Greece: Savage austerity policies passed despite mass protest

Deploying tear gas and threats, the Greek Pasok government passed new austerity policies during a protest 48 hour general strike and the movement of the ‘Enraged’.

Tens of thousands went on to the streets of Athens on 28 June during trade union demonstrations to Syntagma Square, next to the parliament buildings. During the evening, around 50,000 attended a ‘rebellion’ concert. On Wednesday 29 June, tens of thousands came together in the centre of Athens to show their anger. The trade union confederations called for a 48 hour general strike. The support was solid. Public transport – except the metro, which was asked to transport people to the demonstrations – came to a halt and the public sector participation was overwhelming.

However, the police reaction was brutal. Their goal was clear – to crush the movement. Even the capitalist media lamented the savageness of the Greek state. Again and again, Syntagma Square and the surrounding streets were clouded with tear gas. Police ‘special forces’ attacked demonstrators and the police threw stones at demonstrators. The concert in the evening of 28 June was accompanied by the police firing tear gas cartridges. The 29th June started with demonstrators attacked with police truncheons and tear gas when they gathered to start a planned surrounding of parliament.

The police did not wait for any provocation by undercover colleagues, provocateurs or anarchists this time. On the 29th alone, 2250 cartridges of tear gas were used against the demonstrations. And even in the evening, when demonstrators tried to have a rest, sitting in restaurants and enjoying some Souvlaki, the so called “delta police” attacked, two cops on a motorbike, one driving, one beating with a stick and throwing new tear gas.

This attempt to teach the new layer of activists ‘a lesson’ about state brutality backfired. Again and again, demonstrators tried to re-enter the central square of Athens. A new layer of activists developed determination that will be important in future struggles.

Memorandum passed

The objective of the movement of the Enraged and the trade unions was clear: ‘No’ to the ‘second memorandum’ i.e. the new huge package of savage social cuts and other attacks against working class people. It was dictated by the ‘troika’ of the EU, European Central Bank and IMF. This was the new stage of the resistance. Protesters did not want the majority of the trade union leaders, most of them still linked to the governing Pasok party, to call just another one-day general strike to let off steam and then to expect the masses to stay passive. An escalation of resistance was enforced by the Enraged movement to try to stop the plans of the European and Greek capitalists and their Greek political agents.

However, despite the huge street protests during the 15 June general strike, which saw 250,000 in the streets of Athens and demonstrations all around the country and the movement of the Enraged, which saw occupations of squares in all the major cities, and the 48 hour general strike and the determination of tens of thousands to withstand tear gas and the police brutality, the governing Pasok party used its majority in the parliament to vote for the draconian package. 154 out of 155 Pasok MPs, and one MP from the conservative ND opposition, secured a majority of 155 out of 300. The one Pasok MP voting against the cuts was immediately expelled by his party.

One of the main German newspapers, FAZ, (30 June) quoted the Greek finance minister Venizelos: “We do, what is ordered and what we are allowed to do.” This paper continues to report that a Pasok MP enquired before last Wednesday what his job in parliament would amount to if all decisions are taken by the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank. The paper commented: “Actually, for the foreseeable future, Greece will only be a limited democracy. The Greek people can vote – but they can’t really change anything”.

Following this approach, on Thursday, 30 June, the parliament also voted in favour of legislation to enable the government to carry out the cuts programme. This included the setting up of a privatisation agency – the target is to privatise public sector companies and sell state-owned real estate worth a total of 50 billion euro, by 2015. New tax increases were also voted. Another 150,000 public sector jobs are planned to be destroyed. Social security – already meagre– will be cut further. As it is, the new unemployed in Greece have to ‘live’ on a maximum of 450 euro per month (the maximum unemployment benefit) yet prices in Athens are comparable to London, one of the most expensive cities in the world. And this amount is only granted for the first twelve month of unemployment. Afterwards, there is no social help for the jobless and many are forced to seek food from the church if they do not have family and friends to help them to survive.

With the cuts measures taken, so far, in the course of the crisis, the living conditions of working people, the unemployed and pensioners were severely hit. In the private sector, wages were cut by 10-20%.

