Category Archives: international

Red Square Movement Shakes Quebec

Parlons frais de scolarite /  Let's Talk Tuition Fees
“Let’s Talk Tuition Fees” – image scottmontreal on flickr

Canadian socialist David Camfield on the victorious student movement in Quebec

Quebec has been shaken by the most important social movement in the Canadian state since the 1970s. What began as a strike by students in Quebec’s universities and Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEPs, which most young people attend after high school) against a major increase in university tuition fees become a broader popular movement against the government of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), headed by Jean Charest, and against neoliberalism.

To understand this movement, we need to look at the place of universities in Quebec society. The Canadian constitution makes education a responsibility of provincial governments. Before the 1960s, only a tiny percentage of the French-speaking majority in the province of Quebec attended university; university education was more common for members of the English-speaking minority, whose universities were better-funded. At the time, the capitalist class in Quebec was largely English-speaking – one feature of the national oppression of Quebec within the Canadian state.

 National Oppression

In the 1960s, a section of the French-speaking middle class launched an effort to modernize Quebec society that became known as the “Quiet Revolution.” One of its key features was the creation of a secular education system including new francophone universities that charged low tuition fees. This reform was linked with popular aspirations for national self-determination in an era that also saw a high level of working-class struggle. Accessible university education continues to be widely seen in Quebec as a valuable distinguishing feature of the Quebec nation.

A vibrant student movement emerged in the 1960s. Thanks to student activism, including strikes, tuition fees were frozen from 1968 to 1990. An attempt to raise fees in 1996 was beaten back by a resurgent student movement (though tuition for international students and other fees were increased). In 2005 an attempt to convert over $100 million of student grants into loans was met with a partially-successful student strike.

The Right Attacks

In March 2011, the centre-right and federalist Quebec Liberal (PLQ) government announced a fee increase of 75% over five years, beginning in 2012. The move was part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing or increasing user fees for public services. In the words of its finance minister, the Charest government sought to carry out a “cultural revolution” in Quebec, where neoliberal ideology is not accepted as “common sense” – especially in the working class — to the same extent that it is in the rest of the Canadian state. The announcement spurred the student movement into action.

Quebec university and CEGEP students are organized into associations. Traditions and structures of democratic self-organization, such as general assemblies, are much stronger than they are in student unions outside Quebec. Local associations often affiliate to a Quebec-wide federation. One of these, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE), promotes militant and democratic left-wing student unionism.

CLASSE Struggle

In December 2011, ASSE formed a coalition, CLASSE, which student associations not affiliated to ASSE could join if they accepted its platform and highly democratic way of functioning. CLASSE was intentionally designed to coordinate a student strike and proved a tremendous success.

The strike began on February 13 and spread quickly. The most common form of action was not attending classes and organizing picket lines to prevent people from entering buildings or classrooms. Students also carried out blockades of government offices, courthouses, banks, bridges and other targets. Students marched in support of locked-out smelter workers and joined with other groups protesting austerity measures. Art interventions and other cultural expressions of the movement gave the strike a growing public presence. The movement’s symbol, a red square, was soon being worn by tens of thousands of people and made visible in other ways on the streets and online.

On March 22, the number of strikers peaked, with around 300 000 of Quebec’s 400 000 university and CEGEP students on strike that day. That same day saw a demonstration of some 200 000 people in Montreal (to put this in perspective, Quebec’s population is about 8 million). This took the movement to a higher level, with more students voting to take ongoing strike action.

Broadening the Movement

The government tried to demobilize the movement by depicting students as spoiled brats and offering insubstantial concessions. This failed. The PLQ then turned to repression and hastily passed an anti-strike “special law.” This was a turning point. Instead of putting down the movement, the draconian law triggered its mutation. What had been a student movement supported by a significant minority of the population became a broad social movement against the unpopular PLQ government.

On May 22, the 100th day of the strike, demonstrations took place across Quebec. Some 250 000 people marched in Montreal. This was followed by night-time pot-banging “casserole” protests in many big-city neighbourhoods and towns. Union activists began to discuss solidarity action.

Although the movement slowed in the summer, demonstrations on June 22 and July 22 were still very large. Activists went on tour across Quebec to discuss the struggle and CLASSE’s radical manifesto.

PLQ Toppled

Unable to quell the movement and fearful of what an inquiry into corruption would reveal about PLQ fundraising when it resumed in the autumn, Charest called an election for September 4. His gamble failed: the Parti Quebecois (PQ, which has links to the SNP) narrowly succeeded in forming a minority government. But the election call did succeed in dispersing the mass movement. The anti-neoliberal and pro-independence Quebec Solidaire increased its share of the vote to 6% (less than expected) and gained a second seat in the legislature.

