Today we would like to introduce you to the next group of papers, investigating how the austerity discourses, translated into policies and laws in the context of the recent crises and how it affected EU and Turkey democracies and citizens’ rights. The first paper analyses the findings of a series of case studies conducted in Austria, Hungary, The Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey and the United Kingdom. In order to understand the justice, or injustice, experienced by marginalised groups in society we opted to include grassroots movements and their non-institutionalised discourses. A central goal was to learn about their specific conditions and obstacles, but also to listen to their views about European policies and the European future in the context of redistributive justice.

‘Economizing on justice’ in action – mechanisms that impede distributive justice

Castro Caldas shows a trend among economists to ‘economize on justice’: economists often see their discipline as a value-free science, indifferent to or even adverse to redistributive justice claims. This trend, we argue, has detrimental practical implications for the realization of social justice. Castro Caldas argues that reconciling the study of economy with justice may require a revival of political economy based on presently marginalized traditions, allowing for a fruitful cross-fertilization with other social sciences.

Before the crisis, and as expressed eloquently in the Lisbon Agenda, Europe wanted to stand out in the globalized world as an economy able to combine competitiveness with social cohesion. The European Social Model was an anchor for the active role of the state in ensuring some levels of social protection for the population. The 2008 crisis brought important changes, which are less apparent: in a first moment the EU put in place economic and social policies countering the notion of social investment and placing the Open Method of Coordination (OMC)[1] in suspension or in a secondary role. Since 2010, Europe has converged to a neoliberal vision on overcoming the crisis and promoting competitiveness, becoming increasingly aligned with international institutions such as the IMF in terms of structural adjustment and austerity measures.

The crisis and austerity measures however did not hit everyone in the same way, neither did the “one size fits all” character of the austerity and structural adjustment reforms. Countries were affected in different ways because of their different situations, but also because different levels of austerity and structural adjustment measures were adopted to counter the crisis.

Within countries the gap between the lower-paid and the higher-paid jobs deepened and so did the gap between the insiders with permanent work and social protection and those in precarious jobs and limited social protection, with flexicurity working only in a few countries. Some social groups were more affected by the crisis and austerity than others, namely women, young people and immigrants who all typically are already in a disadvantageous situation in the labour market and in the economy.

Distributive injustice meets representative injustice – tensions between conceptions of justice (who is being heard?)

It is hard to trust a democracy whose institutions insist on the idea that there are no choices to be made. António Casimiro Ferreira argues that fear and dystopism are key elements for the naturalization of what he calls the “austerity society” (Ferreira, 2011). Legitimacy by fear asserts itself as a mechanism for converting the narrative of austerity into a dominant political-social model, assuring the absolute priority of the moral values of economic and labour neoliberalism. Facing this reality young people became a vulnerable working mass that is available to accept almost anything in order to have a job. Plans for the future are put on hold and the survival in the present is a permanent struggle between precarious jobs and family help. The ideas of fear are very clearly expressed in the reports, though in different ways.

Although fear is many times paralyzing and leaves citizens vulnerable to populist discourses, the perception of injustice also led to public protests. A young and highly-educated European generation that grew up to realize that the European promises of democracy, rights and opportunities were losing their meaning, occupied the public sphere in order to be heard. Protests spread throughout Europe in the attempt to rescue a democracy which appears to be kidnapped by financial markets or a small group of what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the “intimate” civil society that benefits from them.[2] If European institutions and their leaders claimed that austerity was the only way and that national governments ruled according to that, protesters were not looking for solutions inside the current model, but wanted to discuss a new model of democracy, a model open to the voices of citizens and that takes those values declared in the European treaties and in the national constitutions seriously.

In its essence, the European project is a political project and not legal engineering, even though the legal institutions have played a crucial role in its development. Restoring the European project of citizenship, equality and solidarity cannot be achieved without the democratization of its political institutions.

Distributive injustice and representative injustice meet recognitive injustice (are there overexcluded groups?)

Economic injustice is not raised by chance. The global system brings together different forms of oppression and is simultaneously capitalist (resulting in class inequalities), sexist (resulting in gender inequalities) and colonialist (resulting in racism). Distributive and representative injustice are combined with recognitive injustice. To achieve distributive justice there is a need to recognize differences between citizens without hierarchizing them. There is a need to recognize not only women identities but also the fact that they face a patriarchal society and that inequality both in the private and public spheres results in economic inequalities (among other forms of inequalities). In the same way, it must be faced that minorities suffer structural racism that also results in economic inequalities (among other forms of inequalities).

