This page is for articles and notes on potential and actual responses to the crises.
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This page is for articles and notes on potential and actual responses to the crises.
Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition
by David Harvey
The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious constraints. Three-percent compound annual growth (generally considered the minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy. If that is to be done in an equitable way, then there is no alternative to socialism or communism. Since the late 1990s, the World Social Forum became the center for articulating the theme "another world is possible." It must now take up the task of defining how another socialism or communism is possible and how the transition to these alternatives is to be accomplished. The current crisis offers a window of opportunity to reflect on what might be involved.
The current crisis originated in the steps taken to resolve the crisis of the1970s. These steps included:
(a) The successful assault upon organized labor and its political institutions while mobilizing global labor surpluses, instituting labor-saving technological changes, and heightening competition. The result has been global wage repressions (a declining share of wages in total GDP almost everywhere) and the creation of an even vaster disposable labor reserve living under marginal conditions.
(b) Undermining previous structures of monopoly power and displacing the previous stage of (nation-state) monopoly capitalism by opening up capitalism to far fiercer international competition. Intensifying global competition translated into lower non-financial corporate profits. Uneven geographical development and inter-territorial competition became key features in capitalist development, opening the way towards the beginnings of a hegemonic shift of power particularly but not exclusively towards East Asia.
(c) Utilizing and empowering the most fluid and highly mobile form of capital -- money capital -- to reallocate capital resources globally (eventually through electronic markets) thus sparking deindustrialization in traditional core regions and new forms of (ultra-oppressive) industrialization and natural resource and agricultural raw material extractions in emergent markets. The corollary was to enhance the profitability of financial corporations and to find new ways to globalize and supposedly absorb risks through the creation of fictitious capital markets.
(d) At the other end of the social scale, this meant heightened reliance on "accumulation by dispossession" as a means to augment capitalist class power. The new rounds of primitive accumulation against indigenous and peasant populations were augmented by asset losses of the lower classes in the core economies (as witnessed by the sub-prime housing market in the US which foisted a huge asset loss particularly upon African American populations).
(e) The augmentation of otherwise sagging effective demand by pushing the debt economy (governmental, corporate, and household) to its limits (particularly in the USA and the UK but also in many other countries from Latvia to Dubai).
(f) Compensating for anemic rates of return in production by the construction of a whole series of asset market bubbles, all of which had a Ponzi character, culminating in the property bubble that burst in 2007-8. These asset bubbles drew upon finance capital and were facilitated by extensive financial innovations such as derivatives and collateralized debt obligations.
The political forces that coalesced and mobilized behind these transitions had a distinctive class character and clothed themselves in the vestments of a distinctive ideology called neoliberal. The ideology rested upon the idea that free markets, free trade, personal initiative, and entrepreneurialism were the best guarantors of individual liberty and freedom and that the "nanny state" should be dismantled for the benefit of all. But the practice entailed that the state must stand behind the integrity of financial institutions, thus introducing (beginning with the Mexican and developing countries debt crisis of 1982) "moral hazard" big time into the financial system. The state (local and national) also became increasingly committed to providing a "good business climate" to attract investments in a highly competitive environment. The interests of the people were secondary to the interests of capital, and in the event of a conflict between them, the interests of the people had to be sacrificed (as became standard practice in IMF structural adjustments programs from the early 1980s onwards). The system that has been created amounts to a veritable form of communism for the capitalist class.
These conditions varied considerably, of course, depending upon what part of the world one inhabited, the class relations prevailing there, the political and cultural traditions, and how the balance of political-economic power was shifting.
So how can the left negotiate the dynamics of this crisis? At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see. Surplus capital and surplus labor exist side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet needs. In midsummer of 2009, one third of the capital equipment in the United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were either unemployed, enforced part-timers, or "discouraged" workers. What could be more irrational than that!
Can capitalism survive the present trauma? Yes. But at what cost? This question masks another. Can the capitalist class reproduce its power in the face of the raft of economic, social, political, geopolitical, and environmental difficulties? Again, the answer is a resounding "yes." But the mass of the people will have to surrender the fruits of their labor to those in power, to surrender many of their rights and their hard-won asset values (in everything from housing to pension rights), and to suffer environmental degradations galore, to say nothing of serial reductions in their living standards, which means starvation for many of those already struggling to survive at rock bottom. Class inequalities will increase (as we already see happening). All of that may require more than a little political repression, police violence, and militarized state control to stifle unrest.
Since much of this is unpredictable and since the spaces of the global economy are so variable, then uncertainties as to outcomes are heightened at times of crisis. All manner of localized possibilities arise for either nascent capitalists in some new space to seize opportunities to challenge older class and territorial hegemonies (as when Silicon Valley replaced Detroit from the mid-1970s onwards in the United States) or for radical movements to challenge the reproduction of an already destabilized class power. To say that the capitalist class and capitalism can survive is not to say that they are predestined to do so nor does it say that their future character is given. Crises are moments of paradox and possibilities.
So what will happen this time around? If we are to get back to three-percent growth, then this means finding new and profitable global investment opportunities for $1.6 trillion in 2010 rising to closer to $3 trillion by 2030. This contrasts with the $0.15 trillion new investment needed in 1950 and the $0.42 trillion needed in 1973 (the dollar figures are inflation adjusted). Real problems of finding adequate outlets for surplus capital began to emerge after 1980, even with the opening up of China and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. The difficulties were in part resolved by creation of fictitious markets where speculation in asset values could take off unhindered. Where will all this investment go now?
Leaving aside the undisputable constraints in the relation to nature (with global warming of paramount importance), the other potential barriers of effective demand in the market place, of technologies, and of geographical/geopolitical distributions are likely to be profound, even supposing, which is unlikely, that no serious active oppositions to continuous capital accumulation and further consolidation of class power materialize. What spaces are left in the global economy for new spatial fixes for capital surplus absorption? China and the ex-Soviet bloc have already been integrated. South and Southeast Asia is filling up fast. Africa is not yet fully integrated but there is nowhere else with the capacity to absorb all this surplus capital. What new lines of production can be opened up to absorb growth? There may be no effective long-run capitalist solutions (apart from reversion to fictitious capital manipulations) to this crisis of capitalism. At some point quantitative changes lead to qualitative shifts and we need to take seriously the idea that we may be at exactly such an inflexion point in the history of capitalism. Questioning the future of capitalism itself as an adequate social system ought, therefore, to be in the forefront of current debate.
Yet there appears to be little appetite for such discussion, even among the left. Instead we continue to hear the usual conventional mantras regarding the perfectibility of humanity with the help of free markets and free trade, private property and personal responsibility, low taxes and minimalist state involvement in social provision, even though this all sounds increasingly hollow. A crisis of legitimacy looms. But legitimation crises typically unfold at a different pace and rhythm to that of stock markets. It took, for example, three or four years before the stock market crash of 1929 produced the massive social movements (both progressive and fascistic) after 1932 or so. The intensity of the current pursuit by political power of ways to exit the present crisis may have something to do with the political fear of looming illegitimacy.
The last thirty years, however, has seen the emergence of systems of governance that seem immune to legitimacy problems and unconcerned even with the creation of consent. The mix of authoritarianism, monetary corruption of representative democracy, surveillance, policing and militarization (particularly through the war on terror), media control and spin suggests a world in which the control of discontent through disinformation, fragmentations of oppositions, and the shaping of oppositional cultures through the promotion of NGOs tends to prevail with plenty of coercive force to back it up if necessary.
The idea that the crisis had systemic origins is scarcely mooted in the mainstream media (even as a few mainstream economists like Stiglitz, Krugman, and even Jeffrey Sachs attempt to steal some of the left's historical thunder by confessing to an epiphany or two). Most of the governmental moves to contain the crisis in North America and Europe amount to the perpetuation of business as usual which translates into support for the capitalist class. The "moral hazard" that was the immediate trigger for the financial failures is being taken to new heights in the bank bailouts. The actual practices of neoliberalism (as opposed to its utopian theory) always entailed blatant support for finance capital and capitalist elites (usually on the grounds that financial institutions must be protected at all costs and that it is the duty of state power to create a good business climate for solid profiteering). This has not fundamentally changed. Such practices are justified by appeal to the dubious proposition that a "rising tide" of capitalist endeavor will "lift all boats" or that the benefits of compound growth will magically "trickle down" (which it never does except in the form of a few crumbs from the rich folks' table).
So how will the capitalist class exit the current crisis and how swift will the exit be? The rebound in stock market values from Shanghai and Tokyo to Frankfurt, London, and New York is a good sign, we are told, even as unemployment pretty much everywhere continues to rise. But notice the class bias in that measure. We are enjoined to rejoice in the rebound in stock values for the capitalists because it always precedes, it is said, a rebound in the "real economy" where jobs for the workers are created and incomes earned. The fact that the last stock rebound in the United States after 2002 turned out to be a "jobless recovery" appears to have been forgotten already. The Anglo-Saxon public in particular appears to be seriously afflicted with amnesia. It too easily forgets and forgives the transgressions of the capitalist class and the periodic disasters its actions precipitate. The capitalist media are happy to promote such amnesia.
China and India are still growing, the former by leaps and bounds. But in China's case, the cost is a huge expansion of bank lending on risky projects (the Chinese banks were not caught up in the global speculative frenzy but now are continuing it). The overaccumulation of productive capacity proceeds apace, and long-term infrastructural investments, whose productivity will not be known for several years, are booming (even in urban property markets). And China's burgeoning demand is entraining those economies supplying raw materials, like Australia and Chile. The likelihood of a subsequent crash in China cannot be dismissed but it may take time to discern (a long-term version of Dubai). Meanwhile the global epicenter of capitalism accelerates its shift primarily towards East Asia.
In the older financial centers, the young financial sharks have taken their bonuses of yesteryear and collectively started boutique financial institutions to circle Wall Street and the City of London, to sift through the detritus of yesterday's financial giants to snaffle up the juicy bits and start all over again. The investment banks that remain in the US -- Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan -- though reincarnated as bank holding companies have gained exemption (thanks to the Federal Reserve) from regulatory requirements and are making huge profits (and setting aside moneys for huge bonuses to match) out of speculating, dangerously using taxpayers' money in unregulated and still booming derivative markets. The leveraging that got us into the crisis has resumed big time as if nothing has happened. Innovations in finance are on the march as new ways to package and sell fictitious capital debts are being pioneered and offered to institutions (such as pension funds) desperate to find new outlets for surplus capital. The fictions (as well as the bonuses) are back!
Consortia are buying up foreclosed properties, either waiting for the market to turn before making a killing or banking high value land for a future moment of active redevelopment. The regular banks are stashing away cash, much of it garnered from the public coffers, also with an eye to resuming bonus payments consistent with a former lifestyle while a whole host of entrepreneurs hover in the wings waiting to seize this moment of creative destruction backed by a flood of public moneys.
Meanwhile raw money power wielded by the few undermines all semblances of democratic governance. The pharmaceutical, health insurance, and hospital lobbies, for example, spent more than $133 million in the first three months of 2009 to make sure they got their way on health care reform in the United States. Max Baucus, head of the key Senate finance committee that shaped the health care bill, received $1.5 million for a bill that delivers a vast number of new clients to the insurance companies with few protections against ruthless exploitation and profiteering (Wall Street is delighted). Another electoral cycle, legally corrupted by immense money power, will soon be upon us. In the United States, the parties of "K Street" and of Wall Street will be duly re-elected as working Americans are exhorted to work their way out of the mess that the ruling class has created. We have been in such dire straits before, we are reminded, and each time, working Americans have rolled up their sleeves, tightened their belts, and saved the system from some mysterious mechanics of auto-destruction for which the ruling class denies all responsibility. Personal responsibility is, after all, for the workers and not for the capitalists.
If this is the outline of the exit strategy then almost certainly we will be in another mess within five years. The faster we come out of this crisis and the less excess capital is destroyed now, the less room there will be for the revival of long-term active growth. The loss of asset values at this conjuncture (mid 2009) is, we are told by the IMF, at least $55 trillion, which is equivalent to almost exactly one year's global output of goods and services. Already we are back to the output levels of 1989. We may be looking at losses of $400 trillion or more before we are through. Indeed, in a recent startling calculation, it was suggested that the US state alone was on the hook to guarantee more than $200 trillion in asset values. The likelihood that all of those assets would go bad is very minimal, but the thought that many of them could is sobering in the extreme. Just to take a concrete example: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now taken over by the US Government, own or guarantee more than $5 trillion in home loans, many of which are in deep trouble (losses of more than $150 billion were recorded in 2008 alone). So what, then, are the alternatives?
