The revolutionary movement that began in Tunisia at the end of last year has now sparked mass movements in Europe; principally, to date, in Greece and Spain. On the surface, these movements have little in common. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people came out in vast numbers to overthrow the hated dictators who, for decades, had strangled their economies and presided over police states, whereas in Greece and Spain, the protestors are not seeking the overthrow of dictators, and are not rebelling against a police state (although both countries can draw on their relatively recent experience of dictatorship).
Beneath the surface discrepancies, however, the revolutionary movements of 2011 share noticeable similarities — not just because they are all, to some extent, popular uprisings involving word-of-mouth and social networking, without the kind of fixed organisational leadership that has been behind previous revolutionary movements, but also because they are all, fundamentally, attacking the malevolent impact of unfettered 21st century capitalism on entire populations, whether these involve dictators enriching themselves by facilitating Western exploitation at the expense of their people, or the populations of European countries being told that they have to pay for the excesses of their leaders and the banks. Everywhere, bankers, corporations and major shareholders continue to make profits, while everyone else loses, and is supposed to go quietly to the abattoir of their hopes and dreams.
In Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 20 percent — and the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 45 percent — protestors, identifying themselves as “los indignados” (the indignant), first followed the lead established in Tunisia and Egypt on May 15, when tens of thousands of people undertook what the BBC described as “a spontaneous sit-in” in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square. Tens of thousands more protestors then occupied public spaces in Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Bilbao ahead of local elections, despite a pre-election ban on political protest.
As the BBC explained on May 21, they were “demanding jobs, better living standards, a fairer system of democracy and changes to the Socialist government’s austerity plans.” One protestor, Natividad Garcia, captured the amorphous, leaderless movement’s aims, saying, “They want to leave us without public health, without public education, half of our youth is unemployed, they have risen the age of our retirement as well. This is an absolute attack on what little state welfare we had.”
Particular outrage was reserved for the “Euro Pact” agreed in March by all the countries tied together through their use of the Euro as currency. As AFP explained, the pact, which was “[d]rawn up under pressure from France and Germany,” insisted on “greater budgetary discipline and economic policy convergence to ensure that countries stabilise their finances and reduce debt.”
Although the Madrid occupation came to an end on June 12, the protestors stated that the movement would continue, and were true to their word. Last weekend, “seething over the destruction of millions of jobs, welfare cuts and corruption,” as AFP described it, 200,000 protesters gathered in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities “to vent their anger.” In Madrid, 40,000 people “converged from six points around the city to the central square of Plaza de Neptuno, near the Spanish parliament,” and in Barcelona, there were up to 75,000 demonstrators.
The protests were followed, this week, by the start of three nationwide marches which will culminate in a major rally in Madrid on July 24. One, from Valencia, involves activists marching and cycling on a month-long, 300-mile journey through 29 towns and villages to reach Madrid, and others are leaving from Cadiz and Barcelona. The Valencia group, Acampada Valencia, stated that they would be holding meetings en route “to bring their indignation inland just as the movement is growing at the international level.”
In Greece, meanwhile, Syntagma Square in Athens has become the epicentre of an extraordinary movement against the savage austerity cuts imposed on Greece last year as its economy fell into freefall. Understandably angered at the cuts they are being made to suffer in place of those who caused the financial crisis, Greeks of all ages, and from all walks of life, have taken over the square below the Parliament, mixing political activism with theatrical interludes. As Aditya Chakrabortty explained for the Guardian earlier this week, since May 25 protestors — tens of thousands of them — have been gathering here to listen, for hours, to speakers who each get three minutes on the microphone to make their point. “Most of them,” as Chakrabortty explained, “use the time alternatively to slag off the politicians and to egg on their fellow protesters.”
