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Numbers released this past week show, once again, that the European Union’s economy failed to grow in the last quarter, making this officially the longest recession the EU has ever suffered. Numbers from America revealed a sudden, unexpected drop in manufacturing growth. Even now that the stock market has finally re-reached its post-crash heights, troubling indicators like this continue to appear, an uncomfortable reminder that the collapse of ’07 is still with us.
Behind the ugly numbers lies a raging debate about economic theory and policy. On one side, the followers of John Maynard Keynes, such as Paul Krugman, lead economist of the NYT. On the other, the beliefs of Hayek, Mises and the “Austrian School“. Keynes is renowned for his role in ending the first Great Depression through New Deal style spending, whereas Hayek prescribes what has come to be known as austerity – cuts, privatization and tax relief for the wealthy. Both of these sides are winning in their own way – Krugman is pretty blatantly winning the argument, while most of the world’s governments are still pushing austerity measures.
Losing the Argument
Among the strongest arguments for austerity was the landmark study, Growth in a Time of Debt, held up around the world as proof that a high debt:GDP ratio led to falling economic growth. Fortunes for authors Reinhart and Rogoff recently took a turn for the worse, though, when 28-year-old grad student Thomas Herndon took a close look for a class project and realized that the crux of the argument was based around a spreadsheet error in Microsoft Excel. He listed other methodological errors, of course, many of which had been pointed out before (and all of which should have been obvious). This humiliated many austerity proponents to the point where Stephen Colbert joined in the fun, and young Mr. Herndon has gone on to continue debunking Reinhart and Rogoff’s responses.
Other high-profile criticism of austerity has been coming from a surprising source – the International Monetary Fund. Leading officials, including Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, have started to urge restraint with austerity. Given the IMF’s history, this says a lot – they spent decades as the leading global proponent of Third-World austerity (“Structural Adjustment”), usually with similarly dismal results.
Perhaps most damning of recent condemnations has come from an entirely different unexpected source – the new Pope, Francis. His Holiness, in a recent address to foreign ambassadors, made his feelings quite clear; “The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking in any truly human goal”. His speech touched on the “common good”, curbing speculation and focusing on the plight of the poor, themes echoed by many cardinals and, not surprisingly, the Greek Orthodox Church. Makes ya wonder, doesn’t it – if even the world’s most revered religious figure is talking about the “tyranny” of capitalism, why is it so hard for the rest of us to have a serious conversation about it?
These are only a few examples I could name – they’re quite well publicized if you know where to look – and it’s not as if the New York Times, IMF or the Pope are hard to find. Among those opposed to austerity are some of the biggest names in capitalism today and their arguments are quite well-founded in standard (capitalist) economic theory. It feels odd, as an ardent anticapitalist, to be taking a side at all, but it does help to give a little context. Even by their own standards, these policies aren’t working.
I’m no economist, but the flaws in this logic should have been apparent long ago. For starters, if the source of the European Debt Crisis was the high cost of “Eurosocialism”, then why were Spain, Italy and Greece most afflicted, and not Sweeden, Denmark and Norway (their merciless creditors)? How was putting thousands more out of work, cutting wages, increasing tuition and raising working-class taxes supposed to “stimulate the economy”? And, of course, how come the countries which worked hardest to implement these policies aren’t getting better?
The View From Below
What’s remarkable is how little of this filters down to the local level. When we look in our own newspapers (at least, outside the business section), it’s as if the only people objecting were camped in Zuccotti Park. Our politicians, even (sadly) those on the left, are similarly convinced about the need to pass “austerty budgets”. From the front page, or any television or radio station, it’s hard to tell there’s any argument about the economic merits of cutting, deregulating and downsizing, except from a few long-haired hippie socialists and ageing union leaders.
While economists are ignored, though, conditions on the ground have steadily worsened. Unemployment numbers, especially around youth have been at crisis levels in multiple countries for a while now, reaching even the point of public, politicized suicides. Greece in particular has been pushed to the edge of a total social breakdown by austerity, shown best by the frightening rise of the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn in Parliament and on the streets. Italy and Spain aren’t far behind, and the widespread breakdown in support for the EU itself has been dramatic. Parties on both the left and right are now openly expressing disdain and the future of the superstate itself is in doubt. If there’s one reason above all others that many capitalists are critical of these policies, it’s because they’re genuinely concerned that austerity will cause another collapse.
The effects of austerity can be charted in another way, as David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu just illustrated in their new book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. Stucker, a “leading expert on the economics of health”, with a host of ivy league credentials, decided to study the subject using the same “evidence-based” approach used when testing new treatments, only to award a failing grade. Their study found ten thousand additional suicides and up to a million extra cases of depression across North America and Europe since the austerity programs begam, and a 200% increase in Greek HIV rates. As far as positive effects of austerity go, when comparing different countries and policy responses, they find little evidence that austerity actually leads to more “growth”. Health care spending in particular, they argue, stimulates the economy far better than bailout cheques.
Why bother listing off the opinions of people I obviously don’t agree with on just about any other issue? Because they’re very important people as far as these debates are concerned. This brings up the very interesting question of why they’re having so little impact on policy or public debates. Part of it can be ascribed to the incredibly successful marketing of ideas that’s left many incapable of distinguishing between “economics” and the opinions of a radical fringe of right-wing economists. It takes more than propaganda, though, to sway the policies of so many governments. In spite of all the evidence, austerity is still going ahead, which tells us something about the real motives at work, and how power functions within this global Leviathan. Why embrace an economic strategy with such clearly devastating results? As the old saying goes; cui bono? Who benefits? How do they benefit? And how the hell were they able to accomplish it?