It has long been the dream of many in the world that an alternative to capitalist (ir)rationality can be defined and rationally arrived at through the mobilization of human passions in the collective search for a better life for all. These alternatives -- historically called socialism or communism -- have, in various times and places, been tried. In former times, such as the 1930s, the vision of one or other of them operated as a beacon of hope. But in recent times they have both lost their luster, been dismissed as wanting, not only because of the failure of historical experiments with communism to make good on their promises and the penchant for communist regimes to cover over their mistakes by repression, but also because of their supposedly flawed presuppositions concerning human nature and the potential perfectibility of the human personality and of human institutions.
The difference between socialism and communism is worth noting. Socialism aims to democratically manage and regulate capitalism in ways that calm its excesses and redistribute its benefits for the common good. It is about spreading the wealth around through progressive taxation arrangements while basic needs -- such as education, health care and even housing -- are provided by the state out of reach of market forces. Many of the key achievements of redistributive socialism in the period after 1945, not only in Europe but beyond, have become so socially embedded as to be immune from neoliberal assault. Even in the United States, Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular programs that right-wing forces find it almost impossible to dislodge. The Thatcherites in Britain could not touch national health care except at the margins. Social provision in Scandinavia and most of Western Europe seems to be an unshakable bedrock of the social order.
Communism, on the other hand, seeks to displace capitalism by creating an entirely different mode of both production and distribution of goods and services. In the history of actually existing communism, social control over production, exchange, and distribution meant state control and systematic state planning. In the long run this proved to be unsuccessful though, interestingly, its conversion in China (and its earlier adoption in places like Singapore) has proven far more successful than the pure neoliberal model in generating capitalist growth for reasons that cannot be elaborated upon here. Contemporary attempts to revive the communist hypothesis typically abjure state control and look to other forms of collective social organization to displace market forces and capital accumulation as the basis for organizing production and distribution. Horizontally networked as opposed to hierarchically commanded systems of coordination between autonomously organized and self-governing collectives of producers and consumers are envisaged as lying at the core of a new form of communism. Contemporary technologies of communication make such a system seem feasible. All manner of small-scale experiments around the world can be found in which such economic and political forms are being constructed. In this there is a convergence of some sort between the Marxist and anarchist traditions that harks back to the broadly collaborative situation between them in the 1860s in Europe.
While nothing is certain, it could be that 2009 marks the beginning of a prolonged shakeout in which the question of grand and far-reaching alternatives to capitalism will step-by-step bubble up to the surface in one part of the world or another. The longer the uncertainty and the misery is prolonged, the more the legitimacy of the existing way of doing business will be questioned and the more the demand to build something different will escalate. Radical as opposed to band-aid reforms to patch up the financial system may seem more necessary.
The uneven development of capitalist practices throughout the world has produced, moreover, anti-capitalist movements all over the place. The state-centric economies of much of East Asia generate different discontents (as in Japan and China) compared to the churning anti-neoliberal struggles occurring throughout much of Latin America where the Bolivarian revolutionary movement of popular power exists in a peculiar relationship to capitalist class interests that have yet to be truly confronted. Differences over tactics and policies in response to the crisis among the states that make up the European Union are increasing even as a second attempt to come up with a unified EU constitution is under way. Revolutionary and resolutely anti-capitalist movements are also to be found, though not all of them are of a progressive sort, in many of the marginal zones of capitalism. Spaces have been opened up within which something radically different in terms of dominant social relations, ways of life, productive capacities, and mental conceptions of the world can flourish. This applies as much to the Taliban and to communist rule in Nepal as to the Zapatistas in Chiapas and indigenous movements in Bolivia, and the Maoist movements in rural India, even as they are worlds apart in objectives, strategies, and tactics.
The central problem is that in aggregate there is no resolute and sufficiently unified anti-capitalist movement that can adequately challenge the reproduction of the capitalist class and the perpetuation of its power on the world stage. Neither is there any obvious way to attack the bastions of privilege for capitalist elites or to curb their inordinate money power and military might. While openings exist towards some alternative social order, no one really knows where or what it is. But just because there is no political force capable of articulating let alone mounting such a program, this is no reason to hold back on outlining alternatives.
Lenin's famous question "what is to be done?" cannot be answered, to be sure, without some sense of who it is might do it where. But a global anti-capitalist movement is unlikely to emerge without some animating vision of what is to be done and why. A double blockage exists: the lack of an alternative vision prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative. How, then, can this blockage be transcended? The relation between the vision of what is to be done and why and the formation of a political movement across particular places to do it has to be turned into a spiral. Each has to reinforce the other if anything is actually to get done. Otherwise potential opposition will be forever locked down into a closed circle that frustrates all prospects for constructive change, leaving us vulnerable to perpetual future crises of capitalism with increasingly deadly results. Lenin's question demands an answer.
The central problem to be addressed is clear enough. Compound growth for ever is not possible and the troubles that have beset the world these last thirty years signal that a limit is looming to continuous capital accumulation that cannot be transcended except by creating fictions that cannot last. Add to this the facts that so many people in the world live in conditions of abject poverty, that environmental degradations are spiraling out of control, that human dignities are everywhere being offended even as the rich are piling up more and more wealth (the number of billionaires in India doubled last year from 27 to 52) under their command, and that the levers of political, institutional, judicial, military, and media power are under such tight but dogmatic political control as to be incapable of doing much more than perpetuating the status quo and frustrating discontent.
A revolutionary politics that can grasp the nettle of endless compound capital accumulation and eventually shut it down as the prime motor of human history requires a sophisticated understanding of how social change occurs. The failings of past endeavors to build a lasting socialism and communism have to be avoided and lessons from that immensely complicated history must be learned. Yet the absolute necessity for a coherent anti-capitalist revolutionary movement must also be recognized. The fundamental aim of that movement is to assume social command over both the production and distribution of surpluses.
We urgently need an explicit revolutionary theory suited to our times. I propose a "co-revolutionary theory" derived from an understanding of Marx's account of how capitalism arose out of feudalism. Social change arises through the dialectical unfolding of relations between seven moments within the body politic of capitalism viewed as an ensemble or assemblage of activities and practices:
a) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange, and consumption
b) relations to nature
c) social relations between people
d) mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs
e) labor processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services, or affects
f) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements
g) the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.
Each one of these moments is internally dynamic and internally marked by tensions and contradictions (just think of mental conceptions of the world) but all of them are co-dependent and co-evolve in relation to each other. The transition to capitalism entailed a mutually supporting movement across all seven moments. New technologies could not be identified and practices without new mental conceptions of the world (including that of the relation to nature and social relations). Social theorists have the habit of taking just one of these moments and viewing it as the "silver bullet" that causes all change. We have technological determinists (Tom Friedman), environmental determinists (Jared Diamond), daily life determinists (Paul Hawken), labor process determinists (the autonomistas), institutionalists, and so on and so forth. They are all wrong. It is the dialectical motion across all of these moments that really counts even as there is uneven development in that motion.
When capitalism itself undergoes one of its phases of renewal, it does so precisely by co-evolving all moments, obviously not without tensions, struggles, fights, and contradictions. But consider how these seven moments were configured around 1970 before the neoliberal surge and consider how they look now, and you will see they have all changed in ways that re-define the operative characteristics of capitalism viewed as a non-Hegelian totality.
An anti-capitalist political movement can start anywhere (in labor processes, around mental conceptions, in the relation to nature, in social relations, in the design of revolutionary technologies and organizational forms, out of daily life, or through attempts to reform institutional and administrative structures including the reconfiguration of state powers). The trick is to keep the political movement moving from one moment to another in mutually reinforcing ways. This was how capitalism arose out of feudalism and this is how something radically different called communism, socialism, or whatever must arise out of capitalism. Previous attempts to create a communist or socialist alternative fatally failed to keep the dialectic between the different moments in motion and failed to embrace the unpredictabilities and uncertainties in the dialectical movement between them. Capitalism has survived precisely by keeping the dialectical movement between the moments going and constructively embracing the inevitable tensions, including crises, that result.
Change arises, of course, out of an existing state of affairs and it has to harness the possibilities immanent within an existing situation. Since the existing situation varies enormously from Nepal, to the Pacific regions of Bolivia, to the deindustrializing cities of Michigan and the still booming cities of Mumbai and Shanghai and the shaken but by no means destroyed financial centers of New York and London, so all manner of experiments in social change in different places and at different geographical scales are both likely and potentially illuminating as ways to make (or not make) another world possible. And in each instance it may seem as if one or other aspect of the existing situation holds the key to a different political future. But the first rule for a global anti-capitalist movement must be: never rely on the unfolding dynamics of one moment without carefully calibrating how relations with all the others are adapting and reverberating.
Feasible future possibilities arise out of the existing state of relations between the different moments. Strategic political interventions within and across the spheres can gradually move the social order onto a different developmental path. This is what wise leaders and forward-looking institutions do all the time in local situations, so there is no reason to think there is anything particularly fantastic or utopian about acting in this way. The left has to look to build alliances between and across those working in the distinctive spheres. An anti-capitalist movement has to be far broader than groups mobilizing around social relations or over questions of daily life in themselves. Traditional hostilities between, for example, those with technical, scientific, and administrative expertise and those animating social movements on the ground have to be addressed and overcome. We now have to hand, in the example of the climate change movement, a significant example of how such alliances can begin to work.
In this instance the relation to nature is the beginning point, but everyone realizes that something has to give on all the other moments, and while there is a wishful politics that wants to see the solution as purely technological, it becomes clearer by the day that daily life, mental conceptions, institutional arrangements, production processes, and social relations have to be involved. And all of that means a movement to restructure capitalist society as a whole and to confront the growth logic that underlies the problem in the first place.
There have, however, to be some loosely agreed-upon common objectives in any transitional movement. Some general guiding norms can be set down. These might include (and I just float these norms here for discussion) respect for nature, radical egalitarianism in social relations, institutional arrangements based in some sense of common interests and common property, democratic administrative procedures (as opposed to the monetized shams that now exist), labor processes organized by the direct producers, daily life as the free exploration of new kinds of social relations and living arrangements, mental conceptions that focus on self-realization in service to others, and technological and organizational innovations oriented to the pursuit of the common good rather than to supporting militarized power, surveillance, and corporate greed. These could be the co-revolutionary points around which social action could converge and rotate. Of course this is utopian! But so what! We cannot afford not to be.
Let me detail one particular aspect of the problem which arises in the place where I work. Ideas have consequences and false ideas can have devastating consequences. Policy failures based on erroneous economic thinking played a crucial role in both the run-up to the debacle of the 1930s and in the seeming inability to find an adequate way out. Though there is no agreement among historians and economists as to exactly what policies failed, it is agreed that the knowledge structure through which the crisis was understood needed to be revolutionized. Keynes and his colleagues accomplished that task. But by the mid-1970s, it became clear that the Keynesian policy tools were no longer working at least in the way they were being applied, and it was in this context that monetarism, supply-side theory, and the (beautiful) mathematical modeling of micro-economic market behaviors supplanted broad-brush macro-economic Keynesian thinking. The monetarist and narrower neoliberal theoretical frame that dominated after 1980 is now in question. In fact it has disastrously failed.
We need new mental conceptions to understand the world. What might these be and who will produce them, given both the sociological and intellectual malaise that hangs over knowledge production and (equally important) dissemination more generally? The deeply entrenched mental conceptions associated with neoliberal theories and the neoliberalization and corporatization of the universities and the media has played more than a trivial role in the production of the present crisis. For example, the whole question of what to do about the financial system, the banking sector, the state-finance nexus, and the power of private property rights cannot be broached without going outside of the box of conventional thinking. For this to happen will require a revolution in thinking, in places as diverse as the universities, the media, and government as well as within the financial institutions themselves.
Karl Marx, while not in any way inclined to embrace philosophical idealism, held that ideas are a material force in history. Mental conceptions constitute, after all, one of the seven moments in his general theory of co-revolutionary change. Autonomous developments and inner conflicts over what mental conceptions shall become hegemonic therefore have an important historical role to play. It was for this reason that Marx (along with Engels) wrote The Communist Manifesto, Capital, and innumerable other works. These works provide a systematic critique, albeit incomplete, of capitalism and its crisis tendencies. But as Marx also insisted, it was only when these critical ideas carried over into the fields of institutional arrangements, organizational forms, production systems, daily life, social relations, technologies, and relations to nature that the world would truly change.
