‘Vivemos acima das nossas possibilidades’, ‘we lived beyond our means’: thus parroted the neoliberal pundits, explaining the Portuguese crisis of sovereign debt of 2010/2011 as the result of profligate welfare state.
Had Portugal actually lived beyond its means, it was definitely not because of its welfare: public debt only skyrocketed once the banks were bailed out and private debt was almost exclusively due to mortgages (that is, to insufficient public investment in housing in the first place). In other words, we know quite well that, being crises structural to capitalism, the crisis of the (South of) the Eurozone was nothing but the inevitable result of uneven development, European style: after all, a single currency zone among fundamentally different economies, absent significant fiscal redistribution, was destined to deepen existing contradictions; and debt-driven growth was the result of reforms pushed by EU regulations in the first place. And yet, the idea that the crisis was the consequence of the Portuguese government and people’s irresponsible behaviours became common sense in early 2010s’ Portugal – making the punishment, that is, austerity, seem fair to the general population, for a few years, at least. Of course, and irrespective of the significant differences in the paths to crisis, this framing was to be deployed against all the Mediterranean beggars (plus the fallen Irish Tiger): the ‘PIIGS’, routing for money – if you search Scholar for ‘PIIGS’, literally thousands of economics articles come out, and it will take quite some time to find one with any critical reflection on the label itself.
We know quite well what was the political economy of the labelling: thus framed, the economic crisis became the perfect occasion to double down on uneven development, for instance through the hypocrisy of imposing reforms that liberalised housing and planning in those very countries where, the argument went, dysfunctional planning systems had caused uncontrolled housing bubbles. After few years of economic convergence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, things went back to normal, with the wealthy becoming wealthier, and the poor poorer.
Fast forward to early 2020, with Europe being in the midst of the biggest health challenge of the century and the perspective of an economic crisis that may make the one of 2007/2008 seem like a spring rain right before the monsoon – in Portugal, for instance, where, with the applause of the EU, economic rebound was thoroughly dependent on external investment, real estate and tourism, the most likely scenario is GDP plummeting by double digits. The first countries to be impacted by the Covid-19 epidemics, Italy and Spain, forced to put their economies in lockdown – economies that have barely recovered from the hangover of the previous crisis – called the EU for the very obvious thing a polity should be doing in times of challenges with this magnitude: socialising risks and costs, by issuing EU-backed debt, infamously dubbed ‘Coronabonds’.
During the last several years, progressive, pro-Euro but critical, voices had been arguing that only by socialising debt could an economic union be sustainable in the long run; and thence advocating for ‘Eurobonds’ to be issued. It was precisely through the framing of southern irresponsibility that core economies in the EU, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland – more precisely, their hawkish neoliberal governments of all parties – had fought back: Southerners had been using EU cash on wine and women, after all, reminded us former Dutch minister of Finance and Chair of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem. But let us not fall in the nationalist trap of thinking this is just a matter of Northern versus Southern countries: ‘Portugal ain’t no Greece’, recently said Socialist Prime Minister António Costa, the last in a long list of Portuguese governors of all colours portraying the well-mannered, rule-abiding Portugal in contrast with lazy beggars of the same latitude – discussing the self-orientalism of such a need for distinction is, unfortunately, an endeavour I cannot address in these pages.
Irrespective of their attempts at joining the club of the ants, grasshoppers are put back where they belong when the time is ripe; and that is precisely how the ants are fighting back against calls for socialising debt in pandemic times, yet with a new twist. As this time there is no room to claim that the cause of the crisis is to be found in southern irresponsibility, some, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz or Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, felt that just no explanation was needed: ‘we ain’t ready for that’, that is, ‘no way’. But, it was another Dutch minister of Finance, Wopke Hoekstra, to drop
the racist the moral card once again: Southerners have not made the reforms that were necessary during the previous crisis, so they have not saved money for this moment, he claimed – except, let us remind, they did all, if not more, the reforms that had been requested during the last round of austerity, and, by the way, much of the cash that they should had been collected through taxes had been rerouting to the Dutch tax heaven. So out of the world were Hoekstra’s words that they pushed that very same António Costa – that is, no comrade of sort – to make what is to be remembered as his boldest discourse ever: ‘[Hoekstra’s] argument is repugnant within an EU framework; yes, just so: re-pug-nant’. Once again, let us not avoid the nationalist argument: for one, Portuguese ultra-liberal Observador, in its comments on Costa’s discourse, concluded that socialists are unmannered beggars.
How to interpret this disgraceful drama? Let us start through a political economic lens: never let a serious crisis go to waste, no matter whether the crisis is made up of suffering sovereign debts or a global lockdown caused by a new virus. After all, it is quite some time – and thanks to the likes of Trotsky and Gramsci – that we know that uneven geographical relations are crucial to capitalist development: why would Europe work differently? So no wonder that dominant classes in core countries – parroted, in peripheral countries, by those that Gramsci would had termed ‘organic intellectuals’ with no hesitation – are understanding this new crisis as yet another opportunity to double down on the devaluation of peripheral European economies.
But political economy, per se, and even the construction of hegemonic ideas about ants and grasshoppers, cannot encompass the full picture of what we are witnessing in these frantic days. In one of his rare remarks on the relations between Europe and the rest of the world, Michel Foucault had warned us that those very policies used in the colonies would one day come back to the metropolis as a boomerang – indeed, those very austerity measures imposed over Southern European countries in the 2010s had long been tested in the Global South. But what was already in place in the socio-economic sphere was not so much in that of biopolitics: as migrants that have been trying to enter Europe through its southern and eastern borders know, holding – or not – a European passport has long been a strong determinant of one’s chances to literally survive.
As the hawks use racist tropes to fight back against mutual support in the face of White corps being taken to crematory by military convoys in Northern Italy, the political economy of Covid-19 reshapes the geography of necropolitics, once again. Once relegated in the colony, the right, for the powers that be, to determine who may live and who may die had already moved right at the border of Fortress Europe. There, the expendability of Black bodies was part and parcel of the construction of a body polity, made up of free movement of people beyond capital, as evoked by German Member of the European Parliament Manfred Weber while congratulating Greece for their actions at the border with Turkey: ‘Greece has protected us’, ‘if we cannot secure our external borders, borders inside Europe will return’.
With a global pandemic putting into crisis health systems, like the Italian, among the strongest in the world, while draconian measures destined to wipe out entire sectors of the economies are put in place in the name of defending the populations that are vulnerable to Covid-19, socialising debt has become, right within Europe, a matter of life and death. New and old cleavages articulate to determine the bodies that are expendable or not: age, health conditions, class, but also each country’s capacity to shut down its economy the longer or to buy ventilators. Fortress Europe shattered up in a fragmentation of bodies with different right to live.
No, it is no consolation seeing the nemesis of former colonialist Italy, Spain or Portugal being retributed the same money they expended around the Global South. The only lesson, if any, is that in times of late capitalism more and more bodies become expendable, as lines of race and class (and age, and health) explode beyond the North/South divide, becoming every day more fluid, every day more violent.
‘We are all in this together’ has never been less true.
I am grateful to Giulia Strippoli and Adam Standring, who read a first version of this essay and, while keeping up with the accelerated rhythms of these frantic times, provided me with ideas and time to better frame my own urgency to write.