Is austerity a failure? That depends on the intent. If the point was to bring us back to “prosperity” then austerity measures have most certainly been a miserable failure. If the point was to shift capital flows toward a tiny elite of bankers and shareholders, it was largely successful. Corporate profits just had another record-setting year and thanks to the bailouts, the financial industry has rebounded nicely. Even the stock markets are setting record highs again. While most of us are suffering, a few are making off like bandits. To characterize this as a robbery, though, would be somewhat inaccurate. The bailouts were robberies – austerity is more of a racket. Rather than a one-time theft, austerity’s payments just keep coming in. At its core, austerity is a permanent shift in the way money and resources flow in our society. It’s not about bringing back “prosperity”, it’s about changing who prospers.
Behind both the profits and the suffering lies a clearly political, albeit still very economic motive. The two are never far apart, since both fundamentally come down to the many bargaining processes which rule our lives. Austerity entails shedding a lot of responsibility, public and private, for the well-being of workers. Shifting this burden alters the fundamental balance of power, allowing a few to gain far more leverage and thus make much larger returns. High unemployment and low welfare rates are classic examples of this – how much you get paid tends to come down to whether you could find a better paying job (or OW cheque) faster than your boss could find some desperate scab who’d work for less. For this reason, cuts anywhere tend to have reverberations everywhere and often gain a lot of political support from people who don’t seem directly affected.
There’s another dimension to this shift, though, which helps to explain why so many other capitalists are angry. Neither the state nor capitalism are monolithic hierarchies. Within each are a lot of competing individuals and factions. What’s good for banks isn’t always good for auto-makers, and what’s good for auto makers isn’t always good for retailers. Marx wrote long ago about the inherent conflict between “industrial” and “financial” capital, but this is only one of many examples. Some investors seek stable, long-term growth, while others look for large but risky short-term returns. Since most of the major players in finance these days are playing, primarily, with other people’s money, it’s obvious which they prefer (and why their clients are so annoyed). A lot of people in the business world held a strange fixation for Occupy Wall Street and often echoed support for its message. They weren’t calling for “class war”, though, just some stability to the current class system, a totally understandable response given the way bankers had recently lost their fortunes at the global craps table. These days, this is often articulated, ironically, in the language of GDP growth, also backed up by plenty of evidence.
As I’ve already mentioned, austerity is one of the only points where I agree, even partially, with Krugman or Lagarde. Nonetheless, I still feel the capitalist critique of austerity is very relevant here. It reveals a lot about austerity, but even more about capitalism itself. As for political strategy, I’d say there’s two big implications. The first, given this kind of widespread opposition, is that a political victory against austerity is entirely possible, maybe even probable. The second, though, is that it doesn’t end there. Defeating austerity alone is hardly a “radical” goal and in many ways would likely strengthen the status quo. That’s why so many capitalists support it, and that’s the inherent danger of reformist politics.
Austerity is like a fad diet – unhealthy, unsustainable and usually resulting in an actual weight gain. The national debts derided by austerity proponents skyrocketed most (especially in America) during the reign governments like Reagan and (either) Bush, who came to power pledging to eliminate them. This embezzlement continues not for any of the stated reasons – economic recovery, stimulating growth or brining “prosperity” – but because it benefits a few people in positions to sway public policy anyway. Above all else, it’s a frightening reminder that powerful people don’t need to win an argument to get their way, and it begs the more general question of why we allow these people to hold such power in the first place.
It was one hell of a Mayday, and I’m only starting to recover. After two marches and a block party, I feel like I could sleep for days. With great weather and high spirits, Hamilton saw a day of actions which took the lower city by storm.
Events kicked off with the Anti-capitalist march, which converged mid-day at King and MacNab. The turnout was great – well over a hundred ranging in age from small kids to seniors, with a lot of new faces. With signs, banners, flags and a pumping soundsystem, we marched up through the bus terminal toward Main, then rallied at the corner opposite the Drake International office for a speech about temp agencies. We then continued along Main and attempted to turn left onto James, which is where trouble started.
A wall of police on horseback blocked our way as others with bikes and a van circled around. Those at the front tried to push through, but the horses pushed back, driving the banner and crowd back into the intersection, followed by a much longer standoff before the decision was made to continue down Main instead. Moments later, the police were caught off-guard when marchers took an abrupt left-turn into the parking lot.
This kicked-off a game of cat-and-mouse with police, who scrambled to re-deploy and corral us away from the core at every intersection. From the parking lot we cut up the alleyway onto Hughson, stalling again at King when met by the next large group of cops. Marching further north, we went a few blocks before spontaneously doubling-back up Hughson, onto Rebecca then over to James. Next we stopped at James and Wilson for another speech, this time about the effects of Payday loans, in front of an outlet on either side of the street. For the last leg we went eastward along Wilson for one last long stop in front of a wall of cops at Mary before finally settling on the grass of Beasley Park. Police then surrounded the park, confronting people they’d singled out for tickets (obstructing traffic, etc) as they tried to leave.
All in all, hundreds of dollars in tickets were given out and one kid was arrested for missing his last court date. At least a hundred was raised by passing a hat, but look for more fund-raising soon.
Following a brief rest in the park, a bundle of free bus tickets were distributed and a few dozen of us boarded HSR busses bound for Centre Mall to join up with the Steelworkers’ rally. Behind the 1005′s union hall we heard speeches from Union leadership and the Mayor, mostly related to the lockout of US Steel’s recent lock-out of workers at their Lake Erie facilities. As they finished, a few hundred took to Kennilworth, Barton and Ottawa, for a second march, this time with a much smaller and more polite police presence before returning to the union hall for a barbecue and social.