Since Marx's goal was to change the world and not merely to understand it, ideas had to be formulated with a certain revolutionary intent. This inevitably meant a conflict with modes of thought more convivial to and useful for the ruling class. The fact that Marx's oppositional ideas, particularly in recent years, have been the target of repeated repressions and exclusions (to say nothing of bowdlerizations and misrepresentations galore) suggests that his ideas may be too dangerous for the ruling classes to tolerate. While Keynes repeatedly avowed that he had never read Marx, he was surrounded and influenced in the 1930s by many people (like his economist colleague Joan Robinson) who had. While many of them objected vociferously to Marx's foundational concepts and his dialectical mode of reasoning, they were acutely aware of and deeply affected by some of his more prescient conclusions. It is fair to say, I think, that the Keynesian theory revolution could not have been accomplished without the subversive presence of Marx lurking in the wings.
The trouble in these times is that most people have no idea who Keynes was and what he really stood for while the knowledge of Marx is negligible. The repression of critical and radical currents of thought, or to be more exact the corralling of radicalism within the bounds of multiculturalism, identity politics, and cultural choice, creates a lamentable situation within the academy and beyond, no different in principle to having to ask the bankers who made the mess to clean it up with exactly the same tools as they used to get into it. Broad adhesion to post-modern and post-structuralist ideas which celebrate the particular at the expense of big-picture thinking does not help. To be sure, the local and the particular are vitally important and theories that cannot embrace, for example, geographical difference, are worse than useless. But when that fact is used to exclude anything larger than parish politics then the betrayal of the intellectuals and abrogation of their traditional role become complete.
The current populations of academicians, intellectuals, and experts in the social sciences and humanities are by and large ill-equipped to undertake the collective task of revolutionizing our knowledge structures. They have, in fact, been deeply implicated in the construction of the new systems of neoliberal governmentality that evade questions of legitimacy and democracy and foster a technocratic authoritarian politics. Few seem predisposed to engage in self-critical reflection. Universities continue to promote the same useless courses on neo-classical economic or rational choice political theory as if nothing has happened and the vaunted business schools simply add a course or two on business ethics or how to make money out of other people's bankruptcies. After all, the crisis arose out of human greed and there is nothing that can be done about that!
The current knowledge structure is clearly dysfunctional and equally clearly illegitimate. The only hope is that a new generation of perceptive students (in the broad sense of all those who seek to know the world) will clearly see it so and insist upon changing it. This happened in the 1960s. At various other critical points in history student-inspired movements, recognizing the disjunction between what is happening in the world and what they are being taught and fed by the media, were prepared to do something about it. There are signs, from Tehran to Athens and onto many European university campuses of such a movement. How the new generation of students in China will act must surely be of deep concern in the corridors of political power in Beijing.
A student-led and youthful revolutionary movement, with all of its evident uncertainties and problems, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to produce that revolution in mental conceptions that can lead us to a more rational solution to the current problems of endless growth.
What, more broadly, would happen if an anti-capitalist movement were constituted out of a broad alliance of the alienated, the discontented, the deprived, and the dispossessed? The image of all such people everywhere rising up and demanding and achieving their proper place in economic, social, and political life is stirring indeed. It also helps focus on the question of what it is they might demand and what it is that needs to be done.
Revolutionary transformations cannot be accomplished without at the very minimum changing our ideas, abandoning cherished beliefs and prejudices, giving up various daily comforts and rights, submitting to some new daily life regimen, changing our social and political roles, reassigning our rights, duties, and responsibilities, and altering our behaviors to better conform to collective needs and a common will. The world around us -- our geographies -- must be radically re-shaped as must our social relations, the relation to nature, and all of the other moments in the co-revolutionary process. It is understandable, to some degree, that many prefer a politics of denial to a politics of active confrontation with all of this.
It would also be comforting to think that all of this could be accomplished pacifically and voluntarily, that we would dispossess ourselves, strip ourselves bare, as it were, of all that we now possess that stands in the way of the creation of a more socially just, steady-state social order. But it would be disingenuous to imagine that this could be so, that no active struggle will be involved, including some degree of violence. Capitalism came into the world, as Marx once put it, bathed in blood and fire. Although it might be possible to do a better job of getting out from under it than getting into it, the odds are heavily against any purely pacific passage to the promised land.
There are various broad fractious currents of thought on the left as to how to address the problems that now confront us. There is, first of all, the usual sectarianism stemming from the history of radical action and the articulations of left political theory. Curiously, the one place where amnesia is not so prevalent is within the left (the splits between anarchists and Marxists that occurred back in the 1870s, between Trotskyists, Maoists, and orthodox Communists, between the centralizers who want to command the state and the anti-statist autonomists and anarchists). The arguments are so bitter and so fractious as to sometimes make one think that more amnesia might be a good thing. But beyond these traditional revolutionary sects and political factions, the whole field of political action has undergone a radical transformation since the mid-1970s. The terrain of political struggle and of political possibilities has shifted, both geographically and organizationally.
There are now vast numbers of non-governmental organizations (NGO's) that play a political role that was scarcely visible before the mid-1970s. Funded by both state and private interests, populated often by idealist thinkers and organizers (they constitute a vast employment program), and for the most part dedicated to single-issue questions (environment, poverty, women's rights, anti-slavery and trafficking work, etc), they refrain from straight anti-capitalist politics even as they espouse progressive ideas and causes. In some instances, however, they are actively neoliberal, engaging in privatization of state welfare functions or fostering institutional reforms to facilitate market integration of marginalized populations (microcredit and microfinance schemes for low-income populations are a classic example of this).
While there are many radical and dedicated practitioners in this NGO world, their work is at best ameliorative. Collectively, they have a spotty record of progressive achievements, although in certain arenas, such as women's rights, health care, and environmental preservation, they can reasonably claim to have made major contributions to human betterment. But revolutionary change by NGO is impossible. They are too constrained by the political and policy stances of their donors. So even though, in supporting local empowerment, they help open up spaces where anti-capitalist alternatives become possible and even support experimentation with such alternatives, they do nothing to prevent the re-absorption of these alternatives into the dominant capitalist practice: they even encourage it. The collective power of NGOs in these times is reflected in the dominant role they play in the World Social Forum, where attempts to forge a global justice movement, a global alternative to neoliberalism, have been concentrated over the last ten years.
The second broad wing of opposition arises out of anarchist, autonomist, and grassroots organizations (GROs) which refuse outside funding even as some of them do rely upon some alternative institutional base (such as the Catholic Church with its "base community" initiatives in Latin America or broader church sponsorship of political mobilization in the inner cities of the United States). This group is far from homogeneous (indeed there are bitter disputes among them pitting, for example, social anarchists against those they scathingly refer to as mere "lifestyle" anarchists). There is, however, a common antipathy to negotiation with state power and an emphasis upon civil society as the sphere where change can be accomplished. The self-organizing powers of people in the daily situations in which they live has to be the basis for any anti-capitalist alternative. Horizontal networking is their preferred organizing model. So-called "solidarity economies" based on bartering, collectives, and local production systems is their preferred political economic form. They typically oppose the idea that any central direction might be necessary and reject hierarchical social relations or hierarchical political power structures along with conventional political parties. Organizations of this sort can be found everywhere and in some places have achieved a high degree of political prominence. Some of them are radically anti-capitalist in their stance and espouse revolutionary objectives and in some instances are prepared to advocate sabotage and other forms of disruption (shades of the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader Meinhof in Germany, and the Weather Underground in the United States in the 1970s). But the effectiveness of all these movements (leaving aside their more violent fringes) is limited by their reluctance and inability to scale up their activism into large-scale organizational forms capable of confronting global problems. The presumption that local action is the only meaningful level of change and that anything that smacks of hierarchy is anti-revolutionary is self-defeating when it comes to larger questions. Yet these movements are unquestionably providing a widespread base for experimentation with anti-capitalist politics.
The third broad trend is given by the transformation that has been occurring in traditional labor organizing and left political parties, varying from social democratic traditions to more radical Trotskyist and Communist forms of political party organization. This trend is not hostile to the conquest of state power or hierarchical forms of organization. Indeed, it regards the latter as necessary to the integration of political organization across a variety of political scales. In the years when social democracy was hegemonic in Europe and even influential in the United States, state control over the distribution of the surplus became a crucial tool to diminish inequalities. The failure to take social control over the production of surpluses and thereby really challenge the power of the capitalist class was the Achilles heel of this political system, but we should not forget the advances that it made even if it is now clearly insufficient to go back to such a political model with its social welfarism and Keynesian economics. The Bolivarian movement in Latin America and the ascent to state power of progressive social democratic governments is one of the most hopeful signs of a resuscitation of a new form of left statism.
Both organized labor and left political parties have taken some hard hits in the advanced capitalist world over the last thirty years. Both have either been convinced or coerced into broad support for neoliberalization, albeit with a somewhat more human face. One way to look upon neoliberalism, as was earlier noted, is as a grand and quite revolutionary movement (led by that self-proclaimed revolutionary figure, Margaret Thatcher) to privatize the surpluses or at least prevent their further socialization.
While there are some signs of recovery of both labor organizing and left politics (as opposed to the "third way" celebrated by New Labor in Britain under Tony Blair and disastrously copied by many social democratic parties in Europe) along with signs of the emergence of more radical political parties in different parts of the world, the exclusive reliance upon a vanguard of workers is now in question as is the ability of those leftist parties that gain some access to political power to have a substantive impact upon the development of capitalism and to cope with the troubled dynamics of crisis-prone accumulation. The performance of the German Green Party in power has hardly been stellar relative to their political stance out of power and social democratic parties have lost their way entirely as a true political force. But left political parties and labor unions are significant still, and their takeover of aspects of state power, as with the Workers' Party in Brazil or the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, has had a clear impact on left thinking, not only in Latin America. The complicated problem of how to interpret the role of the Communist Party in China, with its exclusive control over political power, and what its future policies might be about is not easily resolved either.
The co-revolutionary theory earlier laid out would suggest that there is no way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing state power, radically transforming it, and re-working the constitutional and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the market system, and endless capital accumulation. Inter-state competition and geoeconomic and geopolitical struggles over everything from trade and money to questions of hegemony are also far too significant to be left to local social movements or cast aside as too big to contemplate. How the architecture of the state-finance nexus is to be re-worked along with the pressing question of the common measure of value given by money cannot be ignored in the quest to construct alternatives to capitalist political economy. To ignore the state and the dynamics of the inter-state system is therefore a ridiculous idea for any anti-capitalist revolutionary movement to accept.
The fourth broad trend is constituted by all the social movements that are not so much guided by any particular political philosophy or leanings but by the pragmatic need to resist displacement and dispossession (through gentrification, industrial development, dam construction, water privatization, the dismantling of social services and public educational opportunities, or whatever). In this instance the focus on daily life in the city, town, village, or wherever provides a material base for political organizing against the threats that state policies and capitalist interests invariably pose to vulnerable populations. These forms of protest politics are massive.
Again, there is a vast array of social movements of this sort, some of which can become radicalized over time as they more and more realize that the problems are systemic rather than particular and local. The bringing together of such social movements into alliances on the land (like the Via Campesina, the landless peasant movement in Brazil, or peasants mobilizing against land and resource grabs by capitalist corporations in India) or in urban contexts (the right to the city and take back the land movements in Brazil and now the United States) suggests the way may be open to create broader alliances to discuss and confront the systemic forces that underpin the particularities of gentrification, dam construction, privatization, or whatever. More pragmatic rather than driven by ideological preconceptions, these movements nevertheless can arrive at systemic understandings out of their own experience. To the degree that many of them exist in the same space, such as within the metropolis, they can (as supposedly happened with the factory workers in the early stages of the industrial revolution) make common cause and begin to forge, on the basis of their own experience, a consciousness of how capitalism works and what it is that might collectively be done. This is the terrain where the figure of the "organic intellectual" leader, made so much of in Antonio Gramsci's work, the autodidact who comes to understand the world firsthand through bitter experiences but shapes his or her understanding of capitalism more generally, has a great deal to say. To listen to peasant leaders of the MST in Brazil or the leaders of the anti-corporate land grab movement in India is a privileged education. In this instance the task of the educated alienated and discontented is to magnify the subaltern voice so that attention can be paid to the circumstances of exploitation and repression and the answers that can be shaped into an anti-capitalist program.
