Never has the bankruptcy of the capitalist system been more obvious. And never before have such massive attacks on the working class been planned. What developments in the class struggle can we expect?
The crisis is so serious that the bourgeoisie can no longer hide it
The subprime crisis of 2008 led to an open world crisis, resulting in a fall in economic activity without precedent since 1929:
- within a few months, a whole number of financial institutions fell like dominoes;
- there was a proliferation of factory closures with hundreds of thousands of workers being laid off worldwide.
The measures the bourgeoisie has used to prevent the collapse being even deeper and more brutal have been no different from the successive policies applied since the beginning of the 1970s, based on credit. That's the way a new step in world debt has been taken. But today the growth in world debt is such that the present phase in the economic crisis is often called the "debt crisis".
The bourgeoisie has prevented the worst, for the moment. That said, not only has there not been a recovery, but a number of countries present the risk of serious insolvency, with debt above 100% of GDP. Not only Greece but also Portugal, Spain (5th largest economy in the EU), Ireland and Italy. While Britain has not reached this level of debt, it shows signs that specialists regard as very worrying.
Faced with the gravity of the crisis of overproduction, the bourgeoisie has only one resort: the state. But this, in turn, reveals its fragility. The bourgeoisie can only delay their repayment dates while all the economic players have no option but this headlong flight which is becoming more and more difficult and risky: always going further into debt. In this way the historic bases of the crisis tend to become more obvious. The bourgeoisie can no longer camouflage the reality of the crisis, as in the past, making it clearer and clearer that there is no possible solution within its system.
In such a context, the insolvency of a country incapable of paying the interest on its debt from now on can provoke a chain reaction leading to the insolvency of many economic players (banks, enterprises, other countries). Certainly the bourgeoisie still tries to confuse the issue by focusing attention on speculation and speculators. Speculation is real, but it permeates the whole system and not only some "profiteers" or "criminal bosses". Mad finance, meaning unlimited debt and speculation on everything goes with, and is encouraged by, capitalism as a whole, as a means to delay the demands of the recession. This is capitalism's way of life today. The problem also resides in capitalism itself, incapable of surviving without new and ever more massive injections of credit.
What remedies are the bourgeoisie concocting to face the present crisis of debt? The bourgeoisie is in the process of trying to push through a terrible austerity plan in Greece. Another is being prepared in Spain. In France, new attacks on pensions and retirement are being planned.
Can the austerity plans contribute to loosening the grip of the crisis?
Are the austerity plans a way to a new recovery? Will they permit a rise, however small, in the proletarian standard of living that has suffered such hard attacks in the last two years of the crisis?
Certainly not! The world bourgeoisie cannot allow a country like Greece to "run down" (despite all Angela Merkel's thundering), without running the risk of similar consequences for some of its creditors. But the only aid it can give is new credit at "acceptable" rates (however the loans at 6% imposed on Greece by the EU recently are already particularly high). In return guarantees of budgetary rigour have been demanded. The recipient must provide evidence that it will not be a bottomless pit for "international aid". So Greece faces the demand to "reduce its way of life" to slow the growth of its deficit and debt. On condition of harsh attacks on the living conditions of the working class, the world capitalist market will have new confidence in Greece, which will be able to attract foreign loans and investments.
It is no paradox that the confidence accorded to Greece will depend on its capacity to reduce the rate of growth of its debt, and not its ability to stop the growth itself, which would be impossible. This means that for the world's capital markets the solvency of a country hangs by an increase in its debt that is "not too large". In other words, a country that has been declared insolvent because of its debt can become solvent again even if its debt continues to rise. Besides, Greece has every interest in holding out the threat of its "insolvency" to try and lower the interest rates charged by its creditors who, if they are not paid at all, will register a complete loss on their mounting credits and find themselves rapidly "in the red". In today's over-indebted world, solvency is not based on objective reality but on confidence... which is not based on reality.
The capitalists are forced to adhere to this faith; or else they must cease to believe in the durability of their system of exploitation. But if the capitalists have to believe it, this is not the case for the workers! The austerity plans as a whole allow the bourgeoisie to reassure themselves, but do not resolve the contradictions of capitalism at all and cannot even curb the growth of debt.
