Category Archives: anti-cuts

Greece, Spain Portugal – the arc of resistance to austerity hardens

Gritos en cartones.

As Merkel, Cameron and the EU bosses tighten the screws on the working class of Europe, many Europeans are stepping up resistance. Murray Smith focuses on Greece, Spain and Portugal.

It sometimes seems as if Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has been going on forever. But in fact it really only manifested itself in 2010, a result of the bailing out of private banks with public money and other public spending due to the crisis. And in May of that year Greece became the first country to ask for help and to receive so-called “aid” – really, it cannot be repeated too often, loans that must be paid back – from the now infamous Troika IMF-ECB-European Commission. This aid was conditional on Greece adopting policies of austerity and structural reforms, all regularly supervised by those who have become known as the “men in black”, the inspectors of the Troika… In an article in the Guardian on October 8, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left coalition Syriza, makes two key points. First of all, the money lent to Greece goes into an escrow account used for repaying past loans and interest on them and for recapitalizing private banks. It cannot be used otherwise, for example for useful social spending. Secondly he writes: “we believe that their aim is not to solve the debt crisis but to create a new regulatory framework throughout Europe that is based on cheap labour, deregulation of the labour market, low public spending and tax exemptions for capital”. That about sums it up. Greece became the guinea-pig for these policies. It would soon be followed by Ireland and Portugal, who also applied for bailouts within a year. But Alexis Tsipras was right to say “throughout Europe”. The Financial Times on October 2 revealed the existence of a draft agenda already circulated to EU governments that “would require all 17 eurozone members to sign on to the kinds of Brussels-approved policy programmes and timelines now negotiated only with bailout countries”.

Those may be the plans that Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt have for the whole of Europe, and we can see everywhere that that is the direction in which things are going. But for the moment they are only being applied in such  a brutal fashion in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and also in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy, two countries which may in their turn have to apply for aid from the Troika. It is therefore important to look not just at the effects on those countries but especially at how their peoples have been able to resist. From this point of view the countries that we will look at are Greece, Spain and Portugal. It would take much too long to describe in detail the hundreds of strikes, demonstrations and occupations that have taken place in those countries and indeed in others.  But in the course of this year, and even particularly this autumn, resistance seems to have taken on a new scale and a new dynamic is some countries. We are seeing the development of an ongoing, permanent mass movement, in Greece and Spain certainly and perhaps also in Portugal.

Greece

Greece is unquestionably the country that has suffered most from the policies of the Troika, aided and abetted, it must be said, by successive Greek governments.  It is easy to cite the basic figures: 24 per cent unemployment, 55 per cent youth unemployment, wages and pensions reduced by around a third, deep cuts in education and health. It is also necessary to be aware of the daily human consequences, children going hungry, lack of medicines, homelessness, a dramatic rise in the number of suicides. These policies are accompanied by a massive propaganda offensive, seeking both to convince the population hat it is responsible for the deficits and has to make sacrifices and to instill fear of the international consequences of any policies that would break from the dominant neo-liberal mould. Clearly, for large parts of the population this discourse no longer works, people no longer believe it. And as popular opposition increases the government imposes its policies in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive fashion. And alongside the growth in support for the radical Left, there is the emergence of Golden Dawn, a genuinely neo-Nazi formation that is now, according to polls, supported by 12 per cent of Greeks.

In the three countries we are considering, where does the opposition come from, how is it structured? In fact in each country we have seen three sources of resistance, not in the same proportions: the trade unions, the parties of the radical Left (to the left of social democracy), autonomous movements of young people.

Greek Movement

Opposition in Greece began as soon as the country applied for a bailout, with a general strike called by the two main confederations GSEE (private sector) and ADEDY (public sector) on May 5, 2010. Since then there have been more than a dozen one-day general strikes and innumerable sectoral strikes. It is of course easy to criticize the trade union leaderships which do not go beyond such strikes and who for a long time remained tied to PASOK. Nevertheless these strikes objectively constitute one element of popular resistance. The second is constituted by mobilizations of youth, whose origins go back to at least 2008 and the killing by police of a young school student. Particularly under the impact of events in Spain (see below) this took on a particularly organized form in the summer and autumn of 2011, with occupations of squares. But it never took on the dynamic or the scale of the movement in Spain. One reason was certainly the role played by the radical anticapitalist Left. In the 2009 general election the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won respectively 7.54 and 4.6 per cent of the vote, compared to nearly 44 per cent for the victorious social-democrats of PASOK. Hardly enough to make the capitalists quake in their boots. A few months later Syriza (or more exactly, its main component, Synaspismos) suffered a split to the right, leading to the formation of the Democratic Left. However as the crisis progressed and austerity made itself felt, from the autumn of 2011  opinion polls began to show a level of support for the three parties of the radical Left of around 30 and sometimes nearly 40 per cent. Given the deep divisions between the three forces, these results repeated in a general election could just have provided one more example of the inability of the Left to unite. But these divisions were not some kind of genetic defect of the Left. They had political roots, in the mind-boggling sectarianism of the KKE and the orientation of DL to be a left pressure group on PASOK. And Syriza dealt with the question politically, developing an orientation that was both radical and unitary. Proposing a government of left forces committed to breaking with austerity and repudiating the agreements (memorandums) concluded with the Troika. Syriza thus emerged as far and away the dominant force to the left of PASOK and the KKE and DL paid the price for their political positions. In the May elections Syriza became the second political force in the country, with over 16 per cent. Now the capitalists were really quaking in their boots. The full battery of European institutions and governments was deployed to campaign against the danger of a Syriza victory in June, a danger narrowly avoided, as Syriza, with nearly 27 per cent, came a close second to the right-wing New Democracy.  It is worth looking at the extent of Syriza’s support as revealed in that election. It was the biggest party among all those aged 18-54 (45.5 per cent in the 18-24 age group) and among workers of both public and private sectors, the unemployed, students and the self-employed. Not surprisingly Syriza was the first party in all the working-class areas, especially in Greater Athens, which has almost half the country’s population. It is also important to note that as PASOK’s support melted away (12.28 per cent in June) and the party began to implode many activists joined Syriza, including MPs and trade unionists. Similarly, the KKE which had taken 8.48 per cent in May and refused even to talk to Syriza dropped to 4.5 per cent. Syriza, which was established in 2004 as a coalition, is now engaged in a process that should lead to it becoming a party next year.

Syriza

The existence of a force as representative as Syriza, a political alternative to the fragile coalition government, is the fundamental fact of Greek politics, and what makes the situation there different from any other country in Europe. Of course, if people were just sitting back and waiting to vote for Syriza in the next election, that would be a problem. But that is hardly case. The growth of Syriza is taking place in a context of ongoing mobilization. September 26 saw the latest (and the first since the elections) one-day general strike, with a demonstration of 100,000 in Athens and 15,000 in Salonika. The big battalions came from the public sector but there was a significant presence of the private sector, where to go on strike is much more likely to lead to workers being sacked. Even the employers’ organization recognized that 20 to 30 per cent of private sector workers joined the strike. And on October 8, in the face of an unprecedented police operation blocking off a large zone of Central Athens, thousands demonstrated against the visit of Angela Merkel.

Given the depth of the recession and the scale of the attacks, it is not inconceivable that the coalition government could fall – for example that its two weakest components, PASOK and DL, could be unable to keep their parties on board. Already cracks are emerging. On October 14 the Left Initiative current in PASOK demanded that the party quit the government. This in a context of negotiations with the Troika, which is now posing more demands, including increasing the working week from five to six days. The possibility of a left government led by Syriza is a real possibility. That would be an enormous step forward, but it would also be fraught with danger and difficulties. A left government would be subject to all sorts of economic and political sabotage and pressure, internally and externally. And Syriza is very conscious of the fact that at the present time there is no other country where the radical Left is in the same position as it.