The fifth epicenter for social change lies with the emancipatory movements around questions of identity -- women, children, gays, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities all demand an equal place in the sun -- along with the vast array of environmental movements that are not explicitly anti-capitalist. The movements claiming emancipation on each of these issues are geographically uneven and often geographically divided in terms of needs and aspirations. But global conferences on women's rights (Nairobi in 1985 that led to the Beijing declaration of 1995) and anti-racism (the far more contentious conference in Durban in 2001) are attempting to find common ground, as is true also of the environmental conferences, and there is no question that social relations are changing along all of these dimensions at least in some parts of the world. When cast in narrow essentialist terms, these movements can appear to be antagonistic to class struggle. Certainly within much of the academy they have taken priority of place at the expense of class analysis and political economy. But the feminization of the global labor force, the feminization of poverty almost everywhere, and the use of gender disparities as a means of labor control make the emancipation and eventual liberation of women from their repressions a necessary condition for class struggle to sharpen its focus. The same observation applies to all the other identity forms where discrimination or outright repression can be found. Racism and the oppression of women and children were foundational in the rise of capitalism. But capitalism as currently constituted can in principle survive without these forms of discrimination and oppression, though its political ability to do so will be severely curtailed if not mortally wounded in the face of a more unified class force. The modest embrace of multiculturalism and women's rights within the corporate world, particularly in the United States, provides some evidence of capitalism's accommodation to these dimensions of social change (including the environment), even as it re-emphasizes the salience of class divisions as the principle dimension for political action.
These five broad tendencies are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive of organizational templates for political action. Some organizations neatly combine aspects of all five tendencies. But there is a lot of work to be done to coalesce these various tendencies around the underlying question: can the world change materially, socially, mentally, and politically in such a way as to confront not only the dire state of social and natural relations in so many parts of the world, but also the perpetuation of endless compound growth? This is the question that the alienated and discontented must insist upon asking, again and again, even as they learn from those who experience the pain directly and who are so adept at organizing resistances to the dire consequences of compound growth on the ground.
Communists, Marx and Engels averred in their original conception laid out in The Communist Manifesto, have no political party. They simply constitute themselves at all times and in all places as those who understand the limits, failings, and destructive tendencies of the capitalist order as well as the innumerable ideological masks and false legitimations that capitalists and their apologists (particularly in the media) produce in order to perpetuate their singular class power. Communists are all those who work incessantly to produce a different future to that which capitalism portends. This is an interesting definition. While traditional institutionalized communism is as good as dead and buried, there are by this definition millions of de facto communists active among us, willing to act upon their understandings, ready to creatively pursue anti-capitalist imperatives. If, as the alternative globalization movement of the late 1990s declared, 'another world is possible' then why not also say 'another communism is possible'? The current circumstances of capitalist development demand something of this sort, if fundamental change is to be achieved.
In December 2008 the Financial Times spoke of an irony of history if the Communist Party of China (CPC), that had survived the collapse of the socialist Eastern Block in 1989 (and the social upheaval of Tian'anmen), would collapse through the events that come along with the global crisis of capitalism in 2009.1 Another commentator said, China's politicians, faced with a possible social explosion of workers, peasants and unemployed, were already in a "state of panic".2 But this is not just about China and the rule of the CPC. The question is whether the current crisis and subsequent social turnover can lead to the formation of a global working class that can finish off the capitalist mode of production world-wide. For any answer to that question class struggles in China play an important role.
China is still the biggest country in the world, with 1.3 billion people, and by now the third biggest economy. Through the opening and industrialization of the 1980s and 90s China became the "assembly line of the world", is part of global chains of production and circulation, and acts as a "global player" in investment and credit.
Over the past 20 years the immense process of industrialization has pulled millions of migrant workers from the countryside into the cities and special economic zones where they work in factories, on construction sites, as domestic helpers etc. After 2003 their struggles have gained momentum and put the regime of the communist party under pressure. The current global crisis is overturning the social relations in China again. The communist party is trying to deal with the effects. If it fails that might weaken and possibly decompose the regime and the rule of capital in China, with important consequences for the rest of the world.
This article describes the interrelation of crisis and class struggle in China in the past two decades and the current development. It focuses on the situation in the cities, especially that of the migrant workers.
Crisis and Struggles
The rise of China, the industrialization and the migration of millions to the cities are results of at least two processes of capitalist crisis and class struggle. After the cycle of struggles in the late 1960s and early 70s in the industrial centers of Europe, America and beyond, capital was looking for profitable investment opportunities world-wide. It invested in so-called newly industrializing countries where it exploited the "cheap" labor. Still in the 1980s, it was faced with successful workers' struggles for higher wages and better living conditions, for instance in Brazil and South Korea. In the early 1990s, capital was again searching for "cheap" labor, trying to escape the workers' struggles in the newly industrializing countries through another "spacial fix" (David Harvey).3 So China's migrant workers came along at the right moment.
At the same time, the Chinese regime was in a situation where it needed foreign capital: At the end of the 1980s China had seen a cycle of struggles.4 The urban working class had hardly benefited from the reforms of the early 1980s. The restructuring and intensification of work in the state combines, unemployment and inflation had hit it hard and produced resentment and strikes. In 1989 this culminated in the Tian'anmen-movement, started and lead by the students of Beijing, but supported and pushed by the anger of the urban population. Many Chinese cities saw revolts, demonstrations and some attempts to form independent workers organizations. The regime sent in the military to slaughter the movement. At the same time it realized that the reforms had not lead to substantial economic improvements and that further crises would lead to new social turmoil. Subsequently, after 1992 it further opened the borders for foreign investments and imports of technology, created new special economic zones, supported the private economy and subsidized the process of further industrialization. The urban working class, as well as the peasants and the new migrant workers, were held under police surveillance.5 From other regions, above all from the "Tiger states" and South East Asia, consumer goods industries were relocated to China. The construction of the "assembly line of the world" had begun.
From the mid-1990s up to the early part of this decade it was the struggles of the old urban working class that played the dominant role. Even during the industrialization of China's sunbelt, in the rustbelt of the old state industries masses of capital were wiped out and whole regions were thrown into one crisis after the other. The workers fought against the destruction of the socialist industrial combines and for their wages and social benefits – with strikes, company occupations and revolts. They could not stop the process but just slow it down: 50 million workers (40 percent) lost their job through the restructuring and mass redundancies. Many of them are part of the urban poor proletariat today.6
From the early 1990s on, the boom and the proletarianization of large parts of young people from the countryside led to the formation of a new working class of migrant workers. Their number increased constantly, today there are about 150 to 200 million. Because of the so-called household registration laws (hukou) they cannot settle down in the cities permanently and get only temporary residence and work permits for a city, a situation somehow similar to non-European migrants in the European Union. In this decade the second generation of migrants is pushing into the cities. They compare their own life with that of other urban dwellers and usually do not want to return to the countryside permanently (different from the first generation before). Since they see their future in the cities, they lease off or sell the piece of land they are entitled to farm in the village.7
From 2003 onwards, roughly 10 years after the beginning of the industrialization thrust, the number of struggles of migrant workers increased steadily, struggles against the horrendous working conditions, for improvements and higher wages, for their share of the fruits of the boom. The second generation organized petitions, rallies, strikes, slow-downs, demonstrations and riots. They put pressure on the foreign and Chinese factory bosses and gained higher wages in the export zones.
The symptoms of the current crisis (credit crunch, lower US-consumption, less orders, drop of world trade...) lead to lay-offs and social conflicts, and they interfere with developments that started earlier. After 2006 the increasing industrial wages, the high demand for energy, raw materials and food, as well as the slow appreciation of the Yuan in comparison to the US-Dollar produced substantial price increases – and therefore higher production costs and a profit squeeze. At the same time, discontent with low wages and later rising prices lead to a sharp increase of migrant workers' struggles. The government could do nothing but regularly increase the minimum wage. There were already first attempts of a new "spatial fix": Starting in 2007 more and more factories were closed or relocated – as a reaction to the rising costs and wages. For instance, parts of the textile and other consumer good industries went to the Chinese hinterland or to Vietnam (where the number of factory workers' struggles increased).
Meanwhile, the capitalists' systematic ignorance of the Chinese labor law increasingly threatened the legitimation of the CPC-regime. The Chinese central government has tried for years to defuse the social conflicts around the migration of workers, through direct state intervention during strikes, a system of grievance and mediation, through the flexible usage of the labor laws and the organization of migrant workers by the state unions. Since 2003 the government holds up the slogan of a "harmonious society" to mobilize workers and peasants for the construction of a "socialist market economy" – with little success: The situation of the workers is too precarious, their expectations too big, and many are not satisfied with getting the bread crumbs anymore.
The government introduced a new Labor Contract Law in January 2008, which complemented the 1995 Labor Law with some sanctioning mechanisms. When it was implemented Chinese and foreign companies in the low wage sectors laid off workers to prevent their permanent employment, others announced the closure and relocation of their factories. Many workers tried to use the new legal framework and demanded work contracts and wage rises. Activists from the Pearl River-Delta reported in early 2008 that there was an increase in conflicts around the new law.8
The Current Crisis
In summer 2008 people in China's ruling class still thought that the global crisis would not hit their country and the Chinese economy would have enough of its own dynamic thrust and could stay unaffected from the slump in the USA.9 Paradoxically, after the first culmination of the crisis Western apologists of capital counted on the "Chinese solution", too, i.e. the usage of China's currency reserves and the power of the Chinese economic miracle. The dream of China's own dynamic burst, and the hopes in the West on China (and the other BRIC-states Brazil, Russia and India) dashed quickly. The high export quota of the Chinese manufacturing sector – with the EU, USA, Japan and the "Tiger states" as the main trade partners – makes the Chinese economy crisis-prone.10 That was confirmed in the fall of 2008: drop of economic growth, drop of the growth of manufacturing, decline of exports, decline of investments, decline of energy consumption, decline of state revenue. All that after 15 years of boom with annual growth rates of 10 percent on average.11 Since Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam are also hit by the crisis, the trade between those countries collapsed. Furthermore, still in fall 2008, China's real estate bubble burst as well.
Within the CPC there is no consistent position on the crisis. Repeatedly conflicts arose between those who want to use the crisis to modernize the economy, at the risk of new social turmoil (the governments of the rich provinces like Guangdong and Shanghai) and those who want to protect the China-model (export factories for cheap consumer goods), hoping that the social situation will stay calm (the central government).12 When in the fall of 2008 the symptoms of crisis became more visible, some saw that as a chance: The provincial government of Guangdong talked about the possible closure of weak and small firms in the course of the crisis which would support the process of restructuring and upgrading of industries in the Pearl River-delta. The Guangdong government wants a further outward relocation of the production of cheap consumer goods and the extension of hi-tech and capital goods industries in the region.13
The threat of company closures and relocations, complaints of managers about high wages and the new Labor Contract Law, all that started before the global crisis hit (see above). Now capitalists use the crisis – whether it affects them or not. They lower the wages, close factories or relocate them, cash in state subsidies and enforce labor conditions below the legal standard.14 A representative of the employers association of Guangzhou demanded that the central government helps small and medium-sized firms to survive the recession by introducing less rigorous rules. He talked about the slackening of the labor laws.15 And in fact, in January 2009 industrialists reported that the compliance with the 2008 Labor Contract Law was hardly controlled nor was it enforced.16 A labor activist said that the government wants factories to survive and stay, and that is why they ignore the problems at the workplaces.17
The regime has prohibited a further increase of the minimum wage by the regional governments in 2009. It wants to prevent further wage hikes (after years of considerable increases). Many big companies have already announced wage cuts, with government consent. At the end of January a government speaker said that the Chinese companies should do everything to avoid lay-offs.18
In November 2008 activists and migrant workers in the Pearl River-Delta spoke about underemployment and lay-offs, especially in the textile and toy sector.19 Workers with limited contracts were fired, core workforces were kept but could not work overtime and often did not have regular working hours. Some were asked to take unlimited and unpaid vacation.20
There are no reliable numbers on the extent of redundancies and the return migration of workers to the countryside. In November 2008 some provinces were preparing for waves of returnees (Hubei, Chongqing, Anhui), but officials in Guangdong denied that there was such wave. Some migrants were returning to the countryside – a number of 5 to 10 percent of all migrant workers was mentioned. In mid-January 2009 the Ministry of Labor announced that 10 million migrant workers had lost their jobs, in early February the number was raised to 20 million.21
While in late summer 2008 the crisis started to unfold, further struggles broke out. The actions of taxi drivers and teachers were interesting because struggles in one province provoked other conflicts in different parts of the country (copycat-effect). At the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 there were workers' rallies and riots in the industrial export zones in the Pearl River- and Yangtze-delta. The conflicts had changed in comparison to the events before: They were not so much about wage increases, better conditions in the dormitories, compliance with the labor laws, better canteen food etc., but more than before about the payment of back-wages and compensations for lay-offs. The construction sector also saw demonstrations.22 Witnesses confirm that from the fall of 2008 on there were more labor conflicts than before. Even a representative of the state union ACFTU admitted that the number of labor struggles in China had increased with the global financial crisis. Still, there are no exact and reliable numbers.23
In the face of a possible economic collapse and social explosion the regime of the CPC had to react again. China has a long history of similar situations: During crisis rulers were kicked off the throne by social (peasant-) movements, especially when the movements joined forces with intellectuals and civil servants. Now the rule of the CPC is threatening to go under in the current crisis.
