Socialist Worker

How Austria flipped phase

Issue No. 1686


How Austria flipped phase

By Alex Callinicos

I REMEMBER talking a couple of years ago to an Austrian socialist. She described how quiet and conservative Austrian society was, how little affected it had been by the storms sweeping other European countries such as France and Germany. Well, the storm has certainly hit Austria now. There's a general lesson in this. Austria represents a particularly extreme case of what has been the experience of many, particularly north European, societies since the Second World War. The Long Boom of the 1950s and 1960s was a general era of economic prosperity and social peace throughout the advanced capitalist world.

Internationally this era came to an end in the late 1960s with the return of economic crises, the impact of the Vietnam War and the explosion of mass struggles. But this shift affected some Western countries more than others. Social and political instability was much greater in southern than northern Europe. West Germany, for example, was hit by the student radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s but did not experience the greater workers' struggles seen in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal-and even Britain.

Austria was even more insulated from these upheavals. It evolved the same system of corporate bargaining between the state, big business, and organised labour that served to contain class conflict in West Germany from the 1950s onwards. But this system was taken even further in Austria. Almost permanent coalition government between the main parties of right and left, respectively the People's and Social Democratic parties, meant that public sector jobs were shared out on the basis of party connections.

Austria also benefited economically from its status of neutrality in the Cold War, and from its strategic position between rich north western Europe and the poorer, Stalinist-ruled societies of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent a few weeks in Vienna in the late 1980s. It struck me as a complacent petty bourgeois city living off its past glories. A nastier side lurked not far from the surface. I was shocked to discover a square dedicated to Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. Hitler was a great admirer of his.

And now the world has changed. The Cold War is over and the Eurasian continent has entered a new era of instability. Austria, along with other formerly neutral states such as Sweden and Finland, took refuge in the European Union (EU). But the EU has proved to be no safe haven. Under severe competitive pressure from the United States and East Asia, the European ruling classes have used economic and monetary union to slash social spending. But in attacking the welfare state they have also weakened one of the pillars of the system of social bargaining that helped to prevent class conflict from getting out of control.

This process was at work in Germany throughout the 1990s. From being the cement of European capitalism, an increasingly divided German society has become a source of instability throughout the EU. The same forces have now hit Austria. One reason why the conservative People's Party decided to form a coalition with J�rg Haider's far-right Freedom Party was that the People's Party leader, Wolfgang Sch�ssel, wants to push through a programme of spending cuts.

The trade unions, which form a key segment of the Social Democrats' base, rejected this package. So coalition negotiations between the old ruling parties broke down, and Sch�ssel turned to Haider. Long-established structures of political and social bargaining, which served Austrian capitalism well for more than a generation, are thus cracking under the strains produced by larger economic forces.

Austria also shows that this kind of breakdown of traditional structures need not be a gradual process. You can have instead what natural scientists call a phase transition, when a system suddenly flips from one state to another, radically different, one. This is what has happened in Austria. An apparently stable social order suddenly became a bitterly polarised society ravaged by conflict and uncertainty. This is an indication that profound contradictions lurked beneath the surface in the earlier phase. One thing is for sure. This is not a peculiarly Austrian condition. If Austria can undergo such a dramatic phase transition, it can happen anywhere.

The important question is who is best placed politically to respond to this situation. Hitler as a fascist thrived on crisis, and was able to seize the opportunity offered by the collapse of the Weimar Republic. The German left, by contrast, was too complacent to anticipate and respond effectively to such a dramatic change in the situation. To win today, socialists have to understand that we live in a world that can at any moment flip into a state of emergency.

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Sat 4 Mar 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1686
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