emerged with a vengeance in Europe’s largest kingdoms, Britain and Spain.

Though the British establishment managed to see off the challenge in last year’s Scottish referendum it has not put the genie back in the bottle.

Paradoxically the greatest victim of the whole debacle has been Labour, which saw all but one of its MPs felled north of the border, and helped the Tories to win the general election. They will be laughing on the other side of their face, however, when the Scots move towards a second referendum. If it happens Scotland may will go, ending Great Britain. But to block a vote could cause a process of radicalisation even more disturbing to the body politic.

Return of the national question in Spain

This is precisely what has happened in Catalonia. The Spanish state’s refusal to allow a binding referendum in Catalonia has led to the continual growth and radicalisation of the movement for independence which burst onto the scene with the enormous demonstration on el Diada, the national day in 2012 which has brought millions people onto the streets each year since. Repeated massive street protests have driven the movement and pushed it to the left.

The dominant party of the past 40 years in Catalonia, the centre-right Convergencia, was previously committed to remaining in Spain. It has now been pushed though into campaigning for independence as it haemorrhaged support, in particular to the Esquerra (Republican Left). Those further left have also grown with the Podemos-backed Barcelona en Comú alliance, winning that city in May’s local elections, and the anti-capitalist party CUP doing well in October’s elections to the Catalan parliament.

Pro-independence parties won that election and the new Catalan regional parliament has voted to start the process of leaving Spain, whatever Madrid says. The two are now set on a collision course. And where Catalonia goes the Basque Country may well follow.

Growth of the far right

The right has met the challenges to their system with a return to the politics of scapegoating. The themes are no different from whenever they have done this before; the targets though are different. Thus rather than Jews being the all-purpose threat, as they were a century ago, it is Muslims who are said to be the threat to ‘European’ society.

The most worrying manifestation of this new reaction is the rise of the National Front in France. Elsewhere, the Islamophobes and racists are also making hay, from Pegida in Germany to the Northern League in Italy.

That a fully-fledged Fascist movement can arise in Western European country has been shown by the rise Golden Dawn in Greece. Fortunately, united action by the left and workers’ movement has also shown how such parties can be rolled back.

The rise of the far right parties is not just a flash in the pan. Their rise is driven by economic failure and the state-driven Islamophobia that is a supporting pillar for recent wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.

A menace they may be to minorities today, but come a second slump, as many are now predicting, they could be a threat to democracy itself. The more we do against them now, the easier our task will be in the future.


Europe’s long economic crisis, and the policies of austerity which have deepened and prolonged it, have led to a political polarisation unseen since the 1930s.

Between a second slump and return to prosperity it is the former which at present seems more likely if unending austerity remains the prescribed medicine. A progressive alternative, which can gain mass support, is urgently needed as the antidote to this economic quackery.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.