The new PQ government has repealed the fee increase and the “special law” – testimony to the power of the movement – but will seek to raise fees in a less dramatic way. The movement’s impact will be felt for years, for it has politicized Quebec society around the question of neoliberalism in a way that is unprecedented in the Canadian state. It has radicalized many people, especially youth, many of whom have gained valuable experience in mass mobilization and democratic self-organization. Activists formed in this movement will be critical for the future of the Left.

David Camfield is an editor of the Canadian publication New Socialist Webzine (newsocialist.org).

Paraguay’s Silent Coup

Fernando Lugo en Coronel Oviedo
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. Image fernandolugoapc on flickr

Alister Black looks at the lingering shadow of the dictators in South America

In 2008 the years of domination by the right wing Colorado Party, the party of the dictatorship, came to an end when a left wing bishop and liberation theologist, Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay. Lugo promised change. He promised social reform to address the great inequalities in Paraguayan society and in particular he promised to tackle the central issue in Paraguay – land reform.

I visited Paraguay this summer a few weeks after the ‘parliamentary coup’ which overthrew Lugo. Driving through the streets of the cities like Ciudad del Este and Asuncion you could see some graffiti and posters denouncing the coup and calling for mobilisation. But the protests had begun to peter out. Speaking to Paraguayans many said they had voted for Lugo and opposed the coup, but all had criticisms of him. Most commonly they felt he had achieved little in the way of the change he had promised to bring about.

Yet Paraguay is also a country whose poverty and inequality is among the worst in the world (1) and this could be seen on every street. I passed a huge home that could only be described as a palace. It belonged to a former President, Cubas, and perfectly symbolised the corruption of the ruling elite. A few streets down a thriving ‘asentamiento’ of wood and tarpaulin homes was being built on occupied land by peasants coming in from the country seeking work. There were also some more permanent brick constructions with rigged up electricity and chickens running around the yard.

Understanding Paraguay

Paraguay is a relatively small South American country in terms of population but with a turbulent and violent history. It has suffered catastrophic wars which killed huge proportions of its people. The War of the Triple Alliance which Paraguay fought against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina saw a possible 90% of the male population of the nation killed. The twentieth century saw the Chaco War over control of a semi-desert region where it was believed oil could be found. Britain played a bloody role in this conflict, encouraging it and arming both sides. Political instability led to a civil war in 1947 as different factions of the ruling class fought for control.

The instability ended in 1949 with the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. The Stroessner dictatorship lasted until 1989 and it was marked by international isolation (the few foreign embassies were from the likes of apartheid South Africa and Taiwan) and domestic oppression. One party rule also exarcerbated the corruption that came to plague the nation. Stroessner was ousted in 1989 by his son-in-law who had responsibilty for the nations borders and hence lucrative smuggling income. Fear of losing that post prompted the coup rather than any concern for democracy. There were some democratic reforms however, but the corrupt and deeply entrenched networks of the Colorado Party machine continued to dominate the country, acting in the interests of business and rich landowners.

Lugo

The election of Lugo promised more substantial change. However the hopes of many Paraguayans and those outside the country, were dashed in June this year when Lugo was impeached by the Chamber of Deputies and the impeachment confirmed by the upper house, the Paraguayan Senate. Colorado had already tried multiple times to impeach Lugo. The votes were overwhelming, 76-1 in the lower house and 39-4 in the upper house. Crucially Lugo’s ‘allies’ in the centre-right Liberal PLRA party turned against him this time.

The vote followed controversial events in Curuguaty in Paraguay’s countryside. The failure of land reform had forced more peasant groups to seize land for themselves. One group were evicted by the courts and resisted their eviction resulting in the deaths of 11 peasants and 6 police officers. Exactly what happened is far from clear and there is no real evidence that the campesinos opened fire first.

This was the pretext for Lugo’s impeachment. Lugo was given just 24 hours to prepare his defence against vague charges of ‘poor performance’. No evidence was presented relating to the main charges around events in Curuguaty. The process was unconstitutional.

Lugo’s supporters in the trade-unions, social and peasant organisations demonstrated and protested but there was no mass movement to defend his presidency, as had been seen when Chavez faced a coup in Venezuela.

Lugo’s Programme

One of the key features of Lugo’s Presidency was that he had no party of his own but build a coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change whose largest component was a centre-right party, the PLRA many of whom actively opposed the more radical parts of Lugo’s agenda.

Lugo had promised to enact reform in four key areas, tax, land, the public sector and the judiciary (2). Land reform in particular is key in a country where 85% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. In recent years agribusiness, mostly from Brazil, has been buying up Paraguayan land to grow profitable soya. Soya makes up 40% of Paraguay’s exports and brings in $2 billion. In the process they have kicked thousands of peasants off the land. These same interests of course, vehemently opposed Lugo’s programme of land reform through their representatives in the Colorado party and the other parties.

Opposition

The parliament consistently opposed Lugo. They blocked funding and cut back on existing programmes of health and social care. This made Lugo even more reliant on parliamentary allies to his right with a resultant dilution of his programme.

The media was deployed against Lugo. They raised issues around his character, particularly that he had fathered several children while still a bishop.

