Showdown in Greece

June 28, 2011

The struggle in Greece will reach a new high point on June 28 as workers across the country participate in a 48-hour general strike called jointly by the country's two main union federations, a first in Greece since the fall of the military junta in the 1970s. The strike coincided with a call by the new "movement of the squares"--the occupations of public squares in Athens and other cities by mainly youth demonstrators called the "aganaktismenoi"--for two days of action to send a clear message of resistance to Greece's politicians and capitalists.

Greece's economic crisis has come to a head, and Prime Minister George Papandreou and his PASOK government are dedicated to making workers and the poor pay for the crisis. As a condition of the bailout agreement made with the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund last year--the so-called "Memorandum"--the state is imposing a devastating program of austerity and privatization. And now the loan sharks are back, demanding even deeper cuts.

Panos Petrou is a member of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) and a participant in the occupation in Athens' Syntagma Square. He answered questions about the background to the Greek revolt--and what the struggle there means for international fight against austerity.

THE MEDIA analysis of the crisis in Greece claims the same thing that we hear in this country--that working people have been living beyond their means, and now they have to sacrifice. Is this really the source of the crisis?

THIS CLAIM is a total inversion of reality. During the recent past, the economy was booming, and gross domestic product was growing. But working people, the ones who created this wealth, have been living in a state of constant austerity since 1985--with governments implementing one austerity plan after another, while capitalists keep the whole pie for themselves.

In the case of Greece, the global economic crisis and the deep recession triggered a serious debt crisis. While the media claim that the problem is a "big state" that spends too much, the main problem of the deficits is the collapse of state revenues. And capitalists are to blame for that.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the real tax rate for capital in Greece is 15.8 percent, one of the lowest rates in the European Union.

Protesters outside the Greek parliament chant and rally against austerity

The big enterprises and the banks enjoy scandalous tax breaks. Many capitalists don't even bother to pay their share. Tax evasion has become the rule over the last years for the rich. For instance, Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company S.A. had total revenues of 6.5 billion euros in 2009--and they paid just 77 million euros in taxes! The workers at the company paid more than that. Greece's extremely wealthy ship owners--Greece has the largest commercial fleet in the world--pay just 12 million euros in taxes.

But it's important to remember that the Greek debt crisis is just a part of the global crisis of capitalism. World leaders are trying to shift the blame onto working people in an effort to get the system off the hook. It's no coincidence that you hear the exact same propaganda in Greece, the U.S., Portugal, Britain and around the world. The ruling class is blaming its own failure on workers, in order to make them pay for it.

WHAT IS the effect of the austerity measures on ordinary working-class people?

IT IS a full-scale attack on every right that was won over the last few decades and a radical redistribution of wealth from the pockets of the workers to the vaults of the bankers and the industrialists. It would take quite a long time to describe all the measures that have been taken and the ones that are planned.

If the new austerity package is implemented, workers would lose two months' salary from their yearly income. And while workers' wages are being slashed, the government is increasing the sales tax on consumption items.

Access to health care is under threat, as the cuts on social spending are leading to the closure of hospitals that accept thousands of people every day. The same applies to public education. Many schools have closed, which is forcing working-class students out of the system.

The massive drive to privatize--turning public necessities like electricity or water into commodities in the hands of private corporations--is another threat to the working-class living standards.

For a working-class family, everyday life is turning to a bitter struggle to make ends meet. The fact that the people have already made up terms like "life in the times of the Memorandum" or "the post-Memorandum era" shows that everybody realizes the unseen scale of the attack on our lives.

WHEN THE bailout first came through last year, it seemed like a lot of people in Greece, even those who were protesting, thought that some level of cuts were inevitable. Now, there seems to be much more of a sense that we shouldn't pay, period. Is that the case?

IT'S TRUE that the mood has changed. When the Memorandum was signed with the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund--the so-called "troika"--thousands of people protested. But the government's claim that "tough measures" were needed had some effect.

They terrorized people by saying that if we don't get the bailout loan, there won't be money for wages and pensions, and so we have to do whatever the creditors ask. The mood was reflected in the demands of trade union leaders. They didn't say, "We won't pay." They talked about "fair cuts," and said it was okay to make some sacrifices, as long as the employers would do the same.

This attitude has changed over time. First of all, it became clear that the rich aren't going to pay a single cent, and this feeling of injustice has fueled the class anger. Then came the realization that the cuts will keep coming unless we react. Countless times, the minister of finance reassured the public that there would be no more sacrifices. But new austerity measures kept coming.

In the meantime, these policies have failed, even in terms of stabilizing a capitalist economy. The country remains in a deep recession, and the debt crisis is getting worse. So now even people who were willing to sacrifice in the past see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Everyone has come to realize that debt repayment is like dropping money into a barrel without a bottom. The money loaned by the troika goes directly toward debt repayment, and not a single cent goes to pay wages and pensions.

