by Gaither Stewart
28 March 2009
“Chi non lavora, non fa l’amore”
Precariousness looms like a black cloud over the continent of Europe. The fragility of human life and of the life style generations of westerners are accustomed to today rages like a modern plague. Precariousness is a contagious disease. It leaps from worker to worker, from class to class. No wonder that life in our times has never seemed more temporary. Permanence belongs to another age.
(Rome) A popular Italian evergreen from the 1970s depicts a contemporary conundrum for many Europeans: “Chi non lavora, non fa l’amore” go the lyrics. The woman tells her man, “If you don’t work, there will be no love-making in this house. If you strike and don’t bring home pay, I will strike too. No love-making here!” The worker goes back to his job and strikers beat him up and call him a scab. No sex if he strikes, beatings if he works. He is truly the superfluous and precarious man. His only hope is that the capitalist boss relents and grants the pay increases the union demands and lets love into his house again. But that, he must realize, is highly unlikely.
The word precarious has become one of the most (un) fashionable words in Europe. Precario in Italy. Precaire in France. Prekär in German. For life in the Old World of Europe is precarious in general. Precariousness looms like a black cloud over the continent. The fragility of human life and of the life style many generations of westerners are accustomed to rages like a modern plague. Precariousness is a contagious disease. The pathos of a generation, it leaps from worker to worker, from class to class. Life in our times has never seemed more temporary, more fleeting. Permanence belongs to another age.
In face of the precariousness blowing over the continent, more and more Europeans feel superfluous, ephemeral and alienated. People are stunned and bewildered by the rapid fall from yesterday’s well-being and sense of security into the abyss of precariousness today. Their desperation is more than just the sum effect of the economic crisis of capitalism, which for many Europeans means pay cuts or job loss, reduced social benefits, an uncertain future for themselves and their children, spreading poverty, and intensified social alienation. It also originates in the disappearance of the social guarantees that people once knew but that today are crumbling around them in fetters.
The situation in Europe is different from that in America where the social idea has always been truant. The social idea is a European invention. Europe is its breeding ground. Unlike in the USA, Europe’s earlier social-oriented governments looked after their citizens. People counted on it. That sense of security has now vanished. Not only because of capitalism’s failures and the economic crunch but also especially because of the growing power of all-European institutions headed by the capitalist, multinational-dominated European Union.
Since the onset of the world crisis of capitalism, the fragility, uncertainty, undependability and instability of life has infected one an all, from Scandinavia to Greece, from the UK to Russia, making the poor more desperate and the rich increasingly greedy. Precarious, precario, precaire, prekär refer not only to an entire (and growing) social category of people, it refers also to the container in which life unfolds.
Precariousness means life without dreams. And confusion about the real present, that what has happened, really happened. Everyone clinging to what once was, to the material comforts that capitalism once offered, and will never be again. Clinging to the life raft of a former life, today however branded by its infectious atmosphere of violence: imperialist wars, daily rapes and murders, robbery at every social level, and a coming apart at the seams of the very social fibre whose filaments have blown away, the realities of a world in which tenderness is hard to find. Precariousness is marked by fear. Fear of the future, fear of even looking toward the future. And besides, what future lies ahead? At best a return to some semblance of normality, people hope, yet, in the knowledge that things will never be the same again.
Precarious in Europe refers first of all to deprivation of the right to employment and a decent income, by the way, guaranteed by the Italian Constitution. A generation ago Italian parents aimed at a lifetime position for their children, preferably in a bank! long considered the ideal for economic security. In today’s precarious era, any fulltime job at all for young people is a chimera. Until the consolidation of the hegemony of the market economy and globalization, Italy’s workers, though grossly underpaid compared to other Europeans, were represented and felt protected by their powerful trade unions, the initials of which are familiar to all Italians—CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labor with 5,000,000 members), UIL (Italian Union of Workers, 2,000,000 members), CISL (Italian Confederation of Workers Trade Union, 5,000,000 members). Those days are over. The unions are still there, alive, a factor in politics, although successive rightwing governments led by Silvio Berlusconi have so undermined the trade unions and intensified the precariousness of employment and the exploitation of labour that labour’s demands have diminished and any temporary work is better than none at all.
