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The Europe-wide strikes and protests of November 14 point the way forward for our movement argue Chris Nineham and Dan Poulton

Demonstrators in Rome (AFP Photo / Andreas Solaro)

November 14th was a breakthrough moment in the battle against austerity. There was action in at least 23 countries, general strikes in Greece, Spain and Portugal, factory walkouts and a hundred workplace occupations in Italy and transport strikes in many European countries hitting rail networks and airports particularly.

In Italy there were demonstrations up and down the country including one of more than 50,000 in Rome, where thousands of school students walked out of school chanting ‘you block our futures, we’ll block the city’. 15,000 trades unionists marched in Paris even though there were no official strikes. There were local protests, walkouts and rallies in literally hundreds of towns and cities across the continent. In London a protest outside the European Commission was followed by a packed rally listening to reports from across the continent, and there were other protests in many towns and cities.

The day’s protests hit the headlines because they have introduced a new factor into the struggle: Europe-wide co-ordination. Partly the action was a fantastic gesture of solidarity by European workers with those at the front line of the attacks in Southern Europe, solidarity best symbolised by German workers chanting ‘we are all Greeks’ as they marched through the streets of Munich. But Europe-wide action represents more than that. It is the start of a working class response to the fact that austerity is being driven through by the troika - the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF - at a European level. It is the moment when the movement started to mount what the leader of the Greek TUC called “a total response of the European people to a total offensive by the troika.”

The national and the international

National struggles remain crucial. Power and sovereignty remain primarily concentrated in the national states. Economic and political experience, the tempo of austerity, the arguments being used to justify it; all are very different in different countries. But neoliberal globalisation has meant that national ruling classes in Europe and elsewhere are co-ordinating as well as competing at a regional level. We too have to operate nationally and internationally.

Co-operating across national boundaries means we can scupper plans to divide us, and break up the ruling classes’ attempts to combine their forces. A campaign for dropping the debt, for example, could only work if the left and workers’ organisations around Europe agreed its terms. If it became a popular demand it would turn the tables on the troika and cause panic in the banking centres of Europe.

New conditions

All this is important because the current economic and social crisis is playing out in a very different way to the last big crisis in the 1970s. In those years in many countries working class combativity developed through successful sectional resistance, which accumulated a wider momentum over time.  This time around the crisis has quickly become a crisis of the state and it has been national governments and now more and more international financial institutions that have been co-ordinating the resulting assaults on workers and the poor.

It has been obvious from the start that we couldn’t repeat the experience of relying on sectional strength, but that a national, political response was essential. November 14th shows that we can and must organise across borders too.

But the day’s action also underlines another crucial characteristic of the movement. The combination of the relative weakness of the trade unions and the sheer scale of the assaults means the movement needs to operate in new ways.  What is happening here is not just welfare cuts, but the wholesale re-engineering of our societies.

Strikes and the movement

Imagining that union-led general strikes on their own are magically going to lead society out of this austerity nightmare is simply wishful thinking. There have after all been twenty three general strikes in Greece already.  Everyone in the movement of course wants to see successful general strikes, but the real picture of November 14 involved a complex interplay between the unions and wider movements, especially where it was most successful.

In Spain the M15 movement launched in May 2011 has spawned a host of community campaigns, including a very militant campaign against repossessions that has stopped hundreds of people losing their homes. Young activists organised a blockade of parliament at the end of September, themselves partly inspired by the long march of the Asturian miners in the summer. In Italy local campaigns groups co-operated with the student movement to organise the first big demonstration against the Monti ‘government of technocrats” last month. In Portugal left activists, many in the broad socialist group the Left Bloc, have built a dynamic mass movement against casualisation.

Such campaigns were essential in creating the conditions for the strikes. Strikers in turn often see themselves as part of the wider movement and their action as part of a wider political project. As a spokesperson for the workers’ commissions in Spain, David Materiani put it:

“A lot if us have reasonably good jobs, but we all have unemployed brothers, everyone is fed up with evictions, the state of education, the health service, there is a big anger everywhere at the moment.”

It’s this interaction between the movements and the unions over the last few months that has led to the success of N14. In the words of left wing Spanish journalist Maria Carrion:

“a while ago the unions were marching in one place and the youth in another, now you have everyone marching together, the unemployed, families of people who are worried about losing their jobs, people who fear their support systems are breaking down, everyone who is suffering.”

Moving left

There is a host of sociological data that helps to explain this picture. While the number of strike days in Britain has fallen to a record low in the last decade and union density has been steadily declining to its current figure of 25% of the workforce since the early 1980s, there has been a marked increase in the number of people involved in social movements and demonstrations over the same period. In 1983 only 2% of the population reported going on a demonstration, by 2006 that figure had grown steadily to 10%. In Britain and Europe over the same period there has been a dramatic disengagement from traditional political parties but also a big increase in the number of people self identifying as left wing. In 2006, 7 million people in Britain regarded themselves as on the left, up from less than 5 million in 1981 and a remarkable 1.8 million self identified as ‘far left’, including a staggering 750,000 young people.[i]

Our strategy for the movement has to start with this general political radicalisation, rather than hope of a miraculous return of sectional strength.  The movements in some European countries are clearly well ahead of where we are here, but it would be very wrong to judge the state of the movement simply by looking at the number of strike days taken. When the TUC has called demonstrations against austerity hundreds of thousands have turned out. Polls indicate that around 30% of the population are against all cuts – in other words hold attitudes well to the left of Labour.  The crucial thing is to understand that people are political but disenchanted with mainstream politics, that people are angry, but too often that that anger finds no outlet.

Work together, move together

In order to be inspired by the movement people need to feel that we are really capable of acting together against our enemies national and international. That is why November 14 was such a big step forward. In Britain we have to strengthen our links with the European movement, continue to build solidarity with the Greek people and participate in further days of action and events like the Alter Summit, planned for Athens in June next year.

But we also have to overcome the fragmentation that exists here between the local anti-cuts groups, the various different sectional movements, occupy, the students and the trades unions. It is an obvious truth that together we are much more than the sum of our parts. But this is not just about strength in numbers. It is only when you start to overcome sectionalism that you can develop a political approach adequate to tackling a complex, co-ordinated assault on our whole way of life. If we started to work together and move together we could create the conditions not just for a general strike, but for breaking this government.

[i]All figures from ‘The Crisis of the British Regime’ by Adrian Cousins

Tagged under: Austerity