The new measures passed last week by the Greek parliament prepare the ground for further economic, social and political instability.

The economic effect of the crisis and cuts is devastating. Instead of the promised road to recovery, unemployment is rising (a new peak is now reached with 20% unemployment, with almost 39% of those under 25 years). Greek economic ‘growth’ sits at a paltry 0.2 per cent – much lower than the eurozone average. The draconian measures undermine any possibility of a recovery and lead society more towards a collapse.

In the words of the British Economist journal (30/06/2011), this programme “will almost certainly condemn Greece to recession, strife and an eventual debt default”.

Even capitalist commentators see the strategy of the troika (EU, European Central Bank and IMF) more as a “warning sign” to other struggling euro-zone countries than a real attempt to solve the Greek crisis. It also provides multi-national companies an opportunity to grab Greek companies, like the telecom company, OTE, the energy company, DEI, and others on favourable conditions for the foreign ‘investors’, at between 20 and 30% the value of their shares before the crisis started.

Wolfgang Münchau commented in the British Financial Times (27/06/11), before the Greek parliament vote: “The EU’s strategy reduces the choice of the Greeks to defaulting either next month, or next year.”

This time-frame of one year might be too optimistic, as the editorial of the Economist (30 June) explains: “Every quarter, before the euro-zone countries and the IMF release the next tranche of aid, they must decide whether Greece is on track. Every quarter, it will become clearer that the answer is no.”

A Greek default will have huge repercussions, will put into question the whole Euro project and lead to new dramatic economic and political shifts. But a default, while possibly offering some small relief to Greek capitalism, is no way out for workers, youth, the poor or the middle class, unless it is linked to a fundamental break with capitalism. Similarly, leaving the euro but maintaining the rule of capitalism, would mean cutting living standards by an external rather than internal devaluation.

Tear gas to force through cuts programme

To implement these latest draconian measures, enormous pressure from EU and big capitalist institutions and media propaganda was utilised. Ollie Rehn, the EU’s commissioner for the economy, made his views clear: “The only way to avoid immediate default is for parliament to endorse the revised economic programme”. Politicians from the main European powers emphasised that there was no “Plan B” to avoid default within days. Greece’s central bank governor, George Provopoulos, was quoted as saying: “For parliament to vote against this package would be a crime” and that it would mean “The country would be voting for its suicide.”

Greece’s Deputy Prime Minister, Theodoros Pangalos, painted a picture of disaster: “Returning to the drachma would mean that on the following day banks would be surrounded by terrified people trying to withdraw their money, the army would have to protect them with tanks because there would not be enough police”. He went on to warn, “There would be riots everywhere, shops would be empty, some people would throw themselves out the window”.

Having made this warning, Pangalos’s government orchestrated street riots from above, with clear orders to the police to launch a chemical attack – tear gas – against protesters in Greece’s capital. So harmful was the police actions that the president of the federation of pharmacists in Athens – a member of the conservative ND party – called the use of tear gas dangerous, irresponsible and completely out of limits. The doctors’ union said that such a deployment of tear gas would not be allowed in a war, according to the Geneva Convention.

The brutal police attacks were ordered to carry out the wishes of the big capitalist powers in Europe and those of Greek big business, ensure that huge sums of speculative bonds gambled on by banks, big companies and the countries like France, Germany, the US and others, are protected for the next short period.

State of the resistance movement

After failing to stop the memorandum being voted through parliament, up to 10,000 protesters filled Syntagma Square, on the evening of Thursday 30th June, in one of the biggest assemblies, so far. This, in itself, gave a boost of confidence to the participants. The feeling of solidarity, coming together while clouds of tear gas were still hanging in the air and with reports of all the battles of the last two days still fresh – all of this increased the determination of many participants.

However, the movement of the Enraged has to face up to difficulties and setbacks. Looking back over the last few weeks, it is clear that the general strike on 15 June was the peak of the movement, where all the key questions were posed.

The Paosk government was hanging in the air. The Enraged and the strike movement showed their strength. But what was the alternative to the government’s plans? Everyone wanted to get rid of the government and hardly anyone wanted the conservative ND to return to power– but what is the alternative government? As 15 June ended in riots and tear gas, forcing the mass of people away from Syntagma Square (despite tens of thousands coming back!) – another crucial question was posed, how can a mass movement develop that can enable the working class to participate in it?

