Report from Greece: Open class war

by Vangelis Itesis

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou recently warned the members of his social-democratic party (PASOK) that “political stability in this country is what we must keep as the apple of our eye.” Six months earlier, the president of the Third Hellenic Republic, Karolos Papoulias, had anxiously admonished Greek society to take a step back from impending chaos: “we have reached the edge of the precipice.” Both these statements referred not so much to the growing possibility of economic bankruptcy for Greece as to the danger of uncontrolled social resistance from below.

As soon as PASOK officials had scored an electoral triumph in the fall of 2009, they discovered the grim reality of the Greek economic situation. The national debt was swelling rapidly, the revised budget deficit figures were rising higher than expected, and the international credit rating agencies were downgrading government debt to “junk” status. Papandreou was ostensibly astonished by the findings of his ministers, who had daringly disclosed, as the official story goes, what the former government had chosen not to reveal. He declared his personal willingness to save the sinking country, and to put aside his electoral campaign promises for socialism “instead of neoliberal barbarism.”

Evidently, this was not the right time for acting in accordance with the mandate given by the voters, who had just rejected the neoliberal policies of the former right-wing government. According to the prime minister, the country would be put back on its feet by heavy doses of this same barbarism—which had led not just the Greek economy but the most developed economies of the world to the threshold of collapse.

As a matter of fact, Papandreou was not alone in taking such a posture. The pressure of debt holders, who were losing confidence in the ability of the Greek government to pay them back, was palpable. Economic analysts, in their strange idiom, underlined “unrestrained spending,” “cheap lending,” and “failure to implement financial reforms” as the chief causes of the evil that had befallen upon “irresponsible” Greeks.

European Union and IMF executives came to offer their technical skills in mastering the debt, while the Greek government pronounced more or less a state of emergency, signing a memorandum outlining the terms of economic aid by its continental partners in the EU, and its global partners in the IMF. Surprising as it might seem to mainstream political theorists, democracy is a complete luxury when the magnitudes of the deficit run high.

In reality, all those cliff-hanging words idolizing fiscal stability bear the mark of a globally concerted endeavor to change the relationship of class forces in a sharpening social antagonism. It is no coincidence that the same rhetoric now is applied in the cases of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, the UK, even the USA: share the burden, give life to the free market! Each national population is assigned the responsibility to shoulder collectively the burden of the crisis, in order that a global agenda of “reforms” can be pursued everywhere with the same effectiveness.

The problem, they tell us, is excessive social spending—the ability, in other words, of the majority of the population to have some access to the social wealth that their living labor produces, and that a tiny minority usurps, owing to the established power relations in the sphere of production. Their recipe is monotonous, because it corresponds to a global offensive strategy: reduce expenditures concerning wages, health care benefits, social security, public education, even public transportation; and increase expenditures to support private investment and bail out the private banks.

Yet, however “irresponsible” they are portrayed as being, the Greek working class never decided to pour 28 billion euros last year, and 25 billion additionally this year, into saving Greek bankers’ revenues. This was a gift bestowed by the former government as well as the present one upon the real masters of the game.

Yes, we are in a state of emergency, in a war launched by capital against living labor on a world scale. In Greece, this sense of being at war permeated public discourse, and repeatedly infiltrated the speeches of leading political personalities. The working class, and especially the so-called new working class—composed of mostly educated, precariously employed people, scarcely represented by the traditional unions—by no means abstained from the struggles against capital.

In fact, Greece’s new proletariat had a heavy record of resistance, involving such major events as the most massive and radical student movement of the last decades against the commodification of education, in 2006-2007, and the social revolt of December 2008—on the occasion of Alexandros Gregoropoulos’ assassination by a cop, which shook the country and seriously threatened its political stability. These new layers of the working class were the main targets of the ruling class’s strategies for increased discipline.

Last spring, the government successfully passed the most extreme anti-labor bills that Greek capitalists had ever dreamed of—at least during the last 30 years. The measures included wage reductions in the public sector, new legislation with regard to social security and health care that involved the increase of the retirement age, etc.

The organized labor movement was unable to draw an effective line of resistance. After six general strikes—one of which, held on May 5, was perhaps the most massive strike Greece had seen after the fall of the military regime in 1974—the leadership of the Greek Workers’ Confederation signed an agreement of social peace with the bosses. This was done without the trade-union officials having gained anything, and without even having put into question the “burden-sharing” rhetoric of the government.

The left was also overtaken by the events. Most of its forces, especially the two main organizations that represent the left in Greece, the Communist Party and SYRIZA (a reformist-bureaucratic coalition of a left social-democratic party, SYNASBISMOS, with some anti-capitalist organizations) proved to be incapable both of giving a perspective of victory to the ongoing struggle by endorsing radical demands, and of promoting independent massive action and forms of workers’ self-organization that would be the essential conditions for such a victory.

Anarchists, who now constitute a relatively massive political force, particularly in radicalized proletarian youth sectors, failed to articulate the spirit of resistance into a political strategy. Even worse, some anarchist riot groups succumbed to cynical violence; during the May 5 demonstration, three bank employees were found dead after being entrapped in a building blindly set on fire. At the end, despite the mass mobilizations, the government remained stable in its position; the outcome of this crucial combat appeared to be significantly favorable to Greek capitalism.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. The mass strikes in France and the social struggles in Britain and elsewhere have helped to counterbalance the setback in morale that was beginning to affect the working class in Greece.

In last month’s municipal and regional elections, the ruling social-democratic party retained its lead, but the far left reinforced its electoral representation. For example, the coalition of several anti-capitalist and revolutionary organizations named ANTARSYA (“mutiny” in Greek), which had kept the strongest stance against the capitalist offensive during the previous period of struggle, scored higher than ever. It was the first time that anti-capitalist and revolutionary groups working together had managed to take some visible steps onto the central political stage—electing some of their members to municipal and regional councils.

Yet, there was some alarmingly bad news: a fascist candidate scored 5 percent in the municipality of Athens and was elected to the municipal council. This, of course, has to be seen in regard to both the growing anti-immigrant sentiment seen in some Athens neighborhoods and to the constant backdoor support offered by sectors of the state to these Nazi thugs as a force available to be used at will against communist and anarchist militants.

The most important event from a class-struggle point of view, however, happened on Nov. 17. Over 50,000 people participated in the demonstration annually held on that day in memory of the Polytechnic School uprising of 1973. It was the largest Nov. 17 demonstration in the last decade. The contingents of anti-capitalist and revolutionary organizations and of autonomous/anarchist groups attracted, once more, several thousand militants. Thousands of red and black flags were waved, once more, under the night sky of Athens.

The war is not over. Political personnel representing the Greek bourgeoisie must truly strive to keep political stability as the “apple of their eye.” On that score, however, they still have reasons to worry.

> This article was originally published in the December 2010 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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