Austerity package meets working class resistance

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After Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed and then ditched the idea of a referendum, globally share prices rallied. After winning a confidence vote but then indicating he would step aside, the financial markets looked forward to the possibility of Evangelos Venizelos leading the team to meet up with the EU/IMF/ECB troika to negotiate the conditions of the next bailout. Economic reality means that this is much more than a routine visit to the bank manager. There is so much at stake for Greece, the eurozone and the world economy.

If Greece was to default on its loans it would have a widespread impact way beyond its national frontiers. Effectively Greece has already been excused billions. It has been agreed that Greece’s creditors will annul 50% of what’s owed to them, effectively wiping out 106 billion euros at a stroke. This was presented as a ‘haircut’. Capitalism doesn’t have any solutions to its historic crisis, only deepening austerity. None of the alternative measures proposed by different factions of the bourgeoisie offer the prospect of a revival in the economy. This applies just as much to printing money and resorting to debt and quantitative easing, as it does to viciously cutting and cutting again without any concern for the impact it will have on any potential for growth.

The only prospect is austerity

In May 2010 after the first massive 110 billion euro bailout of the Greek economy there was a 10% cut in public sector wages alongside a whole range of measures. These were on top of an already existing austerity regime. This ‘rescue plan’ proved utterly ineffective and a second package was negotiated this July, which led to further extensive cuts.

As was widely predicted this didn’t have a positive effect on the economy either. So, in October, there was a further round of negotiations. The banks might have taken a ‘haircut’, but 30,000 more public sector workers were to lose their jobs and deeper wage and pensions cuts were proposed. European leaders have said there will be no more money if Greece is not committed to the euro. There is no real choice, for either Greece or Europe, as all routes taken tend to exacerbate rather than soothe the economic crisis. The conservative New Democracy opposition in Greece has been very severe in its rhetoric against Papandreou’s PASOK government, but they’re really only quibbling about details. Eventually, they endorsed the latest austerity package. After all, before PASOK came to power in May 2009, the previous ND government had already started the attacks on living standards that were to intensify under Papandreou.

Workers’ resistance to attacks

It was during the last New Democracy government in December 2008 and early 2009 that there was a wave of militant protests against the shooting of a 15-year-old student by the police. In the occupations and assemblies that took place during that movement there was a clear demonstration of the potential for struggle.

The size and militancy of the many general strikes in Greece in 2010 showed that the working class in Greece was not just going to roll over in the face of the frontal assault on its living standards. However, the degree of control by the unions ultimately limited the impact of these workers’ actions.

In Greece in 2011, apart from the strikes called by unions in response to the very real anger felt throughout the working class, there has also been an echo of the ‘indignados’ movement in Spain with assemblies meeting in many cities. Among other concerns they considered the perspectives for the development of the struggle.

And, as new government measures have been announced, proposed, or rumoured, there have been further strikes and protests. These have involved particular groups of workers or been, like the 5 October general strike, throughout the public sector. The 48 hour general strike of 19-20 October involved the most widespread protests in decades. There were more occupations, initiatives beyond the actions proposed by union leaderships, and the whole scale of the protests and the range of those demonstrating in massive protests across the country was noted, for example, by the cynical foreign press corps. Offices, government buildings, banks, schools and courts were closed. Hospitals were running on an emergency basis. Public transport came to a standstill.

In a major demonstration outside the Greek parliament the Stalinist KKE and Stalinist PAME union made a point of defending parliament. This was not just a ceremonial guard but involved beating up and intimidating protesters. Not content with attacking those who had come to demonstrate, they handed some over to the police. This activity inevitably lead to clashes with those who wanted to reach parliament. This was not an isolated outbreak of violence as Stalinists attacked demonstrators protesting at a number of other locations.

Nationalism is always the enemy

Every year on 28 October in Greece there are parades in commemoration of the day in 1940 when Greek dictator Metaxas refused an ultimatum from Mussolini. This led to an Italian invasion and marked the beginning of Greek participation in the Second World War. Usually this feast of Greek nationalism is marked by an epidemic of Greek flags and the usual speeches, but this year there were protests against the austerity regime. All over Greece missiles were thrown, parades were blocked, MPs of the main parties were harassed and in some instances parades were called off.

In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, the Greek President was greeted by 30,000 demonstrators. Police were unable to disperse the protesters, the parade was cancelled and demonstrators took over the podium. These protests were not organised by the unions and seem to have been in many respects spontaneous. The President said that the choice was between participating in protests or in elections. Papandreou denounced the “insult” to Greece’s “national struggles and institutions” and the ND leader complained that protests had “ruined our national holiday”.

However, while it is true that disrupting 28 October commemorations is more or less unheard of, the protests were not entirely devoid of nationalism. In particular, there was a certain amount of anti-German sentiment expressed, partly based on Germany’s role in the EU. A banner in Crete said “No to the Fourth Reich”. Also Papandreou was denounced as a “traitor” in a way that could only have a nationalist interpretation. But, looked at overall, these most recent protests are further confirmation that, rather than reverentially bowing in front of its masters, the working class is not crumpling under the attacks.

The bourgeoisie can’t expect a passive working class

The bourgeoisie has no solutions to its economic problems. Not only that, it is faced with a difficult social situation in which workers in some places are resisting the attempts to make them pay for the capitalist crisis. Vicious austerity measures don’t inevitably immediately lead to workers’ struggles. Look at the example of Ireland where, so far, the response to the cuts in living standards has been very muted.

Yet the bourgeoisie does expect a response to its measures sooner or later as it has nothing else to offer. In Spain, for example, the ruling Socialist Party has already raised taxes, cut wages and radically reduced investment. If it loses power after the forthcoming 20 November election the incoming government has promised to further deepen budget cuts. This is not going to aid economic recovery and will make one more contribution towards a global recession. In turn, as a recent International Labour Organisation report pointed out, this is going to contribute to widespread social unrest.

Papandreou’s manoeuvres around the referendum were also a demonstration that the Greek ruling class knows that it can’t simply ram austerity down the workers’ throats, however much the leaders of the EU and IMF might demand it. But those same leaders are also going to find workers in ‘their own’ countries behaving in the same rude and unacceptable manner in the near future.

 Car 5/11/11