New Movements

In Spain and Portugal, one of the main ways in which resistance has been expressed is through the appearance of new social-political movements organized by the young people who are among the main victims of austerity. This is an important development, which began in both countries in 2011. It is important, because young people are organizing themselves without waiting for parties or unions. But it should not be looked at in isolation or elevated into a panacea. In fact if we look at the recent mobilizations in Spain and Portugal we will see that unions and parties are involved, as well as the new movements.

Although Spain is not yet in the situation of receiving a bailout, the general opinion is that it will soon find itself in that situation. We could sum it up by saying that the economics (banks, sovereign debt) add up to such an eventuality, but Spanish politics militate against it, the Rajoy government being manifestly reluctant to be saved, that is to have conditions imposed and supervised by the Troika. In this respect Spain is actually no different from the three bail-out countries, all of whom resisted being saved for as long as possible. The reason is simple: when the men in black arrive to dictate austerity measures and structural reforms, it is electoral and social poison and it has already led to governments falling in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. It is not that the governments in question actually object to austerity and reforms, they simply want to do them in their own way in terms of their own national situation. Greece is already in a situation of limited independence, of being an EU protectorate. Portugal is moving towards the same situation. On the other hand international politics, the pressure of the EU the ECB and of course the markets are pushing Spain towards a bail-out, whose first and principal aim is to guarantee the repayment of loans and interest on them.

Spanish Crisis

If this happens to Spain it will exacerbate an already tense social and political crisis. Spain has already gone a long way in applying austerity policies and reforms. They began under the Socialist government of Zapatero in 2010 and have been continued and accentuated since the victory of Rajoy and the right-wing Popular Party in the November 2011 elections. The first striking result was the appearance in May 2011 of the indignados or M 15 movement, a movement of young people clearly related to Greek-style levels of unemployment (over 50 per cent for young people) and no prospects On May 15, operating via social networks, hundreds of thousands of young people occupied squares in towns and cities all over Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. These occupations lasted for weeks while the indignados worked out their ideas. Finally they evacuated the squares and fanned out to engage in local campaigns. The movement was not linked to any political party. It would however be completely inaccurate to describe it as apolitical. It criticized not only the social and economic policies of the government but the limitations of the two-party system in Spain, demanding “real democracy” and produced positive proposals. These were expressed notably in a remarkable 16-point document adopted by the Madrid assembly in Puerta Del Sol on June 5, 2012.

Indignados

The indignados never went away. They mobilized for the international day of action on October 15, 2011 and again in May 2012 on the first anniversary of the movement. But the focus shifted as the trade unions began to move. It has to be said that the role of the union leaderships in the first period of the crisis, under the Zapatero government, was less than glorious. But after the victory of the Right they began to move, with mass demonstrations in February and a general strike on March 29. As the unions came to the fore, the M 15 was part of the mobilizations, albeit with a definite distrust of the union leaders.

On July 19, the two main union confederations, the CC.OO and UGT, called another strike, involving smaller unions and social movements in its organization. A massive 3.5 million people demonstrated across the country. The July 19 strike had been preceded by the March for Dignity of the Asturian coal miners fighting to defend their mines and jobs, from the Asturias to Madrid. This autumn saw a new wave of mobilization, starting with a demonstration in Madrid of 500,000 people on September 15. Then an initiative came from the M15 movement, or rather from what appear to be radical spin-offs from it, Coordinadora 25S and Plataforma En Pie! (“Stand Up!”) On three successive evenings, on 25-26-27 September, up to 50,000 demonstrators tried to encircle the Parliament, calling for the resignation of the government and declaring “democracy kidnapped”. There were violent clashes with police. A mass demonstration took place the following Saturday, September 29.  On September 26 there was a general strike called by the Basque trade unions (linked to the Basque national movement, not part of the Spanish confederations). Unlike on March 29, the strike was not backed by the CC.OO and the UGT, so it was unevenly supported, depending on the sectors and workplaces. However the demonstrations were massive, with a high participation of young people. Further demonstrations took place all over Spain on October 7. Another one-day general strike is envisaged for November 14, the same day chosen by the Portuguese unions.

Portugal

In Portugal, the first signs of autonomous movement among young people were seen even earlier than in Spain. On March 12, 2011 demonstrations against precarious work organized on Facebook brought 300,000 people into the streets, 200,000 of them in Lisbon. A week before, the organizers had hoped for a demonstration of 10,000…But subsequently there was a downturn in mobilization. In April 2011 Portugal applied for a bailout and a few weeks later elections brought a right-wing government to power committed to carrying out the terms of an agreement with the Troika. The Socialists, now in opposition, also backed the agreement. The two forces to the left of the SP, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc fared badly in the elections. The PCP held its vote stable, but the Left Bloc lost half its votes and half its seats. Since then there have certainly been protests – two one-day general strikes, big demonstrations. But not on the scale of Greece or even Spain. Overall, up until recently a large section of the Portuguese people accepted austerity with a certain resignation, helped by an ongoing campaign in the media about how necessary austerity was and how things would soon get better. That all changed dramatically on September 15.  A national demonstration was called by a collective of 29 people. Word went out via social media in the same way as for the demonstrations in March 2011 and the M15 in Spain. The result was a million demonstrators across a series of Portuguese cities on September 15, including 500,000 in Lisbon – the biggest demonstration there since May 1 1974, a few days after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. The reason for the breakthrough was a measure that had been announced in the government’s latest austerity package on September 7. It provided a particularly clear expression of who the government was helping and who it was hurting. The measure envisaged deducting an extra 7 per cent in social security contributions from workers’ salaries and simultaneously reducing employers’ contributions by 5.75 per cent. This was described by one observer as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The government was forced to withdraw the measure but has announced new tax increases to replace it. But the genie is out of the bottle and since then there have been fresh protests.

Spain – Regions and Nations

In terms of the social situation, Spain is only comparable to Greece, which explains the scale of the ongoing mobilizations. But the crisis is also laying bare the country’s political fault lines. In particular it is underlining the limits of what is called the “Transition”, the period from the death of Franco in 1975 until the adoption of a new constitution in 1978. In at least three spheres: the national question (limited autonomy, no right to self-determination), the amnesty law (no prosecution for crimes committed by the Franco dictatorship), the question of democracy (no republic, but a “parliamentary monarchy”). Spain came out of the Transition with a considerable degree of decentralization, powers devolved to the regions. But the term “regions” covers the historic Basque, Catalan and Galician nations, regions with a strong identity like Andalusia, and ordinary Spanish provinces which were not even demanding the devolution they got. In fact the whole operation was an attempt to make granting statutes of (limited) autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country acceptable to the Spanish Right by wrapping it up in a general process of decentralization. The reality was however that both nations got rights in excess of those given to the Spanish regions. The Basques, but not the Catalans, got a statute of autonomy with the right to control their own tax revenues.

Under cover of the role of the regions in the overall deficit the Rajoy government is trying to recentralize, to repatriate powers to Madrid. But this is not just an economic issue. There is an offensive against Catalan identity and language, with provocative declarations from Spanish politicians, for example the Minister of Education talking about the need to “Hispanicize” Catalonia. The Catalan response was a massive pro-independence march of 1.5 million people in Barcelona on September 11, Catalan National Day. Faced with no concessions from Madrid the Catalan government has called a snap election for November 25 which may give them a mandate for a referendum on independence. The present Catalan government is certainly not on the left and applies its own austerity policies. It is also reluctant in its support of independence. But it is being pushed forward by the mass movement. And other, left independentist currents are developing and will stand in the elections. The national question is likely to become even sharper after regional elections on October 21 where the left independentists of EH Bildu are seeking to repeat their success in last year’s local elections in the Basque country. Even in the more conservative Galicia, an alliance between the local Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) and a new movement ANOVA, which has been described as the “Galician Syriza” may make a modest breakthrough.