The austerity plans demand a drastic reduction in the cost of the workforce, which will be applied in all countries since all, to varying degrees, are confronted with enormous problems of debt and deficit. Such a policy, for which there is no real alternative in the framework of capitalism, can prevent a panic, even precipitate a mini-recovery built on sand, but certainly not cure the financial system. Still less can it resolve the contradictions of capitalism which are pushing it ever further into debt on pain of being shaken by more and more brutal depressions. But it must also make the working class accept the austerity plans. For the bourgeoisie these are the highest stakes and it also has its eyes fixed on the proletarian response to these attacks.
In what spirit is the working class approaching this new wave of attacks?
From the beginning of the 2000s the bourgeoisie's calls to "tighten your belts now so that things will be better tomorrow" were no longer succeeding in creating illusions in the working class, even if there were differences between one country and another at this level. The recent aggravation of the crisis has not, up to now, given rise to a broadening of the mobilisations of the working class over the last two or three years. The tendency was even the reverse in 2009. The characteristics of some of the attacks, particularly massive redundancies, have made the working class response to these more difficult because:
- the bosses and governments have hidden behind the peremptory argument: "It is nothing to do with us if unemployment rises and you are laid off: it's because of the crisis";
- with the closure of an enterprise or factory, workers lose the strike weapon, which accentuates their feeling of impotence and their disarray.
However, even if these difficulties weigh still more heavily on the working class, the situation is not blocked. This is illustrated by a change in spirit in the working class and expressed by small movements in the class struggle.
Workers' exasperation and anger is fed by a profound indignation in the face of a more and more scandalous and intolerable situation: the very survival of capitalism has, among other things, exposed the reality of two "different worlds" within the same society more plainly than ever. In the first world we find the immense majority of the population who experience all the injustices and poverty and must pay for the second, the world of the ruling class, with an indecent and arrogant display of power and wealth.
More directly linked to the present crisis, the widespread idea that "the banks have left us broke and we can't get out of it" (when we see states themselves close to cessation of payments) is less and less able to mislead and divert the anger against the system. Here we see the limits to the bourgeoisie's speeches which make the banks responsible for the present crisis in order to try and spare its system as a whole. Mud from the "banking scandal" is sticking to the whole of capitalism.
Even if the working class internationally remains stunned and helpless in the face of the avalanche of blows from governments of left and right, it is not resigned to it; it has not failed to react over the last few months. In fact the fundamental characteristics of the majority of workers' mobilisations since 2003 have appeared more explicitly. In particular, workers' solidarity is tending to impose itself anew as a fundamental need of the struggle, after having been denatured and depreciated in the 1990s. At present it is expressed in the form of initiatives which are certainly very minoritarian, but hold promise for the future.
The struggle of the workers of Tekel in Turkey last December and January was a beacon for the class struggle. It united Turkish and Kurdish workers in the same struggle (when a nationalist conflict has divided these populations for years), just as it showed a ferocious will to extend the struggle to other sectors and to oppose union sabotage.
At the very heart of capitalism, while the union framework is more powerful and sophisticated than in the peripheral countries, which allows it to prevent the explosion of massive struggles, we are seeing a renewal of working class combativity. These characteristics were verified in Vigo in Spain in early February. There the unemployed went to employed workers in the naval dockyards and demonstrated together, rallying other workers in order to stop work in the whole naval sector. What was most remarkable in this action was that the initiative was taken by workers laid off from the naval dockyards, having been replaced by immigrant workers "who sleep in the parks and eat just a sandwich a day". Far from eliciting xenophobic reactions from the workers with whom they have been put into competition by the bourgeoisie, these workers expressed their solidarity against the inhuman conditions of exploitation reserved for immigrant workers. These manifestations of workers' solidarity had already also seen in Britain among the construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in January and June 2009 as well as in the naval dockyards in Sestao in Spain in April 2009.
In these struggles the working class has, even if still in a limited and embryonic way, shown not only its militancy but also its capacity to counter the ruling class' ideological campaigns to divide it, expressing proletarian solidarity, uniting workers from different corporations, sectors, ethnicities or nationalities in the same struggle. Similarly, the revolt of young proletarians, organised in general assemblies and with the support of the population, in Greece in December 2008, struck terror into the ruling class, fearing the "contagion" of the Greek example for other European countries, especially among the young generation of students. Today it is no accident that the bourgeoisie has again turned its eyes to the proletarian reactions in Greece to the austerity plan imposed by the government and other European Union states. These reactions are a valuable test case for other states threatened by the bankruptcy of their own national economies. Besides, the almost simultaneous announcement of similar plans has also precipitated demonstrations of tens of thousands of proletarians in the streets of Spain and Portugal. So, despite the difficulties that still weigh on the class struggle, a change of spirit is nevertheless at work within the working class. Everywhere in the world workers' exasperation and anger are deepening and generalising.
