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,
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
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.
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.