Spain is heading for a political and constitutional crisis and all the chickens of the half-baked Transition are coming home to roost. Not only is the government of the Popular Party, which was of course founded by former Francoists, revealing its deep-seated Spanish chauvinism, but officers of the Spanish armed forces, who under the Amnesty Law of 1977 were never pursued for crimes against humanity committed under the Franco regime, are making threatening declarations. Leading right-wing politicians are demanding that the statute of autonomy be suspended and the Civil Guard sent into Catalonia and the association of retired officers is threatening Catalan politicians with being tried by military tribunals for high treason.

In Portugal the situation is quite different in that respect, due to the way the dictatorship was overthrown by a revolution in 1974, the role the army played in it and the heritage of a revolution that, although it was prevented from becoming the socialist revolution many of its participants wanted, has left serious trace in Portuguese society. Thus, on 14 September, 2012, the Officers Association of the Portuguese Armed Forces (AOFA) adopted a declaration which affirmed that “‘the military can never be an instrument of repression for their fellow citizens, because according to the Constitution we swore to defend them”. It went on to make very sharp criticisms of government policies, difficult to imagine on the part of serving officers in most other countries.

Radical Left

The level of mobilization in Spain is fast approaching Greek levels, and hopefully resistance in Portugal will now grow stronger. The situation of the radical Left is obviously less advanced than in Greece, but far from marginal. In Portugal an opinion poll in September showed the PCP on 13 per cent and the Left Bloc on 11 per cent, a big improvement on 2011. Considering that relations between the two parties seem to be improving, that could be the beginning of a serious alternative. Furthermore relations, between the new social movement and the parties seem not so bad; several of the 29 people who made the call for the September 15 demonstration are Left Bloc members. On this level, things are more problematic in Spain. The United Left doubled its vote in  2011 compared to the previous elections and has now pretty much doubled again in opinion polls, at 12-13 per cent. It has sought to open out and had some success in collaborating with the M15; some figures from the movement stood on the IU lists in the 2011 elections, at least one being elected. However, the evolution of some sectors of the M15 towards what may be the beginning of political organizations may mean that developments on the left will be more complicated in Spain.

This article has dealt with three countries, which are the most advanced at this point. But of course that does not cover the whole scenario. Movements of resistance are weaker in Ireland and Italy, for reasons that can be understood in each case, but they exist and the situation could change quickly, particularly in Italy. Nor have we dealt with the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, where not only are austerity policies being applied in many countries, but there have been important movements of resistance, notably in Romania and the Czech Republic. One country however that deserves to be mentioned is France, where we may be seeing the lull before the storm. President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government are coming under increasing pressure to renege on their election promises and fall into line by applying austerity policies and labour and pension reforms. The odds are that they will gradually give in to these pressures. In this situation it is not unimportant that there is a strong opposition on the left. The Left Front, which had won four million votes in the presidential election, launched in September a campaign against France signing the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, usually called the Fiscal Pact, designed to set austerity in stone. This was a point on which Hollande had very clearly capitulated, in spite of his election promise not to sign the pact unless it was renegotiated. On September 30, 80,000 people demonstrated in Paris against France signing – a front involving not just the Left Front but other political forces, including the NPA, and dozens of trade unions and associations. The Greens, who are part of the government, decided to vote against and most of their MPs did so, as of course did the Left Front MPs. Very significantly, so did 20 Socialist MPs, 9 more abstaining, in spite of huge pressure from the party leadership.  The significance of the fact that the first national movement of opposition to a decision of the Socialist government came from the left was not lost on the political world or the bourgeois media. It augurs well for the future.

Greece – the mirror of Europe’s future?

Murray Smith looks at the crisis in Greece and what it means for Europe.

Solidarity with Greece

On February 21, the second Greek “bail-out” was agreed by the Troika (1). The draconian conditions attached to it included:

– the minimum wage to be reduced by 22 per cent, from 740 to 590 euros (470 net). For young workers under 25 the reduction will amount to 32 per cent;

– the sacking of 150,000 public sector workers (out of a total of 750,000) over the next three years; in addition four out of five workers who retire will not be replaced;

– all pensions to be cut by 15 per cent, those above 1000 euros by 20 per cent;

– cuts in health spending amounting to a billion euros;

– 1.5 billion dollars of cuts in the education budget; already in 2010-11 the number of teachers was reduced by 10 per cent and over 1,000 schools have been closed;

– demands for 15 billion euros of privatizations.

 

These conditions were accepted by the Greek parliament and concretized in a series of votes beginning on February 12. They come on top of the measures already agreed as a result of the 2010 bail-out.  In fact, this is the eighth austerity programme in little over two years. Unemployment is now 21 per cent, twice the euro zone average, and youth unemployment has just passed the 50 per cent mark (51.1 per cent) (2) In other words, more young people between 15 and 24 are unemployed than working. This is unprecedented in Greece, and probably in Europe since 1945.

Recession

As a result of these policies, the country is now in recession for the fifth year running and permanent austerity means it is likely to remain so. Apart from the human cost, the loss of state revenues means that the proclaimed objective, of reducing the debt, is virtually unattainable. Secondly we are witnessing something close to a collapse of the social or welfare state. This is not a mechanical result of “the crisis”, but the consequence of conscious political policies choices made over the last two years by the Troika and the governments of the EU and in particular the eurozone – with very little resistance from Greek governments. These policies can be defined in two stages, not consecutive but overlapping. First of all there is the policy of austerity, meant to reduce public debt by cutting public spending, which involves the kind of savage cuts listed above.

Secondly, there is the application of a series of thoroughgoing economic and social reforms, or rather counter-reforms.  The cutting edge of these reforms is aimed at cheapening the cost of labour. The kind of wage cuts involved in the austerity programmes help, but they have to be backed up by more structural reforms: in particular weakening of job security by making it easier to sack workers and instituting wage bargaining at workplace level in place of collective agreements by industry. The insistence on deregulating many professions, from fairly well-off doctors, lawyers and pharmacists to taxi and lorry drivers, which may seem odd to people in other countries, fits into the general schema. The aim is to open up these professions and trades to capitalist firms in order to reduce the number of self-employed workers and replace them by wage workers. This represents an important sector of society in Greece, as it does also, for example, in Italy, where Monti’s attempts at deregulation have met serious opposition

The German Model

Up to now the brunt of these policies has fallen on the countries of the so-called periphery – those who have already received bail-outs (Greece, Portugal, Ireland) and two heavily indebted major countries, Spain and Italy. But the policies of cheapening labour costs, cutting the size of the public sector, privatizations, reducing welfare benefits and pension reform are meant for everywhere, and indeed are applied to various degrees in other countries. In this respect it is worth mentioning Germany, which is generally considered to be prosperous and is held up as a model by other countries, notably by Nicolas Sarkozy in the campaign for the presidential election in France. But a model of what? Not of the Welfare State and high wages – that lies in the past. What Germany is for Sarkozy and his peers is a model of competitiveness. This is the result of a transformation of the labour market that took place essentially under the social-democratic/Green government of Gerhard Schroeder (1998-2005), in particularly the Agenda 2010 programme and the Hartz Laws, enacted from 2003 to 2005 to deregulate and flexibilise the labour market and reduce social benefits – especially for the unemployed, to encourage, indeed force them to work for a pittance. The results are far from the image of a happy, prosperous Germany. The purchasing power of 80 per cent of workers has fallen by an average of 2.5 per cent since 2000, and much more for precarious workers. There is no minimum wage: 12 million Germans live below the poverty line (15 per cent of the population, including 70 per cent of the unemployed) – 500,000 of them are in full-time work; 7 million people live on the equivalent of Income Support. There are many more such statistics, and they prove that Germany is no model for the working classes of other countries, and that there are no exceptions to the plans that Europe’s leaders have for the European working class.

