Yesterday, December 15, Greece was shaken by yet another powerful general strike, which saw at least 80,000 workers march through the streets of Athens, with many more demonstrating in other cities against the latest round of austerity measures introduced by the government. A very angry mood is developing among workers and youth, which will inevitably lead to a major confrontation between workers and the capitalist class.
The anger of workers and youth was epitomised by the attack on former conservative minister Kostis Hatzidakis as he came out of the parliament building. As soon as he was recognised angry demonstrators surrounded him, physically attacking him and shouting “Thieves! Shame on you!”
In the recent period known politicians, especially government ministers, have been insulted by members of the public when recognised on the streets. The comment on today’s news reports was that it has become so bad that many MPs no longer dress in jacket and tie, but wear casual clothing to be less conspicuous.
This event is similar to what we saw last week in Britain when Prince Charles’ Rolls Royce was attacked by demonstrators who were protesting against the hike in university tuition fees, and it highlights the growing chasm that is opening up between the classes in society.
The general strike came in the midst of growing worker discontent, with several groups of workers already out on strike. Bank workers had already begun a two-day strike on Tuesday protesting against the government's austerity measures. Bus and railway workers were already on strike as they had declared a week-long walk out. They only partially suspended their stoppage on the actual day of the general strike so as to facilitate workers getting to the rallies. Now the strike is back on and is due to end tomorrow, Friday.
State-run hospitals only operated an emergency service on the day. Doctors have also been organising a series of rolling 48-hour strikes. Journalists also joined the 24-hour general strike resulting in no news being broadcast on TV or radio stations. The state TV channels were in fact completely off the air. Journalists are due to stage a further 48-hour strike on December 17-18.
In the first six months of this year there had already been seven general strikes as the PASOK government attempted to impose severe austerity measures on the working people of Greece. However, in spite of the immense willingness to struggle on the part of the Greek workers, the government managed to push through its measures.
Biggest crisis since Civil war
This highlights a very important lesson for the workers of Greece, and of all countries. As in France, a series of one day general strikes and mass mobilisations – although an important stage in the struggle – has proven to be not enough to stop the bourgeois from carrying out its attacks. What determines the ruthlessness of the bourgeois is not any kind of ideological stubbornness or some innate cruel nature of the capitalists. It is the logic of capitalism locked in a severe crisis that determines their thinking.
The situation is so serious that the old game of tinkering with the system here or there no longer works. Even a social-democratic government like that of the PASOK, elected with the votes of the workers, cannot escape the grip of international capitalism. The only way out is to be found in the socialist transformation of Greece. On the basis of capitalism, whoever comes to power, unless they are prepared to take over the commanding heights of the economy, to expropriate the big bourgeois, will be forced to bow down before the God of capital and do his bidding.
All activists within the labour and student movement internationally should study the situation in Greece, for in it they will find mirrored their own future. As we said, Greece is at a critical point in its history. It is no exaggeration to say that it is facing the biggest crisis since the Civil War in the 1940s. According to both government and EU calculations the Greek economy will have contracted by 9% in the period 2009-12. This will make it the biggest economic fall since 1949.
The workers and youth have valiantly fought back, but still the austerity measures keep getting pushed through. As a result the poor, the working class and the lower layers of the middle class are in a state of shock. This is expressed in widespread anger, but also a kind of generalised depression. According to medical statistics a staggering 70% of the Greek population is revealing a tendency to fall into real depression. Life is becoming very difficult for working people in this country. There is real suffering behind the walls of many working class homes as people struggle to survive day to day.
However, it would be wrong to deduce from this that the workers are in any way on the retreat. After the huge mobilisations of the first half of this year, there has been no real respite in the class struggle, except for short periods. One such moment of “calm” was this autumn when the workers turned to the political front during the administrative elections. These elections saw a massive turning away from the PASOK as close to one million of its supporters decided not to vote for anyone. (See Greece: Recent local elections reveal significant shift to the left for a more detailed analysis of this).
Workers back on warpath
Now, with yesterday’s big general strike the working class is back on the warpath. What provoked the strike was the attack on the workers employed in the semi-state run companies, those companies that have been partially privatised and are now being prepared for total privatisation. These workers have managed so far to preserve some of the conquests of the past, but now the government wants to destroy all those gains and is trying to cut wages and jobs.
