'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Struggle on the Streets of Greece (Part 2) 

Today, the Greek socialist parlimentary majority, PASOK, approved a rigorous plan of austerity and privatization in order to facilitate a bailout from the IMF and the ECB. It is pretty much acknowledged that, if implemented, the plan will consign a generation of Greeks to poverty. Police were unrestrained in their use of tear gas in an attempt to clear away protesters from nearby Syntagma Square:

Protesters fought pitched body-to-body battles with riot police, toxic levels of tear gas filled the air and Syntagma Square, the nerve centre of Greece's new resistance movement, descended into chaos.

Within minutes, the plaza resembled a war zone, more reminiscent of Gaza than the flourishing hub of a western capital with the detritus of battle everywhere: in its burning barricades, smashed pavements, shattered masonry, looted shops, destroyed kiosks and trees.

Dangerous amounts of tear gas are being used to terrorize people, said Athanasios Pafilis, a communist MP as parliament wrapped up two days of debate on the debt-reduction measures. It's an intolerable situation … what we are seeing is chemical warfare and it has to stop.

Unprovoked riot police were firing it all over the place, said Andreas Skourtis, an architect demonstrating against the measures.

They were clearly working to a very well-organised plan. This is a government that has gone out of its way to not only keep crowds away but pass the measures no matter what. People are really angry. Civilians have been attacked not only in Syntagma but all over the city centre.

Other accounts convey the eruption of violence throughout the central city of Athens:

18.25 GMT+2 About 20 DELTA motorcycle cops rushed through the crowd situated in Ermou Street near Kapnikarea. A clash between groups of protesters and joined DELTA, MAT forces followed. One of the DELTA cops crashed with the protesters and got badly beaten right afterwards.

18.18 GMT +2: The use of tear gas inside Syntagma metro continues; the cops invade now. The people disperse in all directions at the risk of being trampled.

18.15 GMT +2: The cops moved from the surrounding streets and have invaded Syntagma square. The people are encircled. The cops hit brutally, throwing chemicals and stepping over the demonstrators’ tents.

18.05 GMT +2: The forces of repression are shooting rubber bullets at Stadiou and Voukourestiou streets.

18.00 GMT +2: People have gathered in Propylaea, responding to the gathering call at 6 pm.

17.53 GMT +2: Attempted arson at the Agrotikil Bank on Panepistimiou Street. People are smashing the surrounding banks. The protesters who tried to burn the bank stopped when they realized that there were people inside.

17.20 GMT+2: Street battles now in Filellinon Street. Continuous reports of severely wounded protesters. A municipality pillar was burned. Everybody demands the withdrawal of cops; great fatigue and anger of the people. Apart from the merciless chemical warfare, the cops are throwing stones back against demonstrators since hours.

Beyond the ongoing struggle on the streets, there are some obvious lessons. First, there is no government on the European continent that will resist the dictates of international capital as given expression through the World Bank, the IMF, the US Federal Reserve, the Bundesbank and the ECB. Democratic processes exist for the purpose of legitimizing policies imposed by them. Second, social democratic parties, like the PASOK in Greece, stand ready to preserve state authority by acting as the intermediary by which these policies shall be approved and implemented. lenin has identified the problem:

One might expect social democratic parties to take a different approach, to mobilise their constituencies around a defence of public services and social security. But their long years of complicity in managing neoliberalism means they are unable to think of an alternative to spending cuts. In opposition, they offer gradual and responsible austerity, but they still mean to cut, and cut deep. In government, the emphasis shifts from gradual to deep.

This process doesn't only threaten the major parties. At stake is the very legitimacy of the states carrying out these measures. Hitherto, they have relied on two key sources of public support. One is the ideology of prosperity, in which great inequalities of wealth are tolerable so long as the economy keeps growing. But in the last 30 years, that has depended on record private debt, which is no longer sustainable. The other is welfare, in which the government will provide a basic minimum of nourishment, health and education so that, in theory, all can participate in the opportunities of a market economy. If the market fails, the government will be there with a safety net. This is now under unprecedented attack.

lenin recognizes the severity of the situation, but refuses to draw the obvious conclusion: social democratic parties in Europe, with Marxist, Leninist and Trotskyite influences, cannot conceive of a future in the absence of the state institutions by which which they have sought to create a more egalitarian society. Terrified of a collapse of state authority that would make it impossible to use the state's administrative apparatus to provide social welfare in the form of public services, universal education, health care and social security, they are willing to eviscerate these programs in the hope that future generations can revive them. Forced to choose between continued fidelity to neoliberal policy and alternatives that risk permanently reducing the authority of the state, if not fully eliminating it, they will always act in defense of the state. Here, in the US, we experience a peculiar variant of this in regard to the liberal embrace of the state as necessary to protect civil rights and people of color, thus rationalizing support for Democratic party policies that impoverish much of the country in much the same manner as previous Republican ones have done.

Despite the vote, Greece is stalemated. The government has obtained the legal authority to impose more merciless austerity measures upon the populace, but lacks the capability to effectively implement them. Accordingly, as already mentioned yesterday, foreign investors are already seeking to induce a Greek Pinochet to come forward and enforce workplace discipline because Papandreou, PASOK, and the labor unions associated with them, are rapidly losing the ability to do so. An attempt by PASOK affiliated transit unions in Athens to disrupt protests through the ruse of participating in the general strike failed as many workers, at the request of the movement, reported to work to operate the subway system.

Meanwhile, the left, despite its great successes, has not developed a sufficiently broad based coalition capable of rendering Greece ungovernable under conditions imposed by the EU, the IMF and the ECB. Such a coalition will be necessary as Greece enters a new phase of conflict. The centers of confrontation will be the workplaces of public sector workers and publicly owned resources, such as the port of Athens, which is designated, along with other public assets for privatization, as well as the banks and other European institutions that will adminster the Greek economy. We can anticipate a coordinated campaign, with violent and non-violent features, for the purpose of making it impossible to carry out the mass firings and asset sales mandated by the austerity plan. European bank branches in Greece, especially German and French ones, are going to be the targets of ongoing vandalism. But it is important to note that, as far as we know, the police are standing steadfast with the government.

The anti-authoritarian movements of Greece face a great challenge, the urgency of participating in a broader coalition of resistance in which many of the participants either do not understand or do not fully share their ideological vision of society. Hence, criticism of the protesters in Syntagma Square for their fetishization of non-violence is not particularly helpful, but engaging them about the synergy created by a movement with violent and non-violent features can release a tremendous radical potential. It is precisely for this reason that a reformist media outlet like the Guardian insists upon placing violent and non-violent protesters in opposition to one another in its coverage, characterizing the violent ones as hooligans, without a base of support, so as to maintain the spiritual purity of those who resist non-violently. Of course, it is not very persuasive, because, after all, there are a lot of people resisting the attacks upon the square and taking the initiative by vandalizing banks and corporate businesses in downtown Athens. And yet, there is, dare one use the word, some sectarianism that must be overcome. Ultimately, the question is not so much one of violence and non-violence, but, rather, the effectiveness of various forms of resistance against this onslaught. In other contexts, social movements have been able to bridge the violent, non-violent direct action divide, as was done during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Such an approach requires a willingness of all involved to recognize the possible consequences of their actions in relation to those undertaken by others.

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