As we bussed back to Beasley Park, we found the Block Party kicking off and crews setting up a sound-system, decorations and food servings. By this point police had virtually disappeared, with only a few small bike-patrols riding through intermittently. The park quickly began to fill with a mix of neighbourhood residents, local activists and more kids than I could count. The crowd quickly grew to a few hundred with line-ups for free food stretching across half the park. Soon the DJ was replaced by the sounds of Klyde Broox, Lee Reed and Mother Tareka performing live, with festivities continuing until around nightfall.
As we retreated for a truly massive victory party at our hidden rebel base, there was no dispute, the day’s events were a pretty phenomenal success. Once again we managed to strike a balance between a militant presence in the streets and an engaging presence in the community without compromising either, proving once again that they aren’t exclusive goals. That being said, I’m quite glad we decided to put a little more time between between the two this year, a few dozen angry cops wouldn’t have done much for the party vibes.
Like last year, both downtown actions were organized by the re-formed “May 1st Committee”, an ad-hoc assembly of local anarchist talent. Unlike last year, we managed to pull it off with a a smaller and younger crew, many of whom were first-timers, and we didn’t start till the beginning of April. As hectic as this was at times, it represents exactly what I love about organizing with anarchists, a process which is almost totally informal yet frighteningly efficient. The biggest drawback, ironically, is the difficulties in corresponding with more bureaucratic organizations (unions, neighbourhood associations, etc) who tend to operate on a very different time-scale. That said, we do regularly correspond with both, and for anybody who’s wondering – yes, we did check first with the Beasley Neighbourhood Association about using the park, just like last year. What we didn’t file for was a march permit, as asking permission from the state would totally defeat the point of a protest.
Looking back, I’m particularly proud that we managed to get various promotional materials translated into French, Spanish and Arabic. That was much easier than I ever imagined, and is something we should all be in the habit of doing wherever possible. Also, it was nice to fulfil our ambitions of bringing a posse down to join the Steelworkers’ rally, something we intended to do last year but were a little too busy to manage in any organized fashion. Finally, like last year, I’m really glad people took the time to knock on doors and not simply rely on impersonal promotions like posters and social media. This kind of groundwork isn’t “exciting” like Greek riot porn, but the efforts shouldn’t be forgotten – it’s a crucial part of actually reaching the people around us, rather than just creating another spectacle to gawk at. If a bunch of us kids could pull it off, then so can you.
What would I like to see next year, and for future Maydays? More than anything else, I’d like to see festivities spread to more neighbourhoods, streets and parks. There’s no reason any borough in our city should be denied the chance to celebrate in their own way. The issues may vary, from closing schools and vanishing greenspace and countless others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stand together as a city. Each time we do this it gets easier and a time will come, I hope, where the “M1 Committee” isn’t needed at all. People tend to learn fastest by doing, and as the simple formula of meet, march and party becomes more routine, it opens up opportunities for others to take the initiative, just as we have.
Coverage in the media was even worse than normal, and limited largely to an ultra-brief and largely inaccurate clip from CHCH (their crew left almost as soon as the march began), and a Spec article which focused mainly on the labour speeches and left out the downtown actions entirely. The CBC did better, but was also very brief and only mentioned the first march (though, at least with better context). There was no mention in any of the confrontations with police or message of the downtown march (articulated with speeches and handouts). This only goes to show how limited the corporate media can be as a source for this kind of thing, but I suppose that’s why I spend so much time typing away here.
As for the actions of police, they were totally unprecedented, and represent a frightening trend toward escalation at our usually-very-tame protests. Hamilton rarely sees arrests or tickets (save one last September), even though marches almost never seek the “required” permits. In over a decade, I’ve never seen cops try to block a march’s way or corral one this way, except to perhaps keep lanes of traffic open. Despite all the diversions, we never strayed much from our original planned route and managed to reach both Main & McNab and James and Wilson without much trouble. What wasn’t planned was being corralled through a schoolyard just as kids were about to be let out – a strange choice if the police were really so concerned with “safety”.
An enormous amount of police effort was put into keeping the march away from King & James, but only at the expense of diverting us onto streets like Main or Wilson which were at least as busy. Overall it came off as both hostile and petty – and I really hope the it doesn’t continue, but all things considered, it didn’t do much to dampen spirits. Instead, it instilled an atmosphere of confrontation and defiance in the march. From that first encounter with the horses, everyone I spoke to was outraged that cops would turn on a totally peaceful march filled with kids. This, in turn, only fuelled desires to march on in spite of them (and largely made our point for us). As for traffic disruptions, this large and confrontational police presence blocked far more traffic, for longer, than we ever could have on our own.
Across Canada and the world, many other cities made news. Montreal had almost 500 mass-arrested in the latest blatant round-up of protesters, there were riots in Berlin, Istanbul and Seattle (to name a few) and Greece had a general strike. Toronto had thousands marching, as did Barcelona, Manila, Copenhagen, Phnom Penh, Mexico City and Dhaka, Bangledesh. With the world still reeling from the deaths of over four hundred workers as an eight-story sweatshop complex collapsed in a Dhaka suburb and the continuing train-wreck that is austerity-stricken Europe, it’s becoming clear that Mayday and the struggles associated with it are still just as relevant in the 21st century as they were back in the 1870s and 80s. Today, like then, it’s a day of remembrance for all those who’ve died so that we can go home at 5pm, enjoy workplaces with fire exits, or even hold an open meeting of “workers” at all. It’s a day for both defiance and celebration, in the name of all the victory’s we’ve won so far, and all those we have yet to win.
