The number of people who depend on emergency food handouts has nearly trebled in a year to 350,000 – more than the populations of cities such as Cardiff or Coventry. Figures from the leading food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, show that 346,992 people have received at least three days of emergency food support since last April – up from 128,697 the previous year and from just 61,468 in 2010-11. Click here to read the story
Last Saturday saw the launch meeting of the new Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, created by the merger of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) and the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti-Trade Union Laws. And yesterday saw the launch of the People’s Assembly initiative, aiming for a mass public meeting on June 22nd, backed by UNITE, PCS, NUT, Aslef, CWU, NUJ, RMT, TSSA, and suprisingly, UNISON.
So this is an opportune moment to consider the political and social strengths and weaknesses of the trade union movement. Personally I am firmly convinced that the cause of organized labour is the fundamental bedrock of progressive politics; it is not only a source of empowerment and self-organisation, but it also instrumental in creating communities of solidarity, which provide the ideological counterpart to the individualism and social irresponsibility of unrestrained capitalism.
There are three questions to consider: what is the current relationship of trade unions with broader society; what are the political objectives consistent with promoting the interests of trade unionism; and what is the current ability of trade unions to organize and prosecute the interests of their members by industrial means.
Click to continue reading
Following on from his article written on 18th March about the decision to raid the Cypriot population’s bank deposits, Kevin Ovenden gives an update to this fast-moving, unprecedented situation. We welcome articles, comments and information from other people with expertise or direct experience in Cyprus – please get in touch.
The piece below was written early on Monday morning, London time.
Since then events have proceeded rapidly and dramatically. They will continue to do so. This introductory update is meant to highlight the political significance of some of those developments in a fast moving crisis.
1) Despite desperate protestations it is now clear, as stated below, that it was the Cypriot delegation in talks with the Troika in the early hours of Saturday morning that opted to sacrifice the mass of the population through raiding whatever deposits they had in the domestic banking system.
Centre-right Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis was caught between Scylla and Charybdis: between the demand that depositors take a “hair-cut” (a forced “bail-in”) of €5.8 billion in return for a bail-out of €10 billion for the banks (plus austerity piled on an economy in a double-dip recession) on the one hand. On the other was the settled policy of the Cypriot elite to maintain its role as a tax-haven for hot and dodgy money – two thirds of it from Russian oligarchs.
The IMF and German Finance Ministry were prepared to throw the burden onto Russian capitalists; Anastasiadis opted to spread it to the Cypriot pensioner, worker, farmer and struggling hotelier.
2) No one in the talks says that the outcome – both the proposed measures and the obvious social/political upheaval that followed – was intended. The dysfunctionality of the European response to a now renewed crisis could not be clearer. It is as if all the principal actors have chosen to be the prisoner of events and then – by way of a kind of collective Stockholm Syndrome – disavow responsibility for their own actions.
3) The deal was, entirely predictably, both unacceptable to the mass of the Cypriot population and also seen near universally as a harbinger of further bank heists, the rational response to which is to get your money out, thus precipitating the kind of 1930s bank-run that policy-makers from Ben Bernanke to Gordon Brown congratulated themselves four years ago on avoiding.
The bank robbery was also viscerally opposed by two other groups.
First, the Cypriot business class. It has been utterly dependent on the island’s tax-haven status for a decade and a half. It rebelled. One of its main spokespeople in the US, the former governor of the central bank of Cyprus Athanasios Orphanides, told any business journalist who would listen on Tuesday that the powerful states of the EU had enforced a kind of apartheid across the continent where the law facilitated the expropriation of the weak by the strong.
He virtually genuflected in front of the Statue of Liberty, hailing the doctrine of equality before the law in an effort to persuade Wall Street and Capitol Hill of the unfairness of it all.
Second, Moscow. Staggeringly, the Eurozone finance ministers did not even inform, let alone consult, the Russian government about their plan to extort possibly up to €4 billion from Russian business interests.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was rebuffed and his government moved swiftly to explore its own independent intervention. There is a deep, bitter division between Russia’s oligarchs, with Putin at the head of the state and representing one wing. He indicated that there were certain hostile interests whose hair he would shed no tears over clipping. The Russian finance ministry toyed with demanding a version of the Lagarde List – an inventory of dodgy dealing modelled on the IMF chief’s list of the Greek rich’s overseas holdings.
But whether it was friends or factional opponents of the Russian government who were to suffer, Putin’s position was clear. If any oligarch was to get a buzz cut, have their liquidity frozen or be thrown in the slammer, it was to be a Kremlin decision and no one else’s.
The Cypriot finance minister tendered his resignation; it was not accepted. So he headed off to Moscow for talks while his bosses sought renegotiation with the Troika and getting something, anything, through the Cypriot parliament.
4) On Tuesday the Cypriot parliament not only rejected the original deal, it rejected a revised package exempting those with deposits under €20,000.
It didn’t just reject it. Not a single MP voted for it. Thirty-six MPs voted against, 19 of the president’s party’s MPs abstained. No one voted for.
The Cypriot vote is a watershed. For the first time in three years of the banking and sovereign debt crisis in Europe an institution has voted no. That crisis is, of course, an expression of a deeper global slump. But the ways it has manifested have depended on the particular architecture of the competing interests that make up the EU.
The Greek parliament – at the price of bleeding the political centre – voted through the savage austerity memoranda, which in 2011 also meant a hit for holders of Greek sovereign debt. That move pushed the Cypriot banks over the edge.
The Italian political class, in its majority, voted for the pain and accepted, as did their Greek counterparts, the imposition of a non-elected prime minister, Mario Monti, to see it through. Last month saw an electoral revolt against the Italian political class.
Now there is little Cyprus. Not only the mass of people, but now also an institution – the Cypriot parliament – has said no. A small child (Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 and the single currency in 2008, accounting for just 0.2 percent of the union’s economic output) has told the rest that the emperor has no clothes.
The profound significance of that will play out as there is now both a desperate scramble to reassemble some deal over Cyprus’s banks (Russian takeover? Exceptional European Central Bank cash? Creative destruction?) and deepening opprobrium across the south of Europe at those politicians who said that the only game in town was austerity in order to secure a bailout.
5) The failure of the Cypriot parliament to agree to the bank heist on Tuesday was total. The political positions of the MPs, still more so the interests of the conflicting social classes in Cyprus, are far from uniform.
With the Cypriot business class opposing the Troika, with Russian-oligarch depositors alienated and with Moscow floating alternatives, a number of even centre-right MPs could find a backbone. Even those of Anastasiades’ Democratic Rally could slither into abstention.
But those parameters will change. In the combination of conflicting pressures that produced the Cypriot No there is one central element for the radical left. It is the mobilisation – and with it political agency – of the mass of the people in Cyprus who took to the streets outside the parliament on Tuesday with the backing of, among others, the official opposition Akel party.
That means not being oblivious to the cracks and fissures that are opening up in official politics as a parliament of an EU state bucks the trend. But it also means firmly standing independent of those conflicting elite interests, even while exploiting their mutual clashes.
All sorts of voices in Cyprus and across Europe will now seek to gather political strength to plot their preferred way out the crisis.
As the piece below argues, the radical left should have its own voice, based upon extending the kind of mobilisations we’ve seen in Cyprus so far and upon a trajectory of fundamentally breaking with a failed system.
This is a guest post from Kevin Ovenden; it originally appeared on the Left Flank website.
Two months ago, perennial optimists were telling us that the worst of the Eurozone crisis was probably over. Then came the Italian election. Now the great Cypriot bank heist.
By Sunday morning it was dawning on tens of millions of people what had happened, as the news spread from the specialist financial commentary to front pages and top television news across the continent.
At one stroke, the Troika of the Eurozone finance ministers, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund had, with the new right wing Cypriot government, had stolen between 6.7 and 9.9 percent of the money of all depositors in Cyprus’s ailing banks. All in the name of a bank rescue.
When the leading capitalist states moved in 2008 to rescue the banks it was through taking on debt themselves and guaranteeing small and medium deposits in order to prevent a run on the banking system following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The public, of course, was then to be squeezed in the name of reducing the debt that was now on the public books. Now, nearly five years on, the “rescue” means direct robbery of the depositor.
