A crisis of confidence says ECB President Mario Draghi, and just about everyone else. Confidence is lacking in the ability of eurozone countries, especially in the south, to pay back their debts. According to Draghi, as quoted in the Financial Times, “the most important element to start restoring credibility” and confidence is…you guessed it, austerity. The outlines of the new “fiscal compact” includes, first and foremost, agreement on “strong rules on public finances,” and stronger European control and enforcement of national budgets. The nature of this enforcement, and the punishments it will entail, are still in formation. The differences between Merkel and Sarkozy over the amount of budgetary control to allow national governments are familiar, though increasingly appear as the narcissism of petty differences.
After all, the underlying agreement about how to ‘restore credibility’ is striking – more Europe, more technocratic control, more budgetary austerity. There is no serious threat of exit from any national leadership, no major political or social movement directly addressing itself to the constraints of the eurozone or the imposition of austerity. The Spanish indignados have faded, Greek protesters pushed aside, with both countries electing conservative or unity governments to push through cuts. The closest thing to a direct mass challenge has appeared outside the eurozone, in the form of the one-day national strike against pension reductions by public workers in the UK.
But in what way is greater technocratic enforcement, at the European level, of budgetary limits a means to ‘restoring credibility’? After all, balanced budgets here are not ways of increasing productivity and restoring growth. The underlying structural problems in the economy not only remain but will be made worse in the short run. The eurozone is already in zero growth. Greece, as it prepares another round of cuts, revised growth downwards. Italy was already running a balanced budget before the sovereign debt worries emerged. But given 5% real interest rates, it would now have to run a 5% budget surplus – a surplus increasingly difficult to maintain under contractionary fiscal policies. Contraction slows growth, creating new need for more cuts to please creditors. Overall, then, the two major obstacles to economic growth, and thus ability to repay debts, are being reinforced: the monetary union, and fiscal constraint. From whence comes the ‘restored credibility,’ the new confidence?
What we are seeing is not what one might call ‘economic’ confidence, based on restoring economic fundamentals, but ‘political’ confidence. Measures, implemented by ostensibly neutral technocrats, are aimed at creating a new supranational political technology of social control, wherein investors in debt are given greater confidence that their claims will be given priority in any struggle over the stagnant or shrinking pie. The flash in the pan, halcyon days of the bubble, when a rising tied lifted all boats are gone. This is a struggle over a stagnant surplus. The new confidence is in who will control political apparatuses, both at the state and European level, and creditors have clearly won this round. They have barely faced a challenge in spectreless Europe.