The significance of Greece’s recent general strike cannot be overstated. The deaths of three bank employees in an apparent petrol bomb attack were tragic, criminal acts and have been rightly condemned by Greek union federations. The state has already attempted to cynically use these deaths to call for an end to all protests. But the goal of the demonstrations was not to wreak random havoc, but to demand that the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and speculators stopped making Greek workers pay for the crisis. More than 100,000 strikers and demonstrators attempted to storm the parliament, only a day after Communist Party activists hung a banner from the Acropolis demanding, “Peoples of Europe, Rise Up.” This is not, as mainstream media would have us believe, the wild, unprovoked anger of thugs. Greece is the first in line for European austerity: the demonstrators know this, and they know that the rest of Europe’s workers will be next to answer for their bosses’ misdeeds.
The media is awash with the agonies Europe’s leaders, in particular Germany’s Angela Merkel, are going through to obtain the emergency funds to pay Greece’s creditors. Unsurprisingly, these efforts have sparked a beggar-thy-neighbour backlash from regional politicians. However, the debate rotates on a very narrow axis between meeting these debts, and the fallout from not paying. Only the demonstrators, with their slogan “Make the plutocracy pay”, point to a truth that somehow never gets mentioned by EU leaders or columnists. So let’s state it clearly: Greek workers did not cause Greece’s fiscal crisis. There are plenty of reasons behind this. Firstly, there has been a predictable demonising of Greek workers as lazy and overpaid.
They are not. Greeks work longer hours, for lower wages, and less job security than the EU average. The much-derided ‘tax evasion’, where Greeks don’t declare their income tax, has been declared as the reason for the Greek state’s bankruptcy. However, it’s actually due to bosses refusing to hire workers on legal contracts, so the former don’t have to pay social security benefits. Secondly, the debt crisis is structural. Greek capital has refused tax increases with the threat of capital flight. Like all other small EU economies, Greece is at the receiving end of exports from the strong nations of the EU and cannot develop independently. The country is legally bound to EU limits on deficits that are completely arbitrary, adopted as part of neoliberal dogma about restricting public spending. It’s true, there has been too much spending: on meeting the debt obligations demanded by the private international bond markets that control Greece’s debt.
If workers do not pay, rulers could. The obvious solution would be to take control of the money markets and create an international, democratically-accountable system of credit. This would go some ways towards solving the longer-term, structural problems of capitalism that have led to the increased role for finance in the first place. However, it would throw a wrench in the free-market mantra, and the further enrichment of global ruling classes, that have helped them drag the globe into recession and austerity in the first place.
From the workers’ perspective, the Greek situation is tenuous. The Greek left remains divided by sectarianism; the trade unions still insist on single-day actions rather than building towards longer, sectoral strikes that would put real pressure to bear on the Greek and European ruling classes. Once again, the people are to the left of their leadership in articulating class anger. But that anger can spread even more quickly than austerity. And in a situation where the people are expected to pay for their politicians’ mistakes, downing tools and walking out is the most mature, responsible and reasoned act imaginable.
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This post was written by Daniel Serge