False argument of Austerity

The backdrop to the present situation is that we are today in the fifth year of an international crisis, financial and economic, and no one knows how or when it will end. Fundamentally it is a crisis of a model of accumulation centred for 25 years on the dominance of finance capital and a model of growth increasingly based on debt – of households, banks, states,. This house of cards began to collapse with the subprime crisis in 2007 and the interpenetration of the financial system and the multiplication of opaque financial instruments led to the European banks being sharply affected in their turn, creating the credit crunch, pushing the economy into recession and leading to costly plans for saving the banks with public money.

The whole argumentation in favour of austerity rests on the idea that the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is a result of excessive public spending. It is nothing of the sort. This opinion is not confined to the anti-capitalist Left. You can find it frequently in the pages of the financial press, for example in the Financial Times of March 9, 2012. Writing about the new fiscal treaty (see below), Alan Beattie, the paper’s international economy editor, writes: “The mainstay of the new framework is a fiscal pact that enshrines a misdiagnosis – that the crisis was all to do with profligate governments, not reckless lending and credit bubbles”.

In fact the sovereign debt crisis is a direct result of the money spent in 2008-09 to bail out the banks and more generally to inject liquidity into the economy. We might add that this came on top of a long-term diminution of revenue due to lowering taxes on the wealthy and on companies, an integral part of the neoliberal model.

The figures confirm this. Between 2007 and 2010 sovereign debt in the euro zone increased by 26 per cent, from 66 to 83.6 per cent of the zone’s GDP. But in Spain it increased by 72.1 per cent (from 36.2 per cent to 62.3) and in Ireland it rose from 25 per cent to 79.7, an increase of 218.8 per cent. (Source: Eurostat). Those two countries had in 2007 the lowest public debt among the eleven major countries of the euro zone. So the explosion of their public debt was not a cause of the crisis but an effect.

Bail Out

The second element of the programme, the structural reforms, may well be very desirable from a capitalist point of view. But the so-called rigidities and entitlements that they are meant to correct have nothing to do with the sovereign debt crisis and will not act to combat it.

Nor, specifically in the case of Greece, but it applies to other countries, will the much-trumpeted bail-out. In the first place, the bail-out is not a gift, though it is generally presented as such. It is a loan, with interest, and not the ultra-low one per cent interest at which the BCE lends to banks. Much emphasis has been put on the losses that have been imposed on private creditors. In fact, they got quite a good deal (3). They got rid of fairly worthless bonds, and obtained new ones, issued under English law, not Greek, and thus much harder for the Greek government to default on. Plus a cash payment worth 15 per cent of their initial holding. The Greek state has indeed had 107 billion euros wiped off its debt – but it has just accepted a bail-out loan of 130 billion euros. The immediate effect of the whole operation will be to reduce Greek public debt from 161 per cent to 159 per cent of GDP. And of the 130 billion euros of the bail-out, 30 billion will go in cash payments to those creditors who have agreed to exchange their old bonds for new ones, 35 billion more to buy back another part of the debt, and 25 billion will go to recapitalize the Greek banks – a total of 94 billion euros. Not much left for anything else. Theoretically, the end result is meant to be a level of public debt of 120 per cent of GDP in 2020. This is, as they say, a political figure, not based on verifiable economic reality. The reality is that Greece is still in recession, shows no sign of coming out of it, and is still highly indebted, but now most of the debt is owed to public bodies like the ECB, the IMF and European governments. And make no mistake about it, those bodies, and the remaining private creditors are making sure that any money that Greece receives Greece will go in priority to paying the interest on it.

The Working Class Will Pay

If it is so easy, including for bourgeois commentators, to punch holes in Merkelogic, why are the European leaders doing what they are doing? Well, there may well be an element of stupidity and ideological blinkers. But there is also a purpose to what is happening.

At a very basic level, from the beginning, as the crisis exploded in 2008, as far as the ruling classes were concerned the question of who was going to pay for it was a no-brainer – the answer was working people, ordinary people, pensioners, young people. Whether by cuts in social spending, tax increases, especially VAT, attacks on the public sector (wage cuts, lay-offs) or cuts in pensions.

But beyond the simple fact of who pays for the crisis lay the much more important idea of how to use the crisis. Emma Marchegaglia, president of the Italian employers’ association Confindustria, known as Italy’s Iron Lady, put it very clearly in 2009 when she urged the then Italian government “not to waste a good crisis”. Since then the same point has been made many times. And it is what inspires the thinking of Europe’s leaders.

Of course, none of what they are doing is entirely new. For more than 25 years there have been constant attacks, coordinated already on a European level. It was a sign that the European social model was proving too costly for the ruling class. But it was a war of attrition, with advances and sometimes retreats under popular pressure. Now what is underway is a frontal assault. In the intentions of the ruling class, there will be no going back. Whereas governments fall over themselves to point out that the banks they had to nationalize in the heat of the crisis will be privatized re as soon as feasible, no such guarantees are given in relation to the attacks on the public sector. The cuts in personnel and budgets are meant to be permanent, to pave the way for privatization of sectors like health and education. Pension reform has little to do with the real problem of an ageing population, for which solutions could be found in other sources of revenue. The reforms are situated in a medium-term perspective of phasing out state pensions for all but the very poorest and developing private pension funds (4). As for the reforms concerning the labour market they are what it says on the tin – structural. The aim is to cheapen the cost of Labour so that European capital will be competitive on a world scale.

Euro Zone

The sovereign debt crisis does not only affect the euro zone, as Britain demonstrates. But there is a specific crisis of the euro zone. A structural crisis that was latent since the creation of the single currency, but was unleashed by the sovereign debt crisis. It is possible to form a monetary union comprising countries with different levels of economic development and productivity. But on condition that action is taken to reduce these inequalities, which implies harmonizing not only questions of budget and tax but also prices, wages and social benefits. Which is not what has been done, far from it. It is incoherent to loudly proclaim your determination to go towards a federal Europe, towards economic and political union while refusing to correct these inequalities of development. Not to mention the problem of a (European) Central Bank which isn’t one, since it is forbidden by the Lisbon Treaty to lend to member states. The ECB is in fact an agency in the service of the financial markets, which has in the last three months lent over a trillion euros to banks at a rate of one per cent. Some of the money at least is being used to buy government debt at much higher rates of return. So far not much of it has found its way to the productive economy.

In the absence of a policy based on solidarity, it has been a case of the weakest to the wall. When countries have fallen victim to bursting bubbles, banking crises or accumulated deficits, the markets have taken advantage of the crisis to extort astronomic rates of interest and have driven three – for the moment – countries into accepting bail-outs.

Greece

Whereas Ireland and Spain were hit by the collapse of the property market and banking crises, Greece (and Italy) already had large deficits in 2007. Greece has a particular history. From 1946 it went through a civil war, followed by lasting repression against the Left and the workers’ movement by an authoritarian parliamentary regime and finally the seven-year dictatorship of the colonels from 1967 to 1974. It was therefore only after that that Greece acquired a welfare state, established modestly by the centre-right government from 1974 and more energetically by PASOK in its long period in power after 1981. Greece thus acquired the basis of a social-democratic welfare state at a time when the model was under attack just about everywhere else. This of course increased public spending. But the real problem was that not only did the big bourgeoisie not pay taxes (the Greek Communist Party estimates that Greek capitalists have salted away 600 billion euros, nearly twice the state debt, in Swiss banks). The middle classes also lived pretty well tax free. This was not simply, as it is generally portrayed, “tax evasion”. It was the maintenance of a system, a social contract between successive Greek regimes and the upper and middle classes who constituted its social base. PASOK left this system untouched. Public debt increased as Greece borrowed money from, especially, French and German banks, and used much of the credit to buy arms. Between 2005 and 2009 Greece bought 25 Mirage-2000 jets from France and 26 F-15 fighters from the USA.  That represented 40 per cent of the country’s total imports in the period (5).