It’s as if as the crisis has continued and deepened the capitalist system has become auto-cannibalisitic. What was meant to be sacred – private property and the essential private contractual relationship – has become profaned; not at the hands of some North Korean “communist terror”, but by the partisans of re-tubocharging the neoliberal model, which is what the austerity is all about.
Writing in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Munchau spelled out the consequence:
“If one wanted to feed the political mood of insurrection in southern Europe, this was the way to do it. The long-term political damage of this agreement is going to be huge. In the short term, the danger consists of a generalised bank run, not just in Cyprus.”
The banks in Cyprus and Greece are closed today for the Orthodox Clean Monday holiday. The Cypriot parliament is in emergency session to try to pass the measures while its government also seeks to renegotiate them. The potential in the coming days and weeks for a rapid spread of this phase of the crisis and for a dramatic social and political rupture is immense.
It’s not just one thing; it’s one damn thing after another. The political instability, worsening economic outlook and rising resistance are spread across southern Europe and elsewhere. This sudden sharpening of the crisis poses acutely the strategic questions for the labour movement and the left.
While the German government and its representatives in the European institutions remain utterly rigid in enforcing an austerity that is failing, they are not alone in hurtling over the cliff – as the dogma of the Cameron government in Britain, which is not in the euro, shows again this week in the face of mounting evidence of further economic collapse.
The government of Nicos Anastasiades in Cyprus slipped out carefully selected and self-serving details over the weekend, claiming that it had bravely fought German demands and that the island had been overwhelmed by a foreign power from without – comparing the economic disaster now with the Turkish invasion of 1974.
On one level, it’s true that Anastasiades bridled at the initial German/Troika proposal. But that was to throw the burden of bank theft almost wholly onto large depositors, those with over €100,000. The Cypriot government was desperate to keep its reputation as a home for hot money, a policy that had contributed to the massive overextension of Cyprus’s banks so that their business swelled to seven times the size of the actual economy. Much of the cash in the banks – €20 billion – is from Russia’s oligarchs.
So it was the centre-right in Cyprus that decided to offer up workers, pensioners, farmers and small businessmen to propitiate the banks and their Troika enforcers, as Athenian king Aegeus in myth sacrificed the city’s youth to the Cretan Minotaur.
Now, faced with an enormous backlash, which staggeringly commentators say was not predicted by the geniuses who run the Cypriot government and Euro-institutions, they are looking to tilt the burden back towards squeezing the Russians and others.
It’s a lose-lose situation. Whatever the Cypriot parliament decides today, the rich will withdraw their deposits anyway, ending Cyprus’s status as money laundry of the south (a barely concealed aim of Berlin and Brussels) and so will the middling and poor rest when the banks reopen. As Munchau says, they will be acting rationally. If others withdraw money, then the banks will be in further trouble, which means more austerity with the possibility of a further bank heist – so you had better get out now as well.
There is immediate spill-over in Greece. The Cypriot banks in Greece will now be included in the Greek banking system. But who will recapitalise them – to the tune of something like €2 billion? The money from the last round of the Greek bailout has withered as austerity has deepened the slump. Greek depositors have €13 billion in Cypriot banks in Greece, principally the Cyprus Bank and Laiki, which the Troika has said it will pull the plugs on if there is no agreement in Cyprus to raid the deposits. Why on earth should anyone leave their money in the Greek outposts of those banks?
This question will hit this week when the banks reopen in an atmosphere of not only ongoing social rage but of a further moment of political crisis in Greece.
The government of Antonis Samaras tried to play poker with the Troika a few weeks ago. He wants to appear tough in the negotiations and, more importantly, his government has not been able to drive through all the measures demanded. So the Troika left Athens without closing a new deal. The last time this happened under Pasok’s Evangelos Venizelos, it took the imposition of a poll tax on property to get the Troika to come back and deal.
People in Greece are asking what now must be offered up to the monster? One obvious answer, post-Cyprus, is their deposits.
The intersection of political and economic crisis poses a major systemic danger. An accident can happen at every level: in the vote in the Cypriot parliament; in withdrawals by big investors (mainly Russians); in a run by the mass of depositors; in a spread of the bank run to Greece and the south; in a new round of austerity by the Greek state to recapitalise the banks; in the political impotence of Samaras’s tripartite government to vote through the measures, still less enforce them.
And the Cypriot bank job is set to exacerbate geo-political tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. The government is promising a share of future profits from gas extraction to those (principally Russians) who keep their money in the country for the next two years. But the recently discovered gas field has yet to be exploited. And rights over it are contested by Greek Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey.
The government of Samaras, a hard nationalist who rejoined the New Democracy party in Greece after his own chauvinist party hit the rocks a few years ago, is toying with unilaterally declaring an Exclusive Economic Zone in the Aegean – in flat opposition to Turkey.
The crisis is not waiting for the coming of an anti-austerity government, still less a consortium of some European governments which might together push for an alternative. People are not only being squeezed and having publicly-owned assets handed to the 1 percent; they are now being directly robbed as surely as if at gunpoint.
There are two broad lines of argument the radical left can take. And two general directions of travel.
First, we can say that the problem is Germany; that Angela Merkel has put bank deposits at risk; that it is the left, not the partisans of neoliberalism, which can ensure the basic inviolability of the private financial transaction; and that the agency for an alternative to austerity is institutional – a bloc of governments of varying hue that can stand up to the mafia in Berlin and Brussels.
There is certainly propaganda merit in showing that it is the defenders of neoliberalism and not the left that have inflicted the nightmare on anyone who has a bit of money in the bank.
But what would it mean to say that we will defend the little person in Cyprus and elsewhere? It would mean taking control of the banks. The Cypriot state – with overnight bans on electronic transfers and other withdrawals – has just shown that that is not only possible, but and for its own purposes, is actually how this free market system operates. Bank nationalisation and capital controls would entail directly standing up to the blackmail issued by big capitalists and the banks and enforced by their consiglieri in institutions such those making up the Troika.
It would mean nationalising the currency – a direct break or rupture with the Eurozone and EU. In other words, if it was to mean anything now to the people who are suffering in Cyprus, it would entail a radical anti-institutional break. It would mean the second direction of travel that is open to what the left can try to do and argue for.
That is to say that if the agencies of capitalism, in the interests of capitalism, can take over the banks and seize deposits, then so can the left for entirely different interests and with different effect. It’s tempting to say that where the liberal capitalists fail in their solemn undertaking to preserve the holiness of the private contract, the Left can succeed and in so doing can even attract as part of a “hegemonic bloc” sections of the population that lose out in the “bailout” well beyond the ranks of the working class and poor, and sections of the middle class.
But if they cannot succeed, there is no reason to imagine that we can. Rather, there is every reason to base our arguments and agitation on an anti-capitalist position. Depositors in banks are not a social class, are not a uniform interest group, are not a potential bloc that the left can mobilise, lead and rest on. For us, nationalising the banks means protecting working people and the middle class at the expense of big business and finance. That means further measures that impinge on capitalism.
The debate over such measures, certainly for us in Britain, might have seemed abstruse over the last couple of years. After all, wasn’t the central issue the bringing into government of at least some government that was opposed to the austerity madness? The problem is that the Cypriot heist shows that the question of whether a renegotiation of austerity or a radical rupture with it is posed now – not as a policy dilemma of government, but as a political argument around which masses of people may be mobilised to have political effect.
And Cyprus did have a government opposed to austerity: its first ever Communist President, Demetris Chrisofias. It sought exactly to find allies among governments of the south and to mitigate the austerity, while saying that things such as taking over the banks were at best a provocation which would prevent winning broader political support and were at worst futile. The futility was in not taking radical measures. Chrisofias lost the election last month.
What the left says and does now matters. First, can it encourage radical mass mobilisation that can shift the political calculus? If it does not, the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece shows that there are others who will. Secondly, extending and popularising arguments agains the banks, big capital, and for a rupture with both impacts on whatever outcome there is from future elections. We want the right out and the left in. But will that left follow the path of Chrisofias or a different one?
In large part that depends on whether it comes in on the back of a rising resistance and a social agency that is posing radical political answers.
