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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 21, 2011, 8:57 am

Greece Strikes, the People Rise, Global Economy Teeters

BY Michelle Chen

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Protesters clash with riot police in Athens on Wednesday, October 19.   (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Everyone knew it was a losing battle, but everyone showed up anyway. In an uprising virtually unprecedented in its size, scope and diversity, malcontents united across Greece to push back against the government's assault on working people.

This week's 48-hour strike drew workers from both public and private sectors, students, the unemployed--just about everyone about to get smacked with the austerity measures that the Parliament has approved under pressure from IMF and Eurozone officials. With tens of thousands of civil service jobs to be downsized, pensions and wages to be gutted, and labor and civil rights under siege, the people's upheaval has proven as severe and persistent as the fiscal butchery that politicians keep ramming down their throats.

People took to the streets because they had nothing to lose. As one protester, civil engineer Vagelis Filezis, told CNN, "We have no hope. The only hope we have is the strength of the people.”

Alterthess tracked the swelling protests in the streets of Athens:

11:45: Protesters are becoming more and more. The square in front of the Parliament as well as all streets around are already crowded. It seems to be one of the biggest demonstrations of the decade....

13:20: Due to the big amount of protesters different unions seem to have united and formed a general moving mass around the Sintagma Sq. All main roads are blocked while older people compare this demonstration to the first demonstrations after the fall of dictatorship (1974). Police forces--albeit present--have not intervened as demonstration is peaceful till now.

But it was only a matter of time before the tension exploded. By October 20, Alterthess reported, crowds braved the usual onslaught of police crackdowns and tear gas (with one reported death of a protester).  And the demonstration was roiled internally by “violent clashes between rival groups of protesters (anarchist groups and communist party members).”

George Pontikos of the labor group PAME told In These Times that unions, workers, students, the self-employed and other civil society groups defied “threats, blackmail, intimidation by employers and government.” The core demonstrators resisted “the provocateur activity of small groups” that sought to tarnish the movement's public image and undermine solidarity. Amid the chaos, the most effective way to keep the movement intact is just to stay on point, under the slogan “down with the government and the parties of capital”:

These forces demonstrated the opposition of the working people, the youth and the popular strata to the adoption of the new anti-people measures. They declared the opposition of the people to the new sacrifices for the plutocracy that the social democrat government calls for.

Their cries may sound militant, but the relentlessness of the protests reveals more than a populist tantrum. The Greek drama may portend the bleak future of the Eurozone. While governments continue churning out austerity plans to avoid financial “collapse,” brazenly disregarding the potential social consequences, Peter Dwyer at the Socialist Review observes:

Enter the Greek working class. It has been their defiance of such measures through general strikes, protests and riots that has meant the Greek rulers have been prevented from going as deep and as fast as the EU want them to. The result has sent shockwaves through the EU for fear they will not get their money back if Greece defaults.

For the Greeks, the economic and social collapse has already hit, so against a deaf and mute government, they are leveraging the only thing they have left: their anger. On the other hand, Dwyer warns, “we know capitalism never stands still”; that is, while direct actions open up a space for dissent, there isn't yet a coherent plan on the left to cope with the (perhaps inevitable) demise of the Euro.

A missive on the leftist outlet said that Greece should reject the crippling Eurozone austerity agenda and sever the “gordian knot of debt.” A more nuanced analysis by Dick Nichols at Links weighs various arguments for deliberate default, a total exit from the Euro, or an “integrated” European response with a vision for social equity, rather than a potentially regressive backlash against any regional integration:

The 700-strong October 1 European Conference Against Austerity in London settled on five points: resistance against austerity policies and cuts, a radically progressive tax system and capital controls, nationalisation and democratic control of the banking system, the renunciation of illegitimate debt and an alternative economic and political strategy embodying a green approach to public spending and job creation.

The coming months in Europe will tell us how strongly working people will rally to those slogans.

Beyond Europe, the tireless rage that has gripped Greece captures the tenor of the global crisis—a cry of despair that resonates far and wide from Manhattan's 99 percent to Madrid's Indignados. As Occupy Wall Street inspires parallel protests worldwide, each adds new tactics and ideas to a collective chorus, all harmonizing around vital questions: can the movement stay both disciplined and decentralized, self-critical as well as constructive in developing solutions for communities? The uprisings are just now finding their voice. Athens is one more global mic check.

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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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