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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 7, 2011, 11:10 am

While Wall Street Quakes, Greece’s Fire Still Burns Bright

BY Michelle Chen

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Police detain demonstrators and attack press photographers in Athens, Greece during a protest rally marking the 24-hour general strike on October 5, 2011.   (Photo: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

While we may be inspired to see a leaderless mass movement finally crystallizing in U.S. cities, the American occupations still can't hold a candle to the fire raging across Greece.

This past week, demonstrators again unleashed their rage across the tiny Mediterranean republic, blocking government agencies and clashing with government thugs amid plumes of tear gas, with assorted spectacles like trying to burn a European Union flag in effigy. Wilder than the spontaneous encampments in New York, Boston and other cities, the Greek tempests of the past several months have been persistent and rancorous enough to actually shake up the trading floor and the halls of Eurozone-IMF officialdom, as the troika hover, anxious and vulture-like, over a smoldering pyre of sovereign debt.

The explosion in Greece (along with Spain) illustrate how common assumptions about the neoliberal consensus of the industrialized world can be overturned if people become desperate enough. Despite the draconian austerity policies, writes Times columnist Floyd Norris, virtually nothing could persuade the Greeks at this point to swallow more misery:

The tax collectors, of all people, have staged job actions because they fear being laid off. To say the least, there is no sign of a national spirit of sacrifice to save the country.

The message from Greece now may be summarized as, “I’m small. I’ve suffered. You can afford to rescue me. If you don’t, I can create chaos for all of you.”

They may be right.

Are there lessons for the Liberty Plaza protesters to learn from the Athenian class warriors? The Greece context is politically and culturally unique, but it does embody the principle of fierce solidarity. The Greek left is working to harness widespread bitterness into a united front against austerity, linking unions, the jobless young, professionals and laborers.

The basic idea may be simply that those who have nothing left to lose have everything to fight for. True, as with Occupy Wall Street, there was no strict agenda guiding the 24-hour strike, but rather a roar of anguish and a fervent sense that the country is being plundered by international financiers. And that was enough. Rejecting the toxic “bailout” package the EU and IMF dangled before the Greek Parliament last May, Stathis Anestis of the Confederation of Greek Unions told the Guardian UK:

The government is behaving as if it has a pistol to its head... It is not just that it is the poor who are forced to carry the burden of this barrage of measures.... It's not just that all our hard-earned rights are being peeled away. It is that we wake up every day to another cut, another tax, another pay rise. No one can keep up!

In a correspondence with In These Times, George Pontikos of the international department of All Workers Militant Front (PAME), described a steady escalation of militancy across a growing swath of Greek society:

Students move on to huge demonstrations. Almost everyday a sector is on strike. Demonstrations become more massive and more organized. … For the growth of such a struggle, with those characteristics fight today, the class oriented workers movement and the radical movements of the self employed the poor farmers, women and youth.... Even now, class oriented trade unions and anti-monopoly coalitions of the self employed take up initiatives, through meetings at the work places, at neighborhoods, so as to express in a practical, organized and militant way, people’s response to the taxes that strangle the people, to the hard measures that condemn the people to poverty and insecurity.

PAME thus appears to have tapped into the common pulse of the citizenry's anger--beyond the individual grievances of trade unionists, or worried pensioners, or college graduates anxious about the job market. There's a shared sense that the economy is broken from top to bottom and the all encompassing struggle is that of the tiny elite against the many. The group's campaigns, for example, reach out to immigrants and directly counter reactionary percolations of xenophobia among the dispossessed.

Moreover, the radical left's organizing philosophy seems to transcend conventional divisions among workers—across sectors, geography, generation and employment status. The conservative diagnosis for the Greek malaise is an inefficient “two-tier” top-heavy workforce, saddled with gluttonous underperforming bureaucrats, while younger workers are shut out of opportunities. Parroting a neoliberal canard (often echoed in the U.S. when debating pay and benefits for senior versus younger workers, or public versus private sector workers), Greek commentator George Kirtsos told NPR: "Those who control the system that are in [their] 50s or 60s sent a bill of their own failure to the younger generation."

But radical New School economist Richard Wolff told ITT these are classic divide-and-conquer tactics:

The tension between older and younger workers is and should be understood as a minor dimension of the much larger crisis of capitalism as a system that is unfolding before and all around us. Worse, this minor dimension risks being utilized by right-wing forces to distract attention from the systemic roots and dimensions of the crisis. In Europe, for example, those in power seek to transform a struggle pitting workers and citizens against austerity agendas (happening in all European countries) into a nationalistically inflected struggle between, say, northern and southern Europeans. This is articulated as hard-working and frugal northerners versus spendthrift southerners.

Another parallel distraction entails pitting private sector against public sector workers. Inside Greece, for example, this distracts attention away from struggles against austerity that unite all workers.

In the coming weeks, American media and officials will no doubt issue sneering dismissals of Occupied Wall Street, predicting that youthful activists will chafe against the involvement of established labor and political groups, or unions will distance themselves from more radical elements in the movement, or that the inability to agree on a ten-point agenda will sunder the delicate coalition.

But from the ragged edges of Europe to the heart of American capital, Greece can still deliver a prescient lesson in solidarity and direct democracy: in any economic system that feeds off, and ultimately destroys itself through, unbridled selfishness, the best alternative ordinary people can seek is to find common ground to occupy... and hold on tight.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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