All these things taken together have led to the realization that what's going on is a one-sided class war against us, and the only solution is to fight back. While the government continues its blackmail and fear-mongering, it has lost its credibility. The demonstrators' slogans, the trade union banners and the banners at the occupied Syntagma Square now reflect this shift in the mood.

Support for canceling the Memorandum is a majority opinion, and so is resistance to the debt agreements. Demands like nationalization of the banks have become increasingly popular. The widespread popularity of the slogan "We don't owe anything. We won't sell anything. We won't pay anything" best summarizes this shift in the popular mood.

THE "MOVEMENT of the squares," inspired by Plaza del Sol in Madrid and Tahrir in Cairo, has been portrayed in the Western media as disconnected from the left-wing resistance of the last year. What do you think about this?

IT'S TRUE that a great mass of the "aganaktismenoi" involved in the public square protests are people who are participating in mass action for the first time in their lives. They are people who didn't think that resistance in the streets would have an effect--young people alienated from left-wing politics, but mostly unemployed and non-unionized young workers in the private sector who didn't have the ability to strike.

In that sense, this is a new situation compared to the resistance movement of last year. But it's important to remember that last year's struggles held up the banner--they sent a signal that we can fight back. In that way, these struggles fueled the spirit of resistance that culminated to the explosion of the "movement of the squares" today.

What's more, the "aganaktismenoi" fight against the same enemies--the government, the "troika" and the Memorandum--so they are part of the broad resistance movement. Many demonstrators may not be involved in politics or social struggles, but with the simple act of going to Syntagma to demonstrate against the government, they take a clear political stand. The expression of "indignation" is somewhat similar to the cry "Ya basta" of the anti-globalization movement.

And indignation is just a first step. In the squares, people discover politics. Not politics in the professional, parliamentary way, but the kind that really matters--"street politics."

In the squares, you meet all kinds of people--far right, conservatives, people who voted PASOK, leftists, socialists, anarchists, "non-political" and so on. But this mixture of ideas is absolutely normal in a mass movement of such great numbers. Syntagma Square is a miniature of Greek society, after all. The crucial point is that the demands of the movement are clearly moving in a left-wing direction.

The ideas of the left are clearly present. Of course, the political struggle between the right wing and the left wing for the direction of the movement is far from over. It's very important that the political left is present at the squares, discussing issues with people and trying to win over the majority to a more conscious and committed struggle against the ruling class.

WHAT DO you expect from the 48-hour general strike and the days of action called for June 28 and 29?

THIS IS the first 48-hour general strike in decades. This kind of escalated action will surely inspire workers to walk out, so the strike action will be a huge success. This powerful action, combined with the militancy of the "squares movement," which plans to surround the parliament building, will definitely shake the government.

On June 15, we saw a glimpse of the potential if the labor movement unites with the squares movement. So I think during the two days of action, we're going to witness the kind of powerful protests that we haven't seen in many years.

The next steps in the resistance remain to be seen, but the prospects for escalating the struggle are clear. If you consider that the current leadership of the GSEE--a labor federation that is widely hated by workers because of its history of compromises--had to declare a 48-hour strike, you get a sense of the overwhelming pressure from the rank and file.

What's more, virtually all public enterprises are about to be sold out, so for public-sector unions, it's now or never. The example of workers at the electricity company--who are on rolling 48-hour strikes for the indefinite future--might soon find followers.

The movement of the squares has proved that it has the steam to go on and is already planning actions for the days after the 48-hour strike--a clear signal that the aganaktismenoi plan to stay at the squares.

The immediate goal for the movement is to bring down the Papandreou government, and I guess this will be the next step forward. The ruling party PASOK is shaken and has lost any legitimacy. It moves from one bitter crisis to the next, hoping each time to survive and gain some extra time before it collapses.

When it survived a confidence vote last week, a political analyst commented, "So far, so good," in relief. I think this statement reflects the mood in the government and the whole establishment. It's an open question whether this government will manage to hold on through the summer. The collapse of PASOK is a matter of time, and the fact that people on the streets realize that gives them a massive boost to pile up the pressure.

So, the Greek left faces big challenges. The potential for us is great, but also the responsibilities on us. In the squares and in the workplaces, there is a powerful social force emerging that can overturn the ruling class offensive. But the struggle is long-term, and it will need tactics, strategies, ideas, organization and political expression.

Especially today, with the political system shaken and the major parties in crisis, the left can play a crucial role. The movement of the squares is setting the example. It has demonstrated the power of unity in action and provided a needed platform for radical politics.

On this basis, DEA, participating in the Coalition of the Radical Left called SYRIZA, is calling for a political united front of the left on the basis of a radical platform--starting from the joint action between SYRIZA and the smaller coalition of the far-left ANTARSYA. This coordination can be a catalyst, as the traditionally ultra-sectarian Communist Party has started to open up to the possibility of common action.

Such a united left front can provide a powerful alternative to the parties loyal to the ruling class, further destabilize the establishment, and open up even greater possibilities for the working-class movement.

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