Shaky money system, increasing state debts, austerity measures, general strikes, violent demonstrations... during the last months of 2010, the social turmoil in Europe has intensified to a degree unseen for 40 years. We have a look at the prelude of the unrest, it's weaknesses and potentials.At the end of 2008, the global market was shaken. In Europe, governments told us that it was the problem of banks in the US which gave out cheap credits to people who were not able to pay them back. We saw middle-class people losing jobs and houses, ending up living in tents. Houses remained empty because no one was able to afford to live in them. New cars were piling up because without credits, no one could buy them. And we thought it was just their problem.
The crisis gripped some of the global companies, particularly those of the automobile industry. Between October 2008 and February 2009 about 800.000 temporary workers in Germany lost their job, but they don't have to call this redundancies. The permanent workers were sent on short time work with agreement of union and financial support of the state. In France, workers locked-in managers and threatened to blow up factories in order to get compensation. But in general, the first wave of crisis seemed to have been avoided.
During 2009, it became obvious that not only the US banks, but all major banks in Europe were involved in the business with debts. We were told that the bankers were greedy, but that the government had to save the banks in order to save the economy. The state debts increased. In 2010, the state in Greece announced that it would have difficulties paying back its debts. The European central banks sent money. In Germany, we were told that it was just the problem of the Greeks because they retire too early at age 59 and the state has to pay the pensions. "Why should we pay for them?", the public media asked. In Greece, the public media blames the German state and the IMF which supposedly 'forces' the Greek government to engage in spending cuts in return for credits.
The next countries on the line were Ireland and Spain. The collapse in construction, tourism, and other sectors resulted in an increase of unemployment to 20 per cent in Spain. This time they had more difficulties to explain the high state debts: Ireland had been the boom country of the 2000's, quite a few young Germans went there to find better paid work. By this time, the governments in Europe had to declare that the debt crisis is affecting all states and that the Euro as a money system is under threat. They started to say that we will all have to save money and work longer. They told this to a generation of workers which will not understand: during the last 20 years we have seen wages declining, temporary jobs replacing permanent employment and work load increasing - so why are we now in a deepening crisis?
By 2010, all governments announced cuts in spending: later retirement age, wage cuts for public sector workers, higher university fees, cut in unemployment and other benefits. In England, the state announced to cut 500,000 jobs in the public sector - which will result in 500,000 more job cuts in the private sector - and to make unemployed people work without payment. They say that the financial support for poorer school students (transport, books etc.) will be withdrawn. In Ireland, the government announced a 10 per cent cut of the minimum wage. Many countries announce to close their borders more tightly to prevent the entry of migrant workers.
An atmosphere of panic has taken over the world of parliaments, company headquarters, and stock exchanges. The saving measures are supposed to re-establish the trust of 'the market' into the credibility of the government and the Euro. But it seems that the measures result in the state losing the trust of the 'normal people'. The news are full of pictures of demonstrations, strikes, clashes with the police, attacks on government buildings.
Several one day general strikes in France during September, 29th of September general strike in Spain, 24th of November general strike in Portugal, 30th of November massive student demonstration in England, 27th of November students in Italy blockade most major cities in Italy, 27th of November biggest demonstration in Ireland's history, 15th of December another general strike in Greece...
Some of these protests looked massive: an hundred thousand people in the streets; no trains running. The size is an expression of general anger. People bother to march and shout. But one day strike is not yet an expression of strength. In the following some glimpses at the weaknesses and potentials in these protests.
In France, more than a million were on the streets, but the actual participation in the general strike was only around 20 per cent and this only in public sector. The strike has seen some new forms of organization: inter-professional assemblies, blockades of roads and rail-tracks. These strikes brought together workers from different sectors. But they are also expressions of weakness. In Paris, bin men of the public sector were on strike, but private bin men did not join. In response, few workers of the 'inter-professional assembly' start to blockade the waste incinerators. The waste piles up, but this does not overcome the initial division. Out of assemblies and blockades, new things appear. For example a day-long occupation of 'round-abouts', with people camping, barbecuing, talking and enjoying music.
In Spain, the division between the growing mass of young unemployed and public sector workers seem even wider. When a general strike was called, the government starts to blame 'the lucky (public) workers' for being privileged. Like in France the socialist government in Spain tried to enforce a 'minimum service' in public transport, hospitals, waste collection etc., and threatened workers with a fee, and in the case of France, even with prison, if they don't go back to work. Workers in public transport ignored this for some days. Then their union representatives accepted the 'minimum service'. In November 2010, the airport workers (flight controllers) went on strike. The government brought in the army in order to take over the work. This has not happened since the dictatorship in the 1930's to 1970's.
