It is bad enough that the entire working population of Greece is being held hostage; that the country’s near future – and as most do not yet understand all of our futures in Europe – are being sacrificed in the name of an abstract fiscal austerity that masks the real interests of finance capital at work; that the workers and taxpayers of the rest of Europe are being made to cover the cost today, providing an excuse for imposing austerity on the rest of us as well, and dividing workers in France and Germany from those in southern Europe where people supposedly have been living too high on the hog for too long and need to be bailed out by their more frugal cousins from the north – no, what really stings, what really should makes one’s blood boil over is that the financial press has come up with a wonderful new name for the alleged slackers and spendthrifts south of the Alps (mostly): PIGS!
That’s right, Portugal, Italy (or Ireland in some accounts), Greece and Spain are the countries that the finance “markets” have identified as needing to be taught a lesson, just as they identified Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and other countries in East Asia back in 1997 to spark the Asian Financial Crisis, a Great Depression-like wave of financial and economic collapse that wiped out a decade of growth and from which that region has not yet fully recovered. Yes, the bankers of the world currency and public debt markets have decided that we, the working people of southern Europe, are pigs! Some of these Financial Times and Economist writers must be ex-1968ers with a libertarian right wing sense of humor – South Park Republicans as they call them in my native born country, the US. But, since I live and work in Italy, my fate is inexorably tied to that of the people of Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean Basin. Though, to be honest, even were I in the US, the Greeks whose recent protests, strikes and riots in response to the announcement of the austerity plan announced by the Papandreou government last week show their good sense has not left them, would be fighting for me all the same, as for all of us.
This is the first battle of the last great war for the West. The working classes of the US and Europe have a new role to play for global capitalism, and it isn’t favorite sons and daughters, privileged labour aristocracy or whatever you think we have been up to now since the Industrial Revolution separated us from the more desperately exploited workers of the colonial world, then the Third World, today the Global South. The jig is up (hence Ireland’s possible alphabetical inclusion among the “other white meats” of Europe), the party is over, the fat lady has sung (opera reference, hence Italy’s inclusion in same aforementioned tonally-challenged soon to be consumed tasties). As every major work on the subject for the past few years has observed, the West, Europe and the US, are no longer going to be the center of world capitalism. That title is moving East, toward China, and some combination of India, Japan, and related areas (finance in Singapore and Hong Kong, some production up the value ladder in South Korea and so forth). Our new role is to be gradually fazed into being the new industrial reserve army of labor as Marx called it. Sometimes employed, on short-term contracts, lack of job security, income security, no real social safety net – oh wait that is already becoming the reality isn’t it?
The three front lines are clear in this class war of capital against the world working class – there is the future one: the Chinese workers, whose massive turnout in Tiananmen Square in 1989 at first to support the students, and then to protest the growing neoliberal, market-oriented inequality that had taken over their country, and the massacre that forced them to accept everything that has happened since – their conversion into the source of cheap labor for manufacturing worldwide, they are the front line of the future.
In the West, however, we are fighting two rearguard battles that could be decisive, and along with a revolt of China’s workers, create new possibilities for the future for all of us: one in the United States and one in Europe. The US front speaks for itself: once the highest paid workers in the world, with the strongest unions, American workers face 15m officially unemployed, the continued growth of a prison-industrial complex, the elimination of welfare guarantees back in the 1990s, and massive housing foreclosure. After two decades of wage declines and growing inequality, only easy access to credit held the social fabric together at all. It is totally rent now, and only a newfound ability to strike (as immigrant workers did back on May Day 2006), protest and organize alternatives can save working people in the US now; ironically their collapse as their incomes failed to cover their debts, triggered the current financial crisis/recession in the first place.
The European front has opened first in Greece. The public debt was run up by the conservative government that preceded the Socialists, though to be fair, in the face of the worst recession since the 1930s governments are supposed to run up deficits to get money back in circulation and people back to work; they lied about the extent of the debt, aided by some of the same banks that now call for Greece’s head. The Socialists face this problem, just as Bill Clinton did back in 1992, Romano Prodi a couple of years ago, and for that matter Francois Mitterand way back at the start of the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution – “markets” or what Ralph Milliband (no relation to his son David) defined as “class action” by the ruling class – controlling society through control of investment decisions – disciplining center-left governments to be sure they don’t get nostalgic for socialism or for the workers that have voted them into power to do the opposite of what “markets” want. The battle to defend the hard-won welfare state, social-democratic guarantees for working people throughout Europe is the decisive battle for the heart and soul of this continent. If it can be won through the European Union as a step toward a real unity of democratic peoples for a better life for all here, fine. But right now, the EU, and especially the limits placed on social spending and budget deficits and public debts by membership in the Euro are a weapon in the hands of global finance capital against the workers of Europe. Period. (And don’t start congratulating yourselves just yet British comrades and friends, there was no need to enter the Euro since Thatcher and Blair already did in the UK what the Euro is being used to now on the Continent).
The main hatchet is Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, which is constitutionally independent, meaning under no democratic accountability. A general strike across Europe (or at least starting with the so-called PIGS countries if wider solidarity is not immediately available) should target this false independence first. Such a struggle needs to demand an increase of the money supply and a massive program to reach full employment in every EU member country, cancellation of much of the public debt of member nations, and a new economic-policy orientation toward producing for the largest home market in the world, the EU itself, based on high wages and ecologically sustainable production, instead of the self-defeating global competition for export markets that drive wages down to keep commodity prices down. That would be a good start. If European Unions, nearly 20 years after Maastricht, would lift their heads up above their national borders and realise what is at stake and where the answer lie, they could do a lot to turn things around. The Greeks might agree with the Girondin revolutionary Brissot when he said, “we cannot be at ease until all Europe is in flames”. The flames rising from the streets of Athens are a clarion call to the rest of us.
Steven Colatrella has been active in the group Midnight Notes for many years, and has participated in the anti-capitalist movement. He teaches in Rome and is currently at work on a book, “Understanding the World: Global Class and World Politics.”
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This post was written by Steven Colatrella