Social revolts in North Africa and the Middle East, nuclear catastrophe in Japan, war in Libya
The last few months have been rich in historic events. Although the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East are not directly linked to the tsunami which ravaged Japan and the nuclear crisis which ensued, all these events highlight the alternative which, more than ever, is facing humanity: socialism or barbarism. While the echo of the uprisings is still ringing in numerous countries, capitalist society is proving lamentably unable to deal with nuclear power. On the other hand, the heroism of the Japanese workers who are putting their lives at risk at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is a striking contrast to the disgusting hypocrisy of the imperialist powers in Libya.
The mobilisation of the masses brings down governments
For several months, protest movements, unprecedented in their geographic spread, have been shaking a whole series of countries. The initial revolts in the Mahgreb were rapidly emulated over the next few weeks, with demonstrations in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Sub-Saharan Africa etc. It is impossible to make a strict identity between all these movements, both in terms of their class content and of the response of the bourgeoisie, but a common factor is the economic crisis, which since 2008 has plunged whole populations into an increasingly unbearable poverty and made the corrupt and repressive regimes in the region more and more resented.
The working class has not yet presented itself in these events as an autonomous force capable of assuming the leadership of the movements, which have often taken the form of revolts by the whole non-exploiting population, from ruined peasants to middle strata on the road to proletarianisation. But, on the one hand, the influence of the working class on the consciousness expressed in these movements has been tangible, both in the slogans and the forms of organisation they have thrown up. A tendency towards self-organisation, for example, appeared in the neighbourhood protection committees set up in Egypt and Tunisia to face up to police repression and the bands of thugs cynically released from prison to sow chaos. Above all, many of these revolts openly sought to widen the movement through mass demonstrations, assemblies and attempts to coordinate and centralise decision-making. At the same time, the working class sometimes played a decisive role in the way events unfolded. It was in Egypt, where the working class is the most concentrated and experienced in the region, that workers’ strikes were the most massive. Their rapid extension and the rejection of control by the official unions played a major role in pushing the military leaders, under pressure from the USA, to get rid of Hosni Mubarak.
Mobilisations are continuing and the wind of revolt is blowing through other countries; the bourgeoisie is having a difficult time putting a stop to it all. Above all in Egypt and Tunisia, where the “peoples’ spring” is supposed to have triumphed, there are still strikes and confrontations with the “democratic” state. All of these revolts constitute a formidable bank of experience on the road that leads to revolutionary consciousness. Nevertheless, while the wave of revolts, for the first time in a long while, has explicitly linked political issues to the economic question, the response to this question has come up against the illusions which still weigh on the working class, in particular the democratic and nationalist mirage. These weaknesses have often allowed the democratic pseudo-opposition to present itself as an alternative to the corrupt cliques in power. In fact, these “new governments” are often still so stuffed with members of the old teams that it’s a joke. In Tunisia, the population has even forced part of the government to resign when it appeared too obviously as an exact re-edition of the Ben Ali regime. In Egypt, the army, Mubarak’s historic power-base now holds all the command posts of the state and is already manoeuvring to ensure its position in the new arrangement. In Libya, the “Interim National Council” is led by...Gaddafi’s former interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes, and a gang of former high officials who, having organised repression for their master and having benefited from his pecuniary generosity, have suddenly discovered a taste for human rights and democracy.
In Libya, imperialist war rages on the ruins of a popular revolt
On the basis of these weaknesses, the situation in Libya has evolved in a particular way, given that what at the beginning made its appearance as an uprising of the population against the Gaddafi regime has been transformed into a war between several bourgeois factions, which has now seen the intervention of the great imperialist powers, making it even more of a bloody and surreal cacophony. The displacement of the struggle onto the terrain of bourgeois interests, into a battle for control of the Libyan state by one or another of the contending factions, was made all the easier by the fact that the working class in Libya is very weak. Local industry is notably backward and is more or less reduced to the production of oil, directly piloted by the Gaddafi clique which has never succeeded in placing the national interest above its own particular interests. The working class in Libya is largely made up of foreign workers, some of whom may have been involved in the events at the beginning but ended up fleeing the massacres, not least because of the difficulty of recognising itself in a “revolution” with a nationalist accent. Libya provides a negative and tragic illustration of the necessity for the working class to occupy a central position within popular revolts; its effacement to a great extent explains the evolution of the situation.
