BEYOND ANTI-SOCIAL POLITICS?

: Crisis, austerity and social inclusion in the EU and Croatia Firstly, let me thank the Green European Foundation and the Heinrich Boell Stiftung for inviting me – albeit as a late substitute – to speak at this event. I have long admired the European Greens for being one of the rare forces, perhaps together with the European Anti-Poverty Network, who are addressing, analytically, politically, and practically, the importance of a reinvigorated social sphere within the EU as a part of the solution to the crisis and not, as is the dominant mode of thought currently, as a cause of the problem. It is particularly important, I think to address the social dimension of the crsis in the Croatian context where, although little has actually changed on the ground, the centre-left coalition government appears more open to neo-liberal ideas and, thus, in favour of a weakened, residualised, marketised, sub-contracted, and punitive 'social', albeit allied with a continued deeply rooted clientelism and conservative familialism, than its predecessors. At the same time, the rise of a reinvigorated new left in Croatia combines a rather deterministic marxist approach which seems to combine fundamental rejection of the European Union as a neo-liberal club with a deep distrust of discussions of social policy and welfare societies and welfare states as out-dated, reformist, boring, and irrelevant.

I may be the living embodiment of the 'welfare  state  moron'  which  Slavoj  Žižek  caricatured   in his speech at last year's Subversive Film Festival. I might even be proud of the lbael. As I tried to argue at last year's Green Academy on Vis, without the need to lapse into nostalgia for a mythical 'golden age' of welfare, it may still be possible to articulate a set of winnable demands around social rights, social inclusion and social protection, at global, regional, national and local scales which allow for an alliance between reformist and more radical forces. This is needed, in my view, as a contribution to a plausible counter-narative
1

to the dominant one of austerity and ever more drastic cuts in social spending, eroding social contracts, and residualising social rights. I have just returned from the UK where social policy is being reduced to the idea of 'doing more with less' in a 'big society' composed of volunteers, workfare or prisonfare conscripts, and a new class of social innovators, social investors and social entrepreneurs as if putting the word social in front of key free market concepts renders them less problematic. It is not that social innovation should be opposed; what could be a useful addition to a base of fundamental social rights is being used as a substitute for them increasingly., introducing trend-based rather than needs- or rights-based approaches.

Without delving too deeply into theory, the common starting point for the neo-liberal right and the deterministic marxist left is to see 'the social' as a mere reflection of the economic: the former arguing that free markets deliver growth which can trickle down and benefit all; the latter arguing that 'late late capitalism', in its (new new) end stage, wil no longer be able to manage the cntradictions between production and reproduction in its requirements for a flexible labour force and its condemning of surplus populations to emiseration or prison, and that any attempts to soften these tendencies through 'safety nets' merely serve to postpone the revolution by keeping the multitude above starvation levels or a fate of bare life.

The idea of complexity, the idea that a particular conjuncture can be made up of contradictory forces, trends, and pressures is lost in what Raymond Williams termed 'epochal anlysis' which has a tendency to know what it will find before it finds it, and which reduces everything to a single or dominant force or pattern in which the 'usual
2

suspects' are rolled out as if they actually really do explain everything: neo-liberal globalisation; post-Fordist needs of capital; or a kind of Foucauldian neo-liberal governmentality discourse, spring most readily to mind.

Of course, analysing the current conjuncture is both foolish and necessary. I have to admit that I do not know whether the reconfiguration of the social in the current crisis in the European (EU and wider) space is just another point on an endless rollercoaster of a stronger then weaker then stronger variant of 'social Europe' or whether it is a point of no return, in which Germany and a few allies (including some of the shock therapy – flat tax – rising inequality) New Member States dominate in the European Council, DG ECFIN (frequently working with their friends and revolving door colleagues in the World Bank and, even more so recently, the IMF) dominates over the other DGs; in which the European Parliament is marginalised, the role of the European Central Bank is strengthened, to such an extent that the 'European' governance of economic, fiscal, monetary and trade policies dominates over the rather weak, soft, 'open method of coordination' in the social arena.