Another destabilising factor was the mysterious emergence of supposed leftist guerrillas, in what was a likely attempt to link Lugo to violent outrages, drawing in FARC, Chavez and anyone else they could throw in. Since the coup, the media has referred little to the so-called ‘EPP’ (Ejercito del Peublo Paraguayo).

Movement

Against this background Lugo stood little chance of carrying out his programme. This is particularily true because he failed to bring the movements which supported him together in a strong united front. Peasants, trade unionists, socialists, campaigners for democratic rights. Together they could have built a movement against the coup and in opposition to the right-wing parties of Colorado and PLRA who are two sides of the same coin.

Other leftist movements in the region have built powerful grassroots movements to defend and direct their struggle. Chavez and the PSUV are the best example but the Peronist movement of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also has strong party and trade-union support and was able to draw on (or co-opt) the strength of the street movements and piqueteros of 2001.

Consequences

Reaction from other South American states has been strong however. Left of centre governments of various shades such as in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina know that they cannot allow this coup to go unpunished. The US has remained silent and has not condemned the coup.

Paraguay has been suspended from the Mercosur trading block and replaced with Venezuela, leaving Paraguay far more isolated and at an economic disadvantage whilst strengthening the other nations who now benefit from closer links and greater access to Venezuelan oil.

The removal of Lugo has been a set back for Paraguay but the underlying problems of poverty, inequality and corruption are worsening. To solve them Paraguay will need to build powerful social movements for change that can resist the machinations of the corrupt ruling elite.

Notes

(1) “by 2008 Paraguay was one of the most unequal countries in Latin America with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 (the US is 0.47) and with one of the worst landownership concentrations in the world: 1 per cent own 77 per cent of the cultivable land.” Francisco Dominguez http://www.redpepper.org.uk/paraguay-a-well-rehearsed-coup/

(2) http://www.e-ir.info/2012/08/09/the-lightning-impeachment-of-paraguays-president-lugo/ Peter Lambert

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.

Editorial: Angry Europe

Επίσκεψη Αλέξη Τσίπρα στην Κομοτηνή

Greece went back to the polls in June 2012, following the election six weeks earlier which had failed to produce a government. There was one fundamental divide between the parties, and one fundamental issue faced by the Greek voters. That was, whether to back the austerity deal being imposed by European leaders to bail out Greece and remain, for a while at least, in the Eurozone or to reject the deal and, in all probability, exit the Eurozone and return to the Drachma.

The bourgeois parties led by New Democracy and with the support of the one-time socialist party PASOK fought to save the deal they had brokered. The right dominated the media and pushed a consistent message that exit from the euro would be even worse for Greece than austerity.

Austerity

Millions of Greek workers however knew that austerity was already a disaster. Unemployment has soared. The state has laid off tens of thousands of workers and private businesses were failing daily. Soup kitchens saw their queue’s lengthen and funding for essential services has dried up. Even the very sick could not obtain essential medicines as the state was no longer able to pay its bills. How much worse could it be?

The attention of the world was focused onGreece, a Greek exit could have brought the euro down, with the bigger economies ofSpainandItalynext in focus. In the end Angela Merkel and David Cameron could breathe a temporary sigh of relief.  The right won the election by just a few percentage points.

Greek Left

There were four main groups on the left who went into the Greek election. SYRIZA, the KKE, the Democratic Left and ANTARSYA. SYRIZA are a coalition of different left groups launched in 2004, the biggest component of which is the former euro-communist party Synaspismos. They have performed modestly in elections since their formation, typical of many groups of the European socialist left they did not receive more than 6% of the vote until 2012. The May election saw them achieve 16.78% which soared to 26.89% in June. This result meant that they were only a few percentage points away from being the biggest party, which would give them a fifty seat bonus and most probably power. In itself this is a remarkable achievement. It represents primarily the rejection of Pasok by the large sections of the working class who faced poverty, who could no longer stomach austerity and who rejected the loss of Greek sovereignty.

Syriza siphoned the votes of the other left parties with the KKE (old-style Moscow Communist Party) vote clearly dropping in favour of Syriza. Antarsya, a grouping of the anti-capitalist left saw their vote reduce to a few thousand. But perhaps the most significant result was that the overall vote saw parties that rejected the bailout in the majority. It will be difficult for the ND/Pasok/Democratic Left government to claim a mandate and they face a tough ride.Europehas shown little indication that there can be any renegotiation of the bailout deal. If the left can mobilise on the streets in a united way then a new and decisive round of battle can begin.

The stakes are high. Racist groups are on the rise, with the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party winning 21 seats in the June election. This group have carried out attacks on immigrants and political opponents across Greece, in one incident a KKE councillor was severely beaten. Golden Dawn have attacked refugee camps and threatened to drag immigrant children from hospitals.