Internally, in China, the regime acts as if it was still in control of the situation. It describes the crisis as temporary, it says it will last for half a year. Unemployment and other results of the crisis threaten "social stability" and the government would take the right economic and police measures. Reports on concrete cases of labor struggles are further censored or repressed.24
Externally, towards the outside world, reports on possible unrest of unemployed migrant workers are indeed in the interest of the government. Social turmoil in China is a nightmare for the ruling classes elsewhere, too. The Chinese government uses this threat when the US-government or others demand a drastic appreciation of the Yuan.
In order to prevent a further spread of struggles the state has in recent weeks directly intervened in industrial conflicts on back wages and compensations and paid the money itself. Many cities and industrial zones have set up special funds to save companies on the verge of bankruptcy, avoid redundancies and pay off back wages. In some cities migrant workers get financial support if they leave the city. The state pumps 4 billion yuan (500 billion Euros, 15 percent of China's GDP) in form of a stimulus program into infrastructure projects and residential construction to prevent the collapse of the construction sector, curb the unemployment and stop a further drop of economic growth.25 A growth rate of 8 percent a year is necessary to create enough employment for those people who are pushed into the labor market by population growth and migration from the villages into the cities. A growth rate below 6 percent is seen as critical.26 At the end of January 2009 the government announced it will introduce comprehensive medical care in 2011, with a funding of 850 billion yuan (about 100 billion Euros), again to defuse social explosions. Originally this was planned to happen in 2020.
The regime tries to buy time. It wants to protract the worsening of the crisis and, if possible, ensure a "soft landing". This is also to prevent a further deterioration of the situation of the migrant workers in the cities. A large part of them, especially in the factories and in construction, lives in dormitories owned by the companies and eats in company canteens. In case of mass redundancies these workers do not just lose their job but also their accommodation and catering. In mid-February, around the Chinese New Year, many migrant workers returned home for the festivities as every year. It is still unclear how things develop after their return. According to some reports many have difficulties in finding jobs, and wages have dropped.27 Some companies have returned to daily wages and day laborers.28 If the crisis continues and they do not find work in the cities they will realize that the boom is over and their lives will change dramatically. There are two scenarios:
a) The second generation of migrant workers does not want to live in the countryside anymore, or at least does not see its future there. So they could stay in the cities and, if unemployed, would have to search for alternatives for getting an income, accommodation and food, and possibly fight for and appropriate it. In many big cities they account for 30 to 80 percent of the population. Is there a chance for them to join forces with millions of urban poor who survive on petty trade and petty jobs?
b) The migrant workers could migrate back to their families in the villages where they still have the right to farm a piece of land. Maybe they will manage to get by with the money they saved, but without an urban wage the families will sooner or later run into financial problems. There are no jobs, no perspective, poverty and boredom.29 In the past few years the countryside has seen many revolts against corrupt cadres, land dispossessions and environmental contamination. Even now in many regions the small plots are not big enough to feed a whole family, and there is still a rural labor surplus. The planned state subsidies for education, school fees and the setting up of businesses will not change much. If the migrant workers return to the countryside in masses – a temporary reversal of 30 years of urbanization – that would create an explosive mix.30
Many experts foresee a recession in China with a growth rate of 5 to 7 percent, below the "critical" level. China might also see a wave of factory closures. One third of all export factories are expected to close in the next 3 years. An observer estimates that the number of unemployed migrant workers could reach 50 million this year. They are younger and more mobile than the urban workers who were laid off by the state combines at the end of the 90s, and they can communicate better and faster through the Internet and cell phones. Furthermore, he pointed to the millions of students leaving the universities every year without finding a job and referred to a similar situation before the Tian'anmen-movement in 1989, when the students played a central role (this year will be the 20th anniversary.) As a possible fuse for a social explosion he mentions "the death of a popular leader, a serious natural disaster, the spread of a deathly infectious disease, a small student demonstration turned violent, religious groups...". A scenario as in Greece at the end of 2008 when the cops shot a young guy and triggered off days of massive rioting?31
For sure the crisis took the migrant workers in China by surprise since before they had not experienced long phases of unemployment and recession. But in recent years they have gained experience in struggles, in everyday forms of resistance, strikes, and self-organizing. Activists from their ranks have come up, spreading these experiences and using it in new struggles. They know the complicity of capitalists and cadres, the confrontation with security guards and riot cops. The migrant workers make their demands, often in a self-confident manner. They take their experiences with them, it will be part of the formation of a new social composition that comes with the crisis.
A decisive factor will be what China's "middle class" will do. It constitutes the main social pillar for the CPC-rule, but was already hit by the crisis since it lost a lot of money through the crashes of the stock market and the real estate market. Many of its children finish university and do not find a job. There were already actions of unhappy shareholders and shop owners. Can "middle-class" conflicts come together with proletarian of peasant struggles (as in Argentina 2002)? The government emphasizes the threat of "social instability" through unemployed migrant workers and whips up the intellectuals' and the "middle class'" fear of the "mob", in order to prevent a possible alliance.32
The regime still tries to avoid any blood-shed. During conflicts in the Pearl River-delta in December 2008 the police stayed back, made photos and arrested some participantsafterwards.33 It is the old game: The CPC makes sure that some demands are fulfilled and arrests the alleged "ring leaders". As long as the struggles stay isolated, that strategy might work. In case of a wave of unrest, the regime will have to change its course.34
Parts of the left in Europe, the USA and elsewhere project their hopes on the new working class in China and see the conflicts in the fall of 2008 and later as the harbinger of a new broad class movement. We cannot foresee the dimension and importance of the coming struggles in China. The workers are still in the course of understanding the situation and trying to deal with it. There is a chance that mass redundancies in industrial zones and crisis slumps in rural areas will lead to mass revolts, but it is also possible that the rural subsistence economy together with the migrants' savings will cushion the impact of the crisis... at least for some time.
A social escalation in the export zones would have global effects, not only in the old industrial countries. Chinas cheap consumer goods were one precondition for the casualization of big numbers of workers, since that casualization could be carried out without a dramatic drop in the standard of living. The crisis, the collapse of international trade and the struggles of the workers in China could now bring about a lowering of the standard of living and an aggravation of the social situation to many countries of the world... and an increase in working class struggles there.
Central sectors like the auto industry, the chemical industry and machine-building have heavily invested in China and are closely connected to the Chinese economy through global production chains. In case of struggles in China the impact will be felt in those industrial sectors, with further attacks on the conditions and wages of workers and possibly mass redundancies.
And finally, if the economic framework between the USA and China ("Bretton Woods II")35 – backbone and Achilles' heel of the global economic and monetary structure – will collapse due to the credit crisis and the decline in US-consumption or because of workers' struggles in China, then we might see global dislocations which go far beyond what we have seen so far: breakdown of the Dollar and the global currency system, bankruptcy of the hegemonic power USA, long-term collapse of world trade, increasing military confrontations and more.
What Is To Be Done?
We should follow the developments in China in order to understand them and add the experiences to debates of new class movements elsewhere. We need to identify and underline the global context of crisis and struggles. Furthermore, we need to undermine bourgeois interpretations of crisis and nationalist tendencies. Strategies of fear (of crisis) are already being used to prepare us for the further tightening of our belts. We are told to be afraid of strangers and foreigners, like the "cheap Chinese who steal our jobs and are responsible for the price hikes". We have to emphasize the chances for social change that arise in the crisis and the struggles, and the importance of a common learning process of proletarians around the world. The circulation of struggles and the appearance of social networks can contribute to the formation of a working class on a global level. We still seem to be quite far away – so wide are the differences of living conditions world-wide – but this is the right direction if we want to finish off capitalism, in China and everywhere: Only a global class movement has the power to break the capitalist logic of crisis and create a new society based on solidarity not profit.
March 8, 2009
1 Financial Times, December 16, 2008
2 International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2009
3 The "spacial fix" also seems the result of "inner-capitalist" competition, as Robert Brenner and others interpret it. But behind this competition lies the common interest of capitalists to intensify the conditions of exploitation and move to those regions which are most favorable to capital. As a trigger for the current crisis the "financial fix" plays a decisive role, too, the increasing financialization of capital since the 1970s, again a reaction to the lack of profitable investment opportunities in productive sectors.
4 The origins of the changes in China since the 1970s are complex: the social and political chaos of the Cultural Revolution, poverty and discontent among peasants and later urban workers, the removal of ideological Maoists by a layer of pragmatic party leaders, the social conflicts of the 1980s with their culmination during the Tian'anmen-movement 1989, the determination of the regime to prevent a collapse as in the Soviet Union, etc.
5 At the same time a reshaping of the social relations started, which was necessary with the dismantlement of the state combines. Part of it was the juridification of labor relations (union law, labor law, etc.).
6 See the supplement of the German magazine wildcat ("Unrest in China"). Three articles are available in English at prol-position.net: http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2008/10/chinas%20migrant%20workers (on migrant workers), http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2008/10/unhappy%20workers (on urban state workers) andhttp://www.prol-position.net/nl/2008/10/maoist%20patriarchy (on urban women workers). For the whole supplement (in German) see:http://www.gongchao.org/de/unruhen-heft.
7 This was "legalized" by the government in October 2008. It announced that the leasing and passing on of land rights would be allowed. This development seems to carry high risks since many migrant workers without land rights will have no chance to live off the land when unemployed of deported from the cities.
8 The Ministry of Labor and Social Security revealed that in the first six months of 2008 arbitrated labor disputes increased by 145 percent in Chongqing and 92.5 percent in Shanghai (Nanfang Zhoumo, July 31, 2008). In the same period, courts in Guangdong province received nearly 40,000 new labor dispute cases, a 157.7 percent increase from 2007, in which the Pearl River-delta area accounted for 96.5 percent of all cases ( China Daily, July 22, 2008, www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-07/22/content_6865144.htm). Between January and September 2008, labor arbitration departments in Beijing handled 32,954 labor disputes, up 104 percent from the same period in 2007 (see Beijing Review, January 20, 2009, www.bjreview.com.cn/nation/txt/2009-01/20/content_175296.htm).
9 Financial Times, December 16, 2008. That is astonishing since China's economic relations with the USA follow a pattern that is sometimes called "Bretton Woods II". It is a key element of the current crisis: Customers in the USA buy goods from Chinese companies and pay with US-Dollars which the sellers store in Chinese bank accounts. The banks pass the US-Dollars on to the Chinese central bank, which then uses the US-Dollars to buy US-American state bonds. After that the US-Dollars are passed on through the American bank system and end up as credits to American households. They use them to buy Chinese goods, etc. The result is an extreme current account surplus of China (exporting more than importing) and an extreme current account deficit of the USA (importing more than exporting). In other words: China produces much more than it consumes and the USA consumes much more than it produces... and the USA pays its consumption with money they have given China for its goods and then gotten back as credit.
10 The exports represent 40 percent of China's GDP, the export surplus is 12 percent (after 2 percent some years ago);http://cnreviews.com/china_economy/china_financial_crisis_20081125.html)
11 With a small dent during the Asian Crisis 1997/8. China got through that crisis nearly unharmed, because the Yuan was (and is) not convertible, because of a state stimulus program, and because China took advantage of the crisis of other Asian states.
12 Die Zeit writes about a conflict between the central government and the bosses of the provinces of Guangdong and Shanghai who opposed any state subsidies for the textile, toy and electronic industries (Die Zeit, February 5, 2009).
15 China Daily, November 11, 2008, www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2008-11/11/content_7191436.htm
17 The Straits Times, January 20, 2009
18 The Straits Times, January 20, 2009
19 See also South China Morning Post, November 17, 2008. Again, there are overlapping processes: The toy sector was hit by scandals around the usage of toxic materials, the textile sector saw the relocation of factories to Vietnam (see also China Labour Bulletin: Migrant workers worst hit by textile factory slowdown,www.clb.org.hk/en/node/100322).
