IN THE RADICAL PRESS / MEMOIRE DES LUTTES
Interview with Peter Mertens by Jean Bricmont, professor in theoretical physics at the Université Catholique de Louvain
Another book on the crisis of the European Union? A Belgian Marxist author has attempted the challenge of writing an essay that is well researched, accessible and full of stories of Europe from the grassroots.
Peter Mertens, from Quiévrain, a Walloon municipality in in the Belgian province of Hainaut, now lives overseas, but he has been on his native country’s top seller list for over ten weeks, with nearly 15,000 copies sold in Dutch, and more than 3000 sold in the French version that has just been released.
Jean Bricmont, a professor of theoretical physics at the Catholic University of Leuven, met the author.
JB: How dare they? Why the title? Who are “they”?
Peter Mertens: The bankers, speculators and millionaires. Three overlapping categories. I began my book on the financial crisis, the crash of late 2008. What has been done since to control the banking world, to fight against speculation? Nothing! On the contrary, those responsible have been paid. I quote the report of Credit Suisse in November 2011: 0.5% of the world’s population holds 38.5% of global wealth. This contrast has never been greater; last year, the personal wealth of the rich has even increased by a third!
This class of people is the author of a huge heist against the population. So yes, I say, “How dare they? “. They force people to pay, to buckle under. In Greece, they blame the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Greek shipowners are making huge profits and are not taxed; same for many major companies at home or in France with Total.
The neoliberal model imported from the United States was implemented, these past 20 or 30 years, tax reforms reducing the income tax and corporate tax. In Germany, the red-green government Schröder-Fischer did this in the early 2000s. Followed by many others in Europe. For me this is the primary cause of the crisis that overwhelms us. The second: the money that is then fed back to “save” the banks.
In this sense, it is shocking that the current players of this second crisis are the same as the first of 2008, and that, furthermore, they have even more power. And, alongside the current economic debacle we are witnessing an incredible parallel in the crisis of democracy.
JB: You emphasize the fact that in the current crisis of the euro, the Greek crisis and the German model are two sides of one coin. Why?
PM: We can not understand the different orientations of European politics without understanding that of Germany. Germany, an exporting country, has been the greatest engine of the European Union (EU) and imposed the monetary union on the rest of Europe. The German Establishment is so far the biggest winner of the euro. Profits are made at the expense of the South. The debt burden of countries like Greece and Portugal, and the surplus of exporting countries like Germany are two sides of one coin. And this duality is incredibly important.
Portugal, Greece, Italy, domestic industries were wiped out, and we began to import German products, which has plunged the country into debt. The most important elements of the German export policy are reducing salaries, jobs for 1 euro an hour, the ruthless attack on the unemployed and other benefit recipients. And this policy is now held up as a model for the rest of Europe. But let’s look instead of what happens in this developed country: 1.4 million workers and 2.5 million children in poverty, 7.5 million illiterate people …
JB: Another amazing story is that of “Men in Black”, the inspectors responsible for overseeing the austerity policies of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB) and IMF, and who landed in Riga, Dublin and Athens. A metaphor for the crisis of democracy you speak of?
PM: The European countries are obliged to follow the German model, and in return, to give up their sovereignty. Indeed, the ability to expand their budgets, an essential tool for domestic policy, has been taken from them. To do this, Europe has chosen some countries as guinea pigs such as Ireland and Portugal. The name “Men in Black” was born in Ireland. There, after the bursting of the bubble economy, the population had, between 2008 and 2010, disbursed 14.5 billion euros. When in late 2010, interest on the bonds increased to 9%, the “Men in Black” rushed to Dublin and took over the Irish economy.
The media were then asked: Who are these few people who will lead our society? But experts in the “troika” Commission-ECB-IMF refused to disclose their identity. A spokesman for the European Commission has just said they were “more than two but less than ten.” Unnamed officials, therefore, the technocrats who impose draconian measures. In Portugal, they also tried, but there were many more protests. In Greece, there was even a time when they could not get into the ministries. There is thus the rise of resistance in the population against this takeover by the EU.
JB: You speak even of anti-democratic danger?
PM: Yes, I mention the humanitarian catastrophe in Greece. Yes, now, with the blackmail of new loans – which are used solely to pay the interests of banks, not save Greece – the situation is become even worse: the minimum wage decreases the umpteenth time to 450 euros, and pensions are cut again by 5-10%. Europe is committing an incredible scandal! And we read in an editorial in a Belgian financial daily that Greece has no choice but to abandon democracy and put its economy into the hands of Germany.