Last year, so much of that seemed like a luxurious or even petty-fogging distinction. But the actual dilemma is not in the future – to be faced by possibly a government led by the radical left Syriza party in Greece, or some equivalent elsewhere. It is posed now in what the social reaction is to this extreme moment in Cyprus, with its implications elsewhere.
Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, was in Britain at the end of last week. He repeated his call at the time of the Greek general elections last summer for the holding of a modern version of the London conference of 1953 which forgave 60 percent of West German debt.
Now, from the point of view of those of us in London – home to so many of the banking leviathans – championing writing off debt against our government and the City has great merit. Indeed, arguing to seize the £777 billion of idle deposits in Britain’s banks and using them for investment also has great value.
But as the anti-capitalist writer and activist Panagiotis Sotiris has argued the circumstances for such a conference do not obtain as they did in 1953: the beginning of the long boom, with fears of West Germany being drawn towards the Soviet camp, with a confident US able to underwrite a Marshall Plan.
Above all, the governments and institutions remain wedded to one another and to austerity. It was in the name of the national that Anastasiadis decided to bleed the people of Cyprus in order to remain a financial facility for dubious Russian money.
Increasing numbers of working people, the poor, farmers and sections of the middle class are not, however, wedded to the failed policy: as the Italian election showed.
The central question posed for the left is whether we can speak to them, not with the aim of drawing them into a bloc with a section of the elites that have failed. But to create a new, powerful political pole that strikes at the root of the problem and rests on the kind of social force that we saw two years ago topple Mubarak where decades of politicking had failed.
Tsipras told the audience at a public meeting in London that a large majority expected Syriza to win the next election, whenever that is. (And everyone on the left everywhere will be hoping that Syriza and the left as a whole do win.) But he added that the same majority did not expect anything to change.
A part of transforming that hopelessness, pronounced elsewhere as well, is for the left to base itself squarely on building the widest effective resistance now, and articulating a political vision that inspires confidence that it will bring change, because it is based not on the ambiguities and triangulations that have seen the centre-left enervated across the continent, but on a radical rupture with a system that has failed.
Cyprus and our response to it is a moment to advance an argument for just such a break.
This is a guest post by Andrew Burgin of the new Left Unity website
Britain stands on the verge of a triple dip recession. The government is relentlessly pursuing its austerity policies. This year the unemployed, the disabled, the low paid and many other vulnerable groups will all find their benefits and wages cut and many millions will be pushed further into poverty. The ‘bedroom tax’ will drive many working class families out of their homes. Our cities will be socially cleansed.
Hundreds of food banks have been opened over the last two years and the Trussell Trust, which operates many of these, estimates that 1,000 will be needed in order to stop serious malnutrition and hunger – this in one of the richest countries in the world.
Under cover of austerity the right is attempting the destruction of the entire welfare and social system established in the post-war period.
Billions of pounds of health contracts are being transferred to the private sector and these private health companies are financing the election campaigns and work of those pursuing this privatisation. There is a corruption at the heart of public life which has only been partially exposed by the expenses and lobbying scandals of recent years.
Cameron and Clegg are rolling back the welfare state to an extent that Margaret Thatcher could only dream about. When Thatcher contemplated introducing similar measures she met opposition even within her own cabinet. How times have changed.
Tory ministers now talk openly of there being a clear end to the NHS should they be re-elected in 2015.
The decades of Tory and New Labour rule have seen the evisceration of the labour movement and many trade union leaders have failed to defend their members and the movement adequately in the face of this onslaught. Unionisation of the private sector stands at 15% and the unions have drawn back from the defence of public sector pension provision.
Up until now opposition to these attacks has been fragmented and weak, punctuated by some significant trade union-led marches against austerity, occasional direct action campaigns by UK Uncut and others, and rallies and conferences called by a number of different national anti-cuts groups. The emergence of dynamic local campaigns in defence of specific services, such as libraries and hospitals, has been the most effective and inspiring factor in the anti-austerity movement. But the absence of a coherent and united national movement to challenge the government’s cuts agenda – and pose alternatives – has been hard felt by those on the front line in these struggles.
Now, however, there is a possibility of united action against austerity. The call for a People’s Assembly against Austerity – and particularly the breadth of support it is receiving – is of tremendous importance. The call, initiated by the Coalition of Resistance and Unite the Union, brings together trades unions and anti-cuts activists from a wide range of organisations and has the potential to take the movement beyond the limits of the single day event on which the call is based.
Moreover the call has been strengthened by the participation of a group of important left-wing activists such as Owen Jones and Mark Steel and others who are prepared to build the Assembly by touring the towns and cities of Britain, agitating for the Assembly and aiming to unite all those who oppose austerity.
There are groups that stand outside this process. The Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party both have their own national anti-cuts organisations. However, the hope now must be, given the weight of trade union and campaigning involvement in the People’s Assembly process, that all anti-austerity work can be united under its banner.
What is significant about the decision of the Coalition of Resistance to initiate the People’s Assembly – which can make it more than merely a successful one day conference – is that it is conceived as an open process with its own dynamic. CoR will devote itself to the success of the Assembly but on the basis of equal participation by others both in the process and the outcome.
This is a genuine opportunity to create the single national united anti-cuts organisation that we have long recognised the need for.
That this is a possible great step forward for the working class cannot be denied. We can harness the social weight and capacity for mass action of the trades unions together with the seething anger and sense of injustice felt by those facing austerity.
The anti-austerity movement and the Labour Party
Participation in the Assembly process will help shape a united front against a common enemy. But clearly it won’t imply complete political agreement between all participants. Many hope that the People’s Assembly will strengthen the left in the Labour Party and will force an incoming Labour government in 2015 to reverse the privatisation of services and welfare cuts of the current government.
Others, and we in Left Unity are in this camp, think that this, regrettably, is not possible. It is not that the great majority of the working class will not vote Labour in 2015. Where they do still vote, they will largely vote Labour, but this is not because they expect any significant change. The only expectation that rests in the Labour Party is that it will be marginally better that the Tories. Very few expect a wholesale reversal by Labour of the neo-liberal policies imposed by this government and by the previous Labour governments of Blair and Brown. Miliband’s shadow cabinet message is clear – there will be no wholesale reversal of the Tory cuts. Indeed there has been no progress yet beyond the ‘slower cuts’ mantra.
The Labour Party has never been a socialist party but was founded by the trade unions to provide political representation for the organised working class, and was able in the period of capitalist boom to make some limited reforms in the interests of that class. With the change in political orientation of the Labour Party and its embracing of neo-liberalism it no longer fulfils its historic role in relation to the working class, leaving that class politically defenceless in the current economic crisis. In the absence of the Labour Party, there remains an objective need for a political force which will represent – and fight for – the interests of the working class.
New parties of the Left
There cannot be many on the left in Britain who do not have some experience or knowledge of the various attempts to build a new political organisation to the left of the Labour Party. From the Socialist Labour Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, through to the Socialist Alliance and Respect, we have witnessed a catalogue of sectarian political strife which has resulted, despite some false dawns, in failure and political despair.
However difficult it may appear to be, the task of constructing a serious broad-based working class party is an essential component of the fight against austerity. A political response to the crisis is essential. It is not sufficient that the opposition to austerity remain at the level of trade union and community struggles. Trades unions, even under left wing leadership, cannot substitute for the building of new parties of the left which must engage with broad social forces not necessarily organised within a trade union framework.
The objective need for this development and the political space that it will occupy has existed at least since the mid-1990s. We recognise that the success of such a party will only take place to the extent that it engages in mass movements and articulates and advances the needs of the working class. New parties flower in a period of big struggles but the need for such an organisation exists independently of these struggles and it is the responsibility of socialists to make clear the goal and to lay the groundwork for this development.
Elsewhere in Europe new political formations of this type have already emerged and are playing a central role in the anti-austerity movement. SYRIZA, (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece is the most successful so far, being formed around Synaspismos – established in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Until recently, SYRIZA was a very small force on the left, but its politics have enabled it to meet the challenge facing the Greek working class.
Greece is the beating heart of the Eurozone crisis. There the entire social fabric of the society is being dismantled. Athens this winter is covered in smog through the burning of wood because people cannot afford oil and gas heating to stay warm. Hospitals have run out of basic medicines. The suicide rate has increased by 400%. People scavenge for the basic means of existence.
