The eyes of the world ruling class are on Greece today, not only because the failure of its economy is a harbinger of what lies in store for the rest of Europe, but above all because the bourgeoisie is well aware that the social situation in Greece is a real powder-keg.
In December 2008, the country was shaken by a month-long social uprising, led mainly by proletarian youth, following the police murder of a young anarchist. This year the austerity measures announced by the Socialist government - which include wage cuts for public sector workers, a delay in the retirement age and tax increases on alcohol and cigarettes - are threatening to ignite an explosion not only among the students and the unemployed but also the main battalions of the employed working class. It is thus of the utmost importance - for the bourgeoisie - to be able to provide examples of workers tamely accepting austerity measures ‘for the good of the economy'. Unfortunately for them, this is not exactly the scenario being played out in Greece at the moment.
In the two weeks leading up to the announcement of the government package, there had been a widely followed 24 hour general strike against the threatened austerity measures, a longer running strike by customs officials which paralysed exports and imports, as well as actions by government employees, fishermen and others.
The events following the announcement of the package at the beginning of March showed even more clearly that there is a clear and present proletarian danger.
"Just hours after the announcement of the new measures, layed-off workers of Olympic Airways attacked riot police lines guarding the State General Accountancy and have occupied the building, in what they call a open-ended occupation. The action has led to the closing of Athens' main commercial street, Panepistimiou, for long hours.
On Thursday morning, workers under the Communist Party union umbrella PAME occupied the Ministry of Finance on Syntagma square (which remains under occupation) as well as the county headquarters of the city of Trikala. Later, PAME also occupied 4 TV station in the city in Patras, and the state TV station of Salonica, forcing the news broadcasters to play a DVD against government measures.
On Thursday afternoon, two protest marches took to the streets of Athens. The first, called by PAME, and the second by OLME, the teachers union and supported by ADEDY. The latter gathered around 10,000 people despite less than 24h notice, and during its course limited clashes developed with the riot police which was pilled [sic] with rocks outside the EU Commission building. Also two protest marches took to the streets of Salonica at the same time. A protest march was also realised in the city of Lamia.
Finally, the party offices of PASOK in the town of Arta were smashed by what it is believed to be people enraged by the measures" (from the blog by Taxikipali a regular contributor to libcom.org: http://libcom.org/news/mass-strikes-greece-response-new-measures-04032010).
Soon after these lines were written, another post by the same blogger wrote about the long running battles that broke out at the Athens demonstration following a police assault on Manolis Glezos, an icon of the anti-Nazi resistance during the war (http://libcom.org/news/long-battles-erupt-athens-protest-march-05032010). At the time of writing a whole number of further strikes and demonstrations have been planned.
Unions radicalise to keep control
In December 2008 the movement was largely spontaneous and often organised itself around general assemblies in the occupied schools and universities. The HQ of the Communist Party (KKE) union confederation was itself occupied, expressing a clear distrust of the Stalinist union apparatus which had frequently denounced the young protesters both as lumpen-proletarians and spoiled sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie.
Today however the KKE has shown that it is still a vital instrument of bourgeois rule by taking charge of the strikes, demonstrations and occupations. There has certainly been overt rage against the Socialist GSEE union, which is seen as a direct tool of the PASOK government: Panagopoulos, the boss of GSEE, an umbrella of private sector unions, was physically attacked at the demo and had to be rescued by the Presidential Guard, but so far the KKE and its unions have been able to present themselves as the leading and organising force of the movement.
The danger for the Greek bourgeoisie is that if the present mood of defiance continues, the workers will begin to see beyond this false radicalism, and that in seeking to take their struggles beyond the set-pieces imposed by the union machinery, workers will be compelled to take things into their own hands, adopting the ‘assemblyist' model which began to take shape in December 2008.
But even in its present stage, the struggle in Greece is a real worry for the international ruling class as a whole. Similar austerity measures in Spain, centred round a two years postponement of retirement age, provoked angry demonstrations in a number of cities, while in Portugal, on 4 March (the same day as the Athens demonstrations) hospitals, schools and transport were severely disrupted as public sector workers staged a 24-hour strike against a wage freeze and other austerity measures. The stoppage also hit courts, customs offices and refuse collections.
In France, there have been expressions of active militancy among teachers, railway workers, shop employees and oil workers. In the latter case, solidarity strikes spread from one refinery to another, and across different oil companies, after threats to close the Total refinery near Dunkirk.
In sum, the mood of fear and passivity which tended to reign when the economic crisis took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2008 is beginning to be replaced by one of indignation, as workers openly ask: why should we pay for capitalism's crisis?
Of course these stirrings of class consciousness can be and are being sidetracked into ideological dead ends, notably through the world-wide campaign to blame it all on the bankers or on ‘neo-liberalism'. In Greece, the fact that the German bourgeoisie was most pointed in its refusal to bale out the Greek economy led the PASOK government to play on the anti-German sentiments that still survive from the Nazi occupation.
But reality and ideology inevitably clash. The crisis is evidently world wide and everywhere the rulers are calling for sacrifices to save their moribund system. In resisting these calls, workers in all countries will grow to recognise their common interests in opposing and ultimately overturning the system that exploits them and drives them towards poverty.