Archive | March 2012

Europe’s Crisis Isn’t Finished But Its Politicians Are

Ever since Europe’s political class extended the life of the austerity regime in Greece with a second “bailout”, there’s been a misplaced triumphalism by some of the leaders most responsible for this era of unemployment and recession. Both president Sarkozy of France and European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi have declared that the crisis is resolved or that the worst is behind us. These statements are more than just irreconcilable with reality, these are statements entirely detached from the experience of Europeans enduring the full brunt of the crisis and are still facing more sacrifices demanded by parliaments from Lisbon to Athens.

While the European political class can look forward to luxurious summits marked by self-congratulation, the decisions of previous summits leave a future for workers disfigured by slashed wages, increased taxes, poorer working conditions, if not outright unemployment and poverty. It is not without the most extensive grievances that millions of workers in Spain participated in the general strike on the 29th of March. Just months into a new labor reform law that empowered employers, there’s been an increase in employee layoffs by a factor of eight in the Spanish region of Andalusia. Measures like these “resolve” the crisis in the eyes of policymakers. These are measures that weigh on workers and spare the preferred constituency of banks and large corporations. When thought is given to the real crisis, that of unemployment and poverty, politicians like Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passoas Coelho can only manage to suggest young Portuguese emigrate to former colonies.

For all the declarations of triumph, Europe’s political class is left limping after the latest “bailout” package for Greece. Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians are hardly eager to attempt successive waves of budget cuts after seeing how they exiled Greece to a half decade of economic depression. On March 25th, Spanish voters in Andalusia denied the right-wing Popular Party the victory in regional elections, a victory election surveys had predicted, a victory Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy hoped would legitimize his second round of austerity following December’s national elections that brought the Popular Party to power.

The plight of austerity governments is far worse elsewhere. In Portugal, the economic downturn is worse than previously predicted with the high possibility of additional austerity required in exchange for additional European and IMF loans. The difficulties in Portugal strike a further blow to Europe’s austerity union as Portugal was trumpeted as the obedient and successful student in contrast to Greece’s alleged hesitancy to commit to austerity.

This leaves us with Greece, where the governing political consensus has been most shattered. This political class has embraced austerity, most recently slashing the minimum wage by 22%, 32% for those under the age of 25. It is because the two dominate political parties in Greece, New Democracy and PASOK, have embraced austerity that Greek voters intend to decimate their grip on power in the next election and replace them with anti-austerity parties outside the political mainstream.

Much of Europe isn’t in sight of the end of the economic crisis. It is restored employment and social services that will mark the end of the crisis, not rising global stock markets that the media and politicians cite as an indication of recovery. The politicians of the center-right and center-left, however, are largely finished. They are left as a force almost explicitly in parliament for the sole purpose of enacting the collective will of the markets. It is with stinging accuracy that Spain’s indignant youth chant: “They call it a democracy, it isn’t.” The public must traverse the wreckage of failed policies left by the political parties that are the obstacles preventing the exit from the crisis. What’s left, then, is to empower the worker, student, and pensioner to craft the political outcomes they have long been made subject to; reversing the leverage and making the banks and bosses subject to political outcomes of workers, pensioners, and students.

Spain’s General Strike: As It Unfolded

Update 5:

Flagrant police brutality against protesters evacuating Catalunya square in Barcelona:

video of the aftermath of the police assault on protesters:

clashes between protesters & police in central Barcelona:

El Pais estimates the crowd total in Barcelona at 275,000 and 170,000 in Madrid. Union figures are far higher with 900,000 in Madrid alone.

Update 4:

video of more police violence against strikers. After being beat by police batons, the crowd shows their bare hands and chant “these are our weapons”:

100,000 people in the city of Vigo marched against the worsening of labor conditions purposed by the national government. This makes out to about 1 in 3 residents of the city. If you thought this number was inflated by crowds coming from the other large city in that region of Spain, worth seeing the tens of thousands protesting in A Coruña

Many tens of thousands also protested in the Basque city of Bilbao:

Update 3:

possibly signaling a long day ahead, 58 general strike related arrests reported overnight across Spain by La Vanguardia.