Greece negotiated its way into the euro zone by massaging the level of its public debt with the help of Goldman Sachs, who are reputed to have made 600 billion euros out of the operation – with the cooperation of Lucas Papademos, then governor of the Greek Central Bank, now the country’s technocratic Prime Minister. But public debt remained high and it exploded in 2008-09 when the Greek government, like those elsewhere, chose to bail out the banks, just as the flow of cheap credit the country had been living on dried up. Reliable figures published by Eurostat in 2010 showed that Greece’s deficit for the year 2009 was 15.4 per cent of GDP, while its public debt came to 127 per cent of GDP. The supposed limits for the eurozone are respectively 3 per cent and 60 per cent, though in the aftermath of 2008, and even before, they were widely breached.

EU Tramples Democracy

As well as serving as a guinea pig for extreme austerity and structural reforms, Greece, like Italy, has also exemplified the attacks on democracy that now mark the EU. The EU itself is in fact an extremely undemocratic hierarchical construction, governed by the European Commission and the European Council, neither of which is elected and neither controlled by the European Parliament, which is elected but has limited powers. However, up until now the member states have had governments that are responsible before elected parliaments, even though the powers of those parliaments have been gradually whittled away by European directives, European law taking precedence over national laws.

That is changing under the pressure of the crisis. The most striking examples are in Italy and Greece, where Berlusconi and Papandreou were driven from office under EU pressure. In Italy the Berlusconi government was replaced by a government headed by former European Commissioner Mario Monti and composed entirely of technocrats – non-party people – though supported by a majority in parliament. In Greece PASOK Prime Minister Papandreou was forced to resign last November for having committed the heinous crime of envisaging a referendum to see if the Greek people approved of his acceptance of EU diktats. Greece now has Papademos presiding over a coalition between the two main parties. In both cases a parliamentary rubber stamp cannot efface the fact that these governments have no popular mandate.

But the attacks on democracy go beyond that. It is now becoming systematic for the EU to ask for guarantees in advance of elections from all parties likely to be in government, promising to respect programmes of austerity and restructuring. And in fact when elections do take place, as in Portugal and Spain last year they are treated as an irritating intrusion, interfering with business as usual. There have even been suggestions (notably, and repeatedly, from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble) that elections in Greece, for the moment scheduled for April, should just be postponed for a year or eighteen months.

Of course most intelligent bourgeois analysts understand that it is better in general to have elected governments, because they have more legitimacy to rule. But they are finding that sometimes there are exceptions. This is entirely logical. Historically, capitalism has not usually been democratic outside Europe and North America, and even there, not always. In fact the association of democracy with capitalism is an ideologically useful by-product of Stalinism. There is always a tension, and sometimes an open contradiction, between capitalism, a system that rests on the exploitation of the majority of the population, and popular sovereignty. That can be masked in periods of relative prosperity. It is likely to become sharper in the coming period.

Stability Treaty

Equally, the latest Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, signed by 25 of the 27 EU member states on March 1st -2nd , is a blatant attempt to impose austerity and German fiscal rules on the EU, riding roughshod over national parliaments. In fact most of the measures in this treaty were already contained in the”euro plus” pact in March 2011 and the so-called “six-pack” of measures in October, including a series of sanctions against those who infringe the rules set down. The purpose of the Treaty is political, to set these policies in stone and to make it very difficult for future governments to escape from them by demanding that they be inscribed in national legislation, preferably by amending the constitution.

In the policies imposed by the EU and on the question of democracy Greece is indeed the mirror of the future. Not in the sense that in the short term the whole of Europe will become like Greece, or that events will unfold in the same way everywhere. It is however quite possible that we will see something very similar in Portugal and perhaps above all in Spain, which although not in receipt of a bail-out is imposing under European pressure  policies of austerity and structural reforms, pushing the country into recession and provoking a powerful wave of opposition from the population. Which is why Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced, with the ink scarcely dry on his signature of the above-mentioned Treaty, that he would not respect this year the deficit level agreed with Europe, explicitly asserting Spain’s sovereignty, to the consternation of his European colleagues.

Elsewhere in Europe the pressure is less acute, but if we look at the situation country by country, the extent to which measures have been applied and the speed and the intensity of the attacks may differ according to the national situation, but the direction is the same everywhere. Even in tiny Luxembourg, one of the smallest but the richest member state by per capita GDP, a reform of pensions is underway and the government is slowly but quite surely sapping the bases of the social consensus with the unions by attacking the cornerstone of the so-called ‘Luxembourg  model’, the indexation of wages on inflation. In France, if Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected he will launch a major offensive of austerity and structural reforms. If, as seems possible but not yet sure, Francois Hollande is elected he will come under considerable pressure to do likewise, the same sort of pressure that has already seen Socialist leaders buckle in Portugal, Greece and Spain.

Contagion

There was an audible sigh of relief in the financial world and in ruling class circles generally when Greece successfully negotiated the agreement with its private creditors, thus avoiding a disorderly default with unpredictable consequences for the international banking system. There were however few illusions that anything fundamental had been settled. It is just a matter of time until Greece needs a third bail-out. And a further write-down of debt is on the agenda. The titles of two articles in the Financial Times on March 13 summed up the prevailing sentiment: “Contagion from Greece still threatens single currency” and “Greek debt drama pauses for an interval”. Greece apart, it seems only a matter of time before Portugal needs a second bail-out, which would be financially feasible for the Troika. What really worries Europe’s leaders is the prospect of Italy or Spain requiring a bail-out, for which at present the financial resources, the so-called firewall, are not yet in place. And in spite of or because of German determination to steamroller the fiscal past through, more and more voices from within the ruling class are questioning the wisdom of such severe austerity, though not the structural reforms for which it prepares the way.

Resistance

The problem in Greece and elsewhere is that of an alternative to these policies. The argument reminiscent of Thatcher that “there is no alternative” (especially in the middle of a crisis, it is now added) may be overused. It nevertheless functions in the absence of a visible and credible alternative. There have been massive mobilizations – strikes, demonstrations, now occupations of workplaces – in Greece but also in Spain, Portugal, in France in 2010 and there will be more. This mass resistance is one part of the answer, a necessary starting point. But experience shows that though governments sometimes have to give way, or at least give ground, in the face of mass mobilizations, as long as they hang on to power they end up by regaining the initiative, or handing over to another government which will. No change of government in Europe in the last 30 years has produced a government ready to break with the neoliberal consensus.

On the level of policies it is not very complicated to produce a response to the immediate situation. Not just an end to austerity, but breaking the hold of finance over the economy by nationalizing the banks; an audit of public debt and refusal to pay debts contracted at extortionate rates or in order to buy arms, for example; a reorientation of the economy towards production of goods and services that serve social needs, including taking key sectors into public ownership. And while the Left should aim to provide an alternative on a European level, it might well be necessary for a country implementing such policies to abandon the euro. This is now a widely held view on the Greek Left.

United Front

The problem is that in Europe, the forces capable of carrying out such policies have the support of at best 10-15 per cent of the population, and in some countries much less. Most of the working class still supports left parties that are part of the problem rather than part of the answer. At the moment the exception is Greece, which seems to demonstrate that in a situation of severe crisis there can be a dramatic realignment of political forces. At present in opinion polls, PASOK, which won 44 per cent of the vote in the 2010 general election, is running on 9-11 per cent. The centre-right New Democracy is on 27-28 per cent. And for some time now the three main forces of the radical Left, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) the Syriza coalition whose main component is Synaspismos and the Democratic Left, a split to the right from Synaspismos, are credited between them with over 40 per cent. A couple of newly-created small parties resulting from left splits from PASOK might also get the 3 per cent necessary to get into parliament.

The problem is that the Greek Left is extremely divided. The KKE in particular is undoubtedly the most sectarian and Stalinist of major European communist parties. So it easier to argue for left unity than to realize it. But attempts are being made, and any kind of a Left Front would be a step forward not only in parliamentary terms but on a mass level. The alternative, which at present seems most likely, is that a divided Left would collectively have enough representation in Parliament to make the life of a PASOK-New Democracy government very difficult, and even to block certain measures, but not be capable of appearing as an alternative. That could rebound against the Left as a whole. A united front of even part of the Left would be better.