A big (non-implicating) thanks to Food Not Bombs, the USW 1005, CUPE, SACHA, the Beasley Neighbourhood Association, Jared the Weenie Man, Steel City Solidarity and even the Young Communist League – I know ya don’t all agree with our politics, but solidarity’s always refreshing. A big congratulations, as well, to all the folks, houses and families who helped make Wednesday happen. You’re all amazing, inspiring, and have helped renew my faith in this old, embattled city.
Disclaimer: This post represents the viewpoint of “Undustrial” and not the M1 Committee as a whole. A more official collective report-back is on its way and I’ll repost it when it arrives.
Update: It arrived. Read the full, committee-approved reportback, posted today (May 6) on the Toronto Media Coop.
As Britain mourns (or celebrates) the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher, it’s also finding itself on the verge of a whole new national battle between labour and employers. For the first time since 1982 when workers walked off the job en-mass to protest Thatcher’s cuts, and before that 1926, there is serious talk of a general strike amongst some of Britain’s largest unions.
Nothing is certain yet and there isn’t so much as a date announced, but Unite has now acknowledged that talks are underway. This confirms months of rumours that British unions had been considering escalating their battle against austerity and adopting a tactic now common in countries like Spain and Italy. The proposal still has a lot of opposition to overcome, it may not even be legal and certainly doesn’t have a consensus behind it (yet), but now that discussions are official, there’s no doubt that organizing efforts will begin.
With this return to more traditional and confrontational union politics, Unite and others are hoping to rejuvenate the beleaguered labour movement and reclaim its role in broader society. Whether one action could accomplish such ambitious goals is certainly up for debate, but after the colossal failure that has resulted from coalition politics, it’s hard to fault them for wanting a more direct approach.
For those who don’t follow British politics, a little background: among the European nations which implemented “austerity” policies in the wake of the EU’s debt crisis, Britain adopted some of the strongest measures of any wealthy nation. These are now widely acknowledged to have been a colossal failure and actually plunged the country back into recession. Like most, this hasn’t deterred the government which continues to pursue even more cuts in an attempt to dig their way out of the hole they’re in. In the wake of these cuts, British society is now more unequal than any point since the Second World War. The simmering rage over this state of affairs has already lead to massive and rowdy protests and viscious rioting and promises to continue even if a general strike doesn’t materialize.
The UK’s woes are only one part of the never-ending financial crisis which is gripping Europe. Even though austerity has been acknowledged for years now as failing to “stimulate the economy” or lower interest on national debts, it continues to be the only solution offered by Angela Merkel and the central bankers. These policies led back to recession in Britain, Spain and Italy and brought on full-blown disaster in Greece. With recent events in Cyprus, it’s clear that even personal bank accounts are no longer considered safe if the need to bail out banks arises.
Those of us in Canada should pay close attention to how this struggle unfolds. As our government pushes it’s own austerity agenda, we may soon find ourselves in a similar situation and considering similar measures. It’s only through such militant tactics that the labour movement was able to establish itself in either country, and as the use of wildcat and general strike dwindled, so did the movement’s influence. For decades now, we’ve witnessed a stagnation of real wages, the widespread growth of precarious employment and the devastation of our manufacturing sectors. If the experience of nations like Britain and Spain is any indication, austerity stands to make this much, much worse. “Playing nice”, making concessions and “not rocking the boat” have failed, completely and utterly, to stop these trends. It’s time to try something else.
This morning, a few hundred teachers and allies rallied downtown. Gathering in front of City Hall, the crowd heard speeches then marched along Main, down Hughson (pausing for more speeches outside Andrea Horwath’s office) concluding at Gore Park for hot cocoa. The speakers, always a labour rally staple, were some of the best I’ve heard in years, including not just teachers but a wide range of others, from School Board trustees to anti-poverty activists and representatives of Six Nations. Along with the warm weather, frequent honks and amazing short-notice turnout, it all combined to provide an amazingly high-spirited rally.
Across Ontario right now, schools are gripped by strikes and walkouts in opposition to the Provincial government’s Bill 115 (text). The bill, which freezes wages, cuts benefits and bans strikes, has infuriated teachers over the past months. In response, both elementary and secondary teachers have been staging short rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns in boards across the region, joined by a growing number of student walkouts, including hundreds Hamilton’s Sir John A MacDonald and Delta students this past Monday, and our Elementary teachers are slated to hold a one-day strike Monday.
What McGuinty accomplished with Bill 115, one of the last passed before he prorogued Parliament, was effectively pre-emptive back-to-work legislation. It interfered with contract talks before bargaining had even begun, and in the process seriously offended teachers. Given the history of teachers’ unions, this wasn’t likely to go down without a fight, and it’s quickly escalating as the strike deadline approaches.
Unlike previous labour strife, like the battle over Bill 160 in the Harris years, opponents have been much less successful at isolating and demonizing teachers. With students walking out and boards passing resolutions against the bill, the province is finding itself with a lot less friends this time around. It’s hard to have sympathy, I suppose, when these legislators haven’t shown up at their own workplace in months.
