By Asad Ismi
During November 2012, Europe erupted in anti-austerity demonstrations, with protestors clashing violently with police in Spain and Portugal, where general strikes were declared. Millions of European Union (EU) workers participated in the demonstrations, which have spread to Italy, France, and Belgium.
Greece has also been paralyzed by many intermittent strikes over the past three years, understandably so since it is one of the countries most brutally hammered by the austerity measures imposed by the European Union.
Says Nikos Zydakis, editor of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, “This is a society not just in crisis, but in depression – like Germany or Italy in the 1930s. The EU is pushing too hard, on the economy, yes, but also on society, which is cracking. When that happens, all the barriers to extremism fall.”
Nikos Lountos (pronounced Loondos), is an activist in the Socialist Workers’ Party of Greece (SEK) and a Ph.D. candidate at Panteion University in Athens. The SEK is a socialist-communist party in the tradition of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. The party emerged out of the struggle against the vicious U.S.-backed military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. I spoke to Lountos when he visited Toronto recently.
Q: Can you describe the situation in Greece?
Nikos Lountos: On the economic level, things are getting worse and worse. Greece is in its fifth consecutive year of economic contraction and the economy has shrunk by 20%. Unemployment is over 25% with youth unemployment at 58%. The majority of the people have seen their wages cut by 50%. There seems to be no way out. The prediction is that we won’t be out of this crisis for many years to come.
All the austerity measures taken by governments have failed. They have been providing more and more money to the banks, but they haven’t even been able to save the banking system. The stock market is continuing to collapse, and the ruling class has failed to find a way out of this economic mess. There is also a crisis on the political level, and that’s even more important.
Q: What is the role of capitalism in the creation of this crisis?
Lountos: Capitalism is the source of this crisis. The failure of the Greek economy is the mirror image of the success of Greek capitalism in previous years. The Greek economy was advancing more rapidly than any other Eurozone economy from 2000 to 2006. Greek capital was able to expand into the Balkans and buy up banks in Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, and Turkey, and to buy up many companies because it had the strength of the Euro currency.
The Greek capitalists were able to use the euro because capital from around the world was coming to the European banks and this capital was invested in Greece because this country was a success story for them. At the same time, the Greek ship owners were able to launch the biggest fleet of oil tankers in the world and be the main beneficiaries of what is happening with oil in the Mediterranean. So you have this success story of Greek capitalism, and now you have Greek capitalism as a colossal failure. Capitalism is such a crazy system that it can turn success into failure, and the price for the failure is always paid by ordinary people.
Q: Did the Greek capitalists overextend themselves in the Balkans? Did they buy up too many assets?
Lountos: Yes, they did overextend themselves, but it was not just the Greeks. The European Union (EU) itself was investing in the Balkans through the Greek banks. Many people are asking now why the Greek capitalists borrowed so much money. The answer is that those who were lending the money [which was coming from other EU countries] were thinking that it would be a success. So they were lending the money because they thought that Greek investments in the Balkans would succeed and provide profits for them.
The Greek banks were borrowing money and they were happy that they were becoming the hub for capital activity in the Balkans. They were turning the smaller countries in the Balkans into slaves for Greek capital. So Greece was the boss in the region. At the same time, German and French investors were happy to invest through the Greek banks because they were making such big profits. This situation became a crisis for Greece because both the Greek capitalists and the EU overextended themselves in the Balkans.
Q: Greece has had to seek a financial bailout from the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Tell us about the austerity measures these institutions have imposed on Greece in exchange for the bailout loans.
Lountos: The main thing the troika has demanded is the collapse of wages, which the governments have already implemented. Wages have been cut by half. Secondly, the troika has been trying to privatize everything that was still publicly-owned. Thirdly, they have been demanding changes in the pension system in order to slash pensions and any other bonuses people have, especially the most vulnerable of the people. It’s austerity in the most extreme form. But even this has not worked, has not brought the results they were expecting. Rather, the opposite has happened. Because of all these austerity measures, the economy has shrunk even more. So now the economy is shrinking, not just because of the crisis, but because of the austerity measures too. They have drained millions out of the pockets of workers and consumers.
