What’s ahead after the general strike?

February 29, 2016

The general strike in Greece on February 4 and an even broader social mobilization against austerity that began before the strike and continued after it is the sign of a new period emerging in Greece since the capitulation last July of the SYRIZA government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to the blackmail demands in the third Memorandum, a package of harsh austerity measures. Tspiras later drove out the left wing of SYRIZA--now the core of a new electoral front called Popular Unity (PU)--and called snap elections that his party was able to win by keeping the left at a disadvantage.

Here, we publish two recent analyses by European socialists that appeared together at the A l'encontre website. The first is by Charles-André Udry, editor of A l'encontre and a member of the Movement for Socialism in Switzerland. The second, written on the eve of the general strike, is by Antonis Davanellos, a leading Greek socialist, member of the Internationalist Workers Left, which co-founded SYRIZA, and now a prominent figure in Popular Unity. Their articles were translated from a French and a Spanish version by Todd Chretien.

The February 4 General Strike

By Charles-André Udry | THE GENERAL strike on February 4 in Greece was the most important social mobilization since those that took place at the end of 2011. Its main characteristic was that there were strikes and mobilizations in all the major cities and town, both big and small, adding up to some 111 demonstrations.

On islands such as Rhodes and Corinth, as well as smaller ones, the mobilizations were broader than we've seen in the past, including a growing radicalism among the farmers, which should not be discounted. The Thessaloniki Fair, a major yearly agricultural exposition, was not business as usual. Security forces were overwhelmed as the fairgrounds were occupied by outraged farmers. According to various reports, the police themselves were less than enthusiastic about keeping order.

More generally, according to a union research institute, the rate of participation in the strike itself for teachers and municipal workers was between 50 and 55 percent, which should be compared to the 10 to 15 percent that took part in the January 2016 movement. In Athens, between 60,000 and 80,000 people joined in. The PAME, the Greek Communist Party's (KKE) mass organization, demonstrated separately, as is its custom, but brought together something in the neighborhood of 20,000 people.

Greek workers fill the streets during the February 4 general strike
Greek workers fill the streets during the February 4 general strike

The makeup of the demonstrations indicates the emergence of a social bloc opposed to the government's measures. The forces of the right will do everything they can in order to put an end to this--to block this dynamic. But for whole sectors of society, their very survival is at stake. The determination showed by the farmers, who will see their monthly pensions reduced from 1,000 to 600 euros, is only growing stronger.

Certainly, the trajectory of these protests will not be the same as those in 2011 because those could look to a perspective of a future government of the left.

And this is where the social and political questions converge: that is, the development of a credible transitional program, starting from social necessities, that articulates them in terms of rights and their political expression, and which must, necessarily, be of a negative character. This means that it must set as a goal the reversal of the second Tsipras government (meaning the one that took office after the September 20 elections) that presented itself as a mediator in applying the third Memorandum.

This negative phase is not understood by the partisans of social autonomy, who disparage politics. Yet this is an integral part of the dialectic of the class struggle itself and is critical for the construction of a social bloc based on political initiatives from organizations that are able to resonate with the various impulses arising from a brutalized society.

Creating this social bloc necessitates movement activists forming alliances through new experiences because the political context is new, both in terms of its unprecedented temporal features and its current constituent forces. We cannot understand this process in terms of historical inertia. The left's intervention can, at least in partial ways, help coalesce its forces in order to organize a grassroots challenge to the laws and decrees which are the fruit of the third Memorandum, both those already put in place and those being proposed. This implies directly destabilizing the positions of the "national" and "international" agents enforcing austerity. According to a recent poll, Tsipras can count only 15 percent of the vote, which only goes to show his weakness.

Next, we must add in strategic debates about "what to do tomorrow" in order to block the application of the Memorandum while elaborating an urgent plan based on this sort of resistance that lays out clear lines of action integrated into the overall context. We must keep in mind that this situation includes a multifaceted institutional and economic crisis at the European-wide level, all in a context of war.

This last term, and its reality, carries a particular resonance in Greece, where it isn't necessary to refer to long-past history, because extremely sharp conflicts can be recalled in living memory. Today, they are playing out in the tragedy of the immigrant crisis, which poses the basic right to live, as well as the role Greece plays in the mechanisms of NATO and its alliance with the Zionist state, sponsored by the Panos Kammenos, the conservative ANEL party minister of defense.

At the same time, the construction and development of Popular Unity (PU) continues by internalizing these experiences of struggle, by assessing these struggles (inside organizing assemblies that both prepare and assess mobilizations, analyzing the situation and looking to future challenges), and through the necessary internal debates and discussions pertaining to the reconstruction of a form of political representation of the political objectives that go beyond simply defeating the second Tsipras government. That reconstruction points to the beginning of the disintegration of Europe's central institutions.