Also favouring teachers is the recent history of education-related activism. Similar battles with BC teachers didn’t help with the falling popularity of the province’s Liberal government. Teachers strikes in Chicago, similarly, quickly turned into a much broader movement and successfully challenged the city’s government. Then there’s the student strike in Quebec this past spring and summer, which turned into a resounding defeat for former Liberal Premier Jean Charest. And of course, there’s what happened in Oxaca, Mexico in 2006, where protests by their teachers’ union escalated into a (deadly) battle between the state and popular forces for control of Oxaca City. Simply put, teachers’ unions have become the ‘natural predator’ of provincial governments across the continent.
As with most battles like it, Bill 115 represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Austerity policies are being implemented at the federal and provincial levels, tossing thousands out of work and cutting many more off benefits such as EI. Most of those affected by these cuts don’t have anywhere near the level of union representation or influence that teachers do, making this fight and others like it a pivotal battle. It also illustrates why it’s so important that teachers are connecting with other affected groups – workers, First Nations, the unemployed etc (many of whom showed a presence today). Solidarity is the only way to combat agendas on this scale, and I’m heartened to see that it’s happening.
I passed the age, long ago, where more of my friends teach high school than attend it. Having very close friends and even house-mates who teach, I’ve seen how brutal a career it can be. I may have an incredibly (physically) taxing job, but the exhaustion I’ve seen in friend’s eyes after a long day in front of classes or grading papers is just as real. Perhaps the saddest of all, I’ve known too many teachers who’ve literally begged their kids not to follow in their footsteps. These aren’t “spoiled” or “entitled” workers, they’re people we depend on to help raise our kids.
Though I’ll always have my suspicions about state-sponsored education, it won’t be improved through cuts and neglect, or broad, sweeping policy changes from the province (standardized tests and curricula, etc). Like any organization, schools need input from those most affected, and that means the people who spend time their daily – teachers, students and support staff along with parents and community members. This isn’t just about budgets and salaries, it’s a question of who controls schools and education itself.
Right now, in what might be the largest coordinated actions yet, the people of Southern Europe are engaged in an international general strike against ongoing austerity measures. Action today centred on a near-total shut-down of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) along with several-hour national shut-downs in Greece and Italy. Workers in France, Belgium, Germany and others are also supporting and participating. Air travel, trains, industry and services have all been affected by actions, and massive demonstrations have taken to the streets of countless cities. Clashes with police have been reported in Spain (81 reported arrested in Madrid so far) and several Italian cities.
Since last year, Europe has been gripped by an enduring debt crisis. With southern nations like Spain and Greece failing to recover from the collapse of 2008, they’re requiring large bailouts to keep making their payments on national debt to wealthier (northern) nations. In exchange central bankers have demanded harsh spending cuts (“austerity”). Unfortunately, the cuts have only further devastated economies while bailout uncertainty during bargaining sessions has driven interest rates on their debt far higher, driving a cycle of more cuts, bailouts and recessions which has infuriated the continent.
In response, Europe has been witnessing some of the largest and most intense protests in a generation. Town squares were occupied, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and pitched battles were fought with riot police. There’s been several general strikes now in each of the nations afflicted by the crisis and a growing list of fallen governments. Last week’s two-day general strike in Greece, for instance, saw 80 000 in the streets of Athens and a particularly fierce battle outside the parliament, awaiting the latest austerity vote.
Today’s actions are a landmark for organizing across borders, and for the participation of large traditional labour groups like the European Trade Union Confederation who don’t usually get involved in such actions. An accurate number of participants isn’t available, but it’s likely to be in the millions. Today’s actions show a growing rejection of austerity which is beginning to connect across the continent.
This issue isn’t going away, and the protests are only getting larger.
Later this month, officials meet in Brussels to attempt (again) to sort out this mess. As the consensus grows, even in capitalist circles, that austerity has failed, Europe is starting to run out of options. Greece has been pushed the brink of total economic, social and political collapse, with Spain and Italy not far behind. More cuts, at this point, only invite disaster. Millions of people sent a message today, and unless it’s received soon, we’re going to witness a much larger, longer shut-down.
It might be the best known story from 20th century history – the rise of a small fringe group of nationalists to power over one of history’s most terrifying totalitarian states which seemed poised briefly to actually conquer the world. From Bavarian beer-halls in Weimar Germany, economically devastated after the First World War, Hitler used a mix of vitriolic racism, co-opted socialist rhetoric and “Blackshirt” paramilitary violence to become the most powerful political force in Germany. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed Chancellor of the failing state and in a matter of years built one of history’s most frightening regimes. The war that ensued claimed tens of millions abroad and millions more in a genocidal campaign of forced extermination at home. When the dust settled, everybody swore two words, “never again”.
That wasn’t so long ago. I’ve known people who fought in that war, who sheltered Jewish children in their basements and who came to Canada fleeing the Holocaust. And yet, right now in Europe, we are watching this process start all over again. It’s no secret – the New York Times and the Guardian cover it often, yet everyone seems paralyzed with horror as the fascists acquire power at a frightening rate.
I’m talking, of course, about Greece, and the parallels are stunning. Not only one of the hardest-hit nations by the recent global economic meltdown, but also thoroughly punished by the rest of Europe with harsh bailout terms which have had effects much like the Treaty of Versailles, both by destroying the economy and generating incredible amounts of popular resentment. With the economy in ruin, they’ve seen some of the most intense political turmoil in Europe, with governments falling and huge fire-breathing riots regularly laying siege to the parliament. At the same time, they’ve witnessed a huge flood of immigrants as the rest of Europe closed their doors, stranding nearly all newcomers in Greece. Into this chaos stepped an explicitly Neo-Nazi political party with ties to the old dictorship – the Golden Dawn.