The plans are drastic, to say the least. Workers in these companies are facing cuts of anything between 800 and 1500 euros a month. Most of the workers earn between 1300 and 2100 euros a month. There is a layer that due to long service of many years and bonuses, overtime, etc., can earn up to 3000 to 3500 euros. But all this is now under attack as the government moves on inexorably.
At the heart of the present attack are the workers in DEI (electricity company), and the transport workers, both on the buses and the trains. Yesterday’s general strike had these workers in the vanguard, but the strike also involved the wider working class as all sectors are under attack.
On Tuesday, December 14, the government passed a law which allows bosses in the private sector to cut wages by up to 20-25%. There has been for some time a national minimum wage in Greece negotiated centrally by the GSEE (trade union confederation of the private sector workers). That agreement has now been rescinded by Tuesday’s law as the bosses will be allowed to negotiate at company level and impose wages below the national minimum. These measures were part of the conditions of the €110bn EU/IMF bailout intended to lift Greece out of its debt crisis. They have now de facto done away with national collective bargaining agreements and abolished the minimum wage. Thus, it is not just the public sector that is under attack. Now the whole of the Greek working class, both in the public and private sectors, is facing a severe cut in its standard of living.
While the world economy is technically in a recovery, the Greek economy is still in recession. This year alone GDP is expected to fall by 4.6%. In the construction industry there has been a fall of 50%. Industrial production has fallen by 8%. Profits from trade have fallen this year by between 10 and 15%. Unemployment has shot up, with 850,000 workers losing their jobs this year. Official unemployment stands at 12.5% with one million registered as unemployed; this in a country of around 11 million people.
Dilemma facing bourgeoisie
The Greek bourgeoisie is very alarmed by this situation. An example of their concern is the comment of Alexis Papachelas in the conservative bourgeois daily, Kathimerini:
“Fear, anxiety and uncertainty are starting to surface in everybody’s eyes. No one believes anything anymore and no one trusts anyone.
“The people of Greece seem to have reconciled themselves to a great degree with the fact that the cutbacks and sacrifices they are experiencing are necessary, but they need to know when it will all end, when Greece will crawl out of the hole that it finds itself in. Unfortunately, no one can answer this question with any degree of certainty.”
And while the main line of media propaganda is to try to reassure people and calm their nerves, in an attempt to convince them that the austerity measures will get the Greek economy back on track and growing again, Papachelas points out that:
“One example of how little people know is the fact that at some point in February, the markets, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union will realize that Greece is a long way away from its fiscal targets for 2010. Will the markets turn a blind eye? Will our lenders recognize the huge efforts already made, or will they impose a fresh round of measures and cutbacks in the public sector? Furthermore, how much more pressure can the ruling PASOK party, the government and, more importantly, society take?”
The fact is that they have no choice but to attack, but they also know the Greek working class very well with its revolutionary traditions. They realise there is a limit to what they can impose on the Greek workers before they rise up against them. The ruling class is coming to the conclusion that there is a limit to how far they can go on the basis of the present bourgeois democratic parliamentary set up.
It is the level of Greek debt that determines their thinking. It is an accepted fact that Greece will not be able to pay back its debts. In the two years 2014-15 the Government is scheduled to pay 148 billion euros, but this time with no help from the IMF or the EU. The package that was cobbled together to bail Greece out runs out in 2012. Thus, all that the package achieved was to put off the dreaded day of reckoning and make it even worse than it would have been, as it simply increased Greece’s overall level of debt.
Total annual government revenue in Greece is 55 billion euros. That figure alone shows that making the repayments required in 2014-15 will be an impossible task. This year government debt reached the staggering figure of 148% of GDP and next year it is expected to rise to 152%. This means that next year alone the government must cut 13.5 billion euros from state spending. And in order to pay back the whole debt, serious analysts have calculated that the Greek economy would have to grow by 5% per year for the next 20 years, something which is clearly well beyond the capabilities of capitalist Greece.
