From Places Like Mine and Yours

On the progressive potential of small, quasi-autonomous states (like Scotland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, etc.). . . .

The strong Scottish accent was conspiring with the noisy pub background to make it difficult for me to understand the words spoken in my ear by an imposing trade union figure.  Thankfully, I managed to decipher his words, which I still recall verbatim to this day: “The omens are horrid for your people and mine.  Brussels will go the way of London.  It will take decades before Scotland and Greece can rise again.  Mark my words.”  The calendar showed October 1979, a few short months after Mrs. Thatcher’s accession to 10 Downing Street.  The hoarse voice belonged to Mick McGahey.  (Does anyone, outside of Scotland or the British mining community, remember that striking figure of a man?  For those who do not, a brief CV is in order: a miner since he was 14 and a life-long socialist, McGahey, Vice-President of the once almighty National Union of Mineworkers, was the man whom the Tories feared more than anyone in the 1970s.  But he was renowned for his sense of humor, too.  Upon his retirement from the NUM, a journalist asked him about his post-union plans: “I shall probably seek a safe communist seat,” he replied playfully.)

What was Mick McGahey doing talking to me, a young, inconsequential Greek university student, whose only significance at the time to him was that I had briefly joined a picket line in support of striking steelworkers?  Let me tell you: when he heard that I came from Greece, he got up from his seat, shoved a Yorkshire steelworks shop steward out of the way to get to a seat next to me, and quickly proceeded to lecture me boisterously about how crucial Churchill and Attlee’s intervention in the Greek Civil War had been in defeating the British labor movement.  He talked non-stop for more than half an hour, not once interrupted by me or anyone else.  Of the 60% that I understood (the rest consumed by the noise and that Lanarkshire accent), all of it made perfect sense.

When that tide of passionate words ebbed, I took the liberty of asking him about Mrs. Thatcher and her likely impact on British politics.  I can now reveal that, at least on that night, Mick McGahey’s power of prophecy was intimidatingly sharp.  His answer still rings in my ears: We are fucked.  And so are you (meaning Greeks and assorted Europeans).  Then he added something on which history has not delivered its verdict yet — but which I hope (and in fact trust) will come true: Democratic politics will recover again, even if it takes a few decades, but its recovery will not come from the metropoles, from London or Paris or Rome.  When I asked him to pinpoint the loci of the recovery, he thought about it, entered into an exchange with another unionist (which went totally over my head), and only then turned back to me, looked at me in the eye, and delivered the answer: “From places like mine and yours.  From Scotland, from Greece, from Ireland.”  The final-orders’ bell then rang, ending our conversation.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because recently Peter Welsh suggested I look at this policy initiative by Scottish union Unite and because, upon reading it, Mick McGahey’s words came back flooding my mind.  The initiative in question is, clearly, at an early stage of its development.  Regardless, its basic premise is that the Scottish government ought to establish “sector forums throughout the economy which would help to combat inequality and assist in improving workers’ purchasing power.”  In particular, these forums are to look carefully into how wages, productivity, and quality can be raised, together with demand for the final goods and services in the “voluntary, road haulage, renewables industries and tourism sectors.”  Key to the Unite proposal is what no one in power in Europe really wants to hear: “There is one way out of recession — and that’s by investing in growth.”

And here is the rub: what ought to be common ground for all (that, following a catastrophic world crisis like that of 2008, strategies for promoting growth is the way to go) is now fiercely contested terrain.  London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin (not to mention Washington and New York) are behaving as if the opposite were true: as if the way forward is cutbacks, negative growth, deflation, internal devaluation (for the eurozone countries), and a series of attempts to shrink the national debt by squeezing labor and industry, especially the already dispossessed.  One might have thought that the Thatcher experiment’s gross failure to re-establish a sustainable industrial economy through a mix of (a) contractionary macro policies and (b) spiv-friendly privatizations should have taught the ruling elites a lesson.  But, as Mick told me, we should not expect rationality (let alone decency) from the metropoles.

When Scottish devolution was effected by the Blair government, I have no doubt the English elites’ rationale was to placate the Scottish people’s demands in a manner that concedes the minimum in order to avoid the (feared) maximum.  I also think, though, the Scots have out-maneuvered the southern elites.  Having established a working government that can extend a certain degree of protection to the Scottish population from the vagaries of idiotic neoliberalism (that the London government will never provide to the English working classes), Scotland has the autonomy it needs to make moves of the sort that Mick McGahey believed would make the difference Europe-wide.

One may protest that this is far-fetched, that Scotland has, in fact, failed to achieve full autonomy, of which devolution is a very poor cousin.  Indeed, it may well be true that after the crash of Iceland, even of Ireland, the prospects of full Scottish independence have taken a battering.  But what’s in a name?  Take my beloved Greece.  Nominally independent since 1827 and yet, presently, lacking any means by which to effect monetary or fiscal, health, education, or social welfare policies.  In fact, I submit that the Edinburgh government currently exercises more autonomy than the Athens government!  When, for instance, London ups the costs of higher education to British students, Edinburgh can deliver a simple and straight “No!”  Greece, in contrast, has a nominally socialist government whose only role is to try to portray every socially destructive policy that is dictated to it (by the IMF-EU) as its own next great idea for enhancing “efficiency” and, at the height of cynicism, even “fairness.”

To recap, in our brave post-2008 world, there is no difference between formal independence and devolved autonomy.  Scotland, Greece, and Ireland are in the very same boat.  Small countries can play a major role in putting out a new agenda for Europe.  One that is extremely modest in its ambition: to restore a modicum of sanity in a European Union that has gone utterly loopy.  Unite‘s proposal for sectoral studies on how wages, skills, renewable energy, and growth can all begin to point “north” is a move that has much greater chances of leading Europe out of its cul-de-sacthan any proposal that is likely to come from any of the metropoles.

Indeed, the Modest Proposal for the eurozone (that Stuart Holland and I have been peddling for a while now — not coincidentally from Lisbon and Athens respectively) is totally in tune with the idea of a pan-European investment drive that is rooted in small, local peripheries, combining the financial might of the European Central Bank with the European Investment Bank’s capacity to fund a new Marshall Plan for European growth (see, in particular, Policy 3).  Just as the original Marshall Plan was based on local, sectoral accounts of how wages, productivity, and production could all rise together, so can the new one.  The “Think Globally, Act Locally” slogan of the environmental movement can then be combined with a new one: “Think Europe-wide, Act Sectorally.”

As Mick McGachey told me in that awful, noisy pub so many years ago, Reason may have to emerge from places like his and mine — from Scotland, from Greece, from Ireland.  It may take some time to prove him right.  We may well fail.  But we have no excuse to shirk the responsibility that history has placed upon our small countries’ broad shoulders.

Yanis Varoufakis is Professor of Economic Theory and Director of the Department of Political Economy in the Faculty of Economic Sciences of the University of Athens.  Varoufakis’ books include: The Global Minotaur: The True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy (Zed Books, 2011); (with S. Hargreaves-Heap) Game Theory: A Critical Text (Routledge, 2004); Foundations of Economics: A Beginner’s Companion (Routledge, 1998); and Rational Conflict (Blackwell Publishers, 1991).

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