One of the instances where the police used violent force against striking workers picketing their workplace:

One of the incendiary pickets that burned in the pre-dawn hours, this one in the city of Lleida:

Update 2:

Morning will bring more news but here are some last critical updates:

a business owner used a knife to stab a union member who entered the business to inform workers about the general strike. Injury reported as minor:

http://www.eleconomista.es/espana/cronicas/2736/03/12/EN-DIRECTO-Huelga-general-del-29M.html

This video shows hundreds of workers in Zaragoza participating in a picket outside their workplace:

The pickets are an issue to watch because last week in Portugal police were used to break up pickets by striking Portuguese workers.

Finally, TeleMadrid isn’t the only television channel offline. Canal Sur in the southern autonomous community of Andalusia is also offline. Image of the signal shown here: http://www.que.es/ultimas-noticias/espana/201203290253-huelga-deja-emision-varias-televisiones-efe.html

Update 1:

Reports in Spanish media report a fall in electricity demand by 15%, a fall linked to the general strike and possibly indicating a high level of participation in work stoppages.

Meanwhile, some Spanish media is offline entirely. Here’s a screenshot I took of Public television channel TeleMadrid. “The general strike called by the unions against the labor reform of the national government has disrupted the transmition of Telemadrid”:

There are also hundreds if not thousands of students and youths taking to the street calling on bars and stores to close:

These are but the first few hours of the general strike and by morning and the afternoon we’ll know the full force of the resistance across Spain to the right-wing government’s worsening of labor conditions. Solidarity with Spanish workers, indignant youths, and unemployed!

The Ongoing Counter-Revolution in Portugal

The economic crisis continues on in Portugal with rising unemployment, a mounting number of bankruptcies, and an increasing trend in emigration sending educated youths overseas. It’s the worst crisis in the country since the ’70s when the country was transitioning to democracy following the Carnation Revolution that toppled the colonial and fascist regime. While this current crisis had its own origin through the financial crisis of 2008,  the struggle since 1974 to chart Portugal’s post-empire future is still being fought today with the current economic crisis as the latest and most intense confrontation in that conflict.

In a recent speech, Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passoas Coelho called his austerity program a quiet revolution. He was close to accuracy in his declaration. His government is transforming the country in a radical direction, a transformation being done by domestic political elites, by foreign officials of the European Union and International Monetary Fund demanding austerity and privatizations, and by the wealthy Portuguese no doubt content to see the financial cost of the crisis weighed on the backs of Portuguese workers. But instead of this process as a quiet revolution, this is the design of a counter-revolution by a handful of political and economic interests, a design dissimilar to the Carnation Revolution that had many tens of thousands of people participating in the dismantling of the fascist and colonial state.

In this counter-revolutionary process led by Passoas Coelho, relics of the old fascist regime are casting ever darker shadows over the country. Five journalists recently had their radio program terminated after one of them voiced criticism of the Portuguese government.  In the last two general strikes in the country, police were deployed to dismantle picket-lines by workers, eroding the fundamental right to strike.

November 2011 General Strike:

March 2012 General Strike:

The inevitable chant by the workers is “Fascism Never Again” as the police bust their picket-lines. It’s a chant of anxiety by people who see their government abandoning any notion of ensuring their rights and livelihoods. The government’s objective is anything but defending the rights and social security of the people. It’s a government committed to worsening the working conditions of Portuguese, a government committed to privatizing public services for the enrichment of the very few and to deny access to the poor or unemployed.

The conservative government’s efforts are not limited to media censorship and assaults on labor rights. People across Portugal are finding themselves priced out of the healthcare system by imposed fees as part of the austerity program. Healthcare service is distributed not by need but by the privilege of wealth that pays for access. This runs against the constitutionally stated right of universal healthcare. It is but one of the rights won by the 1974 revolution made casualty by the current right-wing government.

Faced with such brutal austerity policies, protests have attempted to stall if not reverse this radical austerity drive. These protests have instead found a police force mobilized to stall and reverse their dissent by bludgeoning protesters with police batons. On March 22nd, a section of a protest march was charged by police without provocation. The images that emerged were ones of youths bleeding from the head and journalists targeted for assault by belligerent officers.