20 Source: Talks with workers in China. Managers force workers to take "vacation", instead of firing them, because they expect workers to take a leave themselves which would save the company the compensation payment.
21 The number of unemployed in the cities has increased as well. Officially it is around 4.2 percent, but the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sees it around 9.4 percent (The Straits Times, January 20, 2009). That includes just people with an urban hukou (no migrant workers). Unemployment on the countryside is estimated to be around 20 percent (Washington Post, January 13, 2009, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/12/AR2009011203014.html)
23 Chinacsr.com, January 13, 2009, www.chinacsr.com/en/2009/01/13/4173-acftu-campaigns-for-chinese-workers-back-pay/ The government has stopped to regularly publish the numbers of social unrest some years ago.
24 The Sunday Times wrote on February 1, 2009, that in Linfen, Shanxi, TV-journalists were sacked after they tried to report on a factory occupation of 6,000 textile workers:http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/economics/article5627687.ece.
25 Two thirds of that sum have to be raised by provinces and municipalities, but they could have problems raising that much money (International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2009, www.iht.com/articles/2009/01/22/business/yuan.2-413647.php). Since most of that money goes to infrastructure and other construction projects the crisis of the export sector will not be eased. For the substitution of the ailing US-consumption through higher exports to other countries (EU) and a bigger domestic demand, the government has to come up with other ideas. In contrary to the USA, China has the means for this stimulus program: China (still) has little debt, a low budget deficit and huge currency reserves.
26 Just one year ago there were complaints that the Chinese economy would overheat with a growth rate of more than 10 percent annually, and it was said that it should be reduced to a "reasonable" rate: 7 or 8 percent were named as a good target.
27 Reuters, February 20, 2009: http://sg.news.yahoo.com/rtrs/20090220/tap-oukwd-uk-china-workers-03b3b4c.html
29 According to the government the urban income is 3.4 percent higher than the rural income. Ecological damage, droughts, storms, dispossessions and evictions further aggravate the conditions on the countryside.
30 It will be crucial whether the new land laws will – following the intention of the government – lead to a concentration process in agriculture and whether the landless rural population will grow.
31 Victor Shih on rgemonitor.com, January 9, 2009, www.rgemonitor.com/asia-monitor/255032/will_job_losses_lead_to_social_unrest_my_take We might also see a situation as in Tibet in March 2008 when the discrimination and (political and cultural) repression of Tibetans, combined with social factors, lead to riots that lasted for days.
32 That is somehow a continuation of the racist propaganda of the 1990s when migrant workers were presented as naive hillbillies, responsible for anything from criminality to diseases and the moral decadence in the cities.
33 The Observer, January 25, 2009, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/25/china-globaleconomy
34 The suppression of political dissent and resistance – which is most often separated from workers struggles – has increased in recent years. With the current crisis and social escalation it is hard to expect that the regime will relax the shackles. An extension of the local elections, as it was planned in Shenzhen, was canceled. A party official said: "If we had an election right now, we might end up like Thailand." (New York Times, December 19, 2009, ww.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/world/asia/19china.html). He referred to the conflict between two party camps about state power in Thailand at the end of 2008 which lead to the blockade of the airports of Bangkok.
35 The growth of the Chinese currency reserves has slowed down, but there is no clear drop in the purchase of US state bonds so far. China's exports dropped, but there was an even bigger drop in imports (rgemonitor.com, January 16, 2009,www.rgemonitor.com/asia-monitor/255114/secrets_of_safe_a_sharp_slowdown_in_reserve_growth_and_large_hot_outflows_in_q4).
On January 8 Nissan sacked 1,200 of the 5,000 workers at its Sunderland car plant (Wearside, North-East England). Some reports said 800 permanent and 400 temp and 800 'permanent' jobs would go, others that it would be 'mostly' temp jobs. The Nissan plant, which began cutting production and hours in October, had introduced round-the-clock shifts to meet demand in January 2008; it was 'widely regarded as the most efficient in Europe' (Financial Times), and had supposedly 'revitalized' local business (Nissan's own supply chain, where at least another 5,000 workers are now threatened, plus petrochemicals, paper and 'high quality' call centres) through the example of its kaizen/'lean production' model. The case was the most prominent in the UK so far of mass layoffs by a profitable and solvent 'lean' employer. In a sense Sunderland is unusual among the parts of Britain affected by industrial shutdown in the 1980s, in that the 'replacement' for the shipyards and coal mines involved at least an element of new (i.e. downsized and 'flexible') manufacturing. Outside its reindustrialized outposts, though, Sunderland, along with other historically working class parts of the country (including much of London, eg. ex-Ford Dagenham and pre-Olympic Hackney/Tower Hamlets), has experienced the same things more or less uninterruptedly throughout the financial/services boom: persistently high unemployment, state and EU-funded 'urban regeneration' projects bestowing a few fragile retail and hospitality jobs along with real estate gains and 'creative' fees for a micro-minority, and prodigious growth of government agencies administering 'social exclusion'. The Nissan layoffs show that 'social exclusion' is something no-one is safe from now, to the point that the term loses whatever meaning it ever had. Behind all the state agencies' efforts to pathologize it, 'exclusion' essentially means having no realistic individual hope of 'prospering' individually as a rentier, a business-owner or a professional in a financialized economy. This hopelessness is clearly no longer exclusive : it can happen to anyone (it always could have done, but until recently 'anyone' wouldn't have believed it), and it is happening on an enormous scale right now. The near future of class conflict will depend on the reaction of those workers who find themselves flung into this condition, together with that of those have never known anything else.
The nature of the crisis in the UK follows directly from that of the16-year 'boom' that preceded it. The role of rising financial asset prices (i.e. expanding claims on value produced elsewhere or in the future) as the 'engine of growth' was not just a matter of the portion of 'GDP' attributed directly to financial services (officially 33 per cent in 2006): this hypothetical revenue, i.e. credit, flowed into the much larger business and consumer services market, paying almost incidentally for the low-wage, quick hiring/firing jobs of the local 'employment boom'. In this context, 'wealth creation' in the UK was not primarily dependent on surplus value from labour in the 'services boom' jobs. Rather, claims on flows of value from elsewhere in the globalized economy, refracted and magnified through 'complex financial instruments', flooded the economy, temporarily funding something like a giant job-creation scheme (or workhouse). The meagerness of real wages from the jobs 'created' this way forced those workers with access to mortgage or consumer credit into systematic dependence on it. (Meanwhile of course, for many others, state benefits and/or high-risk income from the 'criminal' economy remained the only options.) Of course these phenomena were by no means unique to the UK, but the precocious development of the system in this country, the unusual dependence of 'national' and household incomes on the bidding-up of financial assets, corresponds to the relative seriousness of the crisis here .
The role of the state in supplementing 'employment growth' through the financial boom in this most deregulated or 'Anglo-Saxon' of economies may be less well known. On November 23 the FT reported that two thirds of the jobs created between 1998 and 2006 'would be classified by most people as being in the public sector'. State employment rates were significantly higher among women and in the regions hardest hit by manufacturing job losses over the last 30 years, with the North-East at the top of the list. As the Daily Mail commented, "the government has based agencies and set up Quangos such as One North East in the region to tackle unemployment caused by the decline of traditional industries such as coal mining". Which is to say, it's not just a matter of adding to overall job numbers: many of the jobs are directly concerned with processing and policing the unemployed, or otherwise administering coercive 'care' to a disorderly low-income class. The 'public sector' designation here does NOT mean the workers are directly employed by the state, with protected wages, conditions and pensions. The 'public sector' has been drastically overhauled over the last 10 years under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) system, which installs private contractors (actually often chains of contractors, with one hiring another for each particular function) as 'service providers' in the medical, welfare, transport, housing, education, waste disposal, policing/courts, immigration control and military sectors. The contractors put up the initial capital, which they borrow privately, and they hire employees on typically 'flexible' private sector terms. The state contracts to pay the money back over several decades, thereby indebting itself more than it would otherwise, but keeping public borrowing and spending officially off the books , as well as avoiding responsibility for the workers and for any damage done to infrastructure or 'service users'. This arrangement means the myth of relatively safe 'public sector' jobs is likely to disappear quickly, along with a lot of existing 'public services', as the PFI contractors struggle to refinance their private debt. It was reported on January 14 that contractors have failed to raise the initial money for major projects in the last year, with the number of new PFI deals almost halved. On the same day Deloitte published a report calling the crisis an opportunity for 'radical transformation' of the public sector in a 'market-savvy' direction.
Thus the whole configuration of the deindustrialized 'boom' economy, which detached returns on capital from labour income, making the whole edifice dependent on complex financial claims, now ensures that neither profitable manufacturing nor the 'state sector' is any refuge from the crisis. So far there has been almost no sign of a confrontational class response to the crisis as such, either through strikes rioting of the kind seen in Greece and Latvia or even symbolic protest through the 'official channels' . Unions volunteered for wage cuts to save jobs at JCB and Corus; JCB accepted the offer then sacked the workers anyway. This kind of fear and demoralization surely has something to do with average household debt of £9,600 excluding and £59,670 including mortgages, with the total amount just above GDP at £1,456 billion.
Private capital (apart from banks) has so far deflected hostility by pleading helplessness . In the meantime the state has been asserting itself along all the lines of class confrontation, acting as planner, financier, 'employer' and unemployment/'exclusion' manager. The government's approach to imminent mass unemployment amounts to a buildup of outright war on the unemployed, with new legislation to be passed in spring, pilot programmes in 'socially excluded' areas  before the legislation, and full implementation in 2010-11.  Private and 'voluntary' sector dole policing and the attack on incapacity benefit, which absorbed hundreds of thousands of unemployed during earlier attacks on the dole , are longstanding but until now slow-moving policies. The decision to legislate now, so that the new regime comes into force over the next two or three years, may indicate state planners' idea of the time-frame for the arrival of depression-level unemployment. This timing ensures that full implementation of the new dole policy will more or less coincide with generalized 'austerity' (i.e. shutdown of state-funded reproduction services, users charges for those remaining, regressive taxes), as required by the Treasury insistence that the recent bailout borrowing and deficit spending should have zero fiscal impact in absolute terms, with the budget to be fully balanced again by 2015-16.
All this raises the question: what kind of 'strategy', if any, could be underlying an all-round attack on real wages and the unemployed during a recession in which circulation is atrophied and there is no work available to impose? Is the argument of George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici that the 'Western' proletariat is being prepared for 'Structural Adjustment' applicable, given the difference between (in the case of the UK) a bankrupt ex-industrial economy and those where agricultural/mineral-exporting debt peonage was imposed before full proletarianization ever took place? In this respect the term 'Structural Adjustment' may not fit, but certain capitalists and their intellectuals have been demanding for a long time that the expectations of 'Western' proletarians should 'catch down' with those of the low-wage world.?
What kind of class response can be envisaged, then, if mass unemployment, semi-employment and pressure on the wages of those still employed throw large numbers of workers into the condition known until recently as 'social exclusion'? In the present context of fear and retreat, this can only be considered the future tense (near as that future may be), or in the form of very open questions.
A crucial general factor must be the development or otherwise of some kind of solidarity between the newly 'excluded' and the so-called 'underclass' already in that position. Closely related to this question is that of the relation between 'permanent' and temp workers. Also, any emerging sense of common interest will have to deal with complex forms of individual and micro-communitarian competition existing on both sides of the line between the (former) 'respectable working class' and the (perpetually) 'socially excluded'. For instance, will shared material experience tend to dissolve or exacerbate animosity around immigration (or the hallucinatory 'common sense' idea of it) and 'ethnic identity'? Could the willingness of many proletarians to fight the state as well as each other over 'race' issues conceivably be turned into class hostility as more people find themselves in the same position across 'ethnic' lines, or must it be manipulated by state, media and 'community leaders' into intra-class sectarian disaster?
More broadly, will drastic change in material conditions be enough to undo a deeply ingrained ideological-cultural assumption that 'getting out' (as in 'out of the ghetto') or 'moving up' individually and competitively (whether as a business owner or a professional) is the only rational aspiration for proletarians? This assumption has been strengthened over decades by real factors: the withdrawal of the basis for survival for the 'working poor', eg. , state pension; relentless official emphasis on 'training' and 'personal development' as the solution to all problems ; disappearance from collective memory of any instance of material improvement on a collective basis.