Given the blocking tactics of the trade union leaders, the role of the mass left parties and the weaknesses of the opposition mass movement, answers to these questions were not given. A programme to end the dictatorship of the markets, the troika and Greek capitalism was necessary but not put forward by these forces.

A strategy to escalate the struggle after the 48 hour general strike was needed to show a way forward, even if Pasok would go ahead with the memorandum austerity cuts. Ideas and tactics on how to build a real mass movement with the active involvement of the working class in workplaces and assemblies and to ensure elected representatives to mass bodies and full democracy – all these urgent points were absent.

Due to this and the solid support for the 48 hour strike, the turnout on the street demonstrations was significant lower last week, compared to the general strike on 15 June. The mood changed over the two weeks run up to last week’s two day general strike. Huge and nearly universal frustration, bitterness and anger is still present – over the sale of public services to international and Greek big companies, over further taxes and wage cutbacks and over another calamitous fall in living conditions. However, the feeling of success following the announcement that Giorgios Papandreou, Prime Minister and leader of the governing Pasok party, offered his resignation during the 15 June general strike was replaced by some disappointment when Papandreou soon withdrew his offer. The Pasok government was re-arranged, with ministers changing roles. The Pasok leadership tried to re-stabilise its MPs, to force them to band together to avoid early elections and to hold on to power.

This raised questions in people’s minds about whether the opposition movement, the mass assemblies in central squares all over the country, the general strikes and all mass protest can really stop attacks and change things.

Of course, as history shown repeatedly, the determined resistance of the working class and the struggle of masses for their aims can force governments and capitalists to make all kinds of concessions and to even break their power. However, successful methods have to be re-developed and re-discovered during the new battles arising out of the global capitalist crisis. Marxists can play a key role in this process, even helping to speed it up, ensuring that the crucial lessons of past struggles is provided for the new generation of class fighters.

Defending demonstrations

An important issue that faced the movement was the draconian use of tear gas and other chemicals by the police on 15 June and the expectation that this would happen again. This was confirmed by the police’s determined to crush the movement and not to allow the mass of people to stay on the square.

This complicated the mobilisation for the protests during the two-day general strike. The masses needed a clear strategy to deal with riots and police brutality, as well as a political alternative to bring down the government, linking it to a struggle to fight capitalism. In the end, the movement did not manage before the 48 hour general strike to deal with the question of police provocatoeurs and the small number of anarchists defending their riots.

After 250,000 protesters in central Athens were pushed out of Syntagma Square on 15 June by police, only tens of thousands re-entered the square, later on that day. It was obvious that riots played in the hands of the government. Clearly the state has good reason to send undercover police amongst the protesters to start riots, as is widely understood in Greece.

A majority of people taking part in subsequent assemblies defended the right of self-defence by demonstrations, but emphasised the call for peaceful protests, to make them attractive to make it possible for the mass of working people to attend. Only during smaller assembly meetings in Syntagma Square did a majority defend rioting – larger assemblies rejected these arguments.

However, all proposals to the assemblies and trade unions to organised effective stewarding and to defend the demonstrations against the police and provocateurs, did not find an echo, in practice. Overall, the outcome of the main assemblies in Syntagma Square was unclear to most workers and youth.

Lack of political alternative

Many workers and youth felt sympathetic towards the movement but also saw the risks of taking part in demonstrations, being confronted by determined, violent police. Working people were not provided with a clear class programme and demands to actively involve them in the protests. The Pasok government’s scare-tactics and blackmailing, the claim that the alternative to their programme would be tanks on the streets protecting banks, the immediate stopping of wages and benefits to public sector workers and pensioners etc, appeared to have been partially successful in its aims because no mass alternative force – not the trade unions or the big left parties – offered any viable class alternative.