Not only the insecurity of economic life and the widespread conviction that this generation is creating hopelessness for the next has cast the aura of precariousness over the continent. The forms of contemporary architecture and design suddenly seem emblematic of the precariousness and instability of lived life. Not only constructions such as the Renaissance Pitti Palace in Florence or France’s great Romanesque cathedrals reflect the enduring certainties of the past. Also the unnoticed residential stone houses of ancient hill towns underline the now vanishing sensation of permanence and authenticity, replaced by the shaky and the temporary.
Bewitched by the modern, people have been simultaneously blinded to what was happening around them. Until recently, post- World War II Europeans bathing in continual progress and modernity were largely unaware that new forces were gnawing away at the very foundations of real life, undermining their acquired sense of security. Like Americans, they didn’t know what was happening, or they carelessly delegated authority to the capitalist-dominated political caste out to get them.
Labour is precarious, one may say reductively, when just one of the following conditions is present: low pay and uncertain wages, inadequate job training, the absence of social insurance, scarce health protection, deficient work site security, absence of trade union representation, insufficient notice time before the pink slip of dismissal. Today, nearly all these factors are inadequate or absent for European workers.
Precariousness spawns sensations of transience and impermanence. As a result, indifference (always ready to mutate into nihilism) grows in the already anarchic country of Italy dominated by its authoritarian leader, Silvio Berlusconi, who detests rules. Over much of Europe the rich know no limits and don’t give a shit for the rest. Imprisoned in cages of worry, anger, fear and pain, the poor don’t give a shit, either, as Italy sinks under its garbage it can’t organize to collect and dispose of, while those who can continue to pay excessive trash collection taxes rather than differentiate trash, garbage, metal, glass, plastic. Cities suffocate in smog. Traffic is unbearable despite Europe’s most expensive gas while a negligent government fails to provide decent public transportation. People instead remain voiceless and weightless, almost invisible. Then, from time to time, a spark here and there, a flickering in the darkness, becomes a flash fire threatening to illuminate the germ of resistance.
General strikes and protest manifestations sweeping over France from the grands boulevards of Paris to the port city of Marseille during February and March underline the epidemic proportions of the desperation ignited by the widespread precariousness, not at home but also in its colonial territories overseas such as Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. The gigantic protests take place within the framework of growing job losses, the deepening economic crisis of the capitalist system, and the erosion of social rights. In France, protest is directed against the aims of the hard right government of Nicolas Sarkozy to bolster the capitalist system and further reduce workers’ security.
The birth of the idea of Europe, United Europe, European Union (EU) at first created hope for future generations. The original idea of a united Europe seduced the majority of two generations of Europeans. Now that dream is going up in the smoke of capitalist greed. Today’s United Europe is not at all what European peoples had in mind. It is not a union of the peoples but a clique of multinationals-capitalists. The EU of March 2009 is thus anti-labour, anti-union, anti-welfare, pro-free trade, and stands in awe of President Obama and the USA. Far from anti-war, it supports NATO and the American war in Afghanistan, which the EU considers a good war. No wonder that today more and more people have begun to wonder if the European Union was not the long-range project of capitalism from the start.
Early dreamers and builders of Europe like Jean Monet and Robert Schuman were probably not as far-sighted as we like to credit them. Their alleged aim was to harness nationalism—though without eliminating it—and without subjugating nations. They proclaimed their intentions to build an economic community based on free trade to enhance Europe’s world role, resolve the German-French problem, and prevent future European wars that had raged for centuries. But it didn’t end there. Not by a long shot. The official names of the Union reflect mutating goals and above all capitalist hubris: from the modest European Coal and Steel Community to the more ambitious European Economic Community (EEC) to European Community (EC) to the realization of today’s capitalist fortress, the European Union (EU).