A year ago, the Golden Dawn had barely 1% support at the polls, they reached around 7% by elections over the next spring and summer, and are now rumoured to hold roughly 22%. After winning seats in parliament during the last round of elections, they’ve been effectively “legitimised”. With widely-publicized support from Greek police, they’ve been given a free hand to operate as they wish on the streets. Large gangs of fascist paramilitaries, often explicitly associated with the Golden Dawn have started campaigns of public terror, clearing public areas (video) and even neighbourhoods of “non-Greeks” and attacking immigrants, queers and political opponents. In many areas these “vigilante” squads have taken over much of local law enforcement, with police reportedly referring victims to them to ‘solve the problem’. They’ve begun “Greeks-only” social services like blood drives and food banks, and even offer blackshirt escorts to walk elderly ladies home from the bank, “protecting them from immigrants”. Given the breakdown of the Greek state and society, this has been welcomed in many areas, garnering considerable public support. Lines are now blurring in frightening ways between the party and what’s left of the Greek state, leaving entire areas under de-facto fascist rule.
This wouldn’t be the first movement to openly emulate Hitler, and even take power. Pinochet idolized Hitler and Mussolini, and countless other dictators (Suharto, for instance) have embarked on genocidal campaigns with horrific death tolls. Even Greece was ruled for the better part of a decade by a Junta with Neo-Nazi associations (they later met Golden Dawn founder Nikos Michalolikos in prison). The name itself is taken from Alistair Crowley’s old occult group, and like the Nazis they reject Christianity (too Jewish) in favour of occult and pagan symbols, even supporting a return to old Olympian gods like Pan (as the Nazis did with Norse mythology). They “sieg heil” often and their party’s symbol bears a stunning resemblance to a Swastika. They’ve even got a signature metal band – “Pogrom”. This isn’t just another far-right European party with an anti-immigrant platform, these guys are operating directly from Hitler’s playbook and it’s working.
There are, of course, those who are opposed. Beyond the heroic efforts of a few journalists to get in and tell the whole story, there are also those organizing at street level to oppose the Golden Dawn. Antifascist groups have been extremely active, connecting immigrant groups, radicals and the notorious Greek Black Bloc to defend what areas they can. Marches, patrols and brawls have taken place, though individuals involved face horrific personal consequences if singled out. A group of arrestees from a recent demonstrations were reportedly subjected to “Abu Ghraib-style humiliation” by Athens police in custody, being stripped, burned and beaten by police. Countless reports exist of Golden Dawn thugs fighting alongside riot police, and even receiving clubs and radios for the purpose (possibly even guns). Many are using the term “civil war” to describe the situation, and that’s starting to sound frighteningly accurate.
So what, in this dreadful re-enactment, comes next? Hitler didn’t win power in an election, he was awarded with it as the last of the old German state began to break down. The ongoing European debt crisis does not bode well here, nor does the precedent set when Europe’s elites replaced Greece’s Prime Minister late last year. Should desperate elites decide to throw their full support behind these fascists, this situation could escalate into a full-scale nightmare.
The spread of this movement is hardly limited to Greece, either. Golden Dawn has connections with nationalists in Germany and Italy, and has begun to organize within Greek communities elsewhere. Donation drives have now started up in New York, Montreal and even Toronto, seeking to reach out to the “Greek Diaspora”. Groups ranging from old-time antifascists to Greek community associations are organizing locally to oppose them (perhaps having a different view on immigration?). International connections like this only show how desperate the need for opponents to do the same – Greece needs our solidarity, now more than ever.
Greece is the crucible for many of the forces which have come to define our new, chaotic world. The IMF, central bankers, popular movments, a crumbling state, anarchists and fascists are all competing for the country’s future, and it’s far from certain who’ll win. Some cynically suspect that it was all a planned experiment from the start. Regardless, it’s only the tip of a far larger iceberg. As economic and climactic instabilities tear nations apart, the first world is already seeing a growing flood of refugees. Facing energy shortages and many bleak economic projections, many in power are beginning to worry. From France’s Socialists to our own Conservatives, governments have already begun restricting migration, cutting benefits and closing borders. As the pressures increase, the temptation for our governments to adopt authoritarian solutions is only going to get stronger.
We should all watch Greece very closely in the coming months, because if this strategy “works” in Greece, it will be tried elsewhere soon enough. No matter how much we might want it to stay buried in the past, fascism will always haunt us. Though almost universally detested, Hitler’s story is still one of the best known from recent history, and so there will always be some drawn to it. The Golden Dawn shows that even today, this type of movement can still easily take root. Groups like them exist in every country, including our own, just waiting for a similar chance. If antifascism means anything, it’s eternal vigilance. This can happen here and it is happening there. It’s high time we all started taking it seriously.
GOLDEN DAWN, 1980-2012. THE NEONAZIS’ ROAD TO PARLIAMENT – Borderline Reports
Fear and loathing in Athens: the rise of Golden Dawn and the far right – The Guardian
Amid the Echoes of an Economic Crash, the Sounds of Greek Society Being Torn – New York Times
Golden Dawn glows amid Greece gloom – Al Jazeera
Economic issues are usually described in hopelessly abstract terms, with only passing and usually clichéd references to the personal consequences of these policies. Among the most frightening is the threat that people will take their own lives, a trend which has already seen a frightening rise in austerity-stricken parts of Europe. I wrote about it earlier this year after a series of very public suicides and self-immolations in Greece and Italy, but had honestly hoped I wouldn’t have to bring it up again. Then, today, I came across an article from the Huffington Post, about American student debt and the threat of a similar rash of deaths. In it, writers who grapple with the issue of student debt describe how often people write to them threatening suicide, sometimes in incredible detail. As horrific as the topic is, it’s also one which we cannot afford to ignore.