Reactions to austerity plans and attacks
In Greece on 3rd March the government announced a new austerity plan, the third in three months, including a rise in consumer taxes, a 30% reduction in the 13th month of salary and a 60% reduction in the 14th, premiums affecting civil servants (a fall of between 12% and 30% of their salaries) as well as freezing public sector pensions and private sector pay. But this plan has been very badly received by the population, especially by workers and pensioners.
In November/December 2008 the country was shaken for over a month by a social explosion, mainly led by proletarian youth, following the assassination of a youth by the police. This year the austerity measures announced by the Socialist government are threatening to unleash an explosion not only among students and the unemployed but also among the main battalions of the working class.
A general strike movement on the 24th February 2010 against the austerity plan was widely followed and a demonstration of civil servants mobilised about 40,000. A large number of civil servants and pensioners also demonstrated in the centre of Athens on 3rd March.
The events which followed have shown still more clearly that the proletariat is mobilised: "Just hours after the announcement of the new measures, laid-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."
In the days before the general strike of 11th March a series of strikes and occupations took place: the workers laid off from Olympic Airways occupied the offices of the General State Accountancy, while employees of the electricity company occupied the employment agencies in the name of the "right of the future unemployed, which we are", according to them. The workers at the state publishing company occupied their place of work and refused to print the legal documents for the economic measures, pointing out that until the law is printed it is not valid... Inland revenue officials stopped work for 48 hours; driving school employees in the North of the country struck for 3 days; even the judges and other court officials stopped all activity for 4 hours a day. No rubbish bins were emptied for several days in Athens, Patras and Salonica, the dustmen having blocked the large rubbish dumps in these cities. In the town of Komitini workers at ENKLO textiles held protest marches and strikes: they occupied two banks.
But if wider sections of the working class in Greece have been mobilised than during the struggles in November-December 2008, the bourgeoisie's apparatus to contain those struggles has been better prepared and more effective in order to sabotage the workers' response.
In fact the bourgeoisie has taken centre stage to turn workers' anger and militancy towards political and ideological dead ends. These have emptied out all the potential for proletarian solidarity and for taking control of the struggle that had started to take shape in the struggle of young workers in 2008.
Patriotism and nationalism are widely used to divide the workers and isolate them from their class brothers in other countries: in Greece they used the fact that the German bourgeoisie was refusing to aid the Greek economy, and the PASOK government didn't hesitate to exploit anti-German feelings that persist from the time of the Nazi occupation.
Control by the parties and unions has allowed them to divide workers one from another. So the Olympic Airways employees have not allowed anyone outside the company into the public building they were occupying and the union leaders made them leave it without consulting a mass meeting. When other workers wanted to go to the public Treasury, occupied by workers from the state publishers, they were curtly sent away on the pretext "that they do not belong to the ministry"!
The profound anger of workers in Greece is directed against PASOK and the union leaders who are allied to it. On 5th March the leader of the GSEE, the central private sector union, was abused and hit when he tried to speak in front of the crowd and had to be protected by riot police and hide in the Parliament building, with the crowd hooting ironically that he had found his proper place: in the nest of thieves, assassins and liars.
But the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and its official union, the PAME, pass themselves off as "radical" alternatives to the PASOK while they are conducting a campaign to blame the crisis on the bankers and on "the misdeeds of liberalism".
In November/December 2008 the movement was largely spontaneous and held open assemblies in the occupied schools and universities. The headquarters of the Communist Party (KKE), like the headquarters of the PAME union confederation, were occupied, a sign of the clear distrust of the union and Stalinist apparatus, which had denounced the young demonstrators as lumpenproletarians and spoiled children of the bourgeoisie.
But this time the Greek Communist Party is ostensibly at the head of the most radical strikes, demonstrations and occupations: "On Thursday morning, workers under the Communist Party union umbrella PAME occupied the Ministry of Finance on Syntagma square (...) 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". Many strikes have also been called on the initiative of the Communist Party. On 3rd March it called a "general strike" and a demonstration starting from 4th and from 5th in different cities. PAME has stepped up its spectacular actions, sometimes occupying the Finance ministry, sometimes the locality of the stock exchange.