One reason for the high unemployment in Greece is that many companies, big and small, have been shut down due to the austerity measures, and people lacking enough money to buy things. More and more money is now leaving Greece for tax havens overseas. The capitalists are not investing in Greece because the crisis is not just Greek, it is global in scale, and the capitalists know that.
Q: Can you describe the workers’ struggles against this austerity?
Lountos: The workers’ struggles have been unprecedented in Greek history. These last two years, from the start of 2010, have been two years of constant struggle. There have been 17 general strikes. In between these general strikes there have been other more localized strikes in different industries. We have had three mass street protests in Athens every day. Initially, the union leaders controlled these actions, but as the crisis progressed, we have had more and more workers’ committees taking things into their own hands.
We have had some crucial moments in the struggle. One was in May 2010, when the general strike and a massive demonstration almost stormed the Parliament in Athens. Then, in the summer of 2011, inspired by the Indignados movement in Spain and the Arab Spring revolts, there was an occupation of the central square in front of the Parliament by hundreds of thousands of people. People who participated then went to their workplaces and started a series of occupations of employment sites. In this way almost all the government ministries in Athens have been occupied by their workers.
There were days when you could walk around Athens and see in every square a public building being occupied and the workers meeting and planning the way forward. On the same days, local government workers were striking and Athens was full of garbage because the garbage collectors refused to work for low wages. The steelworkers started a big strike in Athens and have been on strike for 210 days. A major television station has been occupied by its workers, who have been broadcasting their own program against their boss. A series of small factories around the country, including aluminium plants, have been occupied by their workers because the bosses were threatening to lay so many of them off.
Then came the crucial days of February 2012, when we had three general strikes in a week. On February 12, the biggest demonstration ever in Greece was organized in Athens. All the riot police in the country were there and clubbing demonstrators from the start, but people did not stop coming to the square. Athens was like a city at war that night, and pitched battles against the harsh austerity measures continue to rage all over the country.
Q: What is your vision of a non-capitalist future for Greece and Europe?
Lountos: Capitalism has been proved a dismal failure. It does not work. The capitalist system as a whole is in crisis, and not just the financial system, but the whole capitalist system as an economy. It has fallen back for survival on political oppression, and all its institutions are now in deep crisis. To give you an example, in the latest elections, a Nazi party [Golden Dawn] took almost 7% of the vote, and 50% of the policemen in Greece voted for the Nazis. This is an expression of how deep the crisis is inside our institutions. So we have to move beyond capitalism to a different system which will restore democracy and give first priority to the needs of the people. In a truly democratic economy, the workers themselves will control what they produce and how and why they produce it. That means democracy inside the workplaces, and the traditional name for this system is socialism.
We have examples of workers’ control in several struggles in Greece. The media workers have been occupying their companies and broadcasting their own programs, and they have been printing their own newspapers. The hospital workers have taken over many hospitals and have been running them without managers and without the control of the government. One of the measures demanded by the troika for hospitals is that anyone who uses them has to pay at least five euros. The hospital workers have prevented this by occupying the cashier’s position and making sure that no one will pay this money. Many people have said that, during these days of strikes, the hospitals have been operating more effectively and accessibly than on non-strike days because the union took control and proved a better judge of what is a real emergency and what isn’t, because many high-class doctors were creating fake emergencies to admit their own patients.
We also have the example of the electricity workers, who refused to cut power to poor families who were not able to pay their electricity bills. The workers said that, “no matter what we are ordered to do, we will never let poor people be deprived of the means of heating their homes and cooking their food.” This move to workers’ control has not yet happened in other workplaces, unfortunately, so we now have children fainting in classrooms because they haven’t had a proper breakfast. And many of the factories that produce bread and milk are being shut down by their owners because they’re not making enough profits. Our answer is to occupy these factories, put them under workers’ control, and let them continue to produce the essentials that people need to feed their families and have a decent standard of living.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, December 2012/January 2013
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the forthcoming radio documentary Capitalism is the Crisis. This is the fourth article in a series on this subject.