The epidemic of student debt has struck on a worldwide scale. Beyond America’s billion-dollar bubble, there’s the ongoing battles in Quebec, as well as a large rally earlier this week in Chile that brought over a hundred thousand out into the streets against tuition fees. With youth unemployment breaking records in far too many countries, it’s time to admit that the options to pay back these growing debt-loads just aren’t there.
While I know nobody directly driven to take their own life because of their student debts, I know people who’ve dodged creditors for years, fled the country, and more than I can count who simply suffer. It isn’t just the size of these loans which is traumatic – it’s the judgemental moralizations thrown at kids throughout the process. From a very young age until long after one leaves school, these matters are talked about in terms of “success” or “failure”, “hard work” and how one “contributes to society”. This kind of scorn weighs heavily on those who did everything they were “supposed to” only to find years of poverty awaiting them.
Getting an education was supposed to ensure a way out of this kind of poverty, but instead it’s doomed debtors to decades of it. Going to university isn’t something “lazy” people do – it takes years of hard work and a lot of money, which for many goes totally unrewarded. The choices kids make can’t be understood without looking at the context. I remember what it was like going to a west-end high-school. “University” was the mantra, muttered every third word for my whole OAC (former ‘grade 13′). In spite of this, most of my friends who went to trade schools or simply went to work and drank their nights away are far better off financially right now. These kids were sold a bill of goods which society could not deliver, often by those who cared little about what happened to students after their fees were paid. A recent study of American for-profit private schools found that graduates, statistically, see no long-term financial benefit from their degrees (unlike public or non-profit schools). It’s no surprise, then, that they also produce half of the country’s student loan defaults.
The tragic results of personal economic pressures also showed themselves in Germany this week, where a man facing eviction took two civil servants and his girlfriend hostage, eventually killing himself along with all three. As horrifying as acts like this can be, they’re only the tip of a far uglier iceberg where most suffer in silence. For every case where the stressors (evictions, debts, etc) are named, there are thousands more where people see only another tragedy, or don’t hear about it at all. Economic issues like this aren’t just about broad, sweeping policy statements – these are questions that relate directly to the jobs, homes and food supply of millions of people. When these get cut, personal emotional consequences have to be expected, manifested in as many ways as there are people to suffer from them. Suicide is only one way people grapple with these impossible choices, but even the potential for a serious rise in rates should raise serious questions about the policies driving them.
No education, no job, and no balanced budget is worth that price.
The streets are in chaos. There’s bank runs and people are starting to stock up on canned food. The government is stockpiling arms, Neo-Nazis are marching in the streets and nobody knows what the country, or the wider world, will look like five days from now.
No, this isn’t a replay of Y2K. There isn’t a hurricane on the way, an oil shortage or impending Avengers-style alien invasion. This is the lead-up to the next round of Greek elections. New Democracy (conservatives) and SYRIZA (radical leftists) are tied at the polls, with a serious possibility that anti-austerity parties will win, possibly forcing a Greek exit (“Grexit”) from the European common currency. This has markets around the world in terror, many of which (China, Russia, Italy, Spain, America and others) are in serious peril themselves. It’s being called the “Election Apocalypse”.
I thought I’d heard it all. Apocalyptic doomsaying, after all, is one of my favourite topics. What’s happening in Greece, though, isn’t the (direct) result of climate change, peak oil or devastating warfare. The economic catastrophe didn’t come because Greece resisted the bailouts or austerity – so far the country has gone alone with all the demands, in spite of enormous popular resistance. Austerity failed, dramatically, plunging the country into a far deeper recession. This catastrophe is the direct result of every major establishment institution functioning exactly as it was “supposed to”. The real threat facing Greece represents the first real chance the Greek people have had to put the breaks on this process, an opportunity they should have had a long time ago.
Money is leaving the country’s banking system in droves, both to citizens($1 billion/day) and foreign investors fearful of the re-introduction of Greece’s old currency, the Drachma. Currency traders are already gearing up to deal with it, with the Drachma even accidentally showing up on Bloomberg’s trading board. Unemployment and poverty are at absolutely horrific levels. Strikes are breaking out everywhere, even threatening the elections themselves as municipal workers threatened to strike during the vote. There’s also funding problems within electrical utilities, threatening to plunge a third of the nation into rolling blackouts if it can’t find hundreds of millions for Russian natural gas soon. Oh, and the government bought a enormous stockpile of American weapons earlier this year, more than anybody but the UK and UAE in the first quarter. In short, Greece is collapsing under the weight of it’s own bureaucracies.
Perhaps the most horrifying part of this story is the rise of the Golden Dawn, a Neo-Nazi political party which won enough votes to enter Parliament in the last election. They’ve been involved with brutal attacks on immigrants and others, with widespread accusations of collusion with Greek police. It got worse last week when their spokesman assaulted a female opponent on national television. Warrants are out for his arrest, but he has not yet turned up and is attempting to press counter-charges. In response, massive anti-fascist marches have started taking to the streets, and they’ve dropped dramatically in the polls. All of this is set against a backdrop of growing anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, in which Greece plays an important role as a geographic gateway to the continent.
If anyone has doubts that this catastrophe was the result of conscious efforts to punish the country, I’d urge them to read this piece by renowned business journalist Hugo Dixon. “Greece needs to go to the brink. Only then will the people back a government that can pursue the tough programme needed to turn the country around,” he argues, by cutting off bailout funds and other supports. These views are very common, and readily apparent to anyone who reads the business press (or actions of the ECB). Of course, if you follow those sourced you’d also know that real economists refute these guys all the time. Right now the Greek people, like those of Argentina and elsewhere before them, are being punished in the hopes that they’ll vote to continue dismantling their country.