This process, a process I argue is a counter-revolutionary process to the ideals of the Carnation Revolution, is driving Portugal into greater social and economic poverty, an economic and social poverty where people aren’t afforded their rights or their rightly earned living-wage. This conservative and reactionary force wasn’t unleashed with the so-called bailout package overseen by the Troika (IMF, European Commission, European Central Bank), but it’s a force that has been enhanced by the strength and might of undemocratic European and international financial institutions. From Ireland to Greece, Italy to Spain, the same austerity program is being imposed to spare the banks of the price of their financial crisis, a price they’ve avoided since 2008.

Making a common front of resistance to austerity is critical to the defeat of Pedro Passoas Coelho and his allies in Madrid, Dublin, Athens, Rome and elsewhere. At regional, national, European, and international levels, governments and institutions have aligned together to achieve the collective impoverishment of the public. Cuts and privatizations in Greece embolden further cuts and privatizations in Portugal. It’s a single battle underway but the same rules that strengthen austerity governments work against it. Defeating prime minister Coelho’s so called “quiet-revolution” will strike a defeat for the Troika everywhere. Such a victory isn’t unimaginable. Politics is fundamentally about choices. The choice left for the Portuguese people is to submit to poverty and emigration as promised by prime minister Coelho or to live up to the Carnation Revolution’s egalitarian promise. It’s a choice to win back recently lost rights and to establish new ones.

Police Violence Drives Public into Austerity Abyss

In this era of austerity, governments are increasingly making the conflict with an outraged public into a physical battle. They argue the problem with our society is that we reward the working class too generously, that access to healthcare and affordable higher education threaten the competitiveness of our industries. These aren’t popular notions but they can be given a thin layer of legitimacy after political and media insistence that there’s no alternative. Discouraged, much of the public may attempt to wait out the crisis, hoping the austerity knife passes them by.

There is a point, however, when the public can see an undeniable level of carnage inflicted by waves of austerity measures. Met with a public resorting to street protests to avert the continuation of disastrous austerity policies, governments call upon heavily armed police forces in an attempt to negate dissent with swings of the police baton. This dynamic has played out most intensely in Greece but is increasingly being replicated in Spain and Portugal.

On the 22nd of March, workers in Portugal carrying out a general strike had their picket-lines assaulted by armored riot officers. These attacks proceeded a police charge in Lisbon where journalists and protesters were attacked and pummeled until they bled. This followed the violence by police in neighboring Spain where students protesting education cuts were charged by riot police in Valencia, sparking days of mass protests and even a student general strike.

Whether it’s picket-lines or spontaneous student demonstrations against cuts, politicians have no tolerance for such localized actions where people try to alter conditions of austerity imposed from parliament. The austerity program relies on a widespread sense of helplessness in society, a sense of helplessness that is reduced if workers are allowed to picket their factory to ensure the success of their strike. Defy the strike terms set out by employers and politicians and you will face a line of police officers shoving you off the sidewalk and into the pavement.

This capacity by police to wage violence is the only measure left to maintain the austerity regimes that stretch from Portugal to Greece. Democracy was discarded the moment when the triumph of mainstream parties couldn’t be assured. Unelected bankers serving as prime minister currently chart the course of Italy and Greece at a time when parliaments in both countries are implementing the most consequential policies in decades. Greeks and Italians are only offered the assurance that elections will take place once the economic and political elite finish conspiring with the European Union and International Monetary to dismantle the standard of living previously maintained by workers.

What is happening in Greece is little different from any other country. It is but a country that has had its ritual layers of democracy decimated by the intensity of the global economic crisis. Under similar conditions, any other government would be reduced to a small elite holding onto power by teargassing the main square outside parliament. In the depths of their own crises, Spain, Portugal and Italy are fast shedding any process that can be confused for the public participating in governance. Instead, the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian public will find police already positioned to prevent any change in destination from the abyss of austerity currently locked it.