On 11 March, Greece was 90% paralysed over the whole country for 24 hours by the movement expressing the population's anger following a second call for a general strike in less than a month by the two main unions. More than 3 million people (from a total population of 11 million) took part. The 11 March demonstration in Athens was the largest in 15 years and showed the working class's determination to respond to the capitalist offensive.
In all regions in the world, in Algeria, Russia, among immigrant manual workers in the Emirates, super-exploited and deprived of all social protection, among British workers and among students reduced to a precarious existence in the former richest American state, California, the current situation shows an underlying tendency towards the recovery of the class struggle internationally.
The bourgeoisie is confronted with a situation in which, in addition to redundancies from enterprises in difficulties, states must carry out frontal attacks on the working class to make it pay for the debt. The direct responsibility of the state for the attacks in this instance is much more easily identifiable than in the case of redundancies in sectors where the state can present itself as the "protector" of employees, even if not a very effective one. The fact that the state can be clearly seen for what it is, the main defender of the interests of the capitalist class as a whole against the working class as a whole, is a factor which encourages the development of the class struggle, its unity and its politicisation.
In the current situation all the elements for the explosion of massive struggles are developing. But what will set these off is certainly the build up of exasperation, discontent and indignation. The bourgeoisie's application of the different austerity plans in different countries will provide the working class with so many occasions to gain experience of struggle and draw lessons.
Massive struggles, an important step in the development of the class struggle... but not the last
The collapse of Stalinism, and above all the bourgeoisie's ideological exploitation of it, based on the greatest lie of the century which identifies the Stalinist regimes with socialism, has left traces which are still at work in the working class today.
Faced with the bourgeoisie's "evidence" that "communism doesn't work; the proof is that it has been abandoned in favour of capitalism by the populations affected", workers can only turn away from any alternative society to capitalism.
The resulting situation is very different to the end of the 1960s from that point of view. At that time the massive scale of workers' combats, especially the May 1968 strike in France and the Italian "hot autumn" in 1969, showed that the working class could be a significant force in the life of society. The idea that it could one day overturn capitalism did not appear to be an unrealistic dream, as it does today.
The difficulty of embarking on massive struggles shown by the proletariat since the 1990s resulted in a loss of self-confidence, which has not been overcome by the renewal of class struggle since 2003.
Only the development of massive struggles will enable the proletariat to recover confidence in its own strength and put forward its own perspective again. So this is a fundamental step in which revolutionaries must encourage the working class's capacity to understand what is at stake - the historic dimension of its struggles, to recognise its enemies and to take its struggles into its own hands.
However important this future stage in the class struggle, it will not mean an end to the proletariat's hesitations in about setting out on the road to revolution.
Already in 1852 Marx brought out the difficult and tortuous course of proletarian revolution as opposed to bourgeois revolutions which "like those of the 18th century, storm swiftly from success to success".
This difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as revolutionary classes results from the differences between the conditions of the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution.
Taking political power for the capitalist class was the end point of a whole process of economic transformation within feudal society. During this process the old feudal relations of production were progressively supplanted by capitalist relations of production. The bourgeoisie depended on the new economic relations to take political power.
The process of proletarian revolution is completely different. Communist relations of production, which are not market relations, cannot develop within capitalist society. Because it is the exploited class in capitalism, deprived by definition of property in the means of production, the working class does not have and cannot have any economic power in the conquest of political power. It relies on its consciousness and organisation in the struggle. In contrast to the revolutionary bourgeoisie, the first act of communist transformation of social relations must be conscious and deliberate: taking political power at the world level by the proletariat as a whole organised in workers' councils.
The enormity of this task is evidently one to make the working class hesitate, and doubt its own strength. But it is the only road for the survival of humanity: the abolition of capitalism, of exploitation, and the creation of a new society.
FW, March 31st 2010.
. It is evident that the bankruptcy of a state does not at all have the same characteristics as that of an enterprise: if it becomes incapable of repaying its debts there is no question of a state "shutting up shop", laying off all its civil servants and dissolving its structures (police, army, education or administrative bodies) even if, in some countries (notably in Russia or certain African countries), the state employees can go unpaid for months due to the crisis.
. See the following articles on our website, internationalism.org: on the strikes in Britain "Construction workers at the centre of class struggle"; on "Turkey: Solidarity with Tekel workers' resistance against government and unions!"; on Spain "Vigo: joint struggle of the unemployed and shipyard workers".
. Blog on libcom.org.
. PASOK - Panhellenic Socialist Movement
. In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.