If the stakes and complications of any near-future class confrontation can be conceived this way, perhaps it's possible, even more tentatively, to imagine some factors which might contribute to its outbreak:
Based on what I can see right now I'm
quite pessimistic in the immediate term, but this doesn't necessarily apply at all to the situation in a year's time.
At the end of January collective anger and its contradictions burst out in wildcat strikes across the energy industry. At the Lindsey Total oil refinery, workers struck against the EU-mandated decision of Sicilian sub-sub-contractor IREM to supply 'its own' Italian and Portuguese workers for construction jobs not advertised locally. This action in support of the unemployed would already have been 'illegal' as a 'political' strike, but the Lindsey workers were joined by others at 11 sites UK-wide in doubly 'illegal' solidarity strikes. The strike appropriated Gordon Brown's slogan 'British jobs for British workers', allowing virulently anti-worker newspapers to 'support' it, turning the issue into one of 'nationality'. Strikers insisted otherwise, but after the Lindsey dispute was settled with a deal to hire 100 'British nationals', it's not clear how far their voice was heard. So it's worth repeating that what they said was true. Disastrous as the 'British' slogan was, the conflict is about the undercutting of wages during an income crisis. Collective agreements are not legally binding in the UK, so European workers 'posted' under the European directive need not be paid at the going rate. The Lindsey strikers voted not for exclusion of foreigners, but for identical protection for local and foreign workers, and for international (union) solidarity. Hundreds of Polish workers joined a solidarity strike at Sellafield nuclear plant. Also: employers now say they were provoked into hiring foreigners by ongoing '70s-style walkouts' by workers.
 Predictions of the scale of economic collapse correspond strikingly to the scale of the last decade's financial asset-driven 'growth', eg. the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development forecasts approximately 750,000 job losses over the next 18 months: "equivalent to the total net rise in employment in the preceding three years". Oxford Economics attributes the fall in per capita GDP from the top to the bottom of the rankings of "major" economies to "the bust in financial markets". (For more in this vein see:www.wsws.org).
 Exceptions in the UK have included small-scale strikes over wages by London bus drivers, Glasgow 'community service officers', Merseyside council workers, Southampton care home workers, Wembley (West London) pharmaceuticals workers and 'further education' college staff at a number of sites across England. None of these has been explicitly crisis-related, but striking for wages at this time nonetheless stakes an implicit claim against those of the abstract 'economy' and returns on capital. For ongoing coverage of strikes at all levels see http://libcom.org/ and www.wsws.org/. See libcom.org in particular for coverage of events in Greece, and see http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/jan2009/latv-j16.shtml for an article on anti-austerity rioting in Latvia.
 Glasgow, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Norfolk and Lambeth (South London)
 The most widely-reported aspect of the attack on the 'economically inactive', as proposed in December in the report of Professor Paul Gregg and now on the legislative agenda, is a massive acceleration of the push to move claimants off 'incapacity' (i.e. sickness) and single parent benefits onto Job Seekers' Allowance, which would mean a substantial cut in benefits to £60.50 a week and much heavier pressure to grovel actively for and accept any kind of work going, regardless of things like physical unsuitability or availability of childcare. Less well-publicized but equally explosive is the regime proposed for 'job seekers', based on what Professor Gregg calls 'work-equal activity', i.e. nine to five attendance at privately-run dole offices in order to apply for jobs by computer, under supervision and with regular interrogation by employees of the PFI contractor (who are paid according to the number of people kicked off the dole). Aside from the matter of how few low-wage jobs are found or offered through this kind of formal process, rather than by physically turning up where work is available and/or through informal social contacts, what's really striking is the way treatment of claimants is equated with punishment more openly than ever, just when unemployment is starting to increase out of control. In his mildest language, Prof. Gregg says recalcitrant claimants, e.g. those who show up late for interviews, should be sent 'written warnings', a term borrowed from workplace 'disciplinary' procedure; for repeated offences they should be fined. Even more telling is that Gregg wants 'work-equal activity' to be 'like school detention': i.e. the whole condition of being a benefit claimant should be equivalent to that of a child being punished at school, and the experience should be similar. And furthermore the term now used instead of 'workfare' for forced labour imposed on dole claimants is 'community service', which until now was confined to criminal sentencing. Reinforcing the impression that criminal justice machinery is being imported into the management of unemployment, if any doubt remained, is the use of 'lie detector' tests on claimants, which has already been underway for a while in some areas, to be 'rolled out' nationally if the 'trials' [sic] are 'successful'. Surprise surprise, they were a great 'success', and the introduction of the system everywhere was announced late in December in the 'Queen's speech', which sets out the government's policy agenda for the coming year. The lie detector software is used on phone calls from benefit claimants: it supposedly picks up anomalies in speech patterns, so that those who talk the wrong way (such as... callers who for some reason find life on £60 a week 'stressful' and can't hide it in their voices? Or...foreigners with strange ways of pronouncing English words?!) can be called in for further interrogation. (For some time now claimants have been forced to contact benefits offices by telephone, regardless of whether they actually have one. This may or may not suggest that the lie-detector was a longstanding plan).
 Thus the aptly-named 'Crisis', a charity that helps state agencies harass the homeless into job training, advertises using the slogan, "we see the person, not the homelessness". It's hard to think of a more succinct way of stating where the state and its 'voluntary sector' allies assume the problem lies.
Werner Bonefeld teaches Politics at York. He recently published Subverting the Present - Imagining the Future with Autonomedia. This interview is also available here http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=260
SHIFT: This year there’s the NATO summit, the G8 in Italy, Cop-15 etc. Do you think this could be the return of the anti-globalisation movement? Could, or should, it take the same form that it did in the late 90’s and how do you think the current financial situation affects this?
WB: I don’t know. Of course the mobilisations in the late 90’s were disrupted by 9/11 and from then on took a tumble. They might come back as a consequence of the financial crisis but it very much depends how the financial crisis is going to pan out. The material effects of the crisis will be harsh. Uncertain is how people will respond to the challenges and the pressures that they face. It’s difficult to strike against money as it were. It’s much easier to strike against an employer or even against repossession of houses. It’s possible to organise there. But with banks it’s difficult to organise. Besides, the business of negation is not to render banks responsible, and make them accountable to their consumers, whatever that might mean. Such ‘responsibilisation’ belongs to the reality of bourgeois society. The business of negation, the anti in anti-globalisation, is the creation of alternative social relations by means of practical critique of existing social relations. Such creation is always creation in movement. One has to see whether we will see such a movement.
What I haven’t heard from the existing anti-globalisation movement is anything akin to what happened in Argentina with the financial crisis in 2001. I am sure there are discussions but I wonder what really has been learned from Latin America. There have been very many discussions, in Europe at least, about for example the Argentinean piquetero and the Zapatistas, and discussion as to whether we are witnessing the emergence of a new social subject and new forms of organisation. The outcome of these discussions have on the whole been rather predictable. Yet, what is the reality of these movements for us, in Europe. Suddenly, or not so suddenly, there is the long awaited and predicted crisis and the movement seems paralysed. There’s an irony there. ‘What should we do?’ The whole learning process, particularly from Latin America was an academic learning process, or a process of mythologisation. Solidarity with the YA BASTA is easy for as long as the YA BASTA stays where it is, in Argentina, and requires no other practical commitment in the here (and now). Solidarity with the YA BASTA has to be a practical one, in one’s own social relations.
The big issue now is not whether the protestors who, say, were at Heiligendamm in Germany, turn up again in great numbers. The big issue is rather whether the YA BASTA assumes practical relevance. The composition of the movement will change. In the past, it was easy to coalesce in critique of the so-called neo-liberal state. The nationalisation of banks, employment guarantees by means of government credit to ailing companies, etc., might well rupture the movement. The state suddenly does what certain voices of the anti-globalisation movement demanded – and this despite the fact that the socialisation of debt is intended to guarantee, for want of a better expression, the privatisation of profits. What is the relationship between the YA BASTA and the state?
SHIFT: In North America and Western Europe at least, there is this critique of finance capitalism, that might come back again, that was the defining feature of the anti-globalisation movement protests against the IMF and World Bank and other sort of global financial institutions. Obviously people have always pointed to the dangers of just criticising financial institutions and not, as you say, how capitalism affects us on a sort of real person level. Do you think that might be something that we are experiencing again? That the critique of finance capitalism will run the risk of stereotyping and projecting?
WB: It might; it might not. It depends, again, how it turns out. It would be good to predict the future, but the critique of finance was always misguided I think. There was always this separation between good capitalism and bad capitalism. Bad capitalism was financial capitalism and the other capitalism was seen to be the one that was suppressed by the bad capitalism. And the connection between finance and production, between production and exchange, commodity form and money form, that was never really drawn in this anti-globalisation movement. The critique of speculation has to be a critique of the social relations of production. That is, one should not divide between ‘bad finance capitalism’ and ‘good industrial capitalism’. The one depends on the other, and visa versa.
SHIFT: Especially in the current crisis here in England, what everyone’s been talking about, from the conservatives to the socialists, is greed. That the reason we have this crisis is speculation and greed by individual bankers. The work you have done and that of others has pointed out that this may have a relationship to scapegoating the Jew or anti-Semitism.
WB: Yes, well that is one of these divisions between financial capital, on the one hand, defined by greed and industrial capitalism on the other hand, not driven by greed but by concrete matter and productive activity. That spurts over into anti-Semitism - that’s quite right - and that’s where the difficulty lies, I think, for the anti-globalisation movement. How does it confront or understand the current crisis if it merely sees it as a crisis of greed, that is, as a crisis of regulation, a crisis that is resolvable by the state by means of responsible regulation. Responsible for whom? For the common good? What is the common good in a capitalistically constituted society? The purpose of capital is to make a profit. And that is, money must command labour. The demand for better regulation, and a more effective integration of production and finance, does indeed focus this purpose of money – to command labour. An anti-globalisation movement that only focuses on the issue of greed does not see the vampire that sucks labour out in the production process as the basis of that greed.
SHIFT: So, for you then, is the way to avoid this problem a return to ideas of class and class struggles? Ideas which the anti-globalisation movement quite consciously has left behind?
WB: I think what has to be left behind is the old social democratic or state socialist idea of class. That idea was based on the notion of market position, and sought to rebalance the inhumanity of exploitative production relations by means of re-distribution. That is the concept of class that I think needs to be overcome. In opposition to affirmative conceptions of class, we need to rediscover class as a critical concept, a concept that belongs to a false society. That is to say, class struggle is correctly understood the movement against the existence of social classes. Class analysis does not partake in the classification of people – its business is the critique of such classification. Class struggle is the struggle to dissolve class society, relations of class domination and exploitation, in favour of commune – this society of the free and equal, an association of the freely assembled social individuals.
So if correctly understood, class should be a critical concept, not an affirmative concept. The old class concept was an affirmative concept; it affirmed class position. It wanted to re-distribute in order to create a fairer deal, a new deal, for those on the wrong side, or the wrong end of the stick. The critical concept of class, which is to dissolve class, battles against the existence of class society.
SHIFT: So could such a movement against class, offering such a critique, be relevant in today’s society? Could the anti-globalisation movement, if it reconstitutes itself as such again next year, be an effective political player?
WB: Again, I don’t know. It very much depends how the current crisis pans out. It will affect jobs. It will affect income. It will be very bad for people heavily in debt. How will they react? What will they do? And the reaction of these people is, to a great extent, also a responsibility of the anti-globalisation movement in terms of their critical intent of enlightened democracy – the democracy of the demos that assembles in the street; a democracy of and in the street. This democracy, this practical subversion of everyday life, if the anti-globalisation movement is able to practice that then it will become something new in terms of its composition, relationship to capital and its state, organisational form, and negative purpose. If the anti-globalisation movement is not able to do that then it might well be that those who carry the brunt, financial and otherwise, of the crisis, might not be part of that movement. In the British context, the white working class, impoverished as it is, has tended in certain areas to go to the right rather than to the left. That I think is also a responsibility, not just of those people who go to the right, but also the responsibility of the anti-globalisation movement to mobilise for democratic purposes – here and now. So it depends on the mobilisation, who mobilises and where, and who is part of the mobilising coalition.
SHIFT: On a practical level it can be argued that the anti-globalisation movement needs a symbol, or a target around which to mobilise and that’s why summits are so attractive. Do you that the oversimplification and ‘personification’ of capitalism, which manifests in the targeting of summits and global elites, can be avoided while the anti-globalisation movement continues to summit hop?