The scale of the problem, of course, goes well beyond Greece. Not only have interest rates also rocketed up in Italy and Spain, but Spain is now facing another bailout. Markets around the world, even Toronto, have been heavily battered in recent weeks by the crisis, and (as always) there’s a serious fear that another massive stock market crash is on the way. For what it’s worth – it probably is.
The crisis in Greece needs to be seen for what it is – not the result of popular meddling or anarchist rioting – the onus for this like squarely on bankers and politicians. The ongoing bailouts show the horrendous cost, total ineffectiveness and callous disregard for everybody else. While people lose homes and jobs, banks are being given hundreds of billions to make the same mistakes over and over again, with exactly the same results. We’ve created a system which pays banks hundreds of billions of dollars to fail. Why would they do anything else?
Austerity and bailouts have not worked. They’re based on exactly the same flawed premises which drove the markets to disaster in the first place. The crashes of 2008, 2001 and 1989 weren’t caused by progressive social overspending, they were the result of overheated and deregulated markets where speculation came to dwarf real investment. Then, as now, nobody saw any difference between a million dollars created on paper through stock valuations and a million dollars created through actual production. Because it’s far easier to create value through speculation (in the short run), it became the focus of three decades of public and private economic policy. Until we come to grips with that, any attempt to jump-start failing global markets will hundreds of billions in bailouts and “quantitative easing” (money-printing through low interest rates) will only work toward re-creating these same bubbles. Austerity, the source of these funds, only makes things far worse by making devastating cuts to real public and private value (hospitals, schools, steel mills etc).
For the Greek people, this is a very grim choice. If they vote to stick with the terms of the bailout, they will be stuck with the austerity program which is devastating their country. If they vote to abandon it, the short-term chaos will be far worse, and likely spread far beyond very quickly. Either way, there’s a very real chance that the Greek Parliament will burn to the ground before this is over. If so, it’s leaders will have none but themselves to blame.
We all need to learn from this this Greek tragedy, before we all repeat the same mistakes and find ourselves facing a similar nightmare.
As Quebec’s infamous student strike now enters its 103rd day, a growing number of international eyes are focused on the province. Crowds filled the streets of Montreal, estimated by some at half a million and a quarter-million the following day. Wednesday also saw over six hundred arrests as police “kettled” huge numbers of demonstrators in an attempt to enforce the province’s new draconian anti-protest law, Bill 78. Last night demonstrators marched again, banging pots and pans, but with only a handfull of arrests. A growing number of voices, including those in parliament, are calling this the “worst crisis in Quebec’s history”, with five times as many arrested as during the FLQ crisis where martial law was declared. Wednesday night itself saw more arrests than Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act. In the face of this determination, the government’s new Education Minister, Michelle Courchesne, has attempted a dramatic new tactic: she’s returning to the bargaining table.
Protests have now crossed the border into Ontario. University of Ottawa students have taken over administration offices in a growing protest against tuition increases. Others, elsewhere, are planned for the coming week. Toronto is due for solidarity protests today, and Hamilton is set for more next week. Tuesday’s 100-day anniversary solidarity actions, from Hamilton to New York and Paris, and the beginnings of a national outpouring of support.
For much of the strike, while coverage had been confined to Quebecois and major national media like the National Post, it has been scathing. Andrew Coyne’s recent piece for the National Post shows this reaction for the blatant hypocrisy it is – protests, his eyes, “cripple democracy” because they disobey the government (lol). Pundits have droned on about “entitlement” and lawlessness, but as word grows beyond the compliant Canadian press are taking a far more critical view of the Premier. Hard-line negotiating tactics, police brutality and unconstitutional laws aren’t a popular approach, and that usually becomes clear with a little more distance. As they face down wave after wave of arrests and beatings, with a few people now nearly killed and partially blinded, they have become the symbol of Canadian resistance to austerity, in a way we used to associate with Athens or Barcelona. This is indeed our “Maple Spring”.
How Are The Quebec Protests Being Reported Around The World? George Stroumboulopoulos (CBC)
Elsewhere, many other battles rage on. Protesters in London, Ont. disrupted hearings over attempts by Enbridge to pump Tar Sands oil through Southern Ontario. The Harper government has revealed more of it’s plans to “reform” EI, which threaten to cut off 5-10 000 recipients and force many into more distant jobs with less pay. Federal Conservatives are also trying (again) to dismiss a challenge of election results from ridings plagued by “robocalls”. And of course, they’re still threatening back-to-work legislation in the ongoing CP Rail strike.
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a pretty strong correlation between cuts to social spending and these kinds of uprisings. As Harper and his pet premiers unleash austerity on the nation known well as the most financially stable in the G8, we can only expect more protests, strikes and (*gasp*) riots. Not only have these policies proven an absolute financial disaster in the Eurozone, they’ve also incited political unrest on a truly massive scale. Nobody who’s been following international news for the last year can claim they didn’t see this coming.
Protests like the student movement in Quebec always threaten to become about more than the issues which first put people into the streets. This is now about far more than tuition in Quebec – it’s about the right to demonstrate and a broad-based loathing for Charest and his policies. It’s come to include issues of development, corruption and capitalism itself, and it’s beginning to spread beyond Quebec. If the government doesn’t back down very gracefully and very soon, they’re going to have a revolution on their hands.