Euro Failure

The victory for the right in Greece therefore means that the end of the euro is back to its old agenda. The economic problems of Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal have not changed. In this issue of Frontline we look at the rise of resistance to austerity among the indignados in pain, a country where youth unemployment now sits at more than fifty percent. Spain now has borrowing costs which are at a 16 year high and their banks have asked for a bailout of 19 million euros, although they may need more than 62 billion euros.

The banks need huge injections of liquidity but these come at a political price. German voters are turning against bailouts. So too, would bank nationalisations – anathema to the neo-liberals of Berlin and Brussels.

The single European currency was a key policy for the European elite. It aimed to create a powerful trading bloc to compete internationally and maintain profits. With their project facing meltdown that elite may have to look at more drastic action. A form of fiscal union has been suggested as the model of multiple diverging economies under a single currency has not worked. Another possibility is a ‘northern eurozone’, essentially cutting adrift the weaker economies such as Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland.

New Ways

Capitalism has clearly shown that it is not capable of solving the problems of humanity. It fails to provide a living for millions whilst concentrating wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, the much discussed one percent. Now millions acrossEuropeare turning the tide. The youth and the miners in Spain are part of this. The rise of the left in France is also an important part with the vote for the Left Party and the defeat of the right. The immense steps forward by the Marxist left in Greece too are an inspiration to socialists across Europe. Each of these are taking their own paths, and they are not the party-building methods of the past.

We have an opportunity to move forward even here in Northern Europe. But socialists in Scotland and the rest of Britain may need to learn the lessons that the old movements and parties need to recognise and work with the new movements, the young people in anti-cuts groups, pro-independence groups, the occupiers and tax campaigners. If they don’t learn that lesson they may find themselves left behind.

France: Sarkozy’s defeat is our victory, but there are bigger battles to come.

John Mullen reports from Paris on the defeat of Sarkozy in the French Presidential elections.

Defaced Sarkozy poster by http://www.flickr.com/photos/novopress/
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/novopress/

Hundreds of thousands were on the streets of Paris on the night of Sunday 6th May to celebrate the fall of the monster, and they had every reason to be happy about Sarkozy’s defeat. Champion of tax cuts for the rich and public service cuts for the rest of us, his election campaign moved further right every day in the desperate hope of attracting the votes which went to the fascists in the first round. On the first of May he bussed in supporters from all over France to be filmed in front of the Eiffel tower while he demanded of trade unions “Put down your red flag, and serve France instead.”

So Sarkozy’s sacking is excellent news. If he had been re-elected, his plans for cuts and other attacks would have been accelerated many times over. He has already raised the retirement age and savaged our schools. It would have been open season on Trade union rights and workers’ conditions in general, and privatizations of pared-down public services would have been the order of the day.

In addition, some of the policies proposed by Hollande, first Socialist president for seventeen years, are very welcome – the right to vote for immigrants at local elections, immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, gay marriage, more nursery school places and a women’s rights ministry, to cite some examples. He is also proposing other modest reforms which are in the interests of workers – higher taxes for the rich (up to 75% for the filthy rich) and more social help for parents of school-age children. His programme pledges him not to continue privatization of electricity or the railways, to create 60 000 jobs in education, to limit rent rises, to defend public sector health services and to renegotiate European-wide agreements which impose ever harsher austerity policies. This week millions of immigrants are feeling that the police will be less encouraged to give free rein to their racism, and millions of workers are feeling that their pensions are less under threat. Hollande’s first decrees will reduce his own salary by thirty per cent and restore the right to retire at sixty to part of the workforce.

Reformist parties are contradictory animals: at the same time, Hollande has been wanting to reassure the more right-wing element of his electorate by insisting that there will be no more residence papers for illegal immigrants asking for them than there were under Sarkozy. And the Socialist Party, just like the right wing, has been involved in islamophobic scaremongering of late.

Low Expectations

Expectations on Left governments are massively lower than thirty years ago. No-one thinks that the lives of the 4.3 million unemployed in France, or the standard of living of the 3.3 million minimum wage workers will radically improve because of the new president. Hollande will keep in place the neoliberal reforms of universities and public utilities and will no doubt add more of his own. This is why the Socialist Party campaign didn’t raise much popular enthusiasm, and the main thrust of Left sentiment was “at least we’ll get rid of Sarkozy”.

Exactly how much the new president will do in the workers’ interest will depend on the mobilizations of the working class and its unions. Hollande insists he can improve social justice at the same time as reducing the national debt, but, if and when the financial markets get even greedier, his priority will always be to satisfy them first. At that point, workers’ struggle is what will count, even to make Hollande keep the promises he has made.