WB: Well I think summit hopping is OK, who wouldn’t want to travel around the world and see different places and do so for the sake of protest. Summits render visibility to struggles, provide them with symbolism, but the struggle itself takes place in other places I think. Summits do not struggle. Struggles are always local, and their locality is the basis for their globality. That is, the everyday struggle over the production and appropriation of surplus value in every individual workplace and every local community is the basis of the class struggle on a global scale. ‘Globalisation’ has not done away with everyday struggle. Instead, it focuses it. If it really is the case that whole communities are in danger of losing their houses, if people are dispossessed, then the anti-globalisation movement will have to be a movement against repossession.
I do not know whether there will be a movement against default, practically, on the streets. A Latin American example is that people occupy their factories when the going gets tough and the machines are in danger of being taken away. Will that happen here? This is a practical question that cannot be resolved by summits. It needs to be resoled in practice. Whether the (European) anti-globalisation movement assumes class form is difficult to predict, but if one looks at the often-mythologised struggles in Latin America, this is what the struggles are, from the protection of the neighbourhood and of homes and living-conditions, to the provision of food and water, and the self-organisation of subsistence, from the factories to the land. And what comes out of it? I don’t know. Whatever the future holds will depend on the movement of the so-called anti-globalisation movement. Where will it move, what will it move, if it moves?
Latvia Shaken by Riots Over Economy
MOSCOW — Violent protests over political grievances and mounting economic woes shook the Latvian capital, Riga, late Tuesday, leaving around 25 people injured and leading to 106 arrests.
In the wake of the demonstrations, President Valdis Zatlers threatened Wednesday to call for a referendum that would allow voters to dissolve Parliament, saying trust in the government, including in its ability to deal with growing economic problems, had “collapsed catastrophically.”
For years, Latvia boasted of double-digit economic growth rates, but it has been shaken by the global economic downturn. Its central bank has spent a fifth of its reserves to guard against a steep devaluation of its currency, the lat, and experts expect a 5 percent contraction of the country’s grossdomestic product in 2009. Salaries are expected to fall substantially, and unemployment to rise.
The violence followed days of clashes in Greece last month, over a number of issues including economic stagnation and rising poverty as well as widespread corruption and a troubled education system. In Bulgaria on Wednesday, separate riots broke out in the capital, Sofia, after more than 2,000 people — including students, farmers and environmental activists — demonstrated in front of Parliament over economic conditions, Reuters reported. Mr. Zatlers has long been aligned with the governing coalition, so his threat to dissolve Parliament came as a surprise — and was testament to nervousness about how economic troubles in the region could intersect with simmering political grievances.
The rioting broke out Tuesday after around 10,000 people protested in historic Dome Square over the economic troubles and grievances involving corruption and competence of the government.
Several hundred protesters lingered after most of the crowd had left and started throwing snowballs and cobblestones at government buildings.
Several demonstrators also threw Molotov cocktails, according to Mareks Mattisons, a spokesman for Latvia’s Interior Ministry. In a public statement on Wednesday, President Zatlers denounced the violence, but said it was more important to ask “why people gathered in Dome Square.”
“We must not face further confrontation, we must do the things that are demanded by the public,” he said. “I refer to constitutional amendments, a plan to stimulate the economy, and reform of the national system of governance.”
Krisjanis Karins, a member of Parliament and former leader of the opposition New Era party, said the violence showed that financial woes had injected a new vehemence into old political complaints.
Protests in Latvia, he said, tended to follow a pattern of “standing, singing and just going home,” but the young protesters who showed up on Tuesday evening “seem to think the Greek or French way of expressing anger is better,” he said.
“In our neck of the woods, this just doesn’t happen,” he said. “But it did this time. Everyone is trying to figure out how much of this was provoked. Who are these people? Where did they come from?”
Whatever the answer, he said, Tuesday’s protests seem likely to force political change.
“In six months, we’re going to look back and yesterday will be a watershed,” he said. “I would be deeply surprised if it were not.”
President Zatlers made a series of strict demands of the Parliament, including a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to dismiss Parliament, and a new supervisory council to oversee economic development and the state’s use of loans.
He called for “new faces in the government,” chosen for competence rather than “their influence in the relevant party.” He said the changes must be made by March 31, or else he would propose a referendum that could dissolve Parliament.“Only with such specific work can we calm the public down and offer at least a bit of hope that the process in this country will develop in a favorable direction,” he said.
Bailouts for the banks, bullets for the people
Mass uprising of Greece’s youth
Why did Greek youth take to the streets? For the first time since the second world war young people have no hope of a better life than their parents. But there is also a failure of trust in politicians and all state institutions, particularly the police
By Valia Kaimaki
The veteran Greek politician Leonidas Kyrkos, now in his eighties, is an iconic figure of the Greek left. He told me what he’d like to say to the young people out on the streets: “Welcome to social struggle, my friends. Now you must take care of yourself and your struggle.”
Following the killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos by a special police unit on 6 December, school and university students have risen up in an unprecedented outpouring of rage. Spontaneous demonstrations, mostly organised by email and SMS, have shaken towns and cities across the country: Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, Larissa, Heraklion and Chania in Crete, Ioannina, Volos, Kozani, Komotini.
This is an uprising with many origins; the most obvious is police brutality. Alexis is not the first victim of the Greek police, only the youngest. But its roots also lie in the economic crisis – a national one which struck hard even before the consequences of the global financial storm made themselves felt. On top of this, Greece is going through a profound political crisis, both systemic and moral; it comes from the duplicity of political parties and personalities, which has broken all trust in state institutions.
Alexis’s death wasn’t an exceptional case, or a blot on the otherwise pristine copybook of the Athens police. The list of student and immigrant victims of torture and murder by the police goes back a long way. In 1985, another 15-year-old, Michel Kaltezas, was murdered by a police officer – a crime whitewashed by a corrupt judicial system. The Greek police may be no worse than police forces in other parts of Europe, but the wounds left by Greece’s dictatorship, the military junta of 1967-74, are still open here; and the memory of those seven dark years is deeply ingrained in people’s minds. This society does not forgive as readily as some.
This united front is led by a generation of the very young. There is a reason for this: daily life for most young Greeks is dominated by intensive schooling aimed at securing a university place. Selection is tough and children focus hard on it from the age of 12. But once the lucky ones get there, they soon discover the reality of life after university: at best, a job at €700 ($1,000) a month.
The Greeks know all about the “700 euro generation”. One group has now named a new association after it: Generation 700, or just G700. They try to give a voice to this generation, and give free legal advice too. Those who are lucky enough to get the €700 are freelancers or subcontractors. Even a short-term contract is seen as exceptional, because that would entitle you to some social security, redundancy pay and holidays, whereas a freelance agreement, now common even in the public services, gives you no legal rights or security.
Stratos Fanaras, a political analyst and director of the public opinion survey company Metron Analysis, outlines the situation in Greece: “The studies we have recently conducted show that all economic indices as well as people’s aspirations for the future have sunk to a record low. People feel let down and disillusioned, and cannot see the situation improving. This reaction is the same for men and women, and across all social classes and educational levels. And studies by the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, which has been publishing monthly reports since 1981, also show that economic indices have never been so low.”
For the young, the political system and parties that represent it have no legitimacy. Three political families have reigned over the Greek political scene since the 1950s. The two main parties, New Democracy on the right and the socialists of Pasok, have shared power for more than 30 years.
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), still Stalinist, is in no position to provide solutions. The Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) does at least know how to communicate with the young, and its leap in the opinion polls in the last months has been spectacular: after a modest 5.04% in the national elections of September 2007, it won almost 13% of voter preferences six months later. The election of Alexis Tsipras, 33, as leader of its biggest component, the Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology, Synapismos, has also contributed to this rise in support. The original positions it has taken on current issues have helped to gain support from some young people, as have some well-chosen media coups (Tsipras took a young woman immigrant from Sierra Leone as his partner to the Greek president’s annual reception to commemorate the restoration of democracy). Even after some levelling out, Syriza is still getting about 8%, well ahead of the KKE (which is finding its decline hard to swallow).
This struggle for primacy on the left may have led the KKE to ally itself with the New Democracy government and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos) when the government denounced Syriza as a “haven for rioters”. New Democracy needed a scapegoat to divert the public debate from the causes of the uprising. Pasok, meanwhile, is keeping its mouth shut, knowing that its turn to govern is coming sooner than it expected.
The government of Kostas Karamanlis has much responsibility for all this. Elected in 2004 on a promise of openness and honesty, it has become embroiled in scandals even worse than those of its predecessors. Bribery, corruption, nepotism – and more. The latest concerns the illegal trading of state land for less valuable land owned by the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, for which those responsible have still not been brought to justice.
The young are right to believe that in such a corrupt country, no one gets punished. And this belief fuels the violence of their response. Their faces hidden by masks or balaclavas, the most radical demonstrators, mostly anarchists or autonomists, often gather in the main square of the Exarchia district in central Athens, the area where Alexis was killed. The police have a longstanding vendetta against the anarchists of Exarchia, particularly because the district is right next to the Athens Polytechnic, where students fought a decisive battle again the junta in 1973. Street-fighting between radicals and the police in Exarchia has a long history.
TV coverage of the uprising across the world focused on stock images of burning buildings and petrol-bombers. But there are significant differences between these demonstrations and earlier ones. The crowds of violent protesters are much larger. And the protests are not just in Athens but in a host of towns across mainland Greece and the islands – and they have been going on for some time. That suggests that a great many young people have joined in the violence, and most had no previous contact with the anarchists. On the barricades that have sprung up everywhere you can find kids of 13 or 14.
The government of course used the masked petrol-bombers to inspire fear of a “threat to democracy”. “What democracy?” ask the protesters. It is true that schoolchildren and university students attacked police stations with rocks and that others damaged banks. But only a few days earlier the government, indifferent to the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of Greeks, gave those banks a gift of €28bn ($39bn). And these are the banks which use private debt-collection agencies to insult and threaten anyone who owes them small sums of money, and to seize their property.
But young people’s anger hasn’t yet led to their politicisation, at least not in the traditional sense. This is not surprising since the political parties themselves, with the exception of those of the far left, are deaf to the demands of the movement. open discussion, not even any sign that they have got the message, no lessons learned,” said Fanaras. “It’s as if they’re just waiting for the young to get tired of smashing things up and believe that will be the end of the uprising.” Some, he thinks, may retreat into passivity and isolation. Others may be drawn into terrorist groups. “It was already like that after the murder of Michel Kaltezas,” said Alexandros Yiotis, a former journalist and “anarcho-syndicalist” who had been active in that movement in France, Spain and Greece. “In particular, they swelled the ranks of the [Greek] 17 November terrorist group.”
There are two striking things in the state propaganda relayed by the media, especially television. The first concerns the role of immigrants in the uprising. It is claimed that all the shops that were burned were targeted by hungry immigrants. And even that in Asia, for example, “it is standard practice: people demonstrate, break into shops and then loot them.” But the violent protesters were, for the most part, ordinary Greeks, in revolt against a corrupt political system. And when Roma took part in some of the violence, they were avenging their own people, forgotten victims of police repression.
Still, some of the looting was indeed the work of hungry crowds, Greek for the most part. “It’s a new phenomenon,” said one student. “In protests in the past you’d get students and trade unions at the front, then political parties with Syriza at the back. Behind them would be the anarchists and, when things kicked off, they would move among the ranks of Syriza… and everyone would get beaten up. But now, behind the anarchists there’s a new bloc – the hungry. Whether they are immigrants, drug addicts or down-and-outs, they know you can usually get something to eat on a protest.”
A second invention of the government and media is the claim that “angry citizens” have taken the law into their own hands to chase off rioters. On the contrary: they have often tried to chase off the riot police. Small shopkeepers shout at them to get lost; passers-by wade in to try and rescue students they’ve arrested. Having understood they cannot keep their children at home, parents and grandparents join them on the streets in order to look after them. A world turned upside down.
Will the movement continue to grow? “There’s plenty of fuel for it,” said Dimitris Tsiodras, a journalist and political analyst. “For the global economic crisis will soon begin to bite here and a great many young people will remain marginalised; and the education system isn’t exactly going to improve tomorrow morning, and there isn’t any sign of an end to political corruption.”
It is not only a question for Greece. The movement has managed to export itself – or simply converge with others elsewhere. For one good reason: there is a whole generation, the first since the second world war, which has no hope for a better life than their parents. And that is not an exclusively Greek phenomenon.
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