Workers of the world (at least Europe) unite

For Marx and Engels, “workers of the world unite” was invective.  Today it’s descriptive.  Across Europe, but particularly in countries implementing harsh austerity regimes,

Confrontation in Madrid

workers are taking to the streets, sometimes landing in violent clashes with police.

The global financial crisis that started in 2009 has been much worse in most of Europe than in the United States, and Germany, which houses the strongest economy in the Euro, has demanded strict austerity from economies in trouble.  Governments in Southern Europe, in response to these pressures, have tried to cut state spending, eliminating jobs, cutting pensions and public works, and enacting reforms that have hit working people more heavily than creditors.  The promise is that strict fiscal discipline will save the Euro, help the governments of the richer countries convince their publics to pay for financial bailouts, and ultimately restore economic health.

But most of the people in the countries that have borne the worst of the crash see austerity

protesters throw gas bombs in Athens

as bringing high unemployment, reduced services, including education and health care, and an overall decline in the quality of life.  They see the young people who can leaving the country for better opportunities elsewhere, perhaps never to return.  “Ultimately” seems a long way away, and those who look beyond their own struggles observe that austerity doesn’t seem to be generating jobs anywhere.

demonstrators try to block trains in Belgium

Today, very large numbers have poured out into the streets, including hundreds of thousands in Madrid,  with tens of thousands in virtually every major city in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece, and smaller sympathy demonstrations in France, Belgium, and throughout the rest of Europe.  Although the overwhelming majority of the protesters are nonviolent, there are millions of people in the streets across Europe, and they’re angry.  They’ve shut down mass transit and production; it really is a general strike.

Austerity and anger created the opportunity for protests to spread, but they still have to be organized; the large trade unions have taken the lead in organizing and coordinating activities.  Labor has been much slower to build alliances across borders than business and banking, so these responses to the financial crisis may be a critical turning point for politics and governance.

Will it matter?  How?

The Wall Street Journal cites analysts who say that organized labor, declining in size and power, will have little impact in staving off austerity, that the disruptions will be a sideshow on the way to a better way.  But the San Francisco Chronicle has published a Bloomberg report announcing that the European Commission has promised more bailout aid and no new cuts–at least immediately.

The protests make it harder for elected governments to do what Germany is telling them they must do.  They are also demonstrating–to Germany and the rest of the world–why it’s so hard.  They may well strengthen the spine of politicians (watch France’s Francois Hollande) inclined to stand up against the austerity regime.

One certainty is that what analysts and politicians say is impossible today may be radically different tomorrow–depending upon how long these demonstrators can stay out in the streets.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to Workers of the world (at least Europe) unite

  1. Or, are we witnessing the end of the Modern Era ideologies of Progressivism and Free Market Capitalism at the same time….

    (Please excuse the length of the comment Prof. Meyer.
    But it sums up my reply to your post completely.)

    The Democratic Renaissance Springs Forth into its Second Year
    A New Era of Enlightenment Emerges

    Eyes have been opened. Minds have been freed.

    At the time of its publication in the summer of 2010, who could have imagined that the Direct Democracy Ireland manifesto, with its foreshadowing of a Democratic Renaissance, would be the first document of its kind to accurately describe a political and intellectual movement yet to attain substance and form; an aspiration that resided solely in the hearts and minds of millions around the world, brought closer together through technology and social media; an audacity to dream a little dream of freedom, dignity and hope everywhere, emboldened by the unshakable belief that a life of endless political and personal freedom, coupled with economic prosperity, is possible.

    This movement, first described in the media as the Arab Spring, has only grown since its unleashing in the fall of 2010.

    Though the winds of change began to be felt in North Africa and the Middle East, the Arab Spring has blown into a whirlwind of revolution: Tunisia is free, Gaddafi is gone in Libya, the regime of Bashar – Al Assad is crumbling, and Egypt is slowly crawling toward a democratic denouement.