Now the government is in negotiations with the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank (ECB) to see if the repayments can be delayed. This, however, would come at a cost with a higher rate of interest. The overall IMF/EU/ECB bail-out came to 110 billion euros. If an extension of the repayments is granted, Greece would have to pay back 200 billion euros over a longer period. Without an extension it would have to pay back 130 billion.
Neither of these two options is going to be very palatable to the Greek workers. No extension means immediate sharp pain; with an extension it means even more severe cuts over a slightly longer period. In reality, whichever agreement they reach, Greece is, sooner or later, destined to default on its debt. That explains why now the government is desperately trying to get some of its debt cancelled and is in negotiations with the lenders with this aim in mind.
Euphemistically, they call this “reconstructing the debt”. As always, they invent new terms to describe what is happening in an attempt to camouflage reality. But reality has a stubborn way of forcing its way through. The government is naked and is attempting to hide behind a very small fig leaf!
No one now seriously believes Greece is going to pay. The discussion now is about whether they can cobble together the conditions for a “controlled default” or whether it will be an uncontrolled sudden collapse.
The first of these two scenarios involves an agreement to cancel a part of the debt, but Greece would have to leave the euro, or at best be part of a two-tier euro together with the weaker EU economies. This would also apply to countries like Ireland and Portugal. Such a scenario would drag the whole of the eurozone and the EU into a severe crisis. For if Greece and other countries prove incapable of paying back their debts, it would be the banks of countries like Germany who would feel the full brunt of all this. And this is considered the best case scenario.
The second option, the uncontrolled collapse, would materialise should the European economy fail to grow sufficiently or enter into a new recession, the famous double-dip. In such a situation Greece would face even worse problems and would be thrown into an even deeper and longer recession. This could happen either before or after being pushed out of the euro by the EU.
It is this economic impasse which is dictating the policies being pursued by the Greek bourgeois. And this means the struggle between the classes will be forced onto a much higher level. Yesterday’s general strike was a confirmation of this. In spite of the cold and rain there was a big turnout of around 80,000 on the rally in Athens. How deep the feeling of resentment is, was confirmed by the presence of retired army officers concerned about cuts in their pensions and even sections of the police were out protesting against austerity!
Of course, not all the police were in that mood. The special riot police was out in force yesterday and were in no mood for routine service. In the recent period the behaviour of the police has been increasingly provocative and violent. Workers and youth who turn up at demonstrations these days are more likely to be brutalised by the police than in the past. This is something we are seeing across Europe, and for a very good reason: the bourgeois, no longer able to concede anything concrete, want to force the workers and youth to accept their policies. Youth are in fact being picked up, arrested and put on trial after having participated in protests, almost as if they were terrorists.
It is clear that the police have received instructions from the top to terrorise the movement. Recently the police even attacked the headquarters of the Youth wing of the Synaspismos party, and the next day during a protest picket outside the courts, where Synaspismos Youth members were on trial for having taken part in clashes with the police, the general secretary of the organisation was beaten over the head by police officers who were also shouting fascist slogans. The Synaspismos is a party with parliamentary representation, regarded as a traditional party of the left. It is in no way an anarchist or terrorist grouping, but this is clearly a way of sending a message on the part of the police to the radicalised youth of the party!
The ruling class is facing a big dilemma. They would like to have a solid and stable parliamentary majority with which to push through their austerity measures. But no party is emerging that can do the job for them. The PASOK was voted in last year in protest at the outgoing New Democracy’s programme. Very quickly the PASOK leaders have thrown much of that support away. As we have seen, in the recent administrative elections close to a million PASOK supporters decided to abstain. The PASOK government is in fact in crisis and may possibly have only a few months of life left in it. The paradox is that the New Democracy in opposition is not growing; far from it, for it too is in crisis. It also suffered from the effects of mass abstentionism, with 500,000 of its supporters not bothering to go and vote.
A wing of the bourgeois organised a split from the New Democracy around Dora Bakoyani, but the opinion polls indicate that this party would only get around 2.5% in elections, not enough to get into parliament. Thus open direct representatives of the bourgeois would fail to get elected!
Something similar has happened to the right-wing split away from the Synaspismos, that also seems to be stuck at 2.5%. This split was organised to come to the aid of the PASOK government should it need it, but at such a low vote it also would fail to get into parliament.