Murray Smith is a Scottish socialist currently living in Luxembourg and is a member of the editorial board of International Viewpoint.

13/03/12

Notes

1) Term commonly used to denote the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.)

2) Athens News March 2012, quoting official Greek statistics.

3) See Nouriel Roubini, “Greece’s private creditors are the lucky ones”, Financial Times, March 7, 2012.

4) See “Pension reform fuels hopes of savings boom”, Financial Times February 26, 2012.

5) See Stathis Kouvelakis, “The Greek Cauldron”, New Left Review, November-December 2011.

 

 

 

For a Socially Just Scotland

Gregor Gall looks at what a socially just Scotland would look like and how that differs from the vision of the Scottish National Party.

Saltires on N30 strike demo
Saltires on N30 strike demo

The now unfolding public debate on independence in the run up to the referendum in late 2014 provides for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the case for a socially just Scotland. So long as the debate is not parked in the cul-de-sac of constitutional politics and constitutional wrangles, it should be relatively easy to ask the mainstream political parties and opinion-formers just what is their vision for a socially just Scotland is. And, if they come up short, then use the occasion to put forward a radical vision of what is needed to achieve a socially just Scotland. This is because there is no point having the debate, the referendum or voting for independence (or ‘devo-max’ if it makes it on to the ballot paper) unless we can imagine a better, more socially justice and equal society in Scotland. So a lot is up for grabs.

“Progressive Beacon”?

The SNP in particular has a blind spot in any search for a socially just, independent Scotland because while it has some reflexes to the left on social issues, it is positively neo-liberal in its economic policies. And economics easily trumps social issues in the capitalist mainstream. So for Salmond to have recently pronounced that Scotland after independence – under the SNP – could become a ‘progressive beacon’ for other countries is, frankly, way off the mark. This is because the centre piece of the SNP politics is not so much an independent state under capitalism – which it is – but that through state-sponsored trickledown economics, the economy in Scotland can grow and everyone and their living standards will be levelled up in the process. The key policy in all this is to cut the rate of corporation tax to something like that of the Irish Republic. But we must recall the Republic became massively unequal despite the overall economic growth and such a pursuit of inward investment as part of a programme of economic deregulation created the conditions for the extended age of austerity that Irish citizens are now experiencing after the ‘boom’ turned to ‘bust’.

In economic terms, Salmond and the SNP take the view that all new jobs are good jobs regardless of their terms and conditions. This could be seen by Salmond’s welcoming on two recent occasions of Amazon’s investment in Scotland. He did not even think to attach any conditions – like those of union recognition or a living wage – to the receipt of public funds that Amazon received for making these investments. Jobs that create spending power to the SNP are the source of economic and social betterment. But it does matter what kind of jobs are created and how they are remunerated. It also matters that they are secure jobs. Equally, it matters that low paid jobs should not be subsidised by a social wage because, in effect, this means the taxpayer is subsidising employers and letting them off from paying a level of wages that requires no social wage prop up.

Social Justice

In other words, the notion of genuine and deep-seated social justice (never mind socialism) is absent from the SNP’s economic policy. Salmond wants to create economic growth and let others determine who benefits from it. In effect, this means the employers and existing power elites will make these decisions. That is probably why many employers are not fazed by independence and many are for it – especially if corporation tax is lowered.

It then seems that the SNP’s ability to win the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum is – all other things being equal – very much weakened but its inability, if not unwillingness, to demonstrate how and why an independent Scotland could and would be better for the mass of citizens in Scotland. This is not to say that the SNP is not a socialist party – clearly, it is not – but that it is hardly even a social democratic party either. Social democracy is defined not just as the search for social justice within capitalism but the willingness and ability to do so through progressive reforms where state intervention ameliorates the processes and outcomes of the market. In other words, reforms.

The vision on the left which supports independence should stress above all else the possibility of determining people’s own economic relations and, thus, social destiny. Whilst a republic should be part of this vision (especially as the SNP wants to maintain a constitutional monarchy), the key reason why citizens should vote at all and for independence will hinge upon whether they believe their living standards and those of their kids will be better in terms of jobs, health, education and so on.

But this in itself is not enough because a vision of this better life could be a neo-liberal one of growth and expansion as per the SNP. The two extra ingredients that are needed are a) a more just and equal society and b) an environmentally sustainable one.

Jock Tamson’s Bairns

The phrase ‘we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ still means a lot in Scotland and indicate that the political centre of gravity is to the left and essentially social democratic on many issues. In order to provide a representation and outlet for the values bound up with ‘Jock Tamson’s bairns’, the arguments for independence must comprise arguments for a redistribution of wealth – something that will scare many of the SNP’s business supporters. Equally well, we cannot allow the progressive vision of an independent Scotland to be one of economic growth at all costs – even assuming it was more fairly distributed – because of the environmental devastation that would create.

None of this makes an argument for or against independence as such. The key issue is whether the situation of independence is an opportunity to advance a radical left agenda. And it seems, there is far more of a possibility to do so in the run up to and under independence than under the status quo (whether of ‘devo-max’ or not). I use the term ‘possibility’ rather than ‘probability’ because the weakness of the left cannot suddenly be magically solved under independence. However, with the focus of debate likely to be on ‘what kind of Scotland do we want?’ and with more latitude to determine this in Scotland itself than ever before, the argument for independence seems substantially stronger than the argument against.

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire

Resistance is Fertile

Coalition of Resistance
Coalition of Resistance marchers on STUC demo

A new wave of struggle has emerged since the 2008 crisis of capitalism began. New forms of organisation have also emerged as a new generation enters the struggle. Mhairi McAlpine looks at how the Coalition of Resistance has developed in Glasgow.

Anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of the left over the past few years will know that Glasgow has not had an easy ride.  Our poster-boy, our leading MSP and great white hope turned out to be a sleazy hypocrite who would throw his comrades to the tabloids rather than be seen as anything other than a bourgeois family man.  Yet strangely theGlasgowleft is in the ascendancy.  There is a buzz in the air and raised spirits.  Partly this can be put down to the Hetherington Occupation last year, demonstrating the strength of the determined; partly to the emergence of the International Socialist Group (ISG), a Scottish breakaway from the SWP with new thinking and new ideas, partly down to the global upswing in resistance movements that we have witnessed and partly just down to the healing which occurred in the Glasgow left while our abuser was in gaol.

Coalition of Resistance emerges

One significant emergence in the last year has been the Glasgow Coalition of Resistance.  Since the initial meeting of around 150 people representing a remarkable diversity of Glasgow’s radical scene, Glasgow CoR has gone from strength to strength.  It has managed to attract an amazingly broad range of people and sustain a level of activity and vibrancy which hasn’t been seen since the early days of the Scottish Socialist Party.  Its diversity is remarkable.  Only a couple of years ago it would have been inconceivable for SWP members to sit next to SSP and anarchos next to the Labour Left; for trade unionists to be working with students and for community groups to be pivotal in building links across different aspects of resistance.  I hear anecdotally thatGlasgowis the strongest section of CoR and while it makes me very proud of what we have built, it is also rather sad that other areas don’t have the same support network.

Glasgow CoR operates primarily as a support structure for other actions – whether that be from organising a solidarity bus for the pickets on J30 and N30; publicising the STUC “There is a better way” demonstration on 1st October, or assisting the Save the Accord campaign with practicalities and moral support.  It has a strong activist focus.  The usual format of meetings is for people to divide up into medium sized groups to discuss and come up with a plan for either a specific action or an aspect of a larger action.  Actions required to make things happen are identified and responsibilities for tasks agreed between the members.   With only four elected positions, and elected more by consensus than by ballot, leadership emerges within the groups. Different people take responsibility for facilitation, note-taking and reporting back on each occasion, while the input from participants is controlled through a stack, whereby people notify their wish to speak in advance rather than rely on being chosen to respond, which makes for a more free-flowing and inclusive atmosphere.