Everyone was shocked by the announcement of the cuts, but there was no call for general protest. The cuts are enforced on a local level. In a school in the South of London, 16 out of 200 teachers were supposed to be sacked. The union said that it would not accept 'forceful redundancies', but did not do anything else, saying that due to legal circumstances nothing can be done. The school management put pressure on people: every teacher had to undergo a 'test', even after several years of teaching, and a supervision of their class lessons. The pressure resulted in 16 people accepting VRS. At my work-place, the management took 2 out of 9 trucks off of waste collection. The remaining 7 trucks and workers will have to do extra-work. They will stop calling in 10 temporary workers, this will not even make the news.
Then a slight surprise happened. The student union had called for a march against higher university fees (most students are 10,000 - 20,000 pounds in debts after finishing studies) on November 10th. At first, it seemed the usual march: some leaders speaking, stewards showing the route, slogans. Then several thousand students left the official route and encircled the building of the ruling party. They smashed windows, occupied the offices and the roof, lit fires, brought in music to dance around them. The police were surprised, the government enraged, the student union president distanced himself and talked about 'violent minority'. The incident has given some fresh air to the school and university students.
In the following weeks 30 to 40 universities were occupied in protest against the fee hike. Often only one big room is occupied. The occupiers organize activities themselves: cooking, writing leaflets, going to picket-lines of public sector workers, organizing teach-outs (holding 'lessons' in public spaces, for example supermarkets or banks). Maybe 300 to 500 people take part in this. Some universities have 10,000 to 20,000 students.
The younger school students are more uncontrollable. Their financial support has been cut and they are angry. They organize mainly through the internet (85,000 joined a web-site to be informed about spontaneous demonstrations) and mobile phones. On the day of a demonstration, they go from class room to class room to call people, they jump over fences when teachers try to lock them in, they go to university students to mobilize them. The police cannot cope with them: there are no speeches, no stewards, no route. At the first demonstration, they finally managed to 'kettle thousands of school students for 6 - 9 hours in the freezing cold'. They hoped that next time they would not turn up.
The next time school students ran in groups of several thousands into different direction as soon as they saw police. They ran through the main streets of London, normally reserved for cars and shopping. When they saw the car of Prince Charles, they attacked it. Some of them shouted "We are from the slums of London," while some of the university students had banners like "I don't want to become a bin men." Instead of political party slogans and banners, we saw a lot of self-made placards, such as "I wish I could say something beautiful, but I cannot" or big signs saying "This is not a good SIGN."
The school students have changed the atmosphere a little bit. The local councils separately have to announce where to cut money, where to sack workers. Nowadays several hundred police have to protect these local parliament meetings from being disturbed by protesters. Some of the politicians say, "You act against democracy." In the public media, more and more voices say: "Accept the cuts in the sake of democracy. The government has been elected."
The pictures of the demonstrations in England went around Europe. A few days later students in Italy occupied public buildings, the Tower of Pisa. People in working class areas of Rome helped them to keep the police away. The students shouted, "London is calling and we answer." The following week students and workers in Greece occupied buildings, battles with the police erupted...
Despite the mass marches, the various parliaments have voted in favor of the austerity measures. The large scale and partly 'symbolic' protests have not prevented the 'symbolic' vote. The struggle will have to find ways to express itself on a daily level. Nevertheless, the large demonstrations have not yet made people tired. In England the opposite is true- people say things like 'I feel alive'. They run free through town, meet people in assemblies, take over a space which has been impersonal (occupation of offices or inner-city streets). The media and social scientists are surprised: "Who are these young people"? "And why are they so angry"? "Can it just be because of a fee hike or a money cut"? We see a generation which in this crisis has lost its illusions: that individual efforts will result in a better future. The global atmosphere of the last decades was that of individual pressure: exams, short term work contracts, individual debts.
Whether mortgages in America or micro-credits in Andhra Pradesh: debts fill the gap between an ever growing apparatus of state and industry on the one hand and the down-sliding existence of those who keep this apparatus running by their work on the other. Debts are an expression of desperate hope for the future: management-market-politicians take credits to win time when profits-sales are bad. They hope that 'more technology-more production-less workers-lower wages' will bring back 'prosperity' in the future. Credits will keep business running till then. As a result of their 're-structuring', unemployment is rising. Wages are decreasing and workers are forced to take credits themselves in order to compensate the wage loss. Their debt is partly pure necessity, partly the individual hope that in the near future a better job will turn up; that the child will find a good job after education. The debts are an expression of dependence. They keep us running, the interest rates keep us running faster. They keep the system running, although everything - the tired bodies, the suffering friendships, the polluted nature - screams to stop.The last time we saw the system shaking to this degree was when the crisis forced the European states into mass destruction of humans and industry in the Second World War. This was their way to 'annihilate the debts', to start anew. We will have to find a different way. Some of the struggles in Europe can give us hope. The 'enforced stop-and-go' of the crisis will disrupt 'the daily race' and might bring us together in search for a different, money-less society: where we decide together what we need and how we obtain it.