It is quite wrong to consider that reformist governments today cannot deliver reforms. They do tend to deliver ever smaller reforms in the workers’ interests and to donate ever more presents from public funds to the bosses. But they still reflect class mobilization and can be forced to hand over the goods. Ten years ago in France, a Socialist Party government introduced the thirty-five hour week, and brought in healthcare coverage for the poorest in society for the first time. Reforms are possible. This is why The Economist magazine, outspoken voice of neoliberal supporters of market dictatorship, is worried. “Mr. Hollande evinces a deep anti-business attitude”, they write, “nothing [in his past] suggests that Mr. Hollande is brave enough to rip up his manifesto and change France.” The Economist does not trust Hollande to decisively fight for the bosses. But they go on to outline what they think the future of France could be made of: “The response of the markets could be brutal.” “Do not conclude”, they squeal, “that Mr Hollande will impose tough reforms and demanding sacrifices on an unwilling public without having his own arm twisted” by the bond markets. In a vain attempt to “reassure the markets” it has been Left governments in Spain and in Greece who have introduced vicious austerity programmes. If push comes to shove, Hollande will be prepared to do the same. This is why the key element today is the building of working class confidence, organization and consciousness.

Polarization to the Left and to the Right

The deepening social crisis has led to a political polarization which is the essential feature of French politics today and which determines what anticapitalist activists need to be doing. Four million people voted for the Left Front, headed up by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Their dynamic campaign (several meetings of over a hundred thousand) put radical class demands back in the forefront of politics, and made a priority of denouncing the fascist Front National. Mélenchon called for the imposition of a ceiling on boss’s salaries, the return of retirement at sixty for all and a large increase in the minimum wage. “Let’s put finance back in its place” was one of the slogans, and many thousands of trade unionists and former left activists of all sorts joined in a tremendously exciting campaign.

During the two weeks between the first and second round, Mélenchon and his activists pulled out all the stops to make sure that Sarkozy suffered the heaviest defeat possible. Mélenchon in his meetings called for a new June 1936 (when two million strikers won important victories, including paid holidays for all), and laughed at the idea of joining a Socialist Party government as a minister. “If the Socialist party is saying of its programme ‘take it or leave it’, we’ll leave it!” he declared. The Front de Gauche, set up as an electoral coalition between the Communist Party, the Left Party and some smaller revolutionary or Red/Green groups seems to be becoming a new activist force in its own right. This is an excellent thing, in particular if antifascist campaigning is brought to the fore in a way it hasn’t been for the last ten years.

Not that the Left Front doesn’t have faults. Mélenchon’s calls for “a citizens’ revolution” and “a revolution through the ballot box” suffer of course from the difficulty that the world doesn’t work like that. But it is in the struggle that this can be clarified. It would be wonderful if there were millions of revolutionaries in France today, but there aren’t. What is new now is that there are millions of people who believe radical reform is possible to advance workers’ living conditions and standard of living, and who are prepared to fight for it.

The Left Front is also not good on islamophobia. Mélenchon loudly denounced the NPA a few years back, when one of the NPA electoral candidates was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Things may be getting better – he denounced the victimisation of Muslims several times during the campaign, and another leader of the Left Front condemned the instrumentalisation of feminist ideas by islamophobes. Still, a major re-think on anti-Muslim racism is required.

There is everything to fight for in the Left Front. One of its biggest member parties, the Communist Party, has frequently been much more interested in running local and regional councils, often passing on government austerity measures, than in class struggle. And Mélenchon’s left nationalist nonsense is a problem. There is no guarantee that the class struggle current will maintain the upper hand, and there may even be pressures for the Left Front to join a Socialist Party government after the legislatives. But the rise of this dynamic movement is the best opportunity for decades to offer the radical fighting Left alternative which is so sorely needed.

Revamped fascists

The other side of the polarization is the far right. The revamped fascist National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, got 6.4 million votes in the first round, the highest score in their history. On the ground, it has not yet been able to rebuild an activist organization as strong as the one it had in the late 1990s before antifascist activity put it under so much pressure that it split in two. But it is now recruiting again and there is no time to waste: a national, very broadly based, active antifascist organization is urgently needed. In the last thirty years the biggest antiracist and antifascist organizations in France have tended to fall into one or other mistake – either very broad but purely moralistic antiracist organizations which don’t try to stop the fascists organizing, or smallish networks based on purely physical opposition to the fascists or on “red antifascism,” which you can only join in if you have read half of Trotsky’s writings.

Anticapitalists gotta relate!

The main task for revolutionaries in France today is how to relate to the activists of the Left Front. One option is to ignore them because some of their ideas are confused or involve illusions in the possibilities of constitutional action. This is a disastrous mistake. What is needed is to get stuck in alongside them, not just in individual campaigns and strikes but also in a political and electoral bloc which, independent from the Socialist Party, fights to build class combativity and consciousness. Mélenchon has said he would welcome a broadening of the Left Front to include revolutionary organizations who want to join the alliance while maintaining their autonomy.