This structure gives COR both a vibrancy and an openness – there is no top table, ownership of the projects are distributed giving members, especially new or infrequent attendees an opportunity to participate and take on responsibilities.  As people volunteer for things publically, there is an element of social accountability and awareness in task auctioning.  This encourages participants  to complete tasks that they have taken on,  not from an abstract sense of duty or loyalty, but from a concrete feeling of awareness of their role within a wider context and the awareness that other people are relying on their contribution to make their own. After the groupwork sessions, the room comes back together for feedback, to keep everyone in the loop on what has been discussed, and ask for general support for activities that require mass participation, such as promotion, or inform people of the practical arrangements that have been made.   The inclusion of people from within the trade unions and campaign groups supported is critical as taking a lead in determining what support is most effective.

Activism

While the meetings as described above are the norm, on occasions COR also organises slightly different meetings: generally in the lead up to a major event it will be agreed to postpone a regular meeting in favour of an “activity” meeting, where practical things – banner making or placard making for example will be the main purpose.  Although Fredrick Taylor would be turning in his grave at the inefficiencies of these production lines, they are nonetheless fantastic opportunities to build bonds and develop connections which aren’t usually possible in more structured environments.  The solidarity of the factory line is build over the shared activity to a common end and these practical sessions give COR participants a chance to discuss thinking, developments, activities in an informal manner with people that they are thrown together with on the “production line” that they would perhaps not naturally seek out.

Another alternative to the groupwork meetings that are held from time to time, are traditional top table speaking events.  Usually held in the aftermath of a demo or public activity, these are aimed at linking the activity in Glasgowto wider struggles – within Scotland, the UKor internationally.  Technology allows for live linkups with Occupy Wall Street and Syrian activists and speakers such as Owen Jones, the author of Chavs setting the activism in context and drawing links between the struggle here in Glasgow and wider national and international priorities.  Although there is theory in these session, they are not theoretical development sessions – more awareness raising of the different strands of thought and locuses of struggle.  It would be unfair to describe COR as non-theoretical, but theoretical development is not a major aim of COR.  Most participants in COR have a primary political identity outwith, whether as a member of a trade union, political party or campaign group – the theoretical challenge for COR then becomes less to actively develop members in line with a given theoretical understanding, than it is to overcome differences in theoretical understandings and ensure that these do not become barriers to activity, solidarity and support for radical causes.

UK Uncut and Occupy

Its worth comparing CoR with some of the other movements that have sprung up on the left over the last year or so.  The first, UKUncut was set up to embarrass, shame and ultimately economically damage companies which refused to pay the taxes that they owed.  In a time when people were being told the country was skint and that we would all have to tighten our belts, the revelation that multi-nationals were being let of billions of pound in tax, while terminally ill people were being thrown off incapacity benefit and instructed to seek work struck a strong chord with the public.  Locally organised demonstrations were held outside targets, loosely co-ordinated in that sometimes a particular target would be identified but lead on the ground by local activists and campaigners.  UKUncut was a star which burned brightly, but the campaign got scorched after the arrest of 148 activists who occupied Fortnum and Mason on March 25th.   Bogged down in legal challenges, a substantial section of activists under legal proceedings and a wider section of activists and supporters who now feared legal action being taken against them, UKUncut moved on from direct action to legal action against the companies involved.  While this is in many ways a very positive move – challenging these sweetheart deals through the courts is worthwhile, it is also more remote and tucked away than people challenging them on the high street – moving the locus of struggle away from the local and into the foostie chambers of court.

The other major movement to have emerged in the last year is Occupy.  Inspired by the occupations ofTahrir SquareandSyntagma Square, Occupy Wall Street sought to take the fight to the centre of power.  The movement spread acrossAmericaand when the call to Occupy made on 15th October reached theUK, three camps were established inScotland: Glasgow,Edinburghand …Paisley.  The Paisley experience was a portend of things to come.  After the camp had to be abandoned after only two nights when the occupier had been threatened and robbed, the vulnerability and naivety of the movement’s tactics were exposed.  Tales were emerging of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and violence from the Occupy Camps internationally.  When a rape occurred at Glasgow Occupy, the response of the camp was shocking – yet still it continued until an unexplained fire extinguished the protest and the now disbandedEdinburghcamp has also been associated with violence and misogyny.

Occupy generally attracted a less experienced and less active protester:  it inspired people who usually just shouted at the telly, but at the same time it also attracted people who struggled within the mainstream and sought an alternative many times out of necessity. Running a 24hour space in a public arena with an eclectic mix of people thrown together in a lifestyler protest is exhausting, mostUKcamps either imploded or dwindled.  With no clear sense of purpose, it became merely a spectacle.  Occupy as a political movement became a piece of theatre, yet within Occupy, the experience of communal living threw up issues of power, domination and exploitation.  Occupy moved into the occupation of physical space with the Bank of Ideas – a far better organised, more structured and more challenging form, but one not as open to the stray passer-by.  At the end of last month, with the eviction of both Occupy LSX and the Bank of Ideas, its future is uncertain.

UKUncut and Occupy were both ultimately rootless.  They came from the ether – emerging and capturing a mood, rather than rooted from within communities.  They both tried to challenge big things – multi-nationals and global finance respectively.  They both hit tactical problems and had to change their tactics to adapt.  Both matured into more effective, but less inclusive forms of resistance.  And ultimately – although the UKUncut legal challenge goes on, both have disappeared as activities that can be incorporated into local action.

Community Struggle

This contrasts strongly with CoR.  The primary basis of CoR is that it amalgamates existing struggles, lending support, expertise and wo/manpower to building for either distinct local campaigns, or local implementations of national struggles.  With a cross-section of people involved in such struggles through an existing political identity, it gives it a diversity, but at the same time a cohesion of shared understanding that other people may have expertise that they can draw from.  Rather than competing perspectives, it has overlapping ones.  While this can be problematic on occasion – with clashes of events, different priorities and variations in tactical approach, it avoids direct conflict for the most part, by recognising the authority and expertise of contributors, and allowing the struggles to be lead from within the struggle.  As such it has a base which can be built on, and a support network to be called on, which goes wider than any particular meeting, yet is not determined by gaining the approval of a particular official.  This allows for both open participation, but also effective challenge.

Like Occupy (the 99% are sick of being exploited by the 1%) and UKUncut (multi-nationals should pay the taxes they owe HMRC), it has a relatively simply simple message – that we refuse to accept the austerity being imposed on us, and will fight cuts.  There have been a variety of attempts to refine that message, however as with UKUncut and Occupy, its strength is in its universality.  How that pans out on the ground is very much up to the individual interests of participants.  Most members of CoR for example are opposed to nuclear weapons, and while the mission would encompass a demand not to cut Trident, it is unlikely that such a campaign would garner much support on an individual level within the organisation. CoR is amorphous, but at the same time rooted and able to call on resources beyond its own realm: financial backing from trade unions for support activity; political expertise from experienced activists; connections and communications that stretch beyond its direct participants.

Holarchy

In an earlier Frontline article, I discussed the nature of a holarchy – an entity made up of smaller units – each of which act autonomously and are in themselves made up of smaller units.  CoR fits this structure well, in that participants for the most part each belong to at least one other identifiable radical tradition, movement or school of thought, gaining support and sustenance from it.  The diffusion of control and devolution of responsibility to within dynamic groups allows for the development of a strong oppositional consciousness – where leadership is granted to those in the forefront of the relevant fight rather than being imposed from on-high ensuring that the tactics and strategy utilised are those most relevant to the fight at hand, increasing  its effectiveness.

