2 July 2011

With the Indignados of Norfolk - and Thessaloniki

by Trevor Phillips

The hundreds of local people attending a demonstration in Norwich on Thursday, in defence of public service pensions, were good humoured and enthusiastic. They heard excellent speeches from local trade unionists and campaigners.

Many similar UK demos will have heard similar messages: the Con-Dem government’s attack on public sector pensions - as on public services such as the NHS – is simply based on Tory dogma, not practicality; public sector pensions are mostly not in a drastic state - and if they were the government should first collect the billions of pounds of high-earner and corporate tax which is evaded or avoided; this is all really a plan to shrink the British state, diminish democracy and open the door to privatisation and easy corporate profits.

I agree with this view and a few weeks ago I recounted it to hundreds of citizens of Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece, when I visited the camp of indignant, anti-austerity campaigners - 'Indignados' - near the city's famous White Tower.

Each evening, many hundreds of people attend an open-microphone session to share solidarity and ideas.

I managed only a brief description of the UK disease and ran out of time to describe UK anti-cuts responses: trade union and national , Norfolk’s contribution and the imaginative and popular UKUncut

The White Tower events were inspiring, with many young people involved, but lacked ideas for coherent alternatives to the government’s vicious austerity plans. As someone said, the big question remains: if the Greeks resist and reject the oppressive 'rescue' deals: what happens when public servants don't get paid? Nobody, it seemed, knew how to deal with this. But even this may not stop the Greek people from rejecting the impoverishing deal struck with the EU, IMF and European Central Bank. There is a widespread mood of anger, proud resistance and a desire for independence, alongside a sense of betrayal. And for some the certainty of forthcoming suffering has overcome their fear of its unknown detail.

On another evening I stumbled upon a massive procession along Egnatia street (the ancient Via Egnatia from Istanbul to Rome). It was 10pm and many thousands of people were parading against the austerity programme. There were virtually no banners, no party symbols, placards or signs of political allegiance. But many knew the slogans and songs. It really was The Masses: ordinary families, many with children on shoulders. They passed grannies banging cooking pots. One woman stopped to kiss and hug a tiny elderly lady, thanking her for her noisy expression of solidarity. It was very moving to be amongst it. It felt totally honest and proud and defiant and even hopeful.

When I asked who the organisers were, I was firmly told this was not led by any political group and the implication was that nobody trusted such forces. I didn't have enough conversations or experiences to grasp a fuller picture, but there is certainly enormous anger and a massive willingness to resist the rotten deal being cooked up to protect banks at the expense of the Greek people. People are uncertain about what to do except to express their opposition. But they would probably do more if a coherent leadership amongst this resistance could describe a strategy.

To some young idealists, this lack of leadership is refreshing and a chance to experiment with their fantasies of a world without states and politicians or the filters of political management, which - in Greece and elsewhere - somehow reduce the finest intentions of social democrats to the role of bouncers outside capitalism's casinos. One young activist asked me what I thought of Direct Democracy? This idea, intended to circumvent politicians and the failures of representative organisations, is enthusiastically promoted by some younger elements. I said I thought it had some local applications worth exploring but was not on its own a solution for running a complex economy and a nation of millions. I am not sure if his resulting expression was of disappointment or pity.

The anti-austerity resistance movement in Greece surely needs to link the energy and imagination of the young optimists and the millions of concerned families with the experience and networks of established left groups and unions. But the latter need to win back lost trust and it’s hard to see any future progressive role for the governing, social-democratic (Labour-like) PASOK party, now it has pushed through the new austerity deal. And to succeed, resistance cannot just happen in Greece, though Greece may yet create momentum for a broader response. This is surely what is feared by national and EU political leaders and the big business interests they represent.

Why are the governments of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain not discussing a joint response to their collective punishment? As the old adage says: ‘If you owe the bank a thousand pounds you have a problem. If you owe the bank a million pounds, the bank has a problem’. Sadly, most or all of these governments favour the market ideology being rammed through by the EU. The IMF and EU are therefore able to impose ‘rescue deals’ on a country-by- country basis rather than within a European Recovery Plan. Would a collective solution anyway be permitted by those who profit from division – and who even bring down elected governments by conducting or threatening ‘capital strikes’ ?

Yes in Greece, the UK and elsewhere – the biggest strikes are not currently by workers but by capital. Finance capitalism is on strike – refusing to fund recovery until it is guaranteed the interest terms it demands to secure its customary usurious margins.

In the absence of a response to this process by their own governments, the people of Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland - and the UK - must try to organise their own resistance, including strikes of labour with popular support. After the Arab Spring, this is no longer a ridiculous idea.

So it was immensely satisfying to be outside the Forum in Norwich, cheering the disability groups, ‘Defend the NHS’ campaigners, teachers, civil servants and students. And to see that amongst these ‘Norfolk Indignados’, some unions are playing a significant role and commanding respect. It is not yet the Via Egnatia, but it is certainly the route to somewhere better.

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