Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Athens: working class resistance breaks Pasok government

I don't have time, and I'm feeling a little unwell thankyouverymuch, but I can't not mention this. Greece, as you all know, is on the precipice of default. The debt situation is unsustainable, and borrowing with strings attached is accelerating the crisis. But the government is in denial, insistent on sticking to the austerity remedy, ready to force through yet another round of cuts, including 20% wage cuts across the public sector and extensive privatization. It was only when I was speaking on the Eurozone crisis in Amsterdam a while back that the full scale of this expropriation was made apparent to me by a member of the audience. The sale of Greek public assets worth $71bn at fire sale prices, as a condition of the loans from the IMF and European Central Bank, includes not just the sale of public industries, not just the post offices and airports, not just the infrastructure, but acres and acres of prime real estate.

Today, parliament was due to vote on the latest cuts package. A 24 hour general strike was called, and hundreds of thousands of striking workers converged on parliament to cordon it off. Throughout today, the workers, together with the aganaktismenoi (outraged), have been periodically engaged in direct combat with riot police who are trying to disperse the protests (there's a live feed of the protests here, footage here). Signals from comrades, rumours from Twitter, feedback from mailing lists, etc., suggest that this is a significant departure from previous demonstrations in which the police like to finish off a protest by isolating factions of it and meting out a punishment beating. Instead, thousands of riot cops with batons, tear gas and water cannons have been fighting with the mainstream of the protest in Syntagma Square in an effort to break it up. And the protesters have held their ground. This could be seen as analogous to the way in which the Papandreou government has desperately sought to time and pitch their cuts and sell-offs to isolate specific sectors of resistance and beat them one by one - yet the scale of the cuts has necessarily produced a generalised response that has a real chance of defeating the government.

Notably, it is just workers who are involved in the struggle against the cuts. Not so long ago, an incoming PASOK government was able to carry the benefit of the doubt as it appealed to voters to support its cuts package. It could do so far more plausibly than their right-wing New Democracy predecessors. As a consequence, told that the alternative to cuts was bankruptcy, a majority acquiesced for a brief time in the cuts. In seemingly no time at all, the benefit of the doubt was frittered away, and now there is an extraordinarily broad coalition against the cuts, with some 80% opposing more austerity. Even small business owners are joining in over the near doubling of VAT. I don't know what implications this has for the Greek power bloc, which is probably extremely narrow, but the divisions at the level of the state suggest that there's a crisis of hegemony within the bloc, as well as over society as a whole. Mason describes the Greek state losing the functions of a state.

This doesn't necessarily have to benefit the left. The pitch of struggle is self-consciously militant, inspired by the Egyptian revolution and its shockwaves. The aim today would presumably be for the government to lose the vote and fall. But the government may not lose the vote, or if it does, the ruling class and the EU and IMF may find other means to force through austerity. The New Democracy would probably win any election in the short run, and - despite their opportunistic opposition - would attempt to do much the same. And if the working class response is not equal to the challenge, if the class begins to retreat, if repression gets the better of them, then there are some very dark possibilities. The Nazis are already mobilising in armed gangs, taking advantage of the despair and the rising street crime, and scapegoating immigrants. In fact, one of the features of this crisis is the asynchronicity between ideological, industrial and parliamentary effects. It is quite likely that the right will be able to benefit electorally from anti-austerity struggles in the short term, particularly where social democratic parties are the ones imposing austerity. That's certainly true of both Greece and Spain.

Nonetheless, the Greek struggle should be seen as part of a rising tide of class struggles globally, signposted by a series of mass strikes in Europe last year, the Middle East revolutions this year, and Spain's Tahrir moment. And their chances of success are increased by their tendency to generalise rather than remain sectional responses. This is why the UK government is threatening unions, warning them off coordinated strike action, especially after civil servants voted for strikes. The Greek example should tell us a lot. Greece is much further down the road of austerity than Britain is, and has a much more vibrant tradition of militancy. The entrenched, utterly inflexible position of the ruling class, backed of course by the US and EU ruling classes, shows the scale of mobilisation that is necessary to shift them, never mind defeat them. Yet, it may in the end also show how brittle the system is.

ps: As I write, there are rumours that Papandreou has offered to resign, and it's become clear that the administration can't govern. It is reported that Pasok is now in power-sharing talks with the New Democracy to form a grand cutters' coalition. If this is an example of Caesarism, then it is of a deeply reactionary kind that is likely to become more common in the present conjuncture. This would obviously raise the stakes for workers resistance. The ruling class would presumably rally behind any such coalition, determined to show its unity, and embark on a new round of offensives - politically, ideologically, and industrially. The media will reinforce again and again that there is no alternative; the state and the employers will go after the unions and left parties that back militancy, and parliamentarians will argue - as they have in the past - that strikes undermine the Greek economy and make the crisis worse. Pasok will bring pressure to bear within the labour movement, and the Communists (KKE) will be subject to a new round of red-baiting due to their influence in the unions. This makes it all the more important that none of the momentum that the working class has built up is squandered. But it also raises the obvious questions of political organisation. If traditional left-reformism leads to this cul de sac, then it's a certainty that alternative modes of organising the working class and its alliances will be hotly debated in the coming months. I doubt a single revolutionary party is yet in a position to offer that alternative, but the radical left and anticapitalist alliances such as ANT.AR.SY.A - which quadrupled its vote in the last regional election - can involve revolutionaries in productive relations with other political forces while sharply posing alternatives to the mainstream parties within the working class movement.