A cortege of pantomime bankers in black suits and masks led tens of thousands of marchers—steel workers and coal miners from Germany, shipbuilders from Poland and office workers from Belgium—through the streets of Brussels yesterday in a demonstration called by the European Trade Union Confederation against cuts and austerity measures. There were coordinated protests in more than a dozen other countries, including France, Greece, Portugal, Latvia, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania. Spain’s trade unions staged a general strike against the socialist government of José Luis Zapatero, which has forced through deep cuts to avoid a bailout like the one sought by Greece. Angry protesters demanded that bankers and speculators pay the price for the crisis they have triggered; John Monks, general secretary of the ETUC, took a more moderate tone, asking that national debts be rescheduled to avoid a deeper, pan-European recession.

It was an impressive show; but while the protesters chanted, waved banners and set fire to the odd car, the European Commission was announcing a tough new schedule of fines and penalties for Eurozone countries that run too-large debts or deficits. By conviction or by force, the governments of Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands have all embraced the new anti-Keynesian orthodoxy, rushing to reassure “the markets” through biting austerity measures. Like true believers everywhere, they remain deaf to protest and to evidence that draining the patient of blood may not be the best way to cure an ailing economy.

In Britain (notwithstanding recent praise from the IMF) the economic outlook has deteriorated sharply since the second quarter this year; spending has fallen, as have credit flows. In Spain, unemployment is at 20 percent. In Ireland, in spite of tough fiscal measures, long-term interest rates are going up, because financiers believe that poor growth prospects put deficit reduction at risk. (The BBC estimates today that a third of the Irish economy has gone into bailing out the banks.) But the argument of no alternative is parroted by those (like Britain’s Tories) who see the cuts as a Trojan horse to dismantle the welfare state and those (like Greece’s socialist prime minister George Papandreou) whose hands are tied by Brussels and the banks. Economists from Joseph Stiglitz to George Soros have argued instead for investment and recapitalisation. Where are the European leaders wiling to challenge the dictatorship of the markets?