We’re not that far from a Neue Europa engulfing what little remains of democratic sovereignty. This is the theme of my last chapter, where I describe how Mario Monti, the golden boy of Goldman Sachs, applies this recipe in Italy. But what then is democracy? And how is it that an entire people are to be sacrificed on the altar of maximizing profits? This is the current debate, and it will remain so in the coming years.
JB: What is about your book that explains its success?
PM: There are many books on the crisis and the European crisis. But, to my knowledge, there is not one that starts from the point of view of Europe from below, which illuminates not only the actions of Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, the Commission Brussels, the other European institutions, but also evokes the situation, among others, Angela, a cleaner in Germany, or the owner of a small cafe in Greece.
Its success is that it is the first demonstration that people seek a coherent explanation of the current crisis. What the mainstream media do not provide, or in a very fragmented fashion, offering some pieces of a puzzle which is never painted into a picture. Also, the book is accessible to a greater number of people. More and more people are turning away from the dominant politics where the jargon of the so-called “experts” distances them from crucial issues of the day by suggesting that, in any case, it’s too complicated for them and it is unnecessary to try to understand.
My book is not a “simplification”, but rather an analysis of two overlapping complex crises: the economic crisis and that of the euro. That said, to popularise the debate is not a defect. I see it even as a duty to give people the tools to form their opinion, bring people who are alienated from the political debate back into it.
Finally, there are current events. The debt crisis is hitting one European country after another. The revolt spreads. Belgium, in January, had its biggest general strike in 18 years.
JB: Is this book is Belgian or international?
PM: Well, it is written by a Belgian! And its first section starts from the Belgian situation to allow me to show the heist underway. But from the second part, I show how what is happening in Belgium originated elsewhere. Especially in the EU. In this sense, the book is also international. It will also be translated into English and probably German. This is a book about a system that is in total deadlock and the crisis of the economy and the euro, which are inextricably intertwined. It’s not a purely Belgian question, nor even European, but global.
JB: You speak of resistance, but is it really realistic to talk about an alternative facing the steamroller?
PM: There are moments in history when the social logic must take over. In the late nineteenth century, Parliament was opposed to the prohibition of child labor for these very arguments: they were the perfect size to work in the mines … The labour movement imposed a social logic, and that changed with a parliamentary majority. Industries have not gone bankrupt yet! But, we’re still in this scenario: you have to re-impose the social logic. The “troika” European Commission-ECB-IMF is “testing” resistance to its policies in Greece. We must react.
JB: React, some even speak of revolution, that doesn’t have the perfume of violence?
PM: You know, violence is present in the upheaval caused by European elites. With the suicides of people made desperate by the crisis, with the elderly who die because they can no longer pay for their health, with children, who in Greece today are hungry and stop going to school. Yes, there is already a revolution under way in Europe: it is neoliberal.
A transfer of sovereignty is taking place, without any democratic debate, towards a Europe of authoritarian states which want to dictate and control peoples’ future. This dangerous trend demands a strong response by a great popular movement. In Belgium, France, Greece and elsewhere.
JB: You mention in the last part of your book, “Socialism 2.0”. What do you mean by that?
PM: Democracy and the economy are closely intertwined. To work for society also means working to meet its needs. The goal of an economy should be to meet these needs. The question is: what are our priorities? In what do we invest, or not? How do we ensure a balance? Macroeconomics is the result of political choices, not a question of mathematics, as the monetarists have long claimed.
But in the current capitalist system, there are no needs nor balance, but only the pursuit of profit. And an accelerating drift toward authoritarianism. This system of inequality and competition always produces more economic imbalances and satisfies the needs of the vast majority of people ever less. It seriously threatens the two sources of wealth of humanity: the natural environment and work.
Many people see that something fundamentally different is needed. Many people who read the book share in my anger. But they want to link this anger to something constructive, another society where work and the environment are respected. And for me, that can be acheived by the public reclaiming sectors that are “too big to fail” such as banking, energy, transport. This involves people’s participation in decisions, particularly on what is produced, by whom, for what and for whom. This other society is what I call socialism 2.0. Because it starts from the experiences of the socialism of the 20th century, with its successes and mistakes, but is also forward looking.
Peter Mertens, in collaboration with David Pestieau, Comment osent-ils ? L’euro, la crise et le grand hold-up, Les Editions Aden, Bruxelles, 2012, 315 pages, 20 euros
Peter Mertens is President of the Belgian Workers Party (Parti du travail de Belgique – PTB), a left formation that has growing support in Belgium.
April 24, 2012
Translation by Revolting Europe