The people of Greece have fought courageously against the avalanche of cuts. Since 2009 they have had more than twenty days of general strike action. There have been strikes in many industries and occupations of hospitals and steel plants. The young people who now suffer from 60% unemployment have protested in the squares and city centres.
Up until last year the social democratic party PASOK was in government. In the elections of 2009 PASOK received just under 44% of the vote and SYRIZA polled 4.6%. Further elections were held in May and June last year and then the vote for PASOK collapsed to just over 12% and that of SYRIZA rose to close to 27%.
SYRIZA, with a clear anti-austerity programme, came within a hair’s breadth of being able to form a government. Throughout Europe, new parties which have been forged through the struggles of the last two decades, uniting left forces on an anti-capitalist programme, are now occupying the political space vacated by the rightward move of social democracy.
No doubt it can be argued that the conditions in Britain preclude such a development, whether that be the historic relationship of the working class to the Labour Party, the blighting of the movement by the Thatcherite onslaught, or the first past the post electoral system. These factors undoubtedly make the task more difficult but nevertheless it is a necessary task. We cannot continue to be the only country in Europe that has a political desert to the left of neo-liberal social democracy.
Even to pose this question amongst comrades – and begin the discussion of what is necessary and what is achievable – is of enormous value.
In reality, the construction of such a party is the only route out of this crisis. This is an international economic crisis which exposes the limits of capitalist development and poses the need for a complete reordering of the economic priorities of society. That is why a new party is necessary and why the discussions that we have begun with other comrades in the movement are worth continuing.
This is a guest post from Andrew Burgin & Kate Hudson
Events themselves are driving us towards greater European cooperation. In the context of the social, economic and political catastrophe that is facing much of Europe, this increasing cooperation – of trade unions, left parties and social movements – must be understood as an urgent necessity, not as a luxury or a diversion from national struggles.
Against a backdrop of daily protests across the continent on a gigantic scale, the ETUC has issued a call for action that is set to impact on the movement in Britain in an unprecedented fashion. Such ETUC calls are usually disregarded here. They make no impact, even amongst those most willing to look above the parapet of strictly British concerns. But the modest resonance of the recent ETUC initiative is indicative of both the scale of the crisis we are all facing and of the increased receptiveness to the necessity of cooperation with our brothers and sisters in struggle across Europe.
Last week the ETUC called for a day of solidarity action across Europe on November 14th, ‘including strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions’. It follows the decision of national trades unions in Spain and Portugal to co-ordinate strike action on that day, which have since been joined by unions in Greece, Malta, Italy and Cyprus.
Far from being a routine call to be met with routine indifference, this call opens the path for unions throughout Europe to take solidarity action in support of the general strike action in the southern European countries. It presents an opportunity to take action that is appropriate and possible in any local and national context, to feed into a powerful continent-wide expression of refusal, of resistance, and a demand for pro-people alternatives.
Clearly we cannot expect the same forms of action in each country. As Die Linke central committee member, Florian Wilde, argued at the recent Europe against Austerity conference, on the 21st October, the economic crisis and the response to it by the youth and the working class is proceeding in an uneven way in different European countries.
Whilst the ruling class has used the crisis to expedite the destruction of all social gains in health, education, welfare and employment rights achieved in the post-war period, the path and the speed of the destruction of these gains varies from country to country. Equally, what is possible in each country depends on the state of the working class movement as well as the pace of the onslaught it faces.
We have seen the intensification of the general strike as a weapon by the working class, combined with mass action against austerity and new waves of social struggles expressed by the indignados and occupy movements. These developments are of great importance.
Yet although throughout Europe many millions have been mobilised, nowhere has it so far been possible to push back the austerity offensive and assert the interests – and politics representative of the working class – on a governmental level.
Greece has seen the most widespread action against the onslaught of capital, with 20 days of general strikes over a three year period. It is at the cutting edge of the austerity offensive with the disintegration of everyday life a lived experience by millions. Greece also stands as the country closest to the achievement of a government which will reject austerity, defend the people and advance their interests. The tragedy here is that while the left – through the SYRIZA party – stood on the threshold of political office in June 2012, the failure of other left forces to join them in a workers’ government has thrown open the door to extreme reaction – a door already prised ajar by the policies of the Troika.
There can be no hiding from the appalling events already taking place in Greece as the Golden Dawn fascist party has gone from 0.23% of the vote to 12% in the most recent polls. They have infiltrated sections of the state and have organised themselves as a paramilitary force which now attacks the immigrant community, the left and other progressive forces. Anti-fascist activists now face beatings and torture at the hands of the fascists.
We must not stand idly by and allow this to happen, unchallenged. Solidarity work with the people of Greece must be a top priority for the trade unions and the left throughout Europe. And it is much hoped for and expected. As Greek trade union leader, Giorgos Charisis, said at the Europe against Austerity conference, ‘We need an internationalist coalition of the working class. Britain has a tradition of international solidarity. We take for granted you will extend it to us and we look forward to it.’
The message is clear, from the people themselves, and also repeatedly from our television and computer screens: we cannot have business as usual, either in the trade unions in Britain or in the wider movement. The consequences of inaction are too terrible to contemplate, either on a political level, or on a human level.
November 14th, with its potential for the co-ordination and intensification of struggle across Europe, offers the possibility of being the spark to ignite a generalised offensive against capital to reverse the defeats being inflicted on the peoples on a daily basis.
Whilst Britain, for a variety of reasons, has not yet achieved the level of mobilisation seen in other parts of Europe, it has nevertheless seen mass demonstrations against austerity. The TUC ‘March for the Alternative’ in March 2011 was the largest trade union mobilisation this country has seen, with more than half a million taking to the streets. It followed from a radicalisation amongst the student population emerging from a campaign against tuition fees and it fed into a struggle to defend pension rights.
The second TUC march ‘For a Future that Works’ on the 20th October 2012 was smaller in size but with more than 150,000 marching was nevertheless significant and was marked by a hardening of the anti-austerity message from a significant section of the trade union leadership. Three general secretaries called for a general strike at the demonstration rally and others referred to the TUC congress resolution to explore the practicalities of organising such a strike.
General strike is, for many reasons – legal, historical and political – not on the current agenda in Britain in the same way that it is across much of Europe. Apart from anything else, we have the most draconian anti-trade union laws in Europe, designed to avoid anything other than the most localised, workplace specific strikes. But take action we must, and in solidarity with the struggles taking place in Europe on November 14th. It may be that some unions can take co-ordinated strike action on that day and that such developments are already being considered. This would be no mean feat to achieve and it would be a major step forward for the struggle, in Britain and Europe.
Nevertheless with much of southern Europe on the verge of general strike action even the most modest solidarity action here in Britain would be of enormous significance.
Every initiative taken by the trade unions and wider movement, whether symbolic or of greater practical solidarity, must be supported. November 14th presents us with an opportunity that must be seized.
Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson
28 October 2012
This is a guest post which we commissioned from Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football in response to last Saturday’s demo in London. The left at its best isn’t just solid on political theory, it’s also great at connecting with popular issues and helping to radicalise them. Here, Mark argues for a step-change in the trade union movement’s thinking about campaigning against austerity.
There is little doubt that apart from a tiny minority of the super-wealthy, and those perhaps whose sole personal ambition in life is to join their ranks, tax avoidance is hugely unpopular. And this stretches more or less across the political spectrum, the Daily Mail has been on several occasions amongst the most strident critics of corporate tax avoidance.
Of course agreeing that tax avoidance is morally unscrupulous is not the same as saying how that money would be spent. But it at least opens up the argument that the money should be returned to the income sheet of public expenditure to spend on hospitals, education, welfare, housing, the emergency services and the like.
In this way a tax avoidance campaign that works could be a major contributor towards constructing a popular majority.
How? One of the major achievements of the Right ideologically is to shape ‘common sense’ through the everyday use of language. Key to this around arguments on the cuts is the ‘welfare scrounger’. The key task of a tax avoidance campaign is to do something similar with ‘tax dodger’. Isolate and demonise those companies, and individuals, who are taking billions out of the British economy through their own greed and selfishness.
This requires a language of the broadest possible appeal. A campaign not to serve the self-interest of the activist minority but to connect to a popular majority. Tax dodging, greed, looting the British economy, betraying the national interest, we pay our taxes, why don’t they? This is the kind of language that has the potential to connect.
Naming and shaming would be key. Look how bad Jimmy Carr was made to look when his personal tax affairs were made public. But the most important target is of course the corporate tax dodgers. They place a huge financial price on maintaining a positive public image, brand identity, more often or not wrapped up in sponsorship deals, frequently involving sport but also the arts and other ‘good works’. Associating those brands with tax dodging will harm them, in the pocket.
Consumer boycotts are less likely, not only because these tend to only appeal to the activist minority but on the High Street it would be nigh on impossible to find a place to shop not owned by a corporate tax avoider. Non violent direct action, of the sort brilliantly pioneered by UK Uncut, though would be hugely effective in sticking that label ‘tax dodger’ in the most effective way on to the main offenders.
And the end product? Creating a popular majority against tax avoidance. Making Parliament answerable to that majority by forcing through action and legislation to close the tax loopholes.
And the practice? Of course there are exciting campaigns, The Tax Justice Network, and as already mentioned UK Uncut have shown the way to popularise the issue, but these are in all honesty only scratching the surface of the potential support and the political leverage such a popular majority would provide. A campaign to dramatically shift the discourse from ‘welfare scroungers’ to ‘tax dodgers’ requires the kind of campaign unimaginable by those immersed in the self-interest of activism. This is a campaign of billboard advertising, TV, radio and cinema ads, a network of local groups putting pressure on their MPs to act, and if they won’t act taking action against them, direct action on the High Street against the main corporate offenders, disrupting their sponsorship to ensure at every turn their brand image is damaged. Educating and inspiring the most committed with the facts and figures so they can use every possible platform to expose the scale of the daylight robbery masquerading as tax avoidance.
A serious anti-cuts campaign seeks the political leverage to effect change, to open up the argument for alternatives to austerity and recession. But that leverage needs substance, a campaign against tax avoidance provides that in a way no other issue is likely to.
And this means asking questions of the trade unions’ priorities? Rightly or wrongly too often these can be presented as acting out of self-interest, unsurprisingly really as the first duty of any trade union is to protect their own members’ interests. Saturday’s march, and other campaigns of this sort, are a well-intentioned effort to break out of that. Yet primarily they attract and involve those already active, those already committed to taking action against the cuts, and the result is undeniably diminishing returns and little or no public impact. If a fraction of the resources ploughed into a demo of this sort, the person hours spent organising it, was ploughed into a tax avoidance campaign governed by the ambition of a popular majority the the results could be startling. A trade union movement part of a much broader movement, facilitating a campaign that resulted in a significant change in the balance of everyday debate, securing a famous victory by forcing though legislation and action.
Any honest observation of the reaction to the Con-Dem cuts would admit that it has been sporadic, on nothing like the scale imagined, and Saturday also indicated that even amongst the most active the numbers willing to march are in freefall. We need something to change this situation dramatically, a campaign with a real chance of not only connecting to a popular mood but winning too. Honourable defeat is the comfort zone of activism, constructing a popular majority towards victory is the far harder but worthwhile task.
On his Leargas blog, Gerry Adams reflects on the results of the Irish referrendum, where 40% of the voters rejected austerity, despite unanimity among the establishment parties calling for YES:
In an earlier European campaign 2000 years ago King Pyrrhus of Epirus suffered such heavy casualties at the hands of the Romans that his apparent military victories ultimately led to his defeat.
Out of that experience the phrase pyrrhic victory came into common usage and was used to describe someone who has been successful in some activity, usually politics, business or war, but the cost has been so great that it was ruinous to the overall project.
And so it is with the referendum of the austerity treaty. The people have spoken and the Fiscal Compact Treaty will now become part of the Irish constitution. But the success of the YES side does not make the arguments of the NO campaign any less true and in the view of this blog will lead to a worsening of the social and economic circumstances for most Irish citizens.
In the face of a deliberate campaign by the two government parties, supported by Fianna Fáil, built on fear, 40% of the electorate still said NO. And many of those who reluctantly voted YES made their anger clear. It is also obvious that social class played a part with the NO vote greatest among those working class and low and middle income families bearing the brunt of this Government’s austerity policies.
This blog believes that the success of the YES side in this latest European campaign is a pyrrhic victory. The adverse economic and social consequences for the Irish people will not ease in the years ahead and the battle of ideas between those who advocate austerity and conservative policies, over those who seek to defend the rights of citizens and the creation of a more equitable society, will increase in intensity.
This has been evident in recent days in the shallow and bitter criticisms that some on the YES side have engaged in since the referendum result. One columnist indulged in the usual nonsense when she described the outcome for Sinn Féin as ‘humiliating’.
The issues at the heart of the referendum haven’t gone away because of the success of the YES side. On the contrary the dangers are greater than ever. The Irish government and its Fianna Fáil ally are committed to more years of austerity policies and of the erosion of the state’s fiscal sovereignty. At the same time the situation in Europe deteriorates with increasing uncertainty around developments in Spain and Greece, Cyprus in trouble and new unemployment statistics revealing that unemployment in the Eurozone now stands at record levels at 11%.
The European political leadership, which is shielded from the reality of austerity and the impact of the policies they promote, continue to promote their conservative ethos.
On the same day citizens were voting on the austerity Treaty the EU Commissioner Olli Rehn was busy warning in Brussels that Europe needed more austerity and greater fiscal discipline.
Previously the head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi set out his vision for Europe in the next ten years. He said: “We want to have a fiscal union. We have to accept the delegation of fiscal sovereignty from the national governments to some form of central authority.”
And his predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet is reported to have told a meeting in the USA last month that Europe should take on to itself the right to declare a sovereign state bankrupt and take over its fiscal policy. He pointed out that the Austerity Treaty gives fiscal oversight to EU states to levy fines on those they deem to have broken the rules. If all of this failed a country could be taken in receivership!!
So the direction for Europe and for the Irish state under this government is set. Greater economic and fiscal union, and the erosion of sovereignty for member states. All of this will be accompanied by a continuation of the Troika bailout programme that commits this government to €8.6 billion of additional cuts for the next three years and a further €6 billion in cuts as a result of the austerity Treaty’s demand for reducing the structural deficit to 0.5%.
Where does the government plan to get all this money from? It singularly failed to say during the referendum campaign. One YES economist Colm McCarthy – who produced the ‘An Bord Snip Nua’ report – told the Irish Small and Medium Firms Association at the weekend that the government will have to break all of its commitments not to raise income tax; not to touch welfare and to honour the Croke Park agreement.
Time will tell how accurate his predications are. However, the government did make a number of firm commitments during the referendum campaign. One was the Minister of Finance’s pledge that a YES vote would mean that December’s budget would be less harsh. Another was Fine Gael and Labour’s belated support for a jobs and growth package.
They now have to deliver. They need to demonstrate – in actions rather than words – how they intend to address the jobs crisis, the mortgage crisis, and get the economy growing again so that we get back into the markets by 2014.
The Government also has a duty to stand up for Ireland and to ensure that the banking debt issue is dealt with by seeking a debt write down.
It is important that they introduce the type of jobs stimulus that was talked about during this campaign – unless there is serious investment in job creation the numbers of citizens on the live register and emigrating will continue.
Sinn Féin has published firm proposals for a significant jobs stimulus package and in the time ahead we will set out the detail of this. But this is only part of what we must do. Republicans have a different vision for Ireland. We are for a new republic that is citizen centred and is based on equality and fairness. There is an onus on Sinn Féin to articulate this and to continue to evolve and develop our republican politics and policies and demonstrate that there is a viable alternative to the conservatism of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil.
In the short term June will be a pivotal month in determining the future of the EU and of the Irish state. The French Parliamentary elections will take place on June 10 and 17th; the IMF is due to publish an all important report on the Spanish banks on June 11th; the Greeks go back to the polls on June 17th; and EU leaders will meet on June 28th and 29th to produce their blueprint for the way forward.
This is a guest post by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson
Greece stands on a precipice. There can be no return to the old politics there and a revolutionary situation is emerging amid the chaos of everyday life. The classic conditions for revolution are present: a working class no longer prepared to live in the old way and a ruling class no longer able to rule in the old way.
Even the people who decide to end their own lives are not doing so quietly. They are going to the squares to die and they are leaving messages that talk not so much of their own despair but of struggle – ‘hang the bankers and the politicians’, said one.
The political situation in Greece has to be resolved either by the working class or by the forces of reaction – there is no third way. Either Greece will have a workers’ government or the forces of the extreme right will grow and threaten the existence of the left as a whole.
One force has emerged on the left and has galvanised mass support – Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, a coalition of communists, Maoists and Trotskyists and other progressive currents. In Marxist terms it is a left-centrist formation – different in essence from the Socialist Party in France or the Labour Party in Britain.
Syriza has come under fire, since its stunning election result in May where it went from 4.4% to 16.8% of the popular vote, from the entire Greek establishment – from all the media and the main bailout parties. The attempt to demonise Syriza is also being promoted throughout the whole of the European Union and the Troika have concentrated their fire on Syriza. You only have to listen to the lectures being given by Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, about Greeks not paying their taxes to know which way the wind is blowing.
Syriza have rejected the bailout terms. The party has refused the memorandum and called for the defence of workers’ rights. Their leader Alexis Tsipras outlined 5 demands that a new government would undertake. In addition Syriza are on record as calling for the complete nationalisation of the banks.
There is no doubt that Syriza is under enormous pressure to compromise its principles and that within Syriza there may be rightist tendencies that might buckle under pressure from the EU and others. These are decisive days in Greek politics. In this situation what should other forces on the left do?
This week major comment pieces have appeared in the two main left papers in Britain, the Morning Star and the Socialist Worker, written by Kenny Coyle and Alex Callinicos respectively. Rather than calling for critical support for Syriza in opposing the memorandum and defending the working class both articles argue that the working class have chosen the wrong party to support -‘it should have been me’ shout the jilted revolutionaries and expecting a quick divorce proclaim that once the working class have come to their senses it will be [one] of them.
The sister party of Socialist Worker [SEK] works within a much smaller left coalition than Syriza called Antarsya. Antarsya picked up 1.2% of the vote in the May general election. They did not pass the threshold for parliamentary representation in Greece which is 3% and although they are standing again are unlikely to increase their vote significantly and certainly not to that threshold – as Callinicos admits ‘I don’t expect Antarsya to get a big vote’. Callinicos is not wrong here – polls show Antarsya support dropping to 0.5% – the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition got more votes on the London Assembly list.
So why are they standing?
Callinicos’s main point seems to be that the election itself is not that important. In fact his piece is titled ‘Greece’s real battle comes after the election’. So the election is not a real battle – the real battle is taking place on the streets in the struggle against the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. No one doubts the bravery of Antarsya comrades and their commitment to anti-fascist work. Their offices have been attacked by the fascists in recent days because they are at the heart of anti-fascist work in Greece. Everyone there knows that.
But this is not a good reason for Antarsya to stand against Syriza and possibly deny it the possibility of becoming the largest party – which given the peculiarities of Greek electoral law gains an extra 50 seats. In fact in return for calling on its voters to support Syriza it should put down a number of proposals for joint anti-fascist work – some of which could only be introduced by a government – outlawing paramilitary activity, purging public institutions of Golden Dawn supporters.
Elections are important and the May election saw the vote for Golden Dawn increase from 0.3% to almost 7% – this has emboldened them and they have been at the heart of anti-immigrant riots in Patras this week. They are not fascists in suits but fascists in uniform and bearing arms. Almost 50% of the police voted for Golden Dawn.
Callinicos argues that Antarsya has a distinctive programme and lists Greek default, bank nationalistion, shorter working day and leaving the Euro. It’s not that distinctive – in fact the KKE has the same programme and Syriza has three of the four. They only differ on the question of the Euro – and there are those who support Syriza such as Costas Lapivitsas who are arguing for Greece to leave the Euro. The question of the Euro anyway does not lie in the hands just of the working class – the Troika are making preparations for Greece to leave the Euro. In any case a distinctive political position does not have to be jettisoned because you lend electoral support to another organisation. The SWP would presumably not dream of standing against Jeremy Corbyn in his constituency especially if it jeopardised his seat.
Callinicos argues that the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and Antarsya are the most important forces battling against austerity on the ground. If this is the case why has the working class in a period of struggle turned to Syriza? The fact is that this is simply untrue. The Coalition of Resistance took a delegation of national trade unions to Greece and saw for ourselves how embedded Syriza was in the struggles of the class – it was Syriza who took us to the town councils in the working class areas of Athens at Nea Ionia and Ellinikon where local committees have been set up to distribute cheap food and free medical care.
Syriza are arguing for and part of setting up committees of action throughout Greece. In a poll last week for the Greater Athens area they were at 31% – the working class is looking for a left party willing to take office and improve their daily lives. Nobody is arguing that the KKE and Antarsya do not contain good militants devoted to the class but they are being misled – and many are now joining Syriza. Callinicos says that ‘the stronger Antarsya’s voice the greater the pressure will be on Syriza to stand firm’. But as Antarsya’s electoral voice is likely to be diminished it is hard to see the value of this position. In fact, the decision of Antarsya to stand weakens the whole left and makes it more likely that Syriza will not be able to form a government and if the left is disunited the forces of the right will grow. Antarsya should either be inside Syriza arguing its politics or – if remaining separate – calling for a critical vote for Syriza.
What of the KKE?
The KKE received 8.8% of the vote last May and had MPs elected. Nobody is calling for them not to stand. They should. The question is what their MPs will do when elected. Will they support the formation of a Syriza-led workers’ government or will they open the door for the pro-bailout parties to return?
Comrades in Athens tell us that the main message of the KKE is ‘Don’t Trust Syriza.’ The KKE leader, Aleka Papariga, has refused to meet with Alexis Tsipras and, according to Kenny Coyle, has reserved her sharpest words for Syriza – not for the forces of the bourgeoisie. Coyle’s article strives to explain the politics behind this extraordinary decision: to make attacking Syriza – a party of the working class – central to the work of the KKE in the forthcoming election. From the KKE’s own publications it is clear that it sees Syriza as part of a ‘facelift’ of the Greek political scene organised by the bourgeois class ‘in order to preserve its power’. But the reality is that the regrouping of right-wing forces around New Democracy and the political and media war against Syriza comprise the attempts of the Greek – and European – bourgeoisie to preserve its power.
The KKE analysis and approach has diminishing support from the Greek working class, and like Callinicos, Coyle acknowledges that his sister party will fare badly at the polls. But the KKE is determined to disregard the desire of the Greek workers to choose political representation that will take concrete steps in their interests – an intention clearly outlined by Syriza. Coyle tries to explain why the development of the mass movement in Greece, with numerous general strikes and mass ‘can’t pay won’t pay’ campaigns, has led to the rise of Syriza electorally but not the KKE. He is forced back on the KKE argument that Syriza has pulled the wool over the workers’ eyes – that they are lying to the working class and must be exposed. But the great weakness is that the KKE’s exposure of the great Syriza ‘confidence trick’ relies on words and propaganda alone. The hollowness of this approach is dismaying given the gravity of the situation facing Greece. The real test of the KKE as a workers’ party would be in joining a Syriza-led workers’ government and holding it to its pledges.
The terrible irony is that Coyle says the KKE would support a Syriza government if it had a plan B – a programme to deal with exit from the Eurozone. The problem for the KKE is that their decision not to critically support a Syriza-led government will lead to Christine Lagarde’s plan A – further austerity measures being imposed on the people of Greece by a New Democracy government supported by PASOK and others.
The great tragedy is that the KKE and its supporters are willing to pursue this hand-washing isolationist line, expecting electoral losses to be short term and assuming that at some point in the future the working class will rally to the KKE: a kind of ‘after them, us’ analysis. As Coyle observes, the KKE has decided it is better to suffer short-term electoral losses than to participate in a Syriza-led government whose policies ‘will result in rapid disillusionment and the demobilisation of Europe’s most vibrant extra-parliamentary mass movement’. But many will interpret this as an abdication of the KKE’s responsibility to the working class, potentially unleashing even more extreme austerity and brutality on the Greek people at the hands of a resurgent right.
As Marx said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Coyle and the KKE’s argument is one that we have heard that before – it is remarkably similar to those used by the German Communist Party (KPD) in the late 1920s and early 1930s to defend the decision not to work with the SPD, the German Social Democratic Party. In Germany this led to disaster and the coming to power of the Nazis.
These are momentous days in world history. Capitalism has entered the period of its structural decline. Unlike the 1930s little can be done to halt the ever-increasing economic crisis. A solution in one country opens up economic fault lines in another. The Euro cannot be saved; the real question – and one posed more by mainstream economists than by Marxists – is whether capitalism itself can be saved.
Both Callinicos and Coyle downplay the importance of the parliamentary elections, saying that the real struggles lie on the streets and ahead. What they fail to understand is the relationship between parliament and the street. There is a deep desire amongst the Greek working class for a government that will begin to solve the problems that they are facing. Of course no solution is possible for any workers’ government without a mass mobilisation of the people but in their refusal to support a Syriza-led government they are merely vacating the space for the right, undermining the mass movement on the streets and potentially ensuring their defeat.
From Cairo to Quebec via Athens and Mexico City and Santiago millions are fighting back.
The task for socialists is to try and unite the working class under a single banner.
Callinicos and Coyle take a sectarian approach – sectarian in the sense that they represent the interests of their political currents and confuse those with the interests of the class as a whole.
Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson
Wednesday May 30th
Three major unions with combined membership of more than 100,000 have issued a strong call to vote no in Thursday’s referendum on what they are calling the austerity treaty.
The CPSU, Mandate and UNITE trade unions represent workers across the private and public sector and a wide range of industries from retail to transport and finance.
UNITE Regional Secretary Jimmy Kelly said:
“The Treaty is only about austerity and does not have any provisions relating to growth.”
“It has been rushed in as a panic measure. No less than ten Euro zone countries have now slipped back into recession.”
“The problem with the treaty is that it enshrines the very policies that have caused that recession to get deeper and more damaging.”
“Ireland has a chance to say No, and to pull Europe back from the brink of economic self harm it has been engaged in to disastrous effect over the past three years.”
Mandate General Secretary, John Douglas said that the Fiscal Treaty if passed will not create one job:
“On the contrary it will legally lock down Irish economic activity at its current levels, and may even shrink domestic demand further leading to mass unemployment, decades of emigration and sow the seeds for future social conflict.
“This Treaty has nothing to do with ‘good housekeeping’ or ‘managing the household budget’; it is about copper fastening into an internationally legally binding agreement, decades of austerity, social exclusion, mass long term unemployment and emigration – and a continuation of attacks on workers’ rights and the welfare system. It is not about what is good for Irish citizens, or the citizens of Europe, it is a treaty of the Right for the Right!”
CPSU General Secretary Eoin Ronayne said:
“The Treaty amounts to writing into law the failed policies of the neo liberals who got us into the mess we are in.”
“Why on earth would lower and middle income people vote to make their lives even worse than they already are”
“What the ordinary citizens of the EU need is a sustained and comprehensive growth package putting money back into their pockets so that they can spend in their local economies generating jobs and protecting existing employment”
“Nothing in this Treaty will do that and a NO vote is the only way for people to stand up and say we’ve had enough of what got us into this crisis and that it’s time for change”
Each of the three unions has been working with activists and workplace representatives to encourage debate among members and present a balance to the government messaging that there is no choice but to say yes.
Mandate has produced a short video message and is mailing 25,000 members with a leaflet this weekend explaining the reasons behind the union’s stance. UNITE is also sending messages to each of its 50,000 members in the Republic of Ireland while the CPSU is similarly communicating that there is an alternative to austerity.
Ireland’s referrendum of the austerity treaty is not a foregone conclusion, although a Yes vote is expected. Ireland is the only state to be holding a poll, and technically becasue only 12 Eurozone countries are needed to ratify the treaty, a NO vote could be overridden. However, in blunt political terms, an Irish rejection, or even just a narrow Yes vote would embolden resistance across Europe.
The Daily Telegraph reports the sentiments of working class Irish people, resentful of austerity policies that do nothing to benefit them:
“All the government has done is look after the wealthy bankers,” said Joe Redmond, a hospital care worker, 54, nursing a pint in the shopping centre’s pub. “My own wages have dropped by nearly €1,000 a month because overtime has been banned, and everything is just done with less staff. Now they want me to vote for a system where Europe has a say in our budget, and stops me ever getting a pay rise.”
His brother Paul, 47, a local drug outreach worker, nodded. “My unit has been cut from 12 staff to eight, just when there’s more people doing drugs around here than ever before. Besides, just like you Brits, we Irish don’t like being told what to do, especially by Germans. Two world wars, and they’re still controlling Europe.”
The Irish Times reports that while the majority for a yes vote has stayed constant in polls throughout the campaign, the rise and rise of Sinn Féin’s support suggests a hardening of the anti-austerity arguments, being reflected in support for the only credible party arguing for economic growth.
The most striking political story to unfold over the last three Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polls has been the success achieved by Sinn Féin among the electorate generally and specifically within key demographic segments.
From having minimal support among older (55+ years) and middle-class voters, Sinn Féin can now claim significant levels of support among these groups, 22 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
And the cherry on top for Sinn Féin from today’s poll is Gerry Adams’s satisfaction rating, which is up eight points to 37 per cent, making him the highest rated party leader in the country.
Such a strong poll-showing dares us to imagine where the Sinn Féin vote will go from here.
If austerity or an austerity-growth strategy does not bear fruit in the next few years, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour will be fighting the next election on the wrong side of the only argument that matters and Sinn Féin could thrive.
Gerry Adams’s speech to the the party’s ardfheis in Killarney was televised last weekend:
“It is a good and patriotic and positive action to say No to a treaty that is bad for you, bad for your family and community, bad for society and entirely without any social or economic merit,” said Mr Adams. “Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil have not offered any positive arguments in favour of this treaty. The Taoiseach won’t even debate the issue. That’s not leadership.
“That’s not showing citizens the respect they deserve. Instead Mr Kenny, Mr Gilmore and Mr Martin are trying to scare people into voting Yes. Whether it was British rule or a domineering church hierarchy, Irish citizens have had enough of being ruled by fear. We are done with that.”
Mr Adams, proposing a €13 billion three-year stimulus programme, called on the Government to implement a job-creation strategy. This programme would create 130,000 jobs, he said.
“There are funds available – in the National Pension Reserve Fund, in the European Investment Bank, in the private pension sector and in Nama,” he added.
Mr Adams said 70,000 people were emigrating each year and this was “forced emigration, not a lifestyle choice”. Rural Ireland, particularly the west, was being devastated.
“It is an indictment of the two men from the west who lead this bad Government. Shame on you Taoiseach. Shame on you Tánaiste,” he said. “Forced emigration is one of the huge damning failures of this State. Citizens are angry.”
He said Fine Gael and Labour had been elected to change the “disastrous policies” of Fianna Fáil, but instead they had embraced these policies.
“They have cut public services and wages, attacked the rights of the most vulnerable, and introduced new stealth taxes – the household charge, water charges, septic tank charges, VAT and fuel increases. What is the point of the Labour Party in this Government? What would James Connolly think of the Labour leadership’s implementation of right-wing austerity policies?”
Mr Adams also said Sinn Féin wanted to demonstrate to unionists that a united Ireland was also in their interest. “A single island economy makes sense,” he said.
“It does not make sense on an island this size . . . to have two states, two bureaucracies, two sets of government departments, and two sets of agencies competing for inward investment.”
Central to the Yes campaign is the argument that there is no alternative to austerity, and that Ireland would otherwise be forced out the Euro. But as Michael Burke argues, the German drive for austerity is on shaky foundations, and this should encourage those who argue that the treaty can be renegotiated:
The strategic benefit that Germany derives from the existence of the Euro is being augmented currently by plummeting yields on government bonds and the currency’s weakness. But this loosening of monetary policy can only a partial offset the contraction in export markets, which looks as though Germany too may head back into recession. The notion that Germany can be immune from the ‘contagion’ effects of the crisis in Greece and elsewhere is dangerous self-delusion. The performance of its leading banks already demonstrates the negative impact on German capital, while surveys show the negative impact on German output.
