Friday, 8 April 2011

Uneven Development

So finally Portugal has had to seek a bail-out from the European Central Bank. But this was not, like Ireland, because of a collapse in the banking sector or a construction bubble, but because it has never really been up with the required pace for eurozone club members. Its growth rate has been too sluggish, its competitiveness too slack; its private sector has been borrowing too much just to stay in business and its government deficit has grown wider and wider. In this sense it was more like Greece, but without quite the same defiant bravado.

The pundits shrug their shoulders and point out that the smallish perpheral states which have gone bust so far make up only 18 per cent of the EU's total income. It's sad that they are condemned to years - perhaps an eternity - of austerity, because the bail-out is essentially a bridging loan paid to a national economy which is bankrupt (if they couldn't pay the interest charged by the bond market, they won't be able to afford the charges levied by the ECB either). It would probably have been better to default on their debts, but now of course it's too late for that. And yes, Spain may be next, but then again it might just get by. And then there's Italy....

And then, on the same day, the ECB put up interest rates, not by much, but enough to signal which way things are going. The rationale is to prevent overheating of the German economy, the eurozone's one real success story. So now there is not so much a division between the sound, stable, fiscally solvent north, and the spendthrift, shifty south, with its creative government accounting; it is morea division between Germany and the rest. The monetary policies of the eurozone are dictated by the requirements of the one dynamic, world class, globally competitive member state.

A country like the UK must put on a show of conducting itself by Germany's standards, even as a eurozone outsider. It must strike a pose of conducting an industrial revival, improving public-sector efficiency and observing fiscal rectitude. Nothing less will keep the bond market wolf from the door, even if it means running down everything from libraries, museums and theatres to the armed services.

In this sense, the European economic scene mirrors both the global one and the internal economies of most countries. The tune is called by the super-rich, who stride ahead confidently, and everyone else must try to shuffle along in step, in spite of wonky legs or leaky shoes.

Capitalist economic growth has always relied on uneven development, but this has become an extreme feature of every level of the global economy. It has led to political conflict worldwide, as a new, dispossessed generation, without the prospect of achieving the modest security of employment and income attained by their parents, takes up esistance of various kinds.

Historically, periods of rapid growth relied on a combination of new technologies and organisational forms in the advanced centres of production, and large movements of population away from the most backward ones - as happened in China during the past three decades. The trouble for Europe and North America is that the present phase of technological innovation is Silicon Valley, not nineteenth century Sheffield or Salford; it needs a few highly skilled workers, not a mass influx of muscle.

Nowadays large-scale migrations mostly involve low-paid service workers or others doing jobs with undesirable conditions, such as the movement of those from post-communist Central Europe to the affluent member states of the EU. Ireland, Greece and Portugal, traditionally countries of emigration, had come to be hosts to such migrants, especially Ireland during its Celtic Tiger bubble.

In response to the new austerity, many governments are making gestures at reducing immigration, as part of an attempt to combat rising unemployment. For instance, the UK's Agricultural Workers Scheme, under which a succession of young people from the post-communist countries have come to pick and pack fruit, is to be abolished next year. Poles and Slovaks no longer need this system, but Romanian and Bulgarian youngsters will be blocked from entry, until they are granted free movement two years later, by which time they will want more rewarding work.

So who will pick the fruit next year? Migrants from Portugal or Ireland? Or Serco conscripts, benefits claimants doing forced labour to qualify for their JSA?

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