Watching the crowds in Iceland banging pots and pans until their government fell reminded me of a chant popular in anti-capitalist circles in 2002: «You are Enron. We are Argentina.»
Its message was simple enough. You – politicians and CEOs huddled at some trade summit – are like the reckless scamming execs at Enron (of course, we didn’t know the half of it). We – the rabble outside – are like the people of Argentina, who, in the midst of an economic crisis eerily similar to our own, took to the street banging pots and pans. They shouted, «¡Que se vayan todos!» («All of them must go!») – and forced out a procession of four presidents in less than three weeks. What made Argentina’s 2001-02 uprising unique was that it wasn’t directed at a particular political party or even at corruption in the abstract. The target was the dominant economic model: this was the first national revolt against contemporary deregulated capitalism.
It has taken a while, but from Iceland to Latvia, South Korea to Greece, the rest of the world is finally having its ¡Que se vayan todos! moment.
The stoic Icelandic matriarchs beating their pots flat even as their kids ransack the fridge for projectiles (eggs, sure, but yoghurt?) echo the tactics made famous in Buenos Aires. So does the collective rage at elites who trashed a once thriving country and thought they could get away with it. As Gudrun Jonsdottir, a 36-year-old Icelandic office worker, put it: «I’ve just had enough of this whole thing. I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust the banks, I don’t trust the political parties and I don’t trust the IMF. We had a good country, and they ruined it.»
Another echo: in Reykjavik, the protesters clearly won’t be bought off by a mere change of face at the top (even if the new PM is a lesbian). They want aid for people, not just banks; criminal investigations into the debacle; and deep electoral reform.
Similar demands can be heard in Latvia, whose economy has contracted more sharply than any country in the EU, and where the government is teetering. For weeks the capital has been rocked by protests, including a full-blown, cobblestone-hurling riot on 13 January. As in Iceland, Latvians are appalled by their leaders’ refusal to take any responsibility for the mess. Asked by Bloomberg TV what caused the crisis, Latvia’s finance minister shrugged: «Nothing special.»
But Latvia’s troubles are indeed special: the very policies that allowed the «Baltic tiger» to grow at a rate of 12% in 2006 are also causing it to contract violently by a projected 10% this year: money, freed of all barriers, flows out as quickly as it flows in, with plenty being diverted to political pockets. (It is no coincidence that many of today’s basket cases are yesterday’s «miracles»: Ireland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia).
In Latvia, much of the popular rage has focused on government austerity measures – mass layoffs, reduced social services and slashed public sector salaries – all to qualify for an IMF emergency loan (no, nothing has changed). In Greece, December’s riots followed a police shooting of a 15-year-old. But what’s kept them going, with farmers taking the lead from students, is widespread rage at the government’s crisis response: banks got a $36bn bailout while workers got their pensions cut and farmers received next to nothing.
Despite the inconvenience caused by tractors blocking roads, 78% of Greeks say that the farmers’ demands are reasonable. Similarly, in France the recent general strike – triggered in part by the plans of President Sarkozy to reduce dramatically the number of teachers – inspired the support of 70% of the population.
Perhaps the sturdiest thread connecting this global backlash is a rejection of the logic of «extraordinary politics» – the phrase coined by the Polish politician Leszek Balcerowicz to describe how, in a crisis, politicians can ignore legislative rules and rush through unpopular «reforms». That trick is getting tired, as South Korea’s government recently discovered. In December, the ruling party tried to use the crisis to ram through a highly controversial free trade agreement with the US. Taking closed-door politics to new extremes, legislators locked themselves in the chamber so they could vote in private, barricading the door with desks, chairs and couches.
Opposition politicians were having none of it: using sledgehammers and an electric saw, they broke in and staged a 12-day sit-in of parliament. The vote was delayed, allowing for more debate – a victory for a new kind of «extraordinary politics».
The pattern is clear: governments that respond to a crisis created by free-market ideology with an acceleration of that same discredited agenda will not survive to tell the tale. As Italy’s students have taken to shouting in the streets: «We won’t pay for your crisis!»
A version of this column was published in the Nation (www.thenation.com)