The empirical work conducted in the national case studies made very clear how some groups were particularly affected by the economic crisis: women (extra burden compensating the welfare state deficit by assuming the work of the welfare society), older people (proportion of 55 years and older workers increases due to changes in retirement policies); young people (highly affected by the raising of unemployment, precarity and flexibility of labour market); persons with disabilities (supported by the welfare state in northern countries and mainly by welfare society in southern countries), migrants (occupation of the most insecure jobs – “uncivil” civil society); Roma (continued to be one of the poorest minorities in Europe – “uncivil” civil society). We watched the deepening of “uncivil” civil society exclusion and large parts of the strange civil society getting closer to the “uncivil” civil society.

As we mentioned the wave of protests that emerged in reaction to austerity were conducted against the social inequalities that ensured the privileges of the intimate civil society. A generation that grew up taking for granted the rights of citizenship reacted to the threat of those rights. However, Europe is a complex and diverse continent and there is more to say about inequalities. For a moment, the strange civil society had to claim what the citizens from the “uncivil” civil society were claiming many times without being heard.

We end up with an excerpt from a letter that shows the complexity of recognitive justice in Europe:

Letter to the European White Left:

We are writing these lines to you with Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Tupac Katari, Bartolina Sisa, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Malcolm X, Ali Shariati, Kwame Nkrumah, Steven Biko and all the other people whose struggle has preceded ours.

You might recognize some of these names, and you might know a bit about their struggle. We mention them here because we want to invite you to get thorough acquaintance with them, and with us […]. We are not writing this letter in order to impose anything on you. What we want, however, is to argue that your struggles – the strategic goal of ending Capitalism, Imperialism and Patriarchy – cannot be achieved without a strong political alliance with non-White peoples across European territories. And in our view, the main obstacle to this alliance is the epistemological blindness you exercise towards the racial divide between White oppressed people and non-White oppressed people […] [W]e intend to contribute to your struggles by explaining one of the fundamental issues that we think inhibits you – and us – to effect profound changes in our societies. We want to explain that our struggle is your struggle too. To understand this, it is important that you know that we are not leftist. We are the victims of those leftist politics and political views which, in essence, are no different from those of the political right. This is because both Right and Left share an idea of a ‘greater good’ that implies “democracy”, “humanism”, “anti-racism” and “gender-equality” that in fact is mobilized to dismantle our struggles. […] [W]e write as the victims of the White ideas of democracy and humanism, these tales that the dominant White capitalist/patriarchal world elites tell to invade our countries and legitimate paternalist practices in relation to our struggles. The tales by which they legitimate treating us as second-class citizens inside Europe […]. Throughout history they have worked to cover over the dark side of their ‘greater good’ so that even you, the European White Left, are supposed not to see it. The more they can sustain your blindness, the less effective your struggles will be. They want your struggles and our struggles to be in conflict, their interest is that we do not unite. And this is a serious problem. Frantz Fanon spoke about a global racial division between those who live racial privilege (even if oppressed) and those who are the victims of the racial privilege of the first (Grosfoguel and Suarez-Krabbe, 2013).


Caldas, José Castro (2017), “Economizing on Justice”, Ethos project, deliverable 6.1, available at https://www.ethos-europe.eu/sites/default/files//docs/economizing_on_justice.pdf.

Ferreira, António Casimiro (2011), “A sociedade de austeridade: Poder, medo e direito do trabalho de exceção”, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 95: 119-136.

Grosfoguel, Ramon; Suarez-Krabbe, Julia (Decoloniality Europe) (2013), “Letter to the European White Left”, Letters to the Europeans. Coimbra: Alice CES. Available at http://alice.ces.uc.pt/en/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Letter-to-the-europeans-Book.pdf

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2002); Toward a Legal Common Sense. London: Butterwords.


[1] The Open Method of Coordination (OMC) was a soft law instrument for achieving convergence in matters of working conditions, workers’ welfare and participation, labour market inclusion and equality.

[2] Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues that civil society is composed of three circles: intimate civil society, strange civil society, and uncivil civil society. The intimate civil society is a sphere of hyper-inclusion, i.e. citizens who have connections with the power of the State, who enjoy all their rights and have access to public resources far beyond what the policy of rights would guarantee them. The strange civil society consists of citizens who are moderately integrated, who can exercise their civic and political rights more or less freely, and who have but little access to social, economic and cultural rights. Lastly, the uncivil civil society is the outer circle, a lawless territory, where appropriation and violence rule. It is composed of the citizens who are excluded from the social contract, living in invisible areas. This last group is composed by those who are excluded from the social contract (Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2002. Toward a new legal common sense. London: Butterwords).


By Maria Paula Meneses, Sara Araújo, Sílvia Ferreira and Barbara Safradin
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D6.2
Find the full publication at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications