Greece’s resistance to the never-ending cuts

February 28, 2012

Huge protests and street battles shook Greece before and after a vote in parliament to approve another round of savage austerity. The measures were demanded by the so-called "troika"--the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund--as the condition for another "rescue" of the Greek financial system.

After the first "rescue," the center-left PASOK party led the way in imposing attacks on working people under Prime Minister George Papandreou. But late last year, the troika backed a move in which Papandreou resigned in favor of a government of "national unity" that includes the center-right New Democracy and even the far right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). The new government is led by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former official of the European Central Bank.

The scale of the financial and political attacks is unprecedented, but Greek workers have nevertheless inspired people around the world with their resistance, whether in the form of a series of general strikes or the rise of the "movement of the squares" last spring, in which thousands took over public spaces like Syntagma Square in front of the parliament building in Athens.

Here, Panos Petrou, a member of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), answers's questions about the latest explosive protests--and where the struggle in Greece will go next.

WHAT WAS the level of struggle in the recent round of demonstrations compared to earlier waves of strikes and protests?

I'M GUESSING the international media focused on the discussion of the mainstream parties inside the parliament and on the buildings that were burned by some activists of the Black Bloc. At least that was the case with the Greek mass media.

The important news is different: There were three consecutive days of action against the latest package of measures demanded by the troika--known as "Memorandum 2" to distinguish this round of blackmail from the troika's previous "Memorandum" in 2010.

A 48-hour general strike on February 10-11 paved the way for a massive demonstration on Sunday, February 12, the day that parliament voted. Despite the closure of most subway stations around Athens' Syntagma Square, the presence of police throughout downtown Athens, and the media's hysteria that the only alternative to "Memorandum 2" was financial and social chaos, hundreds of thousands of people flooded not only the square itself, but all major streets that lead to it. Most people never made it to Syntagma itself because of the size of the crowd.

Protesters fill Syntagma Square during a general strike against further austerity
Protesters fill Syntagma Square during a general strike against further austerity

Riot police went on a rampage from early in the day, with volleys of stun grenades and tear gas fired in every direction. But the masses of people remained on the street. They retreated only for a short while, and then headed to Syntagma again. For a period of five or six hours in every street in downtown Athens, there were battles with the riot police as demonstrators tried to stop them and claim their right to protest.

There were some demonstrations in the days after that were smaller, but kept the spirit of resistance alive.

The three days of action on February 10-12 were the latest peak of the movement, like the 48-hour general strikes on June 2011 and October 2011. There have been ebbs between them, but each new peak carries with it the experiences of the previous one, both in political terms and in terms of the social struggle.

The peaks also bring together a variety of local struggles waged in between the high points. In the space between last October and February, private-sector workers provided some of the most militant examples: A steelworkers strike that has lasted more than 100 days; an occupation of a TV station by its workers who have gone unpaid for 10 months; and the publishing of a newspaper by employees when the owner decided to shut it down.

Similar struggles erupted in a number of factories, and this culminated in an Athens-wide general strike on January 17 that put pressure on the central labor confederations to call for the general strike in February.

Moreover, every round of confrontation leaves behind a new layer of activists. This critical mass of radicalized people keeps growing--it's a process of constant radicalization that started in May 2010 (when the first Memorandum was signed) and keeps evolving.

To these experiences of the class struggle, we should add two important factors that are shifting consciousness to the left.

One is the fact that the austerity measures keep coming, and yet the economy spirals downward. The propaganda about "painful, but necessary" policies is exposed by that reality.

Second is the existence of the national unity government. The wide spectrum of forces that take part exposes many illusions simultaneously--about PASOK; about the populist rhetoric of New Democracy leader Antonin Samaras; about the supposedly oppositional politics of the far-right LAOS party; about the "technocrat" Lucas Papademos, who was supposed to be better than the "corrupt politicians."

THE LATEST austerity measures passed by a wide margin, but there were also resignations among deputies in PASOK and even New Democracy. Does this indicate that there is a split in the Greek ruling class over what to do next?

THE MEMORANDUM and all the policies that it dictates remains the central and undisputed choice of the Greek ruling class. The creation of the "national unity" government underlines the devotion to this direction--PASOK and New Democracy, the historic "rivals" in the Greek two-party system, were forced to both join.

In that context, the rebellion of the parliamentary deputies in both big parties was mostly a result of the pressure of the mass movement on the streets and the mass anger of their traditional electoral base of support. As the mainstream parties face a dramatic decline in support, some people are choosing to abandon the sinking ship.

But at the same time, the ruling class, while insisting on the austerity program embodied in the Memorandum, knows that this leads to a dead end. Default is on the way, sooner or later, so the ruling class needs to prepare for this scenario. The political crisis reflects both the effects of the popular resistance and the inability to confront the financial crisis.

Greece's rulers need to maintain their rule in the turbulence that a bankruptcy will cause. So we will probably witness a restructuring of some political forces on an "anti-Memorandum" basis. The populist elements of New Democracy may organize a patriotic anti-Memorandum pole. The far-right LAOS, which has seen its support in polls fall dramatically since it joined the government, could withdraw its support from Papademos and return to the usual nationalistic demagogy against "Germans."

Forces inside PASOK will probably attempt to reorganize on a more traditional social-democratic basis. Even Papandreou is posing now as a sworn enemy of the markets. There is also a formation called the Democratic Left--a right-wing split from the left-reformist Synaspismos--which is being promoted by the media as a socially sensitive, yet moderate and responsible political force that the country needs.

Such forces will try to serve as a back-up plan for the ruling class.

Georgios Karatzaferis, the leader of LAOS, warned the European Commission some time ago that the savagery of the austerity measures would bring the left to power, and that hunger in Greece would start a revolution that will spread to Europe. That was dismissed as far-right hysteria, but it reflects the deepest fears of the ruling class. With the traditional "safety valve" of the system, PASOK, unable to do its job, these splits may be the beginning of a restructuring of the political system.

THE TROIKA'S latest demands continue to escalate, even after the latest parliamentary vote. It seems as if they're daring Greece to leave the euro--but the price to stay in will be abject surrender. Is this the case?

THE GREEK government is in agreement with the policies dictated by the troika. But it's easier for its leaders to return from Brussels and say, "We tried our best to protect salaries, pensions, etc., but we need the money, and this is what the troika asks in exchange." This has been the mantra of the mass media and the mainstream parties for months now.

The blackmail isn't being directed at Greek capitalism, but at Greek workers. After all, many of the measures that the Greek government is supposedly being forced by its creditors to implement are longstanding demands of the Greek industrialists and bankers, dating back from the 1990s.

You don't have to be an economist to understand that the reduction of private-sector wages and attacks on the right to collective bargaining have nothing to do with the state's finances. Papademos was honest during the recent summit of European financial ministers. He claimed, "The new program has characteristics which will contribute to improving competitiveness." What he means by that, of course, is improving the profitability of Greek capitalists.

In short, both international and Greek capital have no way to overcome the crisis, so they are doing what they know best--put the squeeze on workers and extract more and more surplus value from their labor. This model is being exported to all European countries and will soon be institutionalized with a new draconian, anti-democratic European accord that makes extreme austerity policies an obligation for all member-states, with an expulsion penalty for those that don't comply.

HOW HAVE the unions responded to the latest wave of struggle?

AFTER THE 48-hour general strike last October, the trade union leaderships sabotaged the struggle. They didn't declare a single strike while they were negotiating with the employers and the government. When the "Memorandum 2" was announced, they were forced to act again with the 48-hour general strike and the demonstration on February 12.

We should not underestimate the historical ties between the unions and the social democratic PASOK. But this is the biggest crisis this alliance has ever faced. PASOK is in the midst of a violent transformation. It voted and implemented policies that even an extreme neoliberal government of the right would have hesitated to put forward.

As a result, some unions have broken their ties with the party, like the union for municipal workers, which led an inspiring strike last fall. Similar conflicts are developing in other unions that are distancing themselves from PASOK. Even unionists who remain in the party say they have nothing to do with the current leadership and its policies. Whether they will choose to remain in the party and try to re-orient it--a lost cause in my opinion--or they will abandon PASOK remains to be seen.

The situation at the rank-and-file level is far more explosive. Local branches of PASOK are shutting down, one after another, all around Greece. In opinion polls, PASOK has its lowest level of support in working-class districts of Athens--the ones that used to be its traditional bastions. Wherever there have been elections in the unions, there is a clear shift toward the forces of the left.

This tendency will intensify. We can't predict the final outcome or guess the behavior of trade union leaders, but it is certain that the function of PASOK as the representative of workers is fatally wounded. The extreme neoliberals in the party actually support this transformation, declaring in a joint statement the need to break with the past "tolerance" toward trade unionists.

All this is creating a political vacuum, which represents a historic opportunity for the left.

HOW HAS the far left responded to the latest struggle?

ON A political level, the forces of the left raise a series of demands: the overthrow of the Papademos government; cancellation of the Memorandum, the loan deals and all the austerity measures that went along with them; resistance to the decisions imposed on Greece by European authorities; and an end to debt repayments and a struggle to cancel the debt.

These demands are an attempt to give a political direction to the popular anger.

On the level of social resistance, the various forces of the left are the people who try to organize the struggle. Since the movement of the squares, left-wing activists have played a leading role in spreading that movement to neighborhoods. Some months later, local popular assemblies are functioning in many places.

In workplaces, left activists organize to try to overcome the passivity of the union leaders. Like the neighborhood popular assemblies, committees of struggle have been set up to try to bring together the most militant workers in a workplace, so they can organize collectively, push leaders for strike actions, and build already declared strikes in a militant way, with picket lines and occupations.

This is how actions called by union leaders can be turned from ceremonial events into real battles that engage the rank and file.

The major problem for the working-class movement is the lack of coordination that can contend with the central union leaderships. The efforts of the left are also directed toward overcoming this problem.

There are significant challenges for the left, of course. The Communist Party leadership, for example, chooses to keep its organization isolated from any initiatives for joint action and from the rest of the working-class movement. Other issues, like sectarianism from some parts of the far left or the tendency of the reformist left to prioritize electoral politics, have put obstacles in the way of the effort to offer a serious, massive, radical alternative.

For DEA, the important task of the period has been to build a united front of the left in both the political and social field. A common pro-working-class program, including canceling the debt, nationalizing the banking sector under social and workers' control, heavy taxation of the capitalists and reversing the austerity measures, could build a challenge to the eurozone blackmail.

We believe a common pro-working-class program can bring together the Communist Party; the Coalition of the Radical Left, called SYRIZA, which brings together the left-reformist Synaspismos with various revolutionary left organizations, DEA among them; and the Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left, known as ANTARSYA, a smaller front of organizations of the revolutionary left. These forces could organize together in factories, universities, schools and neighborhoods, providing a critical mass of committed activists that can bring wider layers of workers and students to the struggle.

Such a united front could provide a political alternative to the mass of workers struggling against the Papademos government, and it could open up the discussion about the only real answer to the crisis of the system: socialism.

WHAT IS the likely outcome of the elections coming up in April? Will the far right and the left grow at the expense of mainstream parties?

IT'S ALWAYS hard to predict, and it's even harder now, in such turbulent times. But all the polls agree on one thing: the left is on the rise.

The total vote for forces to the left of PASOK reaches as high as 40 percent. If you take away parties like the Democratic Left or the Greens, which are to the left of PASOK, but still promote a center-left project, the combined support for the radical left is estimated at around 20-25 percent.

PASOK, the party that dominated Greek politics for decades, is reaching all-time lows in its poll standing. Its estimated share of the vote right now runs as low as 8 percent, and it comes in third and even fourth or fifth place.

The center-right New Democracy is leading the polls, mostly because of its previous anti-Memorandum position. But since it joined the "national unity" government, its share of the vote has also fallen. In fact, even the combined vote of the two major parties, PASOK and New Democracy, may not be enough to create a governing majority in parliament, let alone a stable government with wide social approval.

This makes the elections a dangerous adventure for the ruling class. Many high-profile members of PASOK and sections of the mainstream media are already asking for the national unity government--initially formed as an "emergency" caretaker regime--to remain in office until the mandate that PASOK won on 2009 expires.

Of course, this is also dangerous for them. If they decide to postpone the elections and keep Papademos in office, the class anger against austerity will meet a wider anger against the imposition of an unelected government.

The good news is that the polarization has mostly been in a left-wing direction. This is because of the mass struggles, strikes and protests--but also because the far-right LAOS party joined the government, and now it is paying the price for supporting austerity.

But this general direction toward the left is not something that can be taken for granted. Nationalistic sentiment against the "Germans" and "foreign capital" has an influence in Greece--and it is unfortunately supported by sections of the left with a tradition of looking to the Stalinist "popular front."

The fear is that a part of disaffected LAOS voters could turn in an even more extreme direction. Thus, Golden Dawn, an openly fascist paramilitary organization, marginalized until now, could for the first time in history to win enough votes--3 percent is the required level--to win seats in parliament.

The forces of the radical Left are far greater, and there is a large antifascist majority in Greek society. But this is a warning that antiracist and antifascist action must continue. As the slogan goes, "Cut them off before they take root."

WHAT ARE the implications of the Greek struggle for Europe and beyond?

I THINK that something we would have said in theory a few weeks ago is already being seen in practice. There have been demonstrations in every European capital and other countries beyond, including the U.S., declaring solidarity with the struggles of Greek workers, under the banner "We are all Greeks."

We welcome this slogan, not as a matter of national pride, but, on the contrary, as a display of old-fashioned working-class internationalism.

To say "We are all Greeks" means that people recognize they are or will soon be facing the same attacks that their brothers and sisters in Greece are facing. In Portugal, Spain and Italy, workers are already facing the same problems and questions. In France, polls show that 50 percent of the population believes their turn is coming soon.

"We are all Greeks" means something else that's even more important. It means that we will fight back like Greek workers did.

The recent wave of solidarity was inspired by the intensity of the class struggle here, like the international solidarity with the Greek youth revolt back in 2008. Back then, support for the Greek upheaval led to a wave of struggle by French youth.

I remember back in 2006, when French workers and students defeated a labor law that would have made it easier to fire young workers from their first job, we raised the slogan "France will happen here!" A few weeks later, the Greek student movement exploded. You can find more examples of this today. We live in an era when each international struggle fuels others: From Cairo, to Wisconsin, to Madrid, to Athens, to New York, back to Athens, and on and on.

Recently, Portugal witnessed its biggest labor marches since the 1974-75 revolution that overthrew the fascist dictatorship. There have also been big mobilizations in Spain, with plans for a general strike there and in Italy. So March could become a month of mobilizations by workers of the European "South"--and we hope the European "North" will join us soon.

Activists in Greece are happy to have the honor to be in the frontlines of the class struggle right now. But we will be even happier when the working classes of Italy, France, Portugal, Spain and beyond join the fight. The collective assault we are facing requires a collective fightback.

The same point is true on a global scale. When the movement here was in a temporary lull, our brothers and sisters in Egypt, in Wisconsin and, later, in the Occupy movement around the U.S. gave a massive boost to the will to fight back in Greece. We hope our struggle will do the same for your struggles.

To all the comrades and activists in the U.S. fighting against the 1 percent in "the belly of the beast," you have our solidarity. The best support we anticipate from you is to escalate your own struggle.

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