This raises the importance of the practical convergence of the radical Greek left--in particular, of PU and its component parts--with analogous (not to say identical) forces in numerous other European countries that are prepared to actively participate in today's social and political conflicts.

We are not talking here about academic debates, but of a confluence of reflexive praxis--to reclaim a popular term which is often used to neutralize ideological-political points of view--on the part of collective and organized actors. This interaction must lead to an elaboration that gives meaning to action and the representation of an image that can be built "by those from below" in their struggle for a different future. This cannot be merely a repeat of the "horizon of the possible" formula that has flourished since the 1990s.

It will be through these steps, which present themselves as permanent challenges, that it will be possible to continue raising class consciousness, a consciousness that will be forged in confrontations with the ruling class and its political and governmental expressions, as well as its program and projects.

The ruling classes in Greece are attempting to respond to the open crisis of leadership they have faced since 2011-12 by putting forward Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was elected president of the conservative New Democracy party on January 10. The future of the second Tsipras government will be in large part determined by the re-composition of the leadership of the ruling classes, and the various fractions of those classes in waiting--a re-composition that will be carried out under the fire of multisided battles.

From September 20 to February 4

By Antonis Davanellos | During the September 20, 2015 elections, Tsipras' general staff--with the generous support of the creditors and national ruling classes, who were in dire need of a "leader"--saw their dreams come true: the exclusion of the PU from parliament; the electoral survival of ANEL (the Independent Greeks, a party that acts as SYRIZA's junior partner in government); the entry into parliament of various "useful idiots" such as TV personality Vassilis Leventis and his Union of Centrists; the fragmentation of social anger against the third Memorandum; and the near-extinction of the socio-political dynamic created by the 62 percent "no" vote in the July 5, 2015 referendum, which translated into a high level of abstention on September 2.

At that time, many analysts considered Tsipras to be a "hegemon" (a sort of dominant sovereign) and SYRIZA transformed into a party of the future for the long term. There were only a few of us who insisted--including, first and foremost, and to its credit, the leadership of PU--on several elements of instability in the overall situation:

1. That the elections of September 20 were a usurpation, made possible by one key element: The concrete measures of the third Memorandum had not been defined at the time of the elections, so their impact could not be evaluated by those going to the polls.

2. That the promise make by Tsipras during the campaign for a program of parallel management to be carried out the SYRIZA-ANEL government--to counteract the effects of the Memorandum--amplified the public's disorientation, along with its illusions, especially owing to the terrible collapse in living conditions.

3. That the public's aversion toward New Democracy worked in favor of the Maximos Mansion (the official seat of the Prime Minister).

However, it was clear that this context was going to change over the coming months, and we could expect a new wave of social discontent as soon as the real measures required by the July 13 agreement, signed in Brussels by Tsipras and Euclide Tsakalotos, the current Finance Minister, took effect. Among the most important of these is the huge cuts in pensions.

Based on this, we believed that we were entering a period that would be marked by political instability. We focused on this potential and began to plan our political intervention with an orientation toward a perspective of large-scale social and political struggles that would not be long in coming. This perspective ran counter to the majority of the political representatives to the left of SYRIZA.

Less than five months later, in February, this assessment has been confirmed to a degree and with a speed which surpassed even our expectations.

Tsipras and his general staff find themselves faced with the serious danger of an uncontrollable crisis, a veritable collapse. There is an open debate about the "expansion" of the parliamentary bloc which supports the SYRIZA government to include Leventis' Union of Centrists, To Potami (a centrist party, meaning "to the River" in Greek), and perhaps PASOK. This debate even extends to the potential to integrate the conservatives of New Democracy in some sort of national unity government formula or even the potential for new elections (the fourth in twelve months!), all demonstrating the depth of the instability.

As Zoe Konstantapoulou (the ex-president of the parliament under the first SYRIZA government) has reminded us, Tsipras himself defended measures like the Social Security cuts put forward by Giorios Katrougkalos (Minister of Labor, Social Insurance, and Social Solidarity), which could not have been imposed except under a government of national unity or a dictatorship.

A party like SYRIZA, despite its neoliberal transformation, cannot expect silence in carrying out such reactionary restrictions of democratic and social rights--especially not, speaking concretely, Social Security. These measures can only sharpen the conflicts between those who remain inside SYRIZA, including clashes between municipal, regional and national elected officials.

At the root of the governmental crisis lies the sudden rise of a mass movement for the defense of Social Security. Recent admirers of the report on the impact of austerity by Tassos Giannitsis (the head of Hellenic Petroleum from December 2009 to November 2011, and then Interior Minister in the so-called technocratic government of Lucas Papademos from Novemeber 11, 2011 to May 18, 2012) should not forget his precipitous fall, nor that of Kostas Simitis, who retired (including from his post as a national deputy for the port of Piraeus) after having been, until now, the all-powerful champion of "modernization."