    Be it prescient or just happenstance, the recognition of a Democratic Renaissance here in the West has today come to fruition, not only in the Republic of Ireland, but across Continental Europe and North America. People are involved and demanding a greater say, their inspiration those who have thrown off the shackles of political repression and fear—the foundation of totalitarianism and oppression; tens of thousands have gathered in city squares from Athens to London.

    But the Democratic Renaissance has brought with it much more than just new voices of political freedom: it has once again sent the individual down a new path of empowerment and intellectual enlightenment, a path filled with new perspectives and new ideas of a future within the grasp of men and women everywhere, grounded in the ideas of reason, logic and common sense; a path that markedly resembles one the human race abandoned long ago in favour of war, ideology and consumerism …

    the Enlightenment.

    The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries took place in a time similar to ours. The world was torn by wars of religion, by imperial and economic conquest. Persecution and witch-hunts were widespread. Looking closely at the activities of today’s activists, one might be surprised to note the similarity both of tactics and the intended outcome of such confrontation: political and intellectual assassination without just cause or trial.

    Now, as then, the call for more democracy and freedom has also unleashed a set of circumstances and events showing the world to be little changed from the past, when Europe itself was ruled by the heavy hand of the aristocracy and priestly enslavers. Even though we in the West have rid ourselves of private armies, mercenaries and countless wealthy overlords, there are those still struggling for their freedom in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Yet, as recent history has shown, humanity tends to move in the direction of less rather than more freedom, a world of shackles rather than a world in which people live in the full light of liberty and reasoned intellectual understanding. Really, how different is our world from that of our ancestors who struggled to free themselves from oppression and the tyranny of a ruling elite? Now, as then, do not the elite see the rest of us who dwell in rural prefectures, bankrupt suburbs and urban slums with indifference and contempt?

    Certainly the West has come a long way from feudal landlords and debtor prisons. But has the individual really gained any more power since the final days of revolution in the 18th century? We may be more prosperous, we may have more stuff, but are we really any more free?

    People in the West continue to face soft tyranny and systemic oppression, even now.

    Are today’s bankers any different than the lords and barons who ruled in centuries past? Back then, we were at the mercy and reliant upon the generosity of an elite class for our livelihoods and future prosperity. Today, can anyone get anywhere without a loan or a mortgage that must be repaid with the price of interest, doubling and some times even tripling the final price of your home or car? And what is the difference between being required to adhere to a dogmatic religious code of conduct and the need to be politically correct to gain entry into a good paying job?

    The major themes of the Enlightenment are kindred spirits with the zeitgeist today. As professor Paul Brain, Washington State University writes, “Like then, individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority and tradition as core European values.”

    And the similarities do not end there. As in the Renaissance, we are today coping with the end of one way of thinking and the emergence of new avenues of introspection. Just as the influence and importance of the church was on the wane then, science as a vehicle to provide future intellectual growth and economical, technological progress is today grinding gears and losing traction.

    Today’s science is not that of the 17th and 18th centuries when the Renaissance exploded through this magnificent and powerful tool of investigation to enlighten people. We are now faced with boundaries and limitations that were not even conceived of then. John Horgan’s The End of Science is probably the best description of just how daunting—and possibly insurmountable—are the obstacles that now face those searching for tomorrow’s answers to today’s questions.

    If we were to truly take an unbiased look as the Western world today, we would find a civilization in decay; its economic structures crumbling; a people politically lost; an economy teetering on the edge. Worse, we are intellectually a fragmented and disjointed people driven by irrational fears and beliefs that stifle lasting economic, political and individual prosperity.

    Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the world should find itself in the throes of rebellion and revolution.
    For us in the West, the Arab Spring has become a Democratic Renaissance. It has brought forth an entirely new realm of political possibility and individual enlightenment.

    Truly, it can only be a matter of time before this energy and enthusiasm that fills the streets will find its way into other avenues of intellectual investigation and enlightened activity, exemplified by art, literature and philosophy.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

    Copyright 2011 J.R.Werbics

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