The strongest openly revolutionary organization in France, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), which is always in there doing the legwork on rank and file campaigns and strikes, had a dreadful presidential campaign, concentrating on the fact that the candidate was “not a professional politician” but a manual worker, and having nothing specific to say to the millions attracted by the Left Front. When Mélenchon had over a hundred thousand at a meeting, there were no NPA leafletters or paper-sellers to be seen! But in a crisis as deep as today’s, workers under attack don’t care whether the candidate is straight from the factory or not! The NPA came over as sectarian, and out-of-touch, and its score dropped from 4% in the previous presidentials to 1.15% this time round. Once the first round results came through, the party made a call to vote against Sarkozy in the second round, and then seemed to close down for holidays. Meanwhile the Left Front was holding mass meetings calling for the heaviest possible defeat of Sarkozy, and for the building of the resistance, reminding Hollande of some of his positive promises, and of the Left Front’s demands which have to be fought for, against Hollande if necessary. The NPA paper simply commented that the success of the Left Front “can be seen as something positive, but we must bear in mind the limits of Mélenchon’s programme.

As a result of all this, the NPA’s crisis has deepened and a sizeable minority current within it, the Gauche Anticapitaliste, will no doubt leave the NPA and join the Left Front, while maintaining political independence. This newish grouping will be heterogeneous, but promising, I think.

There will be legislative elections in June which the Socialist Party is most likely to win. The new Socialist government will come under attack at once from the financial markets, and will be immediately put to the test. The Left Front will be put to the test too: we will see if it can take a major role in organizing resistance to Socialist party austerity policies. These are exciting times: revolutionaries must be in the thick of the reconstruction, fighting, organizing and explaining, and not heckling from the sidelines.

John Mullen is a member of the NPA in the Paris area.
His blog is here: http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.fr/

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The French presidential elections, anticapitalism and class struggle in France

Affiches du Front de Gauche
Supporters of Sarkozy may be hoping that the recent horrific killings in the South West of France will indirectly help his flagging election campaign, by concentrating political debate on terrorism and law and order. But what is the general situation in France a month before the elections ? What does the race mean in terms of ordinary workers’ interests, and what should anticapitalist activists be pushing for ? John Mullen reports from France.

Sarkozy – the end of the Bling-bling president ?

The presidential race is on in France as all the candidates have now declared. On April 22nd the first round of voting will choose two candidates for the run-off two weeks later. Nicolas Sarkozy, ruling president and the right wing’s young and sharp man of action as was, looks to be under severe pressure. He has been able to update the style  of French Conservative leaders, previously more characterized by slow-speaking patrician tones. Even if he shocked many with his childish outbursts (“Sod off, you shit”, he famously answered a heckler on a factory visit), he managed for a while to unite Conservative opinion behind him. He has also carried off several significant victories for the employers’ class. He pushed through a major pension ‘reform’ (despite millions of people on one-day strikes) meaning that we all have to work longer, for less. He has taxed the rich far less than before, cut jobs in public services, encouraged police racism and clamped down on refugees and other immigrants. He has also been able to ‘reform ‘ universities, putting in place the first steps towards autonomous institutions, with funding and teaching priorities tailored much more closely to the ‘needs’ of big business.

Left activists, quite correctly, concentrate on the latest attacks by the government and employers on the living standards and public services of ordinary people. But if you take a step back, it is clear that working class resilience has meant that the ruling class in France has not been able to take neoliberal attacks anywhere near as far as in many other countries in Europe. Just to take a couple of examples, poverty among senior citizens is running at twice the level in the UK as it is in France, French railways are still nationalized and fees to spend a year at university, over £7000 in the UK, are around £200 in France. In quite a number of areas, France is where Britain was at before the worst of the neoliberal attacks hit. An average full-time employee works three hours a week less in France than in the UK. Schools in poorer areas still get smaller class sizes and a little more funding.

After four years of record unpopularity, and with a million more unemployed than when he was elected, Sarkozy will have a hard time winning this time round. At present he is desperately pulling a  new idea out of the hat every two days. He has clearly decided to play the racist card, and in particular to point to Muslims as a danger to French culture. He can do this a hundred times more easily than he would be able to if the Left or even the radical Left took fighting islamophobia seriously. So Guéant, his interior minister has declared that “Not all civilisations are of equal worth”, and has claimed that if foreign immigrants got the right to vote at local elections they would “make halal meat compulsory in school canteens”. He went on to blame immigrants for a disproportionate amount of crime. Sarkozy backed him up, saying that “the question of halal meat is the primary preoccupation of French people today”, as well as proposing to make it harder for non-French residents to receive welfare aid.

Hollande the “socialist Mr. nice-guy ”

Favourite to become next president, then, is Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, sometimes criticized by the image-obsessed media as lacklustre. He represents a compromise between different wings of the Socialist party. After Dominique Strauss Kahn’s withdrawal from the Socialist primaries, Hollande defeated Martine Aubry, a more Left-wing rival, to become the Socialist Party champion. He is trying to balance the demands of big business with the combativity of workers, and trying to keep on board the Left wing of his own party (which does still have one).

