2011 will be remembered as the year that young people and workers internationally really began fighting back against the devastating effects of the current crisis of capitalism. After the events in Cairo, Tunis, Athens, Madison and New York, the world will never be the same. Years of revolution and counter-revolution will follow.
This crisis is without doubt the deepest since the 1930s, and the capitalists see no way out. As the economist Paul Krugman recently said in the NY Times “It’s time to start calling the current situation what it is: a depression.” He is absolutely right that what we are facing is not a “normal” recession but a deep systemic crisis, characterized by a prolonged period of global economic stagnation and even slump.
After an initial period of “stimulus” policies, designed primarily to shore up the financial system and prevent an even deeper economic collapse, the capitalist political establishment in country after country has turned to policies of savage austerity.
This follows decades of corporate globalization, neo-liberalism and stagnating living standards. The leaderships of trade unions and “left” parties have also moved sharply to the right and accepted the idea that capitalism cannot be replaced and that it is necessary to work within the constraints imposed by an increasingly globalized market. This position has left workers essentially leaderless in the face of the current onslaught.
But this long, disorderly retreat may be coming to an end because ordinary people have had enough. Faced with social devastation, millions are ready to push back.
North Africa and the Middle East
The beginning of 2011’s dramatic events took place in North Africa, specifically in Tunisia as young people rose up against the horribly corrupt Ben Ali dictatorship. The rapid ouster of Ben Ali in January was followed by the beginning of a revolutionary upheaval against Mubarak in Egypt. The whole world watched the unfolding developments in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Workers action, including a general strike, played a key role at the critical stage in forcing Mubarak from power at the end of February.
Many commentators focused on the pent-up yearning for democratic rights and an end of corruption as driving the revolution. This is indeed a key factor, but what pushed the situation over the edge is the massive and increasing inequality in countries like Egypt due to the neo-liberal policies of the past 20 years.
The revolution in Egypt has now reached a new turning point. After February there were major illusions in the military leadership which pushed Mubarak aside and which was overseeing the “transition to democracy.” But as people see the military’s real position and particularly its unwillingness to concede serious democratic reforms and reduce its own control over the government, opposition has grown dramatically. In November millions took to the streets again and braved vicious repression. Now there is talk of a “second revolution.”
Recent parliamentary elections gave a majority to Islamist parties. This is not surprising given that they were the best organized opposition to Mubarak. Also, all left-wing parties were barred from running by the military and are only just beginning to organize themselves. There will be rapid disillusionment with the Islamists because of their willingness to work with the military. The decisive question now is whether the working class, including the independent trade unions, will begin to intervene to give real voice to this discontent and direct it against the capitalist system, which is behind the varying facades of military and semi-military rule.
By the spring of 2011, a widespread revolt was underway in southern Europe, especially in Greece and Spain, against the endless rounds of austerity measures. The elite’s goal is to prop up the Euro currency and the French and German banks which hold most of this “sovereign debt”, by making the Greek, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese and now Italian people pay through drastic cuts to their public sectors. The Committee for a Workers International (CWI), which Socialist Alternative supports, has consistently pointed out that the Euro is unsustainable due to conflicting national interests. Despite the recent deal to ‘stabilize’ the Euro – which in reality only enshrines permanent austerity – this crisis is far from over.
As in North Africa young people have played the role of sparking wider opposition, for example, in the occupation of public squares across Spain by the “indignados”. But the wider working class has also shown its determination to enter the arena of struggle. There were no less than 12 general strikes in Greece in the course of the last twelve months!
But it is striking that in all these struggles people are clear about what they are against, namely the current economic and political setup, but they are not clear what to replace it with. In reality it is only the working class with its potential social power to shut the system down, which can show a way out of this crisis by galvanizing the vast majority around a program of not paying the debt to foreign or domestic bondholders, nationalizing the banks under workers control and moving towards democratic socialism.
Resistance to austerity is not purely a southern European phenomenon. Britain experienced a series of major working class mobilizations including one day public sector strikes in June and November, the latter involving two million workers.
The Battle of Wisconsin
What is truly remarkable from the perspective of activists in the US is that the year of struggle was not confined to distant foreign lands. In February as the Egyptian masses fought for Tahrir Square, working people in Wisconsin rose up against the newly installed administration of Tea Party Governor Scott Walker, who set out to smash the public sector unions under the guise of addressing a budget emergency. What followed was an epic battle with mass demonstrations and the occupation of the State Capitol in Madison.
Again young people played a key role, when high school students walked out and inspired their teachers to take sickout action. But as the wider working class became swept up in the movement the question of more decisive action, including the question of a general strike, was posed.
In the end this movement was defeated because the trade union leaders, especially at the national level, were not prepared to authorize or organize the kind of class struggle actions necessary to push Walker back. Instead after the legislation stripping public sector unions of almost all their rights was passed, they urged the movement to focus on recall campaigns directed against Republican senators.
The battle of Wisconsin as well as the inspiration of the Egyptian and Southern European youth clearly helped lay the basis for the final key development of this eventful year: the Occupy movement. Beginning with the Occupation of Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan, this movement spread like wildfire across the U.S. and then the world. In the U.S. it tapped into the deep anger at a quarter century of growing social inequality, capped by the current crisis and the response of the political system.
The “99% versus the 1%” slogan expresses this visceral rage at what has happened in society and particularly at the role of Wall Street. While this is not a fully fledged workers movement its core message points towards an emerging class consciousness.
Very importantly, Occupy activists have also sought to build links with trade unions and to pressure the unions to take bolder action. Occupy Oakland called for a local general strike at the beginning of November after police repression almost resulted in the death of a protesting Iraq War Veteran. Thousands marched on the Port of Oakland that day and shut it down with the support of rank and file longshore workers. Occupy organized a further day of action in December to try to shut down ports up and down the West Coast which is discussed elsewhere in this issue.
In 2012 it can be expected that the energy of the Occupy movement will infuse renewed struggles on college campuses against tuition increases; in local communities against the wave after wave of budget cuts; and possibly in further shaking up the conservative union leadership.
A critical question internationally and in the U.S., is the need for the movement to go beyond anger at this failing system of capitalism, and to embrace a new society – democratic socialism – that can put real power into the hands of the working class and poor. This is linked to building new political parties, based on and truly representing the working class, that can galvanize all sections of society suffering from this crisis and direct them against the capitalist system which is the source of this misery.
In 2011 the masses of young people and workers in country after country took the first steps on the road to real freedom. In 2012 we must continue on that path and advance.