Europe in revolt: people power vs corporate crisis

February 14, 2009

Europe has all but exploded into the new year with a growing fightback against the policies that caused economic crisis across the continent. Millions of protesters are beginning to take on those responsible for the capitalist meltdown.

Ian Traynor, the Europe editor of the Guardian, summed up the new developments on January 31: "Europe's time of troubles is gathering depth and scale. Governments are trembling. Revolt is in the air."

While governments are handing out billions to save the banks and big business, working people are suffering from the immense fallout.

Already, one European government has come crashing down in the face of a mass protest movement. Iceland's conservative government collapsed in January under the weight of some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the country.

The protests rapidly took on a strong anti-establishment character. One Icelandic activist described it to the Guardian as "a revolution in political activism".

Icelandic politics has shifted sharply to the left in the wake of the spectacular collapse of the nation's economy. The Left-Green Movement is now the country's most popular party, according to recent polls.

Similar movements have also spread to the poorest and most vulnerable nations in eastern Europe.

Europe in turmoil

After Iceland, the Baltic nation of Latvia is tipped to be the next country to descend into economic meltdown. Latvia's gross domestic product fell a huge 10.5% in the last quarter of 2008, compared to the same period 12 months earlier.

The governor of Latvia's central bank even described the economy as "clinically dead" on national television.

On January 13, more than 10,000 Latvians converged on the capital, Riga. The protests continued into the night, despite violent attempts by police to disperse the crowds.

A section of the protesters confronted riot police outside the Latvian parliament. Outnumbered by the angry crowd, many of the police had their riot shields and batons ripped out of their hands.

By January 16 similar protests had spread to neighbouring Lithuania. Demonstrators in the capital Vilnius defended themselves from police baton charges and threw tear gas canisters back towards the police lines.

By the end of the protest, many windows of the Lithuanian parliament had been smashed.

Anti-government protests also erupted in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia on January 14. Police attacked the demonstrators, arresting 150 and injuring more than a dozen.

Undeterred, protests have continued outside the Bulgarian parliament almost every day since then, demanding greater democracy and accountability from government.

Anger is also brewing in Hungary and the Ukraine. Both countries' economies have been ravaged by the economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund has waded in with bail-out loans of $26 billion to Hungary and $16 billion for the Ukraine — but these loans are having little impact in alleviating the crisis for ordinary people.

As both governments announce further cutbacks to services and unpopular new taxes, popular discontent threatens to explode.

In France, the government's anti-worker, pro-corporate response to the economic crisis and massive job losses have provoked a series of general strikes. The next will occur on March 19 with the support of France's eight union federations.

This follows the huge general strike on January 29, where 2.5 million protesters took to the streets. According to a poll by French magazine l'Express, 69 per cent of the French supported the strike.

French President Sarkozy has called for talks with the unions, but without major concessions further strikes and protests appear certain.

Greek rebellion

Meanwhile in Greece, the police killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6 triggered the widespread social unrest that has dominated European headlines since.

The movement began as a spontaneous mobilisation by those outraged by ongoing police brutality.

But it has since developed into a broader campaign, incorporating the concerns of those disenfranchised by the effects of economic rationalism, a problem only exacerbated by the economic crisis.

The demonstrations resumed in the new year on January 9, with a militant march of 20,000 teachers and students in Athens.

Central to this movement has been the thousands of school and university students who have organised demonstrations and other actions, often by email and text message, which have shaken towns and cities across Greece. These actions have been supported by wider workers' strikes and actions by farmers.

Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis was elected in 2004 on a platform of openness and honesty. It was a promise that the Greek people had heard many times before.

Three political families have largely controlled Greek politics since the 1950s — interrupted only by the military dictatorship of 1967-74.

The two main capitalist parties, New Democracy and the Socialist Party, have shared power between them for the last 30 years.

Now, the people of Greece, like in many other countries across the globe, are beginning to see their faith in the ruling powers disintegrate.

Stratos Fanaras, political analyst and director of Metron Analysis, told the January edition of Le Monde Diplomatique: "The studies we have recently conducted show that all economic indices as well as people's aspirations for the future have sunk to a record low. People feel let down and disillusioned, and cannot see the situation improving.

"This reaction is the same for men and women, and across all social classes and educational levels."

The Exarchia district in central Athens, where Grigoropoulos was killed, has become a base for radical protest actions. The area is located close to the Athens Polytechnic — the site of a famous student uprising crushed by the military junta in 1973.

As the protests have swelled, discontent has reached all corners of Greek society. Farmers have protested over low prices by setting up roadblocks on the Bulgarian border throughout January.

Meanwhile, Greek journalists have joined protesters in occupying television stations and the offices of the conservative journalists' union.

At the same time, a new movement in solidarity with the people of Gaza has swept British universities.

Thousands of students have occupied lecture theatres and other buildings across England and Scotland demanding their universities condemn Israel's brutal attacks and cut academic ties with Israeli institutions.

The student movement has also demanded that British universities provide scholarships for Palestinian students, undertake to divest from the arms trade, and send unused books and computers to Palestine.

The campus occupations have sparked greater student involvement in other political issues, including a campaign to demand the abolition of university tuition fees.

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, commented to the February 8 Independent: "What we've seen over the Gaza issue is a resurgence of a particular type of protest: the occupation. It's a long time since we've seen student occupations on such a scale.

"It's about time we got the student movement going again and had an impact."

How far will it go?

Forty-one years after the rebellious year of 1968 that shook the world, new movements are forming, determined that working people and the poor should not have to pay for the capitalists' crisis.

But the question of organisation, of turning movements into vehicles for genuine far-reaching change, remains.

In response to this challenge, the formation of political parties able to link up with these movements, parties that strive for a "socialism of the 21st century", is essential.

"Make no mistake", wrote the New Statesman's Neil Clark on December 4, "socialism — pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists — is making a strong comeback.

"Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not."

Clark draws on the new popularity of left social-democratic parties such as Die Linke in Germany and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands as evidence for the continent's shift towards the left.

Another indication is the growing support for the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) in Greece — a coalition of more than 10 left political groups. In the 2004 legislative elections, SYRIZA garnered 3.3% of votes. Recent polls suggest its support now sits as high as 20%.

Clark doesn't comment on possibly the most radical and promising of the new formations on the European left: the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France. The public approval rating of prominent NPA leader Olivier Besancenot has topped 50% in recent weeks.

The public interest around the creation of the NPA signifies the importance of rebuilding the organised left as a pre-requisite to building movements for social change that can win.

Even during this economic crisis, which has already thrown millions more people around the world into desperate poverty, democratic socialist change can often seem a far-off prospect.

But the very people who can create this change are increasingly taking action now in the belief that a new future of justice and equality is something worth fighting for.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.