Hollande proposes higher taxes for the rich (up to 75% for the mega-rich) and for big firms, more help for small businesses, and says he will create 60 000 jobs in education. He says he will increase redundancy pay for workers sacked by firms who are making a profit, and stop excessive use of unpaid trainees, as well as introduce a less draconian policy on illegal immigrants (the previous Left government in 1997 gave papers to 70 000 illegal immigrants, about half those who asked). He also promises to gradually reduce the proportion of nuclear-generated electricity.

But he insists that international finance can have confidence in his presidency, and we can be sure that when it comes to the crunch, bank profits will count more for him than people’s living standards. He even boasted, “The left was in government for 15 years in which we liberalised the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations. There is no reason to fear.”  “You could say Obama and I have the same advisers,” he added, hardly a guarantee of radicalism! And after all it is Socialist party governments imposing the fierce and cruel austerity in Greece. And Hollande has no plans to go back on a number of key changes brought in by Sarkozy –the full integration of France into NATO’s high command, and the continuing reduction of the number of civil servants, for example. His promise to give the right to vote at local elections to non-European immigrants provokes a certain scepticism, seeing that it was first a Socialist Party promise… in 1981!

Mélenchon : an impressive dynamic on the Left of the Left

Further to the Left there are three candidates who will interest anti-capitalists. Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the Left Front, Nathalie Artaud, candidate for the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ struggle) and Philippe Poutou, candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), taking up the mantle previously worn by the media success Olivier Besancenot.

Lutte Ouvrière’s candidate is of the least interest. It is an economistic and abstract organization. It’s certainly useful to have an LO militant in your workplace to help take on the bosses, but on fights against racism, nuclear power or for gay rights, you won’t see them around (“the factories are what counts ”).

The runaway success of the campaign is the Left reformist approach  of Jean Luc Mélenchon. Over 8 000 people in some mass meetings, over 10% in some opinion polls. On 18 March, under the slogans “ Take power ” and “ Take the Bastille” he got well over 70 000 to a rally in Paris, with striking workers leading the march, and an impressive concentration on the idea that the elections are just the beginning, and that what is needed is mass radical action.

An ex-minister, Mélenchon split from the Socialist Party in 2008 to form the Left party, which calls for “ A Citizens’ revolution ” or “ Revolution through the ballot box ”. The Left party claims 8 000 members (though only a minority are activists). Mélenchon allied his party with the French Communist party and a couple of small far left groups to form a “ Left Front ”. The Communist Party no longer has the mass support it had, and it has very few young activists, but it still counts 13 MPs and several thousand local councillors around the country, as well as considerable influence in trade unions.  The dynamic of the Left Front has brought back into activity a fair number of ex-Communists.

Left Front demands include better pensions, a rise in the minimum wage, freezing rent levels, and  a legally enforced maximum income for French residents. Their programme calls for strict limits on the use of temporary work contracts, building social housing, opening hospitals rather than closing them, high taxes for the rich, as well as the setting up of a Ministry of Women’s Rights, a welcome to immigrants, and a thorough reform of the parliament and presidency. In foreign policy, the Left Front demands a renegotiation of European economic treaties in order to defend public services, withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan and withdrawal of France from NATO. There are good reasons why the Front provokes widespread enthusiasm. Positive also is the idea that class struggle is important and a mass fightback need to be organized.

But Mélenchon’s mix includes ideas which are far from revolutionary. Just recently, he expressed his satisfaction that the Indian Army had chosen to buy dozens of fighter aircraft from France. He claims that the French Republic is not imperialist, but something to be proud of and his militant secularism makes fighting islamophobia very difficult. At his rallies both the Internationale and the Marseillaise are sung, and there is little clarity about how exactly his radical demands could be imposed.

The New Anticapitalist Party at a crossroads

The most important candidate on the revolutionary Left is Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party (the NPA, of which I am a member). The NPA is generally made up of activists who understand the importance of opposing French imperialism, and who know that effective anti-capitalism will mean at some point a frontal assault on the forces of profit – a revolution, in short. For maintaining local groups of activists who do the legwork when a united campaign is needed against racism or against nuclear energy, for employment or for decent housing, the NPA is still the strongest force. But it has lost no doubt a third of its members over the last two years, and is very much a divided party. At the last conference no strategy got an overall majority, and horse-trading alliances dominate the leadership. The NPA election campaign, around  Philippe Poutou has been very weak, for a number of reasons. Firstly an excessive amount of concentration on the fact that “our candidate is a factory worker, not a professional politician”.

