Confronting a global austerity agenda

November 27, 2012

Around the world, a generation of workers is discovering the power of resistance.

REVOLUTION AND reaction, austerity and resistance. That was the shape of world politics in 2012 as the rulers of governments around the globe attempted to force working people to bear the brunt of an ongoing global economic crisis.

The particulars of the crisis and the struggle vary from country to country. The Middle East, where revolutions shook world politics last year, has seen a revolutionary civil war in Syria, resistance to another Israeli military onslaught against the Palestinians of Gaza, and--in the last weeks of November--a renewal of struggle in Egypt against a power grab by the ruling Islamist party that won the country's first post-revolutionary elections.

U.S. ally Bahrain has spared no effort to crush the democratic movement in that country, but another Washington-backed monarchy, Jordan, is ending the year panicked by a new wave of protests.

The fightback has continued in Western Europe, the old heartland of the capitalist system. Merciless austerity programs that cut wages and pensions while slashing social spending have provoked a series of strikes and protests--most impressively, the recent pan-European general strike in Spain, Portugal and other countries.

Spanish workers march during the recent multinational strike in Europe
Spanish workers march during the recent multinational strike in Europe (Ana Rey)

But the wave of workers' struggle has spread beyond Europe. India saw its biggest-ever general strike in February. In China--a one-party dictatorship where independent unions are illegal--strikes, mass worker protests and riots are commonplace.

In the U.S., workers' resistance has been less dramatic compared to the 2011 uprising in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union legislation and the emergence of organized labor as a crucial part of the Occupy Wall Street movement a year ago.

Yet though strikes remain at their lowest levels in decades, a nine-day walkout by Chicago teachers in September was one of the most important U.S. union battles in decades. In the face of an all-out ideological offensive by the Democratic-controlled city government, the teachers nevertheless won widespread solidarity and showed the potential for a renewed labor movement.

DESPITE THE many differences from country to country, a common factor is at the heart of these protests--a global economy that's still too weak to overcome the effects of the financial crash of 2008.

As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) noted in its World Economic Outlook published in October, "The recovery continues, but it has weakened. In advanced economies, growth is now too low to make a substantial dent in unemployment. And in major emerging market economies, growth that had been strong earlier has also decreased."

The IMF has lowered its forecast for growth in the advanced countries--mainly the U.S., Europe and Japan--from an already weak 2 percent to just 1.5 percent. That's the result of much of Western Europe sinking into outright recession.

As the economy falters, voters have tended to kick out the parties that presided over the debacle. In Greece and Spain, it was center-left social democratic parties that were sent packing in recent elections, while in France, right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy was ousted in favor of the Socialist Party.

But whichever mainstream parties European voters have chosen, the austerity agenda remains. From liberal to conservative, all these parties share a consensus of continued cuts in wages and social spending, differing only on how fast and deep the cuts should come. And if workers in Greece or Spain object, officials from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF can demand that the cuts go through anyway--or else the debt-wracked countries will be cut off from the loans and financial assistance that have kept their financial systems from total collapse.

When it comes to democracy versus austerity, big capital insists that austerity wins--in every case.

That's why U.S. politicians are using the so-called "fiscal cliff"--a January 1 deadline before higher taxes and across-the-board spending cuts go into effect--as an excuse for austerity, American-style. The message is that we better accept further spending reductions in exchange for a small increase in taxes on the rich--or risk the economic contraction that result from going over the cliff.

The message is the same, repeated in many languages around the world: "We hate to do this, but we have no choice."

But behind the rhetoric about "shared sacrifice," the real agenda in the U.S. and Europe is a deep and permanent cut in the standard of living for working people. Governments need to enable corporations to remain profitable while meeting the rising competition from China, Brazil and other industrializing countries. Cutting workers' wages and benefits is no longer enough. The social wage--government spending on education, health care, retirement systems and more--must be slashed, too, in order to keep taxes low for business and the wealthy.

These austerity-at-all-costs policies will continue to destabilize politics as we've known them for generations. The clearest example is Greece, where a left-wing alternative, SYRIZA, twice came within a few percentage points of winning national elections and coming to power. At the same time, an openly Nazi party, Golden Dawn, won representation in parliament for the first time as it continues its open and violent campaign against immigrants.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the recession and its aftermath have unleashed revolutionary struggle.

After the downfall of Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak regime in early 2011, the U.S. and its regional allies emerged as the axis of counterrevolution in the region. Washington and allied European governments were able to hijack a mass rebellion in neighboring Libya.

But the U.S. has been much more cautious in backing the opposition in Syria, because it fears the revolutionary committees at the core of the struggle could oust the Bashar al-Assad regime and create a popular government beyond Washington's control. The U.S. would prefer a dissident military figure to take power in Syria rather than see a genuine democratic revolution.

Nevertheless, the turmoil and upheaval continues. In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi, warily seen by the U.S. as a bulwark against further revolutionary change, has tried to consolidate his power, only to face pressure from a renewed movement for democracy and improvements in the conditions of working people.

WHERE DOES the U.S. fit into this global pattern of political instability? The 2012 election saw its own peculiar political polarization on display--a shrill national election campaign that Barack Obama and the Democrats successfully portrayed as a choice between fundamentally different visions for the U.S. Yet Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, shared political common ground on everything from lowering corporate tax rates to a commitment to maintaining U.S. imperial outposts around the world.

The political mood was the key to Obama's reelection. Despite the fact that the Obama administration bailed out Wall Street while leaving hard-pressed homeowners and unemployed people on their own, more voters feared Romney's free-market snake oil would make things worse. They also punished some of the GOP's most fanatical right-wingers for their sexism and bigotry. A strong turnout by the Democratic Party's core supporters was the key to victory on a number of progressive referendums.

Now, however, the millions of working people who came through for the Democrats will face four more-of-the-same years if Obama has his way. There's no hope for a shift from the status quo from inside Washington--not unless the unions, social movements and activists push for a different agenda that focuses on jobs, good wages and expanded social programs.

Certainly the potential is there for our side to organize and fight back. Growing unrest among working people found expression in the Wisconsin labor uprising and the Occupy movement in 2011, and that hasn't gone away. The same discontent could be seen in the outpouring of anger over the murder of an African American youth, Trayvon Martin, at the hands of a racist vigilante.

The question now is how this brewing anger--and the sense that something needs to be done about it--will translate into struggle. The Chicago teachers' strike could be a harbinger of future fightbacks to defend public education and resist cuts in the social safety net overall. And like the teachers' strike, the widespread support for Wal-Mart workers' fight for decent pay and dignity on the job highlights the possibility of social movement unionism to resist continued austerity policies.

The struggles ahead--in the U.S. and around the world--will require the rebuilding of unions, social movements and left-wing organizations that have been hit hard by the crisis. And as we increase our capacity to fight back, we need to strengthen socialist organization within the left.

Today, parties that traditionally claim to speak for workers--from the social democrats in Europe to the Democratic Party in the U.S.--promise nothing but more misery for workers. A revived international socialist movement has a better chance of getting a hearing than in decades.

By arguing for workers' political independence and struggle, socialists have an important contribution to make in the fight against austerity. And socialist internationalism that seeks to unite workers across borders is essential in this era of corporate globalization and imperial war.

The challenges ahead are many. But a new generation of workers around the world is discovering that we have the power of resistance.

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