Parties across Europe who argue against austerity are right to do so. If the Euro breaks up the factors providing a loosening of German monetary conditions would go into reverse. Germany would be a very big loser in the event of Euro break-up and threats to engineer that collapse are reckless and ill-founded.
This is an unfinished article, because the demands of working for a one day strike by Carillion staff at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon today left me insufficient time to complete it. I will publish the second half in the next few days.
Enthusiasm for François Hollande’s new government in France is understandable, as it provides a popular mandate for an economic alternative to austerity, and a programme for economic growth. As Trevor Martin exhorts in his recent Tribune article “Let us follow where Hollande leads”
Michael Meacher sketches an outline of what Hollande’s policies would mean translated into British terms:
it requires a National Infrastructure Bank to launch a big increase in capital investment including for house-building, a revival of the role of the State in reversing the vicious spiral of economic decline, and a major rebalancing of the economy from an over-cossetted banking system to a lean and hungry manufacturing industry.
However, it is important to understand that Hollande’s project is also to restructure the French economy. Jeremy Cliffe explains:
international commentators have largely overlooked his longer-term vision for the French economy.
Thus it may surprise many to learn that the Socialist programme pledges to both decentralise and shrink state spending year-on-year, cut corporate taxation for companies that reinvest profits, establish both a national investment bank and an industrial savings bank devoted to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), establish a ‘pact of trust’ binding employers, unions, banks and local authorities in a consensus-based system of co-production, lower VAT and introduce full proportional representation in time for the 2017 election.
What is more, Hollande was as good as endorsed by the national association of SMEs (CGPME), which praised his commitment to enterprise, explicitly noting the contrast to 1981. Unlike the 2007 Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, he met repeatedly with the national employers association (AFEP). He promises to put employees (or their representatives) on the boards of directors and supervisory boards of all companies with over 1,000 workers, and to write into the constitution an obligation to consult all relevant social partners before a given government or private bill goes through the legislature.
To understand this programme we need to understand the specifically French context, and how social-democracy in France has experienced a distinctively different history from British labourism.
While it is appropriate and necessary for the Labour Party to develop a credible anti-austerity policy for jobs and growth, this must reflect our own British conditions, and we should not be distracted by particularities of Hollande’s government that do not apply to us.
The state plays, and has played a much greater role in the French economy than in Britain. Charles de Gaulle’s 1945 government, which included the socialist and communist parties, not only nationalized the banks, coal mines, insurance companies, electrical and gas companies, Air France, and Renault Auto but they also instituted a regime of government planning.
Jean Monnet drew up a set of goals in 1945 of what the French economy should accomplish by 1950. In addition to achieving target outputs Monnet called for the modernization of French industry. Monnet noted that the French Government did not have the resources to reconstruct all of the French economy so he called for the public investment in key economic sectors. These key sectors included the transportation system, coal, electricity, steel and agricultural mechanization. Later fuel and fertilizers were added to the list. Monnet’s formulation, extended to 1952, became known at the Monnet Plan.
In each key sector under the Plan the details of the planning were left to the modernization committees made up of representatives of the Planning Commission, the major firms in the sectors, public enterprises and unions, and technical experts.
These committees did not have the power to enforce their decisions, compliance was voluntary. This process came to be known as indicative planning.
A series of five plans were implemented successfully through to 1970. In his 1975 book, the Socialist Challenge, Stuart Holland described the necessary conditions which allowed the French planning system to succeed.
Significantly, it emerged from a long standing French tradition of state involvement in the economy; but also the immediate post-war period the economy was constrained by supply side problems, not demand; which gave enormous confidence to investors anticipating growth. Government departments also had real powers of disposal of capital and technological resources, which made the private sector very responsive to government priorities. Reconstruction also meant that planning could occur based upon highly incomplete data, as various industrial sectors intuitively restored their pre-war capacity.
In addition, the purge of Vichy collaborators opened up the civil service for a wave of new blood, the most talented of whom were cherry picked for the elite Ecole Normal d’Administration, where the ideology and methods of planning were taught. These young men achieved high civil service office very early in their careers, and a high proportion were then recruited by industry. This meant that there was a horizontal layer of networked civil servants and senior managers in industry committed to shared objectives. Furthermore, the rivalry between government departments was minimised through centralisation, in British terms this would be equivalent of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills being part of the Treasury.
(A descriptive account of analogous processes of indicative planning in South Korea and Taiwan is included in Nigel Harris’s “The End of the Third World”)
In contrast, the brief flirtation with indicative planning by the British Labour Party inspired by the economist Thomas Balogh, special advisor to Harold Wilson, was abandoned after 1964 when it became clear that the economic preconditions for success were absent. Indicative planning can succeed in conditions of economic confidence, which of course it can help to sustain, but it cannot reverse an unwillingness of the private sector to invest.
Generally the French post-war experience created a specific state-capitalist mode of capitalist development, distinct from the Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic models.
Vivien Schmidt describes the three models as follows:
Government policies differed widely among European countries in the post-war period.
Market capitalist Britain’s liberal or ‘spectator’ state generally had arm’s length relations with business (Grant 1995). It sought to limit its role to arbitrating among economic actors while leaving the administration of the rules to self-governing bodies, although this did not stop it from providing aid to industry on an ad hoc basis and intermittently intervening through planning experiments, nationalized industries or government sanctioned, privately regulated cartels (Shonfield 1965).
Managed capitalist Germany’s ‘enabling’ state was instead focused on facilitating business activities through more targeted aid to industry by way of regionally provided subsidies and loans, support for research and development, as well as education, apprenticeship and training programmes, while often leaving the rules to be jointly administered by economic actors (Katzenstein 1989).
State capitalist France’s dirigiste or interventionist state, by contrast, sought to direct economic activities through planning, industrial policy and state-owned enterprises, in addition to all the ways the other states promoted business, while it administered the rules itself, as often as not through the derogation of the rules in favour of business (Hayward 1973; Hall 1986; Schmidt 1996).
Furthermore, state intervention in the economy has generally been a much less politically polarised issue in France, enjoying support not only from the left, but also parts of the traditional Gaullist right, and indeed from the far-right.
So Hollande’s government is dealing with a distinct national context of capitalist development, but to understand his programme it is also necessary to understand the specifically French experience of social democracy.
The second part of this article will deal with the experience and legacy of the MItterand government, and the different strategic tasks facing French and British social-democracy, which provide the limits to which the Labour Party can emulate Hollande’s programme.
Europe’s pro-austerity ruling governments and political parties continue to be placed on the back foot. Angela Merkel’s own German Christian Democrats in North-Rhine state elections at the weekend were comprehensively defeated by their pro-growth Social Democrat rivals – 38 against 25 percent. With the Greens coming third behind Merkel’s CDU with 12 percent, it is now likely that the Social Democrats and the Greens will enter coalition to form an absolute majority.
The significance of this result is clear. State elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous region, are considered a reliable gauge of national voting trends, and with Germany’s federal elections looming next year, Merkel’s position as chancellor now seems far less secure than it has since she was first elected in 2005. The fact it was the conservative CDU’s worst ever electoral defeat in the state since 1949 merely adds weight to the message it delivers.
Even more significantly, the result arrives just two days before the German chancellor’s first meeting with new French president Francois Hollande in Berlin to discuss the eurozone crisis, and at the same time as the largest anti-austerity party in Greece, Syriza, announces it has decided to pull out of talks with New Democracy and Pasok over the formation of a national government post the recent Greek elections. This means it is almost certain that new elections in Greece will take place, probably in June, with Syriza in a strong position to defeat its pro-bailout rivals according to recent opinion polls.
Overall, the case for a pro-growth alternative to austerity is gaining traction at an evermore rapid pace throughout Europe, increasingly isolating the likes of Angela Merkel’s CDU and its Tory-led coalition equivalent in Britain.