Outside Parliament, as Chakrabortty also explained, the crowd, chanting, “Thieves! Thieves!” demonstrated why Syntagma Square “has become the new frontline of the battle against European austerity.” As he stated:
There is another mic here, and it’s grabbed by a man wearing a mask of deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos: “My friends, we all ate together.” He is quoting the socialist politician, who claimed on TV last year that everyone bore the responsibility for the squandering of public money. Pangalos may have intended his remark as the Greek equivalent of George Osborne’s remark that “We’re all in it together”, but here they’re not having it. “You lying bastard!” They roar back. “You’re so fat you ate the entire supermarket.”
The mood here matters, as Chakrabortty also noted, with Prime Minister George Papandreou fighting to keep his job, and trying to “win MPs’ support for the most extreme package of spending cuts, tax rises and privatizations ever faced by any developed country.” As Chakrabortty added, “what happens between this square and the parliament matters for the rest of the eurozone.”
While all eyes are on Greece, with politicians fearful, and economic commentators assessing possible economic carnage, with a new bailout pushing allies to breaking point, and speculation that Greece will default on its current repayments, my sympathies lie with the people, who, like those in other squeezed economies, including Ireland, and, in a more targeted and cynical manner, in the UK under the Tories’ ideological scalpel for the poor, the sick and the unemployed, are being scapegoated for something that was not fundamentally their problem.
What we need, I believe, is a fundamental overhaul of the political systems that we have allowed to exist in the West — or have had imposed on us — since the 1980s. While the artificial boom years of the last two decades involved too much living on credit, the banking crash of 2008 is at the heart of our current woes, and yet ordinary people are being made to pay for it, even though the bankers are mostly free to pursue pre-crash business as usual, the super-rich have bounced back to the obscene wealth levels they were at previously, and corporations continue to evade taxes at a disgraceful rate.
When Greece was bailed out with a €110bn loan from Europe and the IMF last year, the plan was that the money “would tide the country over for a year, in which time his government would at least start sorting out its public finances.” However, as Aditya Chakrabortty explained:
A year in, and the deal is not working. Greece has been in recession for two years and on official forecasts this will be its third. When I ask Athens University economist Yanis Varoufakis to describe the economy, he shoots back one sentence: “It’s in freefall.” … [H]e throws out some statistics: 50,000 businesses went bankrupt last year, industrial production fell 20% and will drop another 12% this year. Unemployment has surged, so that one in six of the workforce doesn’t have a job. These are the sort of figures associated with a depression, and the predictable result is that the public finances are getting worse. Greece’s debt has ballooned to 153% of GDP; on Varoufakis’s projections, even if ministers manage to make all their promised cuts, the government will owe three times the entire national income.
The impact on ordinary workers is keenly felt. For example, Chryssa Michalopolou, a teacher, “calculate[d] that her annual pay has already gone down by the equivalent of one and a half months, while her living costs have shot up, thanks to rising taxes and inflation.” Chakrabortty asked her is she accepted the government’s claims about needing to cut back on public sector spending.
Her reply? “After 15 years’ service, I’m only on €1,200 (£1,056) a month,” she said. “I didn’t see any boom; I simply paid my taxes and now I am being punished.”
That, for me, is at the heart of the problems facing Europe — austerity programs, of varying degrees of severity, that fail to provide any positive message for the future to electorates who, while being squeezed more and more, see no indication whatsoever that those squeezing them are suffering at all.
Times are very tough in Greece, and the vitriol aimed at deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos is, as a result, entirely appropriate. Here in the UK, however, we are clearly not “all in it together,” as our Etonian leaders would have us believe, and David Cameron’s “big society” is an unsalvageable joke, but there is still too much belief that the government is responding to a crisis in the only way possible, when there are always options, and treating the City and corporate tax avoiders with kid gloves — as well as funding Royal Weddings and mounting a military campaign in Libya — might not be very good ways of spending money when we are being told that there is no money left to run a decent welfare state.
Someone is lying — and, as in Greece and elsewhere in the West, where austerity measures are underway — the culprits are those in high office, who are not acknowledging that there are alternatives, and that while the greedy continue to go about their predatory business unpunished, the ordinary people are unlikely to be fooled in sufficient numbers, and to accept that it is their fault.