Resistance must not be isolated
Withdrawal calls reveal lack of strategy, writes James Turley
In times of severe economic crisis, the basic living conditions of masses of people are thrown into disarray. Entire states go bankrupt, leaving millions vulnerable to redundancy, poverty and worse. In these conditions, people inevitably fight back - in however disorganised, however haphazard a fashion.
In the present crisis, which has torn every specious economic ‘certainty’ to shreds and whose end is still not in sight, the sharpest and most organised industrial resistance yet has happened in Greece - one of the worst affected countries in the European Union, and (perhaps more importantly) the euro zone.
On February 24, three large union centres - the 280,000-strong public sector workers’ union ADADY, the even larger General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), and the ‘official’ communist-led All-Workers Militant Front (PAME) - carried out a 24-hour general strike. Around two million workers downed tools, and a spirited protest march through Athens brought 40,000 people onto the streets. For a country of 11 million people, that is no small feat.
This has happened against a background of increasing unrest in the country - even cab drivers are planning to strike in the near future. The cause of this is not difficult to see - Greece is one of the peripheral countries in the euro zone, and thus at the mercy of its bigger brothers in Europe when it comes to the repercussions of the crisis.
Particularly important here is Germany - one of the original signatories to the Common Market, of course, and the largest economy in Europe, resting on a substantial industrial base. It is a net exporter of manufactured goods, and over the years has made a killing selling these in enormous quantities to other European countries. As Alex Callinicos notes in Socialist Worker, German exports to Greece have risen by 66% in the last decade (March 6).
Germany was able to do this firstly because it beat down conditions for its own working class, making it more competitive on the global labour market; but also because it is at the core of the European project, and able to exploit its political and economic apparatus to the benefit of itself and other leading EU powers.
In Greece, as in many other countries, this could be sold to the local population as long as business was booming. The euro zone prospered after the currency stabilised; but the good times came to an abrupt end with the crisis in the banking system two years ago. Greece funded its efforts to catch up with its senior partners by selling government bonds, and probably manipulated its national debt with the help of noted good Samaritans Goldman Sachs in order to get admitted to the euro in the first place. With the financial markets in turmoil, the enormous deficit accumulated under a previous rightwing government became an unbearable burden to the social democratic government of George Papandreou that came to power in last year’s general election, and his administration has been attempting to force through drastic measures to cut the budget deficit. At 12.7% of gross domestic product, Greece’s deficit is four times that allowed by EU rules. It is now the weakest economy in the EU.
The February 24 demonstration came in the same week as a visit from the EU commissioner for monetary affairs, Olli Rehn. The news was not good: Rehn effectively ordered the Greek government to implement even more savage budget cuts and austerity measures than had already been demanded. This left Papandreou perplexed - not least because he now has to figure out what there is left to squeeze out of the Greek working class.
Though he never said so openly, it was clear that he and his government hoped the EU would come to the table with some kind of bailout. The Greek export market is a highly lucrative concern for Germany, he may have reasoned, and chancellor Angela Merkel has no more interest in Greece going bust than Deutsche Bank going to the wall. Indeed, this may yet happen; Rehn dropped cryptic hints about an “emergency framework” being agreed by the EU to ensure the stability of the euro zone. One wonders when, if not now, Greece will ever be broke enough to be worth saving.
The reluctance of the core EU countries to pony up money for a Greek bailout is understandable. Diverting funds to Athens means more cuts in Berlin; and the sight of two million workers paralysing an entire country is not a good advertisement for making more cuts than strictly necessary. The German tabloids are full of chauvinist stories about the ‘pampered’ standard of living of Greek public sector workers, which find an audience all too easily among a battered population. It is, by any measure, a hard political sell.
More ominous is the prospect of a total Greek collapse being followed by others in the euro zone - Portugal and Spain are the most likely victims, and Spain, which accounts for 12% of euro zone economic output, would be a much bigger shock to the system than Greece. That would threaten the single currency itself and, whatever Germany or other EU countries do about Greece, the possibility cannot be ruled out. If Greece is not bailed out and goes bankrupt, the resultant crisis of confidence in the euro could see others follow in its wake; on the other hand, if money goes into Greece, how many other countries will be on the waiting list for bailouts - and how much can the EU afford?
The crisis in Greece, then, is not a crisis of Greece - it reflects a fundamental instability in the European Union under conditions of intense economic pressure. Whatever demand is put forward at the narrow national level in Greece has a dark side. To demand an EU bailout, as the government privately does, is simply to impose cuts on German and French workers. The KKE’s call, echoed by the Socialist Workers Party and its Greek co-thinkers, for withdrawal from the euro demonstrates a frightening lack of strategy.
Since we are dealing with a crisis whose dimensions are international, it is patently obvious that any response from the working class has to be international to do anything at all. A Greece outside the euro would still be a Greece with an unmanageable public debt; a social democratic government would still have to impose cuts. This is a major issue in country after country - from the bottom of the European pecking order to the top, public spending cuts are on the agenda, as governments respond to the same financial pressures.
The piece by Alex Callinicos I have already cited, however, implies otherwise: “The smaller European economies are shackled through their membership of the euro zone to an economy that their firms can’t compete against. Moreover, because they participate in the euro, they can’t devalue their own currencies and thereby cheapen their exports” (Socialist Worker March 6). This implies that all these things would be perfectly possible if only Greece and other marginal states would divest themselves of this near semi-colonial status. In reality, any country that did so would remain shackled to the world market and the distribution of power among states - as, indeed, has happened in the third world since decolonisation proper.
In the same issue, the lead article by Matthew Cookson quotes an SWP clone in Greece to the effect that “people need to fight back across Europe”. He leaves little room for doubt as to his vision for such an inspiring fightback, however - a series of separate trade union-led actions in individual countries, rather than an organised international counter-offensive. The same clone also notes that “if [the capitalists] win here they will go further in other places. They want to generalise the attack to Spain, France, Britain, Germany and Portugal.”
Trade unions are name-dropped all over the place, but the only mention of the SWP’s local franchise is a rather forced tout for their anti-racist work. The political horizon of the union bureaucracy, however, is resolutely national. A working class fightback across Europe cannot work by scoring one strategic victory in a single country after another - all this does is shift around the burden of the crisis. We can only impose our agenda on a European scale, if we have a sufficient level of international political organisation to do so, fighting both against the direct assaults of capital on living standards and the bureaucratic state system that sustains them. None exists at the moment, of course; but many things are possible even now, such as solidarity strikes, blockading and boycotting scab labour and commodities, and so on.
These are elementary trade union demands, on one level, but they are rendered all but impossible when the workers’ movement is under the cosh of a nationalist labour bureaucracy.