Euro Vision! Leah’s Video for Conservatism and Decline in Western Europe, 1970s-1980s (Week 11, Day 2)

Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 11, Day 2. Our subject is Western Europe in the 1970s-1980s, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

As you know, we have a deadline coming up for your final papers. Please remember to submit your one-paragraph Introduction and detailed Outline on Sakai by Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. It looks like everyone has signed up for a virtual office hours meeting to discuss those materials on Thursday, April 23, so thank you for doing that. Those meetings will take place on Teams. I’m looking forward to discussing your ideas with you! One more announcement: next week, we only have one day of new material. We are NOT going to discuss the film Pride together. It’s a lovely film, and I’m sorry to lose one of our primary sources. But I think it’s more important for you to have time to work on your final papers. The film is up on the course website, if you want to watch it on your own. I WILL make you a video on chapter 11 of Dark Continent and Gorbachev’s glasnost speech, and I look forward to your comments on those materials, which will take us through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, we’re examining Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, when the “economic miracle” came to an end and, under the resulting pressures, Western Europeans found themselves renegotiating the social contract within their societies.

Mazower’s chapter is heavy on economic history, because it’s economic questions more than anything else that drove the major political and social developments in Western Europe in this period. The economic slowdown that began in the late 1960s and lasted though the 1980s took Western Europeans by surprise. Things had been so good for so long that they had convinced themselves the boom would last forever. If you ask your parents about the 2008 global financial crisis, they can tell you that America was in much the same position then. But the causes underlying the slowdown in the 1970s and 1980s are more diverse and connected to processes that had been ongoing in the previous two decades.

As Mazower notes, inflation had been steadily on the rise, and as purchasing power declined, unions became more militant in their demands for raises. This inflation was also driven by global developments, including the 1973 oil crisis, which was itself a result of decolonization. That year, Egypt and Syria declared war on Israel in a bid to regain some territory that Israel had claimed in a previous skirmish. When the Western powers supplied Israel with weapons, OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) declared an oil embargo. That lasted for a year and the resulting shortages forced a slowdown in industrial production. Meanwhile, newly decolonized nations in Asia were becoming industrial powers in their own right and creating competition for European producers. The result of these factors was widespread de-industrialization in Western Europe, which was a major shock to countries where industrial labor had been the economic mainstay for well over 100 years.

The transition from industrial economies to the service-based economies of today was a rocky one, and in the process unemployment grew substantially. Short of money, consumers put off major purchases, which only slowed things down further. But inflation kept rising. Economists called this new situation stagflation (stagnation + inflation), and nothing they tried seemed to work against it. Despite high unemployment, though, Europeans did not fall back into the desperation of the 1930s, because the welfare state safety net prevented that, which is what it was designed to do. But as more people drew unemployment benefits than ever before, attitudes started to change. As Mazower details, those who were able to hold on to their jobs began to blame those who were unemployed for their situation, rather than blaming the poor state of the economy. I want you to pay especially close attention to this portion of today’s reading and think about it carefully. Right now, because of coronavirus, we are headed into a steep economic recession, which has already generated record numbers of unemployment claims. It may be affecting some of your families already. How we conceptualize this recession—where we place the blame, where we look for solutions—will have a significant impact on our society. This is exactly why we study history: not because it repeats itself, but so we can learn from the actions others have taken in the past and the outcomes that resulted.

In Europe, the actions of most governments took the form of belt-tightening. The most extreme case was Great Britain, where the conservative politician Margaret Thatcher held the post of Prime Minister from 1979-1990. Thatcher’s neoliberal philosophy led her to prioritize the health of the economy over the health of her citizens. Her government cut welfare benefits, privatized state-owned utilities and industries, and busted unions, most notably in the 1984-1985 National Union of Miners’ strike, where her decision to privatize the coal industry led to mass unemployment and economic devastation of an entire region of the country. As a result of these policies in Britain and elsewhere, European societies became increasingly stratified, which in turn weakened the social bonds that had led to the creation of the welfare state in the first place.

Amidst all this difficulty, Western Europeans once again turned to more radical politics. We saw the start of this trend last time, with the student protests in Paris in May 1968. That wave of activism died down within a couple years, with the exception of a few radical splinter groups like the Red Army Faction in West Germany, which went underground and committed acts of domestic terrorism in an effort to overthrow the government. Spoiler alert: they did not succeed. But at the same time, with the rise of individualism and the new focus on identity that we traced through consumerism last time, this period also saw the rise of political groups demanding better treatment for people based not on their social class—because class had lost its meaning for many people by this point, though certainly not for everyone—but on other forms of identity. The women’s rights movement really picked up steam in the in 1970s, and new movements demanding rights for LGBT people and for people of color also became a force. They even started to move toward intersectionalism, the idea that all of these movements should work together because no one is really free until everyone is free. But that idea was just beginning, and it would not fully bear fruit until the 1990s and 2000s.