Secondly a tendency (inherited from the LCR) to write long lists of radical demands, whether or not they connect with what workers think is winnable (“Redundancies must be made illegal. ” “Nationalize all the banks and centralize them under the control of workers and citizens”, etc.) This can make mobilization difficult: as one old Marxist used to say about groups who had detailed and ultra-radical programmes : “  It’s better to have a big stick than a drawing of a machine gun. ”

Thirdly and much more serious is the sectarianism of a good section of the NPA (in the sense that they put at the centre of the analysis our party, rather than the working class). So the reaction to Mélenchon’s success by the majority leadership has been to only write and talk about his political weaknesses and faults. Regularly, the NPA paper has the tone “we are the only real Left”, and some comrades even believe that reformism can no longer exist today. Mélenchon is presented as someone who will inevitably betray and rejoin the Social-liberals he left.  The risk is that the NPA will have nothing to say to the tens of thousands of people at Mélenchon’s rallies. Indeed, on March 18,  at the biggest left electoral rally for several decades, NPA leafletters were absent with the exception of one or two individual initiatives ! Instead of starting with the points of agreement and debating strategy, ritual denunciation is the order of the day.

It would have been better, in my view, if the NPA had tried to get an electoral alliance with the Left front, based on a minimum programme, without keeping quiet about our revolutionary ideas. This might not have been accepted (there are sectarians in other parties too), but in the process revolutionary ideas and strategies could have been debated with tens of thousands of activists. Instead, for the moment, the NPA is condemned to repeating noble truths to small meetings of trusted comrades. This is a dreadful missed opportunity, because on everyday struggles, the NPA is generally not sectarian and is the most active force around the country in building united campaigns.

In the short term, the key problem for revolutionaries is how to relate to the workers attracted to Mélenchon, how to debate demands, joint struggles and illusions, and how to win new revolutionary activists. This debate has divided the NPA deeply. On one extreme there is the “Mélenchon ate my hamster ” brigade who cannot imagine anything positive about Mélenchon’s success and flood email lists with pathetic anecdotes showing him in a bad light. On the other extreme, a significant faction of comrades is talking of breaking away from the NPA soon, to set up a less sectarian grouping.

One of the most worrying elements of the millions-strong strikes of 2010 was that no radical Left party recruited large numbers of activists from them. Indeed the NPA did not emphasize the importance of recruitment at all. It may be that The Left Party and the Left Front are now able to build a dynamic radical Left force of activists, and revolutionaries will have to be on the ball concerning how to relate to it.

Racism

The other elephant in the room is islamophobia. Even before the terrible killings of mid-March, this presidential election campaign was shaping up to be the most racist in living memory. The fascist Front National party is running at over 15% in the polls, after Marine Le Pen, the media-savvy daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, took over the reins, running an anti-Muslim and anti-European Community campaign. She has a more acceptable image than her father, and many people have been convinced that the Front National has changed and is no longer “ really ” fascist. She is hoping to profit from the killings in Toulouse, and has already declared that the killer “felt more muslim than French”, and called for a referendum on capital punishment.

Muslims are the favourite targets for racists, because the Right can be sure that the Left will not unite in action to defend them, since it is itself severely infected with islamophobia, born from colonialist hangovers and manic and selective secularism. Indeed, a few months back a bill aimed at limiting the right of Muslim women who wear headscarves to work as childminders, even in their own homes, was pushed through the Senate by the Socialist Party! It may not actually become law, since the Socialists are divided, but the bill shows how widespread islamophobia is.

Further Left, there has been some progress on getting some  parties to oppose islamophobia, or at least it is no longer the case that no left wing organization will lift a finger on the issue. A recent public meeting to defend the right of Muslim mothers wearing a hijab to be allowed to accompany school trips on the same basis as other parents got active support from the New Anti-capitalist Party and from the Green party, as well as from assorted intellectuals. The Left Party and Lutte Ouvrière, are much harder nuts to crack. The Left party runs on a sort of Left Republican ideology, which is extremely suspicious of believers, Muslim or otherwise. In a context where Muslims are being designated as scapegoats, this plays into the hands of the racists. A local Left Party activist said to me recently that it was alright to support a campaign for equal treatment for muslim mothers at our local schools, provided that the local committee in question also campaigned on women’s rights in various Muslim countries !

The future

The general situation for French workers is characterized by a real combativity – regular massive strike movements over the last decade. Sometimes the movements have won victories, like the 2006 movement which scrapped a “First Employment Contract ” a few weeks after the law had been passed. Sometimes they have failed, like the millions-strong strike against Sarkozy’s new pension law in 2010. Other conflicts like the university lecturers strike of 2008 ended as semi-victories, with the government having to shelve half its neoliberal plans for this workforce. The most recent defeat of the workers’ movement, on pensions, has led millions to think that for the moment the ballot box is a better bet than striking. It will be an excellent start if Sarkozy can be thrown out, but rebuilding an anti-capitalist Left which takes seriously all struggles against oppression will require clarity about alliances, and about the strength of reformism.

John Mullen is a member of the New Anticapitalist Party in the Paris area

For those who read French :

Campaign site of Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party http://poutou2012.org/

Home site of the New Anticapitalist Party http://www.npa2009.org/

Campaign site of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front  http://www.placeaupeuple2012.fr/

My anticapitalist blog http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.fr/

 

This article was first published by Socialist Alternative (Australia).

 

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.