All this means that no single party would emerge today, if elections were held, with a majority to govern the country. That explains why they are trying to get the two main parties, PASOK and New Democracy, to “cooperate”. Kathimerini commented positively on recent signs of a preparedness on the part of the leader of New Democracy to cooperate with the government on changes to the Constitution and on economic policy:
“Prime Minister George Papandreou and the leader of the main opposition New Democracy party, Antonis Samaras, yesterday [December 14] proved that they can agree, if only on a few points, when it comes to policy that will affect the entire nation. The fact that they agreed there was a need to review the Constitution, (…) is a big deal and may prove to be important if it goes beyond just words and is actually put into practice. (…)”
New Democracy has been demagogically voting against the government’s measures, the very same measures it would implement if it were in office. Therefore this recent spirit of cooperation is seen as a step in the right direction. The same article explained that:
“Some may argue that this rudimentary level of consensus is nowhere near enough, considering the challenges that Greece is facing. But Samaras certainly showed himself to be more responsible than the chief of the Communist Party, Aleka Papariga, who all but declared war on the government in what is an obvious hint that her party is poised to test democracy’s tolerance of mass protest action.”
This comment on testing “democracy’s tolerance of mass protest action” is an indication of another idea that is starting to grow among the serious strategists of capital in Greece, who are in fact considering some kind of Bonapartist measures. The above quotes indicate they are working towards achieving some changes to the Constitution that would give more power to the executive that would thus be less constrained by the niceties of a democratic parliamentary procedure.
An open military option is out of the question for now. Greek workers and youth still have the memory of the 1967 Colonels’ coup and how it ended. The bourgeois are well aware of the fact that if they tried such an option it could provoke open conflict between the classes, and even civil war.
However, many articles have appeared in the serious bourgeois press, such as Kathimerini, which discuss the option of a so-called government of “technocrats”, which means no politicians directly from the political parties, but economists and all kinds of experts would be ministers. Last month Alekos Papadopoulos, the ex-Minister of Finance, gave a speech in which he raised this idea. He said it should be a government made up solely of technocrats and he added that instead of the present four year legislature it should remain in power for five years. Of course, all this he says should be with the common agreement of all the parties, and it should be independent of parliament itself. This amounts to a kind of “government of national salvation” that would remain in power to impose the emergency measures.
Dora Bakoyanni has even raised for the first time the idea of taking away from the trade unions their right to organise strikes. She said that unless a majority of the workforce (members and non-members of unions) expresses itself in favour of strike action through a referendum (ballot) the unions should not have the legal right to call its members out. In her speech she also added the fact that 130,000 public sector workers must be sacked.
An influential top bourgeois journalist has even posed the question of abolishing certain articles of the constitution which would allow the government to govern by decree, by-passing parliament.
Added to this, the idea was raised that all these measures would be implemented in “consultation with the people” through referendums. This amounts to government through plebiscites. What they really want is a free hand to do whatever they want, but because of the balance of class forces the Greek bourgeois are forced to tread carefully, very carefully.
In the long run, some sections of the army and the police could move to “restore order”. The bourgeois have no real alternative, as what they are asking the Greek workers to accept is more than can be achieved through normal democratic bourgeois methods. However, before such a stage is reached the working class will have many opportunities to mobilise and to take power. But all these discussions among the bourgeois for a curtailment of certain democratic rights is a warning to the working class of what could happen should they fail in their attempt to transform society.
Yesterday’s general strike was a confirmation of the power of the Greek working class. It was not a general strike the leaders of the unions wanted, but they were forced to call it because of the mounting pressure from below. Recently Panagopoulos, the president of the GSEE, held secret talks with the bosses in which he negotiated cuts in workers’ wages. This has enraged the workers against him and is leading to opposition currents within the unions.
A process of polarisation has begun within the trade unions, which is also having an impact on all the left parties and groups in Greece. We will return to this question in another article. Suffice it to say for now, that after the initial struggles against the austerity measures earlier this year, we have entered a new phase in which the seriousness of the crisis and the degree of severity of the measures being imposed are now seeping into the consciousness of the workers preparing the ground for a struggle on a qualitatively higher level.
Athens, December 16, 2010
Website of the Greek Marxists:Μαρξιστική Φωνή (Greek)