Widespread participation in the demonstrations by members of the liberal professions (lawyers, researchers, scientists, doctors, etc.) and workers from the public sector, ports, airports, banks, courts and schools is expected for the February 3 mobilization--as well as massive road blocks organized by farmers, who joined the struggle at the beginning of January. This constitutes a particularly dangerous set of circumstances for the government; it is within the realm of possibility that the movement in defense of Social Security could win, and the Katrougkalos plan could be defeated.

The system's apologists are putting forward "analyses" that underestimate the importance of these mobilizations. The concept of "social automatism"--that is, a supposed disconnection between social movements and their political repercussions or effects--is reliving its glory days, this time propagated by currents of the "left."

They tell us that subcontracted or independent workers, public employees and farmers do not constitute homogenous groups and, therefore, they will fall victim to a kind of automatic fragmentation from uncontrollable centripetal forces.

Of course, we've always known that there are rich lawyers, professionals and farmers. We also know that there are political and trade union leaders who called for a "yes" vote on July 5, 2015, and who today accept the terms of the third Memorandum. However, even this group feels compelled to participate in the demonstrations, if only to search for the possibility of coming to some sort of agreement with Katrougkalos in order to reduce the anger among the rank and file of their own organizations.

These conflicts give rise to new tasks for the radical left, a left which must undercut the influence of these concessionary leaderships, who have been coopted by power in many different ways. Popular Unity is working to move in this direction. But this dynamic does not change in the least our assessment that the mobilizations of the so-called independent workers and the farmers are of politically decisive importance. In any real movement of the masses, there is no such thing as chemical purity.

A second argument put forward by the system's apologists has to do with the supposed non-participation of workers, especially unionized workers. These lines are being written just before the February 4 general strike, and we do not yet know the scale of the response the workers will give to these desiccated cadavers masquerading as analysts. But the political atmosphere leading up to the strike is clear: the convergence of workers, farmers, liberal professionals, and public employees in the streets will raise the pressure to a level that bears all the signs of becoming a nightmare for the government.

Clearly, no one has the right to underestimate the importance of previous rounds of working-class resistance, even if they were of lesser magnitudes. As it happened, early efforts taken by the public employee ADEDY union, as well as unions from other sectors, opened the way, the path they forged has been transformed into a broad boulevard. We should focus all our attention on the power of the rank-and-file movement.

Under these conditions, the government is facing an additional problem. The creditors--who have their own problems stemming from a prolonged international crisis--refuse to provide any "relief." The directives coming from Europe demand only that the austerity program be applied; in short, they demand the Greek government extends even more political support to the Europeans.

However, this time, it seems improbable that the Europeans will look kindly on any new governmental tactics (such as calling new elections) because these carry with them the risk of reversing the Memorandum's application, while they may increase destabilizing factors beyond the Greek borders.

Tsipras admits that he is seeking a "national consensus." The scenario of enlarging the government, with him keeping his post as prime minister, implies finding allies besides Leventis, To Potami and PASOK, who all may agree to play their roles, but this would hardly create an image of a significantly broadened political base.

Yet the potential for a real government of national unity, including New Democracy's participation, also poses the question of dispensing with the symbolic role that Tsipras himself has played for a whole period. And are there any forces inside SYRIZA itself who might consent to this sort of possibility, and offer themselves as at least a partial alternative to Tsipras?

This impasse brings us back, once again, to the potential for new elections. In the past, Tsipras reproached the left of his own party for trying to "escape." This was in reference to debates and confrontations within SYRIZA: First, in relation to some left-wing SYRIZA MPs refusing to vote for the July 13, 2015 agreement; and, second, with respect to the date and technicalities of the September elections.

Now it turns out that he will likely need elections to escape from his shameful collapse. But this time, this tactic will not be easy: he can neither bank on a consensus among the creditors, nor count on cooperation from the state apparatus, nor rely on support from Greek elites. Moreover, a SYRIZA victory in new elections is far from guaranteed.

Conditions are changing rapidly. In this context, the radical left must intervene and participate with all its forces so that this round of struggles may win and defeat the counter reform. Therein lies the hope of overturning the third Memorandum and rendering the July 13 Brussels agreement null and void. This entails defending all social rights, those of the working class in a broad sense as well, as those of its allies (from farmers to sections of the middle classes), so that the bill for the crisis can be passed on to the rulers and the rich who caused it in the first place.

First published in French at A l'encontre and in Spanish at Viento Sur. Translated by Todd Chretien.

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