Since 19th March, after several weeks of massacres, under the pretext of a humanitarian intervention “to save the martyred Libyan people”, a rather uneasy coalition, made up of Canada, the USA, Italy, France, Britain and others has directly engaged its military forces in support of the Interim National Council. Every day, missiles are launched and planes take off to lay a carpet of bombs in all the regions inhabited by the armed forces loyal to the Gaddafi regime. In short, it’s war. What strikes you right away is the incredible hypocrisy of the great powers, which on the one hand brandish the rather worn flag of humanitarianism and, at the same time, do nothing about the slaughter of the masses in revolt in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria etc. Where was this coalition when Gaddafi massacred 1000 prisoners in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996? In truth, this regime has been imprisoning, torturing, terrorising, executing, and making opponents disappear for the past 40 years with complete impunity. Yesterday, where was this coalition when Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt or Bouteflika in Algeria were shooting at crowds during the January and February uprisings? Behind this ignoble rhetoric, the dead continue to pile up in the morgues. And NATO is already envisaging prolonging operations for several weeks in order to ensure the triumph of peace and democracy.
In reality, each power is intervening in Libya for its own reasons. The cacophony of the coalition, which hasn’t even been able to set up a chain of command, illustrates the degree to which these countries have joined this adventure in dispersed order with the aim of strengthening their own position in the region, like vultures picking over a corpse. From the USA’s point of view, Libya does not represent a major strategic interest because it already has powerful allies in the region, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This explains their initial confusion during the negotiations at the UN. Nonetheless the USA, with its historic support for Israel, has a disastrous image in the Arab world, one which has hardly been improved by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. On top of this the revolts have begun to give rise to governments which are more amenable to anti-American opinion; and if the US is to ensure its presence in the region, it has to polish up its image in the eyes of these new cliques. And above all the US government can’t give a free hand to Britain and France. The latter also need to improve their image, especially Britain, given its involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The French government, despite its numerous gaffes, does have a certain popularity in the Arab countries, acquired under De Gaulle and reinforced by its refusal to take part in the Iraq war in 2003. An intervention against Gaddafi, who is much too uncontrollable and unpredictable for his neighbours’ taste, is bound to be appreciated by the latter and will make it possible for France to increase its influence. Behind their fine phrases and broad smiles, each bourgeois faction is intervening for its own interests and, along with Gaddafi, they are all taking up their positions in this sinister danse macabre.
In Japan as everywhere else, nature produces phenomena, capitalism produces catastrophes
Several thousand miles from Libya, in the world’s third-ranking economic power, capitalism also sows death and demonstrates that nowhere, even at the heart of the industrialised countries, is humanity protected from the irresponsibility and negligence of the bourgeoisie. Its tame media have, as ever, presented the earthquake and tsunami which ravaged Japan as a product of fate that no one could do anything about. It is of course impossible to prevent nature from unleashing its powers, but installing populations in danger zones in wooden houses has nothing to do with fate, and neither has the use of ageing nuclear power stations in the middle of this whole environment.
The bourgeoisie is directly responsible for the murderous scale of this catastrophe. For the needs of production, capitalism has concentrated populations and industries to a delirious degree. Japan is a caricature of this historical phenomenon: tens of millions of people massed together in a thin strip of land which is particularly subject to earthquakes and thus to tsunamis. Obviously, earthquake resistant structures have been erected for the rich and as office buildings: concrete would have sufficed to hold back the wave for many, but the working class has to live in wooden rabbit-hutches in the most dangerous areas. At the very least the population could have been installed further away from the coast, but Japan is an exporting country and, to maximise profit, it is better to build factories near the ports. Some factories were also swept away by the waters, adding industrial catastrophe to the nuclear disaster. In this context, a humanitarian crisis is threatening one of the centres of world capitalism and this will increase the scale of the hecatomb. With much infrastructure and equipment out of commission, tens of thousands of people have been abandoned to their lot, without food and water.
But the bourgeoisie’s irresponsibility doesn’t end there: it has built 17 nuclear plants in the area, all of dubious safety. The situation round the Fukushima plant, which has been so severely damaged, remains uncertain, but the confused communications issued by the authorities makes us fear the worst. It already seems to be true that a nuclear disaster on the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl explosion is unfolding before the eyes of a powerless government, reduced to the equivalent of using sticking plaster and sacrificing many workers. The construction of these plants on risky coastlines doesn’t seem to be the most brilliant idea, especially when they have been in service for several decades and have had a minimum level of maintenance. It is incredible to note that the Fukushima plant has already been the victim of several hundred incidents linked to poor safety levels, which has resulted in the resignations of a number of scandalised officers.
It’s not nature that is responsible for these catastrophes; the laws of capitalism, which have become an absurdity, are responsible from start to finish, in the poorest countries and in the most powerful ones. The situation in Libya and the events in Japan clearly show that the only future the bourgeoisie can offer us is growing and permanent chaos. But the revolts in the Arab countries, for all their weaknesses, do show us a different way ahead – the struggle of the exploited against the capitalist state, the only way out of the generalised catastrophe threatening humanity.
. In fact, not since 1848 or 1917-19 have we seen such an extensive wave of simultaneous revolts. See the next article in this issue: “What is happening in the Middle East”.