The main trade union leaders are members of Pasok and only after huge pressure from below did they feel compelled to call the 48 hour general strike. GENOP, the trade union of the electricity workers at DEI, the energy company (so far, still 51% state-owned) went on strike to stop privatisation. However, this action was a “silent strike”. Strikers were not mobilised by the union, staying at home instead, and they were not mobilised to attend any big demonstrations or protests. Their union leaders also announced in advance, before the 48 hour general strike, that their strike would be ended on 30 June. The effect of this kind of strike therefore was extremely limited.

The KKE (Greek CP) denounced the street movement as “petty bourgeois” and for not putting forward “any proposals” – neither politically nor for a strategy about how to fight. There is an element of truth in this, but in the absence of a real fighting alternative the movement of the Enraged provided a point of reference for those who wanted to fight back. The KKE leaders were incapable of appealing beyond their existing supporters and while arguing in abstract for an end to capitalism provided no proposals for the development of the struggle, refused to call for the overthrow of the government and warned that at an end of country’s membership of the eurozone would be ‘bad’ for Greece.

The leader of Syriza, Tsipras, and its biggest affiliated organisation, Synaspismos (‘euro-communists’), did not call for non-payment of the sovereign debt to the bankers or for nationalisation of the banks. Synaspismos tried to defend the EU institution, in abstract, and also argued in favour of remaining part of the euro-zone. The party did not argue to go beyond the limits of capitalism, a system which imposes poverty and unemployment on the Greek working people.

The CWI (International organisation of the Socialist Party) in Greece, Xekinima, argued neither to remain as part of the EU or the euro-zone, which represent a Europe of the bosses, nor in favour of any return to the Drachma, the former Greek currency. Only a joint struggle of workers and youth across Europe and internationally, fighting cuts and capitalism, and a struggle for a united Europe as part of a confederation of socialist states, can finally resolve the crisis. This would see genuine international cooperation between working people, on the basis of a democratically planned economy.

If the Greek workers and youth are successful in stopping the draconian measures imposed by the EU and the Greek capitalists, then this could lead to an attempt to throw Greece out of the euro-zone. However, it would open the door for a new stage of European-wide mass resistance to force the big powers and capitalist classes into making further concessions and to challenge their rule, in general. Instead of a “national way” back to the Drachma – which would see a hike in prices and debts for working people and wage reductions due to the devaluation of the national currency – an internationalist socialist strategy is needed. And as recent mass resistance internationally shows – in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, Portugal and Greece – the potential for a united fight back exists, as does the instinctive linking up of these struggles.

The Enraged

The movement of the Enraged went through a rapid development since the occupation of Syntagma Square started on 25 May. The resolutions adopted by the assemblies were often contradictory. Often a step forward one day was followed on the next day with half a step back. However, in general, they reflected a development the outlook of activists: many saw the need to link their movement to the workers’ and strikers’ movement and this was increasingly emphasised. Political demands developed, to accept the need not only to stop paying off the debts, but also to argue for the nationalisation of the banks. Proposals going further, including the nationalisation of major companies, under workers’ control and management, were discussed.

The first attempts to spread the assemblies locally were successful – organised by left activists, up to 200 people gathered in different parts of Athens. A call to form assemblies in workplaces was also initiated, but encountered difficulties and got no real response, so far, albeit the general idea was put forward.

A first attempt to form a committee of representatives of local assemblies, more militant trade union leaders representing council workers’, and the Syntagma assembly was not successful. However, this showed the direction to move towards. Such a committee could have put pressure on the main trade union leaders to go further and also could have challenged their approach.

Concerning other issues, the assembly was naïve and ignored the balance of forces, at each stage. Despite its announcements, the assembly was never able to mobilise strikes or workplace occupations. A more skilful approach to attract militant trade union and workplace activists and to put the trade union leaderships under more pressure was necessary.

Next to that, the biggest deficiencies of the Enraged movement were its inability to deal with riots and the so-called “non-political” approach of some protesters.

As explained above, a clear position of self-defence of demonstrations against police and agent provocateurs was necessary to allow for wider participation of fresh layers of workers and youth and to increase the power of the mass movement. During the assembly discussions, the political dynamic of hundreds of thousands involved in protests, for example, on 29 June, was underestimated in comparison to detailed plans on how to block this or that road, all of which failed to materialise anyway, due to lack of participation.