Alongside these identity-based movements, Western Europe also developed a politicized environmental movement. Pollution had become a serious issue by the 1970s, and with industry in decline, newly-formed Green Parties pushed for legislation that would create more eco-friendly economic solutions. Unfortunately, the return of radical politics also took place on the right. New nationalist parties pushed back against the rise of multicultural societies and against immigration. But though they continue to exist today, no nationalist party has taken power in a Western European country since the 1930s.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. In his analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Mazower asserts that “It would… be a mistake to limit the effects of the ‘Thatcherite Revolution’ to economics when its historical significance lay instead in its reappraisal of what the modern state could and could not do.” (Mazower, 332) Can you analyze this claim? How did Thatcher’s economic policies, based in her philosophy of monetarism, change the relationship between the individual and the state? Why do you think this change has been so enduring, though the welfare state continues as robustly as ever? Or do you think current events may change attitudes once again?

2. Mazower notes that the in the 1970s and 1980s, Europeans began to understand their relationship to labor quite differently. Partly, this was because de-industrialization shrank the working class and the power of labor unions. But it was also because work, itself, changed. People were more likely to work on contract and change jobs frequently. They also started to look to private life and leisure activities for their sense of fulfillment and identity, rather than their jobs. Some of these things can be attributed to economic restructuring in response to the recession, while others can be attributed to the successes of the welfare state. In your analysis, which era had a bigger impact on how Europeans’ relationship to labor, the “economic miracle” of the 1950s-60s or the “stagflation” of the 1970s-80s? How has today’s gig economy further altered this relationship?

3. Despite their changing relationship to labor, or perhaps because of it, Western Europeans also began to blame the poor for their poverty. With this new discourse of the “welfare cheat,” poverty was increasingly criminalized, and rates of imprisonment shot up, particularly among minority communities. Mazower points out that this wasn’t really about fraudulent benefits claims or increased criminality, because those things didn’t actually exist. So, what was it about? What contextual factors can you identify that made Europeans more likely to believe that people were cheating on their benefits and committing more crimes than they had been before? How does this relate to changing economic and social factors? What do you make of the comparison Mazower draws between the discourse of “welfare cheats” and interwar eugenics on p.342?

4. Immigration also became a major issue in Western Europe, particularly in the 1980s. Though these countries had previously recruited labor migrants, they now restricted immigration, and after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, they tried to keep refugees out. Take a look at Mazower’s description of the treatment of refugees on pp.345-346. How would Joseph Roth, the essayist from interwar Berlin, respond to this? How do these governments’ actions fit with their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? How does their fear of white (or perhaps not quite white?) refugees complicate our understanding of Europeans’ difficulty in creating multicultural societies in the post-WWII, post-imperial era? Do we see parallels to this situation in Europe today?

5. Mazower remarks that no matter how Europeans feel or behave in regard to immigrants and refugees, they will continue to come. The 20 years since this book was written have proved him right. He notes that some commentators have proposed a new model of “belonging” to the national community which encompasses non-citizens by including anyone who pays taxes and derives benefits, rather than only those who can vote. (Mazower, 349) What do you think of this model? Is it a good solution? What are its possible benefits and costs? Can you propose a different model that you think would work better? Or should we stick with the “rights and duties” model after all?

6. A notable phenomenon in this era was the “post-modern existential crisis.” Due to factors like consumerism, the rise of individualism, identity politics, and economic instability, people found themselves feeling alienated and unsure of how they fit into society. These are classic problems of late capitalism and you may even find them familiar. From what we’ve learned about the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, do you think that socialist citizens would feel less alienated? In the Cold War competition for hearts and minds, Khrushchev argued that the “good life” came when everyone had their needs satisfied on an equal basis, rather than having a million choices available only to some, as in the West. Does the post-modern existential crisis prove that he was right? Or do capitalist societies provide other, better solutions to existential crisis?

7. Persistent economic woes, along with the successes of the European Economic Community, convinced Western Europeans that more coordination across the continent would improve everyone’s situation. In 1992, the members of the EEC formed the European Union and adopted a unified currency, the Euro. (Mazower refers to it as the EMU.) What issues did these countries encounter in adopting the Euro? How do these issues shed light on the persistent tension between national sovereignty and strength through convergence in postwar Europe? How do you interpret Britain’s decision not to adopt the Euro, though it became a full member of the European Union? Should we see that as a sign that Brexit was likely to happen eventually?