During the long period of maturity of the concept of European unity, people took to the idea of free circulation of goods and persons. Europeans of most nationalities and diverse languages and cultures still like the idea of being citizens of Europe, as printed in their passports and reflected on their automobile plates. Travel from Milan to Munich to Paris to Amsterdam without a passport and using the same currency is appealing. What a hassle it was once! —visas and changing currency at every border. But a preferable, wonderful hassle, some people have come to think today. Now that the capitalist multinationals have taken over! Now that jobs and industries like textiles and cars wander nomad-like from one country to the other in search of cheaper labor, creating havoc everywhere. No wonder a certain radical nationalism has emerged in every country of Europe. No wonder the words protectionism and nationalism have again become current.
The European Union of today aims at a different kind of Europe. An anomalous, deceptive and deviant Europe of multinationals. An anti-social Europe in opposition to the Social Europe as we have known it. The Social Europe that matured over a century, a heritage much greater and more significant than the “Christian heritage” advocated by the Catholic Church and its political arm. There is nothing duller, more useless, than the scenes of the huge, UN-like theatre of the powerless European Parliament in Strasbourg busily rubber-stamping the demands of the anti-social, capitalist European Commission.
Today the EU aims at a real President. Not however a President elected by the people of Europe but a straw man appointed by the Eurocrats of the European Commission, the union’s cabinet. At the same time it proposes reducing the number of EU commissioners from the present one from each member state, in effect freeing the hands of a few capitalist front-men to complete the regimentation of Europe in which the rights of capital grow and those of labour diminish, to privatise further still public services such as education and health, and to crush the entire labour movement, which originally created and still maintains a semblance of Social Europe. These aims constitute nothing less than the corporate order for the fascistization of Europe along lines traced out by Benito Mussolini early last century.
Key words today are: banks, market, competition, liberalisation, privatisation, capital. Words indicative of the reconstitution of pre-totalitarian directions and institutions. These words also occupy the proposed European Constitution voted down by France, The Netherlands and Ireland, and thus blocking its enactment until now. No wonder a growing number of European citizens (who actually understand little of the real underlying intents of neoliberal capitalists) are increasingly in opposition to the EU. A survey shows that the average favourability rating of the EU stands at 48%. People see less and less advantages for themselves in this new Europe, which has resulted in higher prices and lower wages. As one Roman wrote in to a newspaper, for workers the crisis means “low-cost wages and business class living costs.” No quid pro quo here. European travel without passports is not enough compensation.
Today’s precariousness, especially of jobs and the precipitating quality of life, stands like a mountain between the EU and its citizens. It should be clear as the light of day that EU failures are capitalism’s failures. A realistic program of the European Left has outlined some basic, short-term, alternative objectives: work for all and an unemployment rate of below 5%; a society based on solidarity, with poverty under 5%; a roof over everyone’s head; equal opportunities with a illiteracy rate of under 3%. The European Central Bank (ECB) should not only fight inflation but should also support economic development. The EU cannot be based on the market alone. Commercial policies of the Union must aim at the reduction of inequalities, at solidarity and stable economic development.
Many people wonder what kind of world will emerge in the future, after the crisis. Will there be a new start, afterwards? Others speculate on the disappearance of today’s savage, criminal capitalism based on exploitation of much of the world and ever expanding markets. But can one really expect the phony and virtual to become authentic and real over night? That capitalists will reform themselves? I don’t believe so. Not if the same people who played a major role in fucking up the world are to put it together again. A world gone, taken away by financial shysters and criminals and their political reps.
No wonder the conjecture that future revolts on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, as happened in 1968, as happened again in the 1980s, will take the form of a Socialist revolution directed against the European Union and its entire capitalist structure, rather than against Italy or France or Germany individually. For the lead principle of Socialism is and must be that economic forces do not dominate the people but instead should be guided and controlled by the people for the benefit of the masses. The Socialist Revolution must be the kind of revolution that destroys the present order in the way light does darkness.
Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor and European Correspondent for Cyrano’s Journal Online, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).