The Magazine

Another Spectre Is Haunting Europe

The street may replace the voting booth as the way to force change.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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As the worldwide slump deepens so must worries that the economic crisis will spill out onto the streets. In December, France's president Nicolas Sarkozy warned that les évènements of May 1968 could repeat themselves, and not only in the land of the torched auto. That same month IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn used the possibility of social unrest--in rich countries as well as poor--to drum up support for aggressive fiscal expansion. Now it's reported that the leaders of the EU's member states will spend part of their March summit discussing signs of growing disorder across their increasingly embattled union. After weeks in which Greece came close to anarchy, and riots broke out in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania (and, just outside the EU, in newly destitute Iceland), they are right to be concerned.

After roughly three decades of growth, European living standards are imploding, and once-rising expectations are dropping down with them. It's the sense of something lost that hurts the most. People can deal with living without that which they never had (which is why so many dirt poor countries languish without any meaningful regime change), but when prosperity vanishes, rage will go hand-in-hand with disappointment, frustration, and despair. Extra-legal protest, whether it's antiglobalization riots, spasms of racial or ethnic violence, or the repeated recourse to highway blockade, is already a part of the European political landscape, east and west. Under the circumstances it's hard to see how an economic slowdown on the current scale can continue without expanding this miserable tradition. The only question is where. Riga today. London tomorrow? Hamburg? Lille? Madrid? Dublin? A glance at the business pages suggests there are plenty of places to choose from.

It's a sad commentary on the situation Europe's leaders are now contemplating that some of the best clues as to what might happen there can be found in China and Russia. This reflects how the increasing reach of the EU within its member states has left the individual nations less free to respond to the demands of their peoples at a time of distress and imposed upon them a soft authoritarianism that increases the chance of disorder.

Start with China where, despite the extraordinary economic expansion of recent years, the promise of prosperity has spread far further than its achievement. According to some reports, there were nearly 80,000 "major" incidents of unrest in 2007, an inevitable response to the dislocations of helter-skelter growth in a People's Republic where hundreds of millions of the People have been left behind, deprived of what scant security they once enjoyed, and given no legal way of making themselves heard. And that was in the good times.

Since 2007, growth has slowed dramatically to an annualized rate of perhaps 6-7 percent. That's some way below the near double-digit pace usually thought necessary to sustain China's vast army of migrant workers (some 20 million of whom are said to have lost their jobs in the downturn). More ominous still are the large numbers of new university graduates: articulate, ambitious, and now unemployed. There is a good reason that the Chinese regime has put in place a $600 billion stimulus package. It's the same as the one that has led some of the country's elite to worry openly about the prospects for social peace.

There are at least some (faint and fiercely disputed) signs that all those billions might be having an effect, but no such comfort is available in Russia. The ruble is sharply down, and the economic growth that legitimized Putin's rule has dwindled to nothing. This winter has seen protests in Moscow, Vladivostok, and other cities, events largely unthinkable a year ago. Like the Chinese, the Russians are throwing money at the problem. And, like the Chinese, they are tightening up internal security. The rigidities of authoritarian rule may ultimately provoke a violent reaction, but so long as these regimes retain a monopoly of force and a willingness to use it, disorder can generally be stamped out: until, of course, the revolutionary moment. But that moment still seems far away.