5 Replies to “Euro Vision! Leah’s Video for Conservatism and Decline in Western Europe, 1970s-1980s (Week 11, Day 2)”

  1. I’m answering question 2. I think that the 70s-80s ‘stagflation’ era changed Europeans relationship to labor more. I think that because the type of work was changing so much and the welfare state was in such effect there’s a huge shift in the relationship and understanding of labor. While the economic miracle was a change it wasn’t a change in how people were working it was just a shift in the way people lived because they had more money. A shift in unions, labor, types of jobs, wages, equality, benefits it’s all a lot and really shifted the way we know jobs to be today.

  2. I feel like I absolutely have to discuss the first question regarding the “Thatcherite Revolution.” I have always been fascinated by Margaret Thatcher and her policies, some of which were quite unpopular with her constituents. While the welfare state with government controlled industry were a standard model during the post war period, Thatcher sharply rejected these policies. She advocated for small government, decreased spending, privatization of industry and low taxes. She completely changed what the government could do by limiting its reach with these restrictions. Thinking about of current predicament, I would be really interested to see how Thatcher would handle the pandemic. It might be similar to the early reaction of current PM Boris Johnson and his earlier hands off approach. More importantly, what might she do to jumpstart the economy?

  3. 5.
    Overall, I think it is a good step in the right direction. For me, the concept of being a “true” citizen is tricky because if you pay taxes and get benefits, you should be able to vote in the country that you live in. As with that, the idea of passports gets even more complicated because passports go off of where you were born, where your parents were born, etc.. However, with the displacement these peoples are going through, they may not consider their home country, their actual home. This gets tricky because should the person be a citizen of a country they will never return to or live in again, should they actually be considered a citizen of that country and have a passport from that country. Or should the displaced person get full citizenship to the country they may consider home, pay taxes and get benefits in.
    The costs and benefits of making the displaced people citizens of the country they now life in, definitely go to the side of benefiting. The person and their new home country would benefit greatly because this person would have a better sense of who they are and where they fit in, and the country would benefit from this person’s taxes and votes. The costs would be minimal. One thing I can think of is the cost increasing population, which isn’t actually bad, unless the population is too large for the country’s boundaries or something.
    Personally, I can not think of a better model because I don’t fully understand how all countries decide on who is or can become a citizen. But I think a possible model is that every person is able to have a citizenship in the country they were born in and another in the place they have lived for over 10 years or some years. Again, I don’t exactly how this would work since some people were born one place and have lived in multiple countries in their lives.

  4. #3

    It is all too easy to suggest that my (hypothetical) success is because I have worked hard and earned it rather than live in a system that might benefit me based on my educational opportunities, the color of my skin, and an undeserved bias that I might be particularly suited for success . It is much harder to see that there are institutional failings creating widening poverty gaps that disproportionately affect ethnic minorities to the point where underlying racism in policy is all too clear.

    The dire conditions of western economies led to many unfortunate realizations for citizens, however, when coupled with surges of immigration, discriminatory ideas about race and class surface in the form of “welfare queen” rhetoric and policy. Using a false narrative of abuses against the welfare system, policy makers only further disadvantaged demographics who seriously needed economic assistance.

    Mazower’s comparison to eugenics is fair. The idea that some groups of people are superior to an other as evident by their socioeconomic position and “hard work” might not be as explicitly racist as eugenics rhetoric but it is still racist.

  5. 6.

    I think that this characterization of capitalist modernity is clear more than ever in the 21st century. Many Philosophers as far as back in the 19th century already projected this phenomenon. Alienation is more perceivable at most of cultural and symbolic forms shaped by capitalist modes of production on which high technology becomes a fundamental factor within social life. The worse is that this alienation is not anymore directly and explicitly manifested as we’d have said, for example, in 19th century’s industrial Europe, but it’s fundamentally present in the context of the material fulfillment and “individual freedom” that the contemporary world presents us. Deep within consumerism, hyperreality, advertising and individualism lies a profound nihilization of society excersized by new ways of commodities’ fetishism and human commodification disguised as freedom. I personally believe Khrushchev’s argument to be true in the sense that mankind’s fulfillment will never be achieved under the logic of an axiomatic production-consumption-based society filled with inequalities and artificial needs, but by one on which we may overcome the utilitarian metric that’s governing our lives during late capitalism. With this, I’m not saying that Soviet citizens weren’t equally alienated from state totalitarianism, but at least the explicit modes of oppression they lived made them more likely to realize the need for social struggle than what it comparatively is for people on western democracies.

    It’s up to us to be brave enough to critically assess the human condition after freeing ourselves from these silent modes of coercion.

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