General Strikes in Spain & Portugal to Combat Austerity Regimes

Within the next two weeks, workers in Portugal and Spain will initiate general strikes to combat the policies of impoverishment undertaken by right-wing governments in both Lisbon and Madrid. While these mobilizations of workers are not coordinated, the policies of austerity in both countries are, polices coordinated by international financial powers eroding the sovereignty and economic viability of all crisis hit countries.

The response made uniform by the Troika (European Union & IMF) across Europe’s so called periphery is to worsen labor conditions and living standards to make the public endure the full weight of the financial crisis. What are portrayed as emergency measures by politicians are later revealed as part of a continuing policy to extract wages through cuts and tax increases. This has been witnessed most intensely in Greece when just weeks after savage minimum wage cuts there are repeated calls for yet another round of austerity.

It is with this prospect of perpetual and unending waves of austerity that Spanish and Portuguese workers will drop their tools and seize protest banners. Inaction carries the consequence of the political elite understanding the absence of opposition to be complicity or even support. This is a notion that can’t be afforded to the right-wing parliaments in Lisbon and Madrid. Their program isn’t concentrated on making either country more efficient or modern. The program is entirely based on squeezing the entire working public out of their income, income that is to be used to extend the life of a corrupt financial system.

For all the complexity that can clutter issues like government deficits and the financial system, the simple reality for people is that they are seeing taxes, food and gas prices rise while their paychecks are slashed. This is as paychecks are threatened by rising double digit unemployment in both Iberian countries. There’s talk by economists like Paul Krugman that Portugal will have to reduce wages across the board by 20 to 30%. Meanwhile, there’s no such expectation that landlords will have to slash rent by a similar amount, a measure that would match slashed waged with slashed living expenses.

These policies have resulted in a sharp injustice within Portuguese and Spanish societies. It is a present and future confiscated by a political and economic system without any hesitancy in repeating the disaster in Greece, a disaster in Greece of unemployment rising from 8% to 21%, a disaster of Greeks working for free for two and a half years just to avoid unemployment. It is a social catastrophe that governments in Spain and Portugal are thrusting their people toward. The general strike and wider struggle of the people is merely an act of survival, an act to escape the hands of politicians, hands that leave the public unsafe as the indignant youths of Spain repeatedly warn.

Portuguese and Spanish opponents of austerity are correct in stating that they are subject to a laboratory experiment. It is a laboratory in which the Spanish and Portuguese experiment subjects can see the previous test subject, that of Greece, near death with the same lethal doses being readied for further use. It is a laboratory which Iceland escaped to find renewed health and vigor outside the confines of the policies demanded by foreign creditors. These general strikes are doors through which Spanish and Portuguese people can exit from the laboratory. As was said in France during May 1968: the blockade closes the street but opens the way.

Kony 2012: The Human Rights Campaign of Bipartisan Convenience

Having watched Kony 2012, I can’t claim that the images of suffering in Uganda were the only thing troubling about the film. The suffering there has been known for some time, communicated through news reports and documentaries before Kony 2012 and before the organization behind it, Invisible Children Inc., came into formation. What’s most novel about the film is its effectiveness in reducing the conflict into the most simple contrast of good guys and bad guys, a simplicity I thought was reserved for the most idealistic fiction.

It is worth clarifying my position that the abducted, mutilated and abused children are victims of horrendous crimes. There is little ambiguity in that. The issue I have with the presentation of their suffering is how it is wielded for a largely U.S. target audience. The film creates a sense of extraordinary inhumanity, but inhumanity in conflict zones is anything but extraordinary. This isn’t to conceal Joseph Kony in a crowded room of active human rights abusers but to dispel the film’s reduction of violence into one accountable person.

But I doubt the filmmakers are entirely unaware of my points. Rather, the simplicity is a product of their intentions which were stated openly enough by the conclusion of the film: to pressure U.S. policymakers to cooperate logistically and militarily with the Ugandan government in capturing Joseph Kony. It is with this intention that the film designated no effort to outlining the Ugandan government’s own human rights abuses, a government that made headlines around the world by a legislative effort to make homosexuality an offense punished by execution. These details would disrupt the film’s euphoria at America finally finding an issue both parties can agree on, as if bipartisan agreement alone signifies good intentions.