While the “non-political” arguments and opposition to “all parties” was partially weakened in the course of debates it was still present to increasing act as an obstacle to the needs and development of the mass movement.

The refusal to pay debts and the nationalisation of the banks, these measures, for example, are against capitalist interests and are political. The need to formulate an alternative to the blackmailing and scaremongering of the Pasok government and the capitalist media, requires starting a clear political perspective.

The “against all parties” sentiment is understandable, given the corruption, rottenness and policies of all the establishment parties. The larger Left parties did everything to further strengthen this mistrust in party organisation and “political concepts”.

However, the demand “not to be political” hindered the movement and its progress – at a time when the situation was urgent. The possibility of a fall of the government immediately raised the question of an alternative, based on the active involvement of working class people through the assemblies, spreading these bodies locally and in workplaces, electing delegates to fully represent the movement, with full accountability of all those elected by assemblies and the right to recall, at any time.

The “there is no alternative” argument of the Pasok government underlined the need of a viable programme, taking the huge resources of society into the hands of working people, to develop a democratic plan to overcome the economic crisis.

The fact is that there is no ‘Greek solution’ to the world-wide capitalist crisis. The international attacks on working people bring home the need for an international working class response, for international cooperation to fight capitalism.

These developments emphasise the need for the Enraged and combative workplace and trade union activists to transform their movement into a new mass force of working class people offering an alternative. This can help to kick out the leaders of the trade unions still linked to the rotten Pasok party and rejuvenate the debate about a programme and a strategy to end the capitalist misery, once and for all.

However, with the assemblies the outlines of a new centre of the movement was seen, which could help the struggle to overcome the barrier of the conservative and bureaucratic structures of the trade unions and the failings of Left parties. The movement and the assemblies were dismissed by some on the Left – especially by the KKE – as “petty bourgeois”. It is true that the working class did not put its stamp decisively on the main direction of the opposition movement, yet. But the assemblies successfully challenged the trade union leaders and questioned their monopoly on the decisions on the course of the workers’ movement. This trend can be very powerful in the future, if assemblies of rank and file workers are created in factories and offices, organising free and open debate, taking collective decisions and electing representatives to carry out workers’ decisions and to form the basis of workers’ democracy!

Preparation for September!

As the traditional methods of mass struggle – through trade unions and mass Left parties – are either full of obstacles or not viable at all, the workers, youth and unemployed in Greece were forced to invent, again and again, new ways to express the anger and search for a way to fight back. This was seen in the “non payment” movement, over three months from the beginning of this year. Motorway toll collect stations were dismantled by protesters and non-payment campaigns organised on buses and trains. The development of the assemblies and the movement of the Enraged, saw new attempts at self-organisation tested out. What new expression of the anger of working class people will be forged in the next month?

Xekinima, the CWI in Greece, argues to use the determination of activists who do not want to end the struggle, to discuss the lessons of the movement and how to develop it. After the setback of the vote in favour of the memorandum in the parliament, a pause in the movement is likely until after the summer heat-wave and holiday month of August. But Xekinima supporters believe that it is necessary to strived to deal with this in an organised manner, to hold discussions and to take decisions about any pause of the assemblies, so as to avoid further demoralisation through an unorganised decline in participation. Xekinima argues this period should be used to prepare for new meetings of the enraged activists in the neighborhoods and in workplaces, to start afresh with plans for the next steps of the rank and file movements.

Xekinima put forwards the demand for the movement of the Enraged and mass opposition to the cuts, to lay the foundations for a new political movement/formation based on radical anti-capitalist demands. Recent polls showing only 47% of the Greek masses are prepared to vote for any of the existing parties, of the Right or Left indicates the potential for a determined socialist alternative.

Not only the Pasok government but the governments throughout Europe were shocked by this mass movement. It inspired workers and youth all around Europe and internationally – just as the Spanish rebellion and the revolutionary wave in Northern Africa and the Middle East inspired the Greek movement. If the Enraged manage to organise a new round of assemblies, to debate and clarify, and come back to the streets after the summer to fight against new attacks, and every single attempt to put the memorandum into practise, then the possibilities are there for the mass movement to go much further.