The SSP was built by drawing together small disparate political groupings,  as well as individual socialists who had grown weary of political participation while remaining active within communities, trade unions and pressure groups.   It did this in two particular ways – firstly the pull of the charismatic leader cannot be underestimated.  For all the criticisms that existed ofSheridan, pre-2004, he was a major and well respected name on the left.  His leadership of the SSP gave it a gravitas that convinced the non-aligned that this was a project worth signing up to, while his media profile and the prospect of tangible power convinced left groupings that the SSP was the way forward.  The second critical aspect was the toleration and even encouragement of factions – with an agreement that the 20% of disagreements that existed between groupings on the left should be set aside in favour of the 80% we agreed with.  For a substantial period these twin pulls served the SSP well – the bright star ofSheridandazzled, while differences in approach were put on the back burner.  Ultimately it fell apart as it became evident that differences over personal behaviour, morality and the position of women in the party could not simply be shunted into the 20% that we agreed to disagree about, and that no leader, no matter how charismatic was worth abandoning the fundamental principles of socialism for. Yet the five years of growth for the SSP cannot simply be dismissed.

Strengths and Limitations

CoR demonstrates an alternative, which harnesses the strengths of the SSP: an ability to maintain theoretical perspectives while belonging to a wider organisation, and a visibility which provides gravitational pull, but at the same time avoids the difficulties of leadership embodiment by distributing practical leadership and eschewing formal leadership structures.  Differences of opinion on priorities and tactics are not voted for by a show of hands, but by foot, as people lend their weight to campaigns that they see as being worthwhile and determining their own personal priorities on the basis of where their skills can be best utilised and their own personal politics mesh with wider issues.

That is not to say that there is not conflict and disagreement, but it is resolved in a manner which tends not to polarise opinion, and makes it difficult for caucusing or tendencies within CoR to determine its direction, relying on the collective wisdom to shape the movement’s direction.  This grounding in existing struggle, coupled with the loose formation unites the best of the traditional structured left with the discourses of the emergent autonomous left, moreover it builds a cohesive culture of tolerance and appreciation of the diversity of methods, places and actions which can be productive in struggle, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas, expertise and understanding.

The limitation of CoR, with its activist focus on practical solidarity and support does however limit its political intervention at a formal level.  With upcoming council elections inGlasgowand the dominant Labour party grouping in disarray, the conditions are ripe for a left political challenge.  There is however no credible left alternative capable of mounting a challenge.  While CoR’s tactics are well suited to agitation, they do not extend to establishing an electable and accountable political platform.  This vacuum is a major challenge that the Left must address prior to the next Holyrood elections.  While CoR is resolutely not the place for that to emerge from, the development of tolerance and shared culture that it has engendered among the disparate elements of the Glasgow Left must bring us some hope that such an emergence is possible

 

Review – Kicking Off Against Austerity

V mask at Occupy Edinburgh protest

Review

‘Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions” by Paul Mason (Verso, 2012)

Alister Black reviews a new book examining the new wave of struggle

Paul Mason has become well known as the economics editor of Newsnight. He couldn’t have picked a better time to take up that post, he certainly has had no shortage of material. From the collapse of Lehman Brothers onwards, the crisis of capitalism has played out across the globe. But Mason hasn’t just stuck to stock prices and Bank of England statements. He has chased the story from the boardrooms to the streets. In this book he looks at the origins of the crisis and examines the wave of struggles erupting across the globe from Tahrir Square to Greece to the council estates of London. Finally he puts forward a thesis about the new layers involved in struggle, the new forms that this struggle is taking and the problems facing these worldwide rebellions.

Mason argues that post-2008 we are living in a new era. With the state stepping in to prop up banks on a vast scale, economically speaking the neo-liberal idea of the ‘small state’ is as dead as Stalinist Marxism.

The economic crisis has left a new generation of young people who had been co-opted by the system with promises of rising living standards, now facing unemployment and a poorer standard of living than their parents. Mason raises the spectre of new generations of bitter graduates plotting revolution from their bedsits, not unlike Paris in 1879  “but with one big difference, today in every garret is a laptop” (1)

This new generation has used the tools at their disposal to organise and take to the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Madrid, Athens, London, New York and beyond.

Mason is a little vague and contradictory about just how informed this new generation are, at times talking about the volumes of theory to be found around the typical student occupation and at other times saying that activists only want tweets or wiki summaries of theory. In likelihood elements of both are true.

Social Networks not Gunpowder

Speaking of the widespread use of the Guy Fawkes mask of his revolutionary anarchist character ‘V’ from the ‘V for Vendetta’ comic and movie, creator Alan Moore said

“Today’s response to similar oppressions seems to be one that is intelligent, constantly evolving and considerably more humane, and yet our character’s borrowed Catholic revolutionary visage and his incongruously Puritan apparel are perhaps a reminder that unjust institutions may always be haunted by volatile 17th century spectres, even if today’s uprisings are fuelled more by social networks than by gunpowder. Some ghosts never go away.” (2)

For Mason, the victory, albeit temporary, at Tahrir Square proves another pillar of his thesis, that the network will always beat the hierarchy. The network in this case means the flexible and responsive networks built through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Another example could be the V mask wearing ‘anonymous’ network who have used computer hacking to attack targets of greed and oppression from the banks to the security services.

But the network in itself is just a means of communication and coordination. It allows certain tactics that can be used to respond flexibly but it depends on access to those networks. The question of ownership of those networks is also key. Facebook has a business model that is built on selling your data. Oppressive governments can try to tap or block networks. But the network is just a tool, it is neither the solution nor the problem. Perhaps the next step will be to have new social media applications that are more decentralised and anonymous.

The struggles themselves are based on material conditions and class antagonisms. Networks can be useful but in a class struggle organisation such as a trade union or political party it is necessary to have structures that are accountable and transparent. Possibly some of the traditional organisations will need to look to the flexible tactics of the networks to survive and outmanoeuvre anti-trade union legislation and belligerent employers.

Diverging struggles

Mason looks at how the different groups who are involved in struggles relate to each other. On the one hand traditional organisations such as trade unions and political parties and on the other the new ‘horizontal’ groups such as arose from the student struggles, the ‘Occupy’ movement and the likes of UK Uncut and Anonymous.

The former, on paper at least, have more power. It was the trade unions on November 30th 2011 who put millions on the streets and shut down most of the public sector in the pensions dispute. The latter however have more élan and flexibility.

Whilst they have common interests they can quickly diverge in the realms of struggle. Mason gives the example of the large TUC anti-austerity demo on 26th March 2011 where the mass of trade unionists were entirely isolated from both the peaceful UK Uncut sit-ins and the violent Black Bloc mobilisation.

He writes

“it was an advanced preview of the problem which youthful, socially networked, horizontalist movements would have everywhere once things got serious: the absence of strategy, the absence of a line of communication through which to speak to the union-organized workers. The limits, in short, of ‘propaganda of the deed’. (3)”

As struggles escalate that divide becomes sharper. In Greece it ended up with police leaving Communist union stewards to fight off anarchist youth who were trying to attack the parliament.

Building useful links that enable these groups to leverage each others strengths productively is key. Groups like the Coalition of Resistance can play a role in that (see Mhairi Mcalpine’s article elsewhere in this issue) but there is plenty room to build a wider unity.

A New Society

Mason looks at the Marxist idea of alienation and how Marx changed his views (for a more detailed view on this, this link is a good starting point). Mason argues that humanity has started to use the internet to build a ‘connected life’ and break out of alienation. He goes on to argue that this connectedness and collaborative aspects of information technology such as open-source software points towards ways a new society could potentially organise for the common good. This section is really just sketched out but contains plenty of food for thought.

Mason is very good at combining journalism and analysis to outline the context of the current wave of struggle and to outline some of the problems that have arisen. It will be up to those engaging in that struggle to sort these problems out and look to create new forms of organising that can unite all sectors of the movement.

Notes

(1) Paul Mason, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions’ page 73

(2) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16968689

(3) Paul Mason, Ibid, page 63