I witnessed the fully extent of the Kony 2012 campaign in targeting the American public when I saw the poster with Kony’s face displayed with the likes of Hitler and Osama Bin Laden. It’s a crude campaign which aims more to entice the political class than developing a consistent and single standard for prosecuting war criminals. If it was about a single standard, their posters would have Joseph Kony’s face with an American like Henry Kissinger, a man who has long avoided prosecution for his crimes against humanity. Instead of a jail cell, the man is given interviews on the BBC and CNN where journalists treat him with reverence.

The film argues that arresting Joseph Kony is a start rather than a conclusion.  This premise on its own isn’t incorrect. An inability to effectively prosecute all human rights offenders isn’t a valid argument to then let every abuser run free. This isn’t the standard we should hold the Kony 2012 campaign up to. The flaw in the campaign’s mechanism is it finds its legitimacy in prioritizing Joseph Kony’s arrest from the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal whose prosecutions are directed entirely at African and Arab countries while ongoing crimes against indigenous populations of the Americas, crimes by the United States and Israel against occupied populations, are outside the same jurisdiction so rigorously pursuing Joseph Kony. The same bipartisan consensus being mobilized by Kony 2012 is the same consensus that committed aggressive war against Iraq and continues to arm Israel, a country that used white phosphorus on civilians in a highly concentrated urban setting.

None of this reduces the plight of Ugandan youths subject to kidnappings by Joseph Kony’s militia. These criticisms are to prevent the model developed by Invisible Children Inc. from becoming a new standard for human rights campaigning. Human rights campaigns shouldn’t allow themselves to be shaped by existing institutions and their willingness to mobilize only for causes that don’t threaten their own interests, strategic or financial. Human rights campaigns should be disruptive rather than politically convenient. Most importantly, they should target the most untouchable of war criminals shielded by media and political institutions Kony 2012 is now trying to engage with. When Henry Kissinger or Dick Cheney are in handcuffs,  then the likes of Joseph Kony will know there is a single standard at work. Only then would the next Joseph Kony not so easily count on obscurity, indifference and geographic distance to conceal their crimes.

——

Afraid I only came across this excellent video response after I already blogged this post:

The European Union Attempts a Controlled Burn in Greece:

Greece faces a period of consequential events in the two months directly in front of us. Immediately, there is the highly uncertain results of reduction in debt owed to private sector creditors, the success of which is critical for Greece to obtain the funding from the European Union needed to avoid the much feared disorderly default. With such high stakes, you would imagine that European officials would signal a commitment to stand by Greece. This is not the case as EU officials have yet again delayed a decision to aid Greece in avoiding a default on a 14.5 billion euro bond payment on March 20th.

What may be underway is a sort of tactical retreat by the EU officials from the quagmire in Greece. We receive news updates every week of an agreement reached and more concessions in the form of austerity by the Greeks, only for EU officials, notably the Germans, to still express frustration at the Greeks. It appears to be a moving goal post, a goal post they never intend to let the Greeks reach.

For some in the EU, the calculation may be that Athens is lost. Revenue is sharply falling despite increased taxes and economic activity continues to plummet. While unemployment rises to dangerous levels, Greeks are withdrawing their cash from Greek banks in huge sums, leaving these banks dangerously close to collapsing if panic ensues as we near the March 20th date. If the economic numbers aren’t enough reason to call a retreat, the politics are turning against the austerity program by the IMF and European Union. The anti austerity parties of the left would win a plurality in the April elections if current polling holds. Why would the EU commit billions of dollars in March if the Greek politicians they’re dealing with are toppled in April elections for ones whose explicit mandate from voters is to cease the austerity demanded from abroad?

The economics and politics of Greece make for an EU withdrawal to what they will hope are more defensible positions around Italy, Spain and Portugal. They hope the flood of money from the European Central Bank will douse burning Athenian embers from igniting the highly flammable fields of southern Europe. If this is their gamble, it is a risky gamble that may already be undermined by a deepening recession in Spain with missed deficit reduction targets and mounting social unrest with student strikes and mass protests by unions. Sarkozy claims Europe is turning the page on the crisis. He’ll be distraught when he turns the page to find it was but a Greek prologue.