To illustrate the dilemmas, let me refer to the Europe 2020 initiative which so upset the free  market  apologist  Darko  Polšek  in  a  recent   issue  of  Banka. Polšek described it as yet another example of policy confusion akin to a kind of communist voluntarism at the centre of the EU. In part, of course, he is right, because the mixing of economic, ecological and social goals, measured largely by outcomes, and to be achieved by a reinvogorated 'social market economy' which means different things to different people, without really specifying the mechanisms through which they will be achieved, is dangerous. And,
3

although I am sure he would not agree, just like the Lisbon strategy before it, economic goals, and to an extent, employment targets, come to dominate at the expense of social policies. And yet, the fact that there is an  ambitious  (Polšek  would  say  unattainable)  target   to reduce those at risk of poverty and social exclusion by 20 million or one sixth, has created a space for (I would again say winnable) demands for a raft of policies throughout the EU, including the EAPN-led proposal for a Framework Directive for Member States to introduce a Minimum Income Scheme which would secure the right to a guaranteed minimum income for all (and hence become a kind of Basic Income scheme which has been attracting, globally, increasing left-progressive interest). It is worth bearing in mind, by the way, in this age of 'evidence-based policies' that those countries who have been hit hardest by the crisis – or better to say whose old and newly created poor has been hit hardest - are precisely those countries like Greece, which have no Minimum Income Guarantee; those like Italy, Spain, and Portugal who have very limited schemes because „the   extended   family   will   offer   support“;   or   those   like   Romania,   Latvia,   Estonia,   and   Slovakia where Minimum Income is highly conditional if not downright punitive and whose new growth is contributing to rising inequalities and is unsustainable (again). There is also the recent European Commission proposal, rejected by the Council, to allocate 25% of the Cohesion Policy budget to the European Social Fund and 20% of the ESF budget to social inclusion and poverty reduction. This is an important demand because it would strengthen the rather weak link, thus far, between regional and social policies, in a space in which, even in the context of high disparities in income between member states, it has been calculated that some 70% of total inequality in the EU is within Member States.

4

The other elements of the recently agreed, ILO-led,   idea   of   a   ‘Global   Social   Protection Floor’,   adapted   to   a   European   context,   namely   (universal)   child   benefits,   social   pensions   for those not covered by pension insurance and not claiming or entitled to social assistance (in Croatia, at least 35,000 people mainly woman who worked in subsistence agriculture), and access to quality, free, and non-stigmatising community-based social services, would, also make a significant difference in terms, not only of mitigating the crisis but, also, providing a stimulus to recovery, both in the EU and in the wider European space.

In a broader sense, nothing short of an holistic re-linkage of the economic, the ecological and the social, much as is attempted in The Green New Deal, is needed. This has to combine sustainable production with new forms of taxation and revenue raising, to make possible real and meaningful redistribution plus innovative responses to so-called new risks which render nation-state traditional welfare state solutions sub-optimal: such as migration, the oppression of minorities, erosion of meaningful participation, the rise of gendered transnational care chains, and so on. The 2008 Green Vision for a Social Europe also, rightly, emphasised the importance of Services of General Interest and the need to fight against so-called   ‘trade   creep’   where   the   creation of free markets in services is fuelling the privatisation and commercialisation of essential services, including health and education. The creation of European-wide  networks,  including  users’  movements  is,  also,   crucial. Indeed, before the crisis, when asked what is the biggest social problem in Croatia I would  say  ‘the  power  of  professionals’,  although  that  probably  should  be  translated  as  the   lack of power of users and the absence of any radicalisation of workers in the social sector beyond their own self-interests.
5

At the very least, let us have more debates on social policy in Croatia. Let us not, implicitly, agree  with  the  right  that  this  is  a  ‘residual’  issue. Let us destroy the myth that Croatia is a high social spending state. Let us debate, in the Croatian context, the need for a way out of clientelistic social policy marked as it is by sub-optimal welfare parallelisms between state and non-state actors and between national, regional and local level provision. Let us remember that the EU is in danger of losing its place as offering alternative visions of societal organisation based on social rights, collective responsibility, social solidarity, social cohesion and social equity within an integration agenda but that this can, and must, be changed so that Another (Social) Europe Is Possible. Thank-you.

6

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful