Editorial: Upheavals in the Arab World
and Draconian Austerity in the Metropoles

This Spring has seen a series of massive social upheavals that have already toppled the decades old regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, and now threaten the Saleh regime in Yemen, the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the Khalifa regime in Bahrain, each of which has had close economic and geo-political links to the West. The social revolts have now spread to Syria threatening the half-century reign of the Assad family there. And while the Syrian regime has been no friend of the West, its possible collapse also presents Western imperialism with considerable risks and challenges. Beyond the challenges these upheavals pose for Western imperialism, this wave of social revolt throughout the Arab world may mark the beginning of a new period of class struggle in a geo-political space where for decades the working class seemed to be in the unshakable grip of powerful reactionary ideologies: nationalism, xenophobia, religious sectarianism. For pro-revolutionaries, the historical significance of these upheavals lies in the experience of different strata of the collective worker beginning to shake off the weight of these reactionary ideologies, and overcoming their fear of the naked power of the regimes that have managed capitalism in the Arab world, of fighting back, and of toppling regimes whose power once seemed unassailable.

To these revolts, then, and the need for capitalism to respond to them, which are closely linked to the global economic crisis that erupted in 2007, and which nearly led to the collapse of the international banking system, we must add the risk of a sovereign debt crisis in many nations of the European Union, threatening the stability of the Euro, and today also confronting the US and the role of the dollar as the international reserve currency. The response of capital in the US and in China in the face of the financial meltdown was to inject liquidity into the banking system and to craft stimulus programs to provide demand in the face of the danger of global deflation. Those stimulus programs, however, have created new financial bubbles that threaten the stability of capitalism, and they have completely failed to address the over-riding need of global capitalism for a massive devalorization of capital, in both its constant and variable forms. It is that necessity that is leading to the imposition of draconian austerity measures that now threaten the reproduction of the labor power of the collective worker.

The Arab Spring

While the upheavals in the Arab world did not immediately arise from class struggle at the point of production, they are a direct result of the crisis of capitalism. The mass mobilizations that have called for the overthrow of corrupt dictatorships throughout the Arab world, have a mixed social base, but arise from the hopelessness of a burgeoning youth population, even in its most educated segments, facing unemployment and a complete lack of any perspective for a decent life, unless they have connections to the ruling family, party, or officials. Economic stagnation and decline, combined with the rampant corruption, condemn working class and professional strata alike to life in the “planet of slums” which the great urban centers of the Arab world have become. Add to that the disappearance of the “escape valve” once provided by emigration and jobs – low-paying as they were – in Western Europe, where xenophobia directed at Muslims, and an influx of Eastern European workers, have threatened the jobs and remittances that once softened the impact of the impoverishment that characterized the cities and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, and the link between social upheaval there and economic crisis in the metropoles becomes clear. That, and not an abstract commitment to universal human rights, constitutional democracy, and free elections, as the Western media claims, was what galvanized the popular revolts. Thus in Tunisia, for example, the popular revolt very quickly found its social center in predominantly working class districts.

What, for example, made the popular revolt in Egypt, with its admixture of industrial workers, intellectual and technical strata of the collective worker, the petite bourgeoisie, and members of the “liberal” professions, gathered in Tahrir Square, into a threat to the Mubarak regime and its base in the military, was the rapid spread of strikes in the textile plants (Egypt’s main export industry), and in the port and Suez Canal facilities which make Egypt a vital center for transport and shipping between Europe and the East. (See “North Africa, The Middle East, China … Which Movements for Which Perspective?” in this issue) At that point the military had to choose between the Mubarak family and the perpetuation of its own powerful position as the dominant faction of Egyptian capital; and American imperialism faced a similar choice: try to prop up Mubarak, even if it entailed the army massacring the demonstrators and risking the spread of the popular revolts and its uncertain outcome, or replacing him with a democratic regime in which the military still retained its power. For Washington, the choice was clear. In Bahrain, by contrast, where opting for a more democratic regime raises the specter of increasing Iranian influence on behalf of the Shia majority, and where Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are adamantly opposed to such a reform, the interests of American imperialism, at least at this point, seem to lead to the opposite policy.

The replacement of corrupt dictatorships by constitutional regimes in the Arab world will not solve the fundamental problems of those societies, the sources of which are capitalist social relations and these countries integration into a global capitalist economy. Whether the Arab Spring will turn into a “hot” summer in which the working class will begin to challenge the newly democratic regimes wherever they arise is now a burning question. Whatever the answer, the Arab Spring has already demonstrated the ability of mass movements to overturn the calcified regimes that have ruled Arab states for decades, and opened a perspective for the collective worker in a region where dictatorship and sectarianism had reigned supreme and guaranteed the stability of capitalism ever since the old colonial powers took their leave decades ago.

Austerity against the working class

The capitalist metropoles of Europe, confronted by a series of sovereign debt crises in Greece, Ireland, and now Portugal, with Spain now at risk too, crises that threaten the financial stability of the EU and even the future of the Euro zone, are responding with draconian austerity measures aimed at reducing their swollen budget deficits. The UK, under its new centrist government, has led the way with a preemptive strike, slashing public spending and imposing an effective wage-cut on the working class that strikes at the very bases of the reproduction of its labor power. A newly elected left of center coalition in Ireland has taken the same path, and a “Socialist” government in Greece has been committed to just such an austerity program for the past several years. The need for such draconian austerity is now recognized by both right and left, by employer’s organizations and trade unions. Moreover, it is not just the “social wage” provided by government expenditures that is being slashed. In Italy, Fiat, in conjunction with the left political parties and most of the unions has imposed a new contract on the workers in its auto plants that will abrogate the existing labor contract, and significantly worsen conditions in its plants – and that after having already reduced its labor force by half over the past 25 years!

Over the past two years or so, the US and China have sought to “manage” the crisis by stimulus policies that have greatly expanded the availability of credit (in the US especially to banks, in China through a vast increase in consumer credit) to reflate the economy and prevent the “great recession” from spiraling out of control. In the US, the Obama administration has now executed a u-turn, responding to the Republican electoral victories in 2010, and to a budget deficit that is now so great as to begin to raise doubts about the credit worthiness of the United States. While considerable differences exist between center-left and right in the US over the extent of the cuts in spending, and whether taxes too need to be raised, even Democrats now concede that the deficits are unsustainable, especially in the social wage, and that drastic cuts are needed. Obama hopes that his more “moderate” program of cuts, and his claims to tax the rich will propel him to a second term in the White House, and he could be right. But such an electoral victory will almost certainly be followed, if it were to happen, with draconian austerity in that second term; a policy that the center-left may be better able to impose without massive opposition than the right. Indeed, it is now clear that Wall Street feels far more comfortable with this president than with any of his prospective Republican opponents; indeed if ever there was an administration of bankers it is Obama’s.

In China, the policies that have made that country an engine of the global economy over the past few years, have now, it is clear, produced an enormous credit bubble, especially in consumer credit and in the housing market (the collapse of which had signaled the onset of the financial crisis in 2007 in Europe and the US), replete with the grave inflationary risks it entails. Without that stimulus of easy credit in its domestic market, however, the slowdown in the economies of its trading partners threatens China’s ability to keep its economy growing at present rates, and thereby risks provoking social upheavals within. Meanwhile, the assault on the reproduction of the collective worker now underway in the metropoles, and facilitated by the left and its ideologues (“We must be realistic.”), portends a new and more ominous stage in capitalism’s construction of a global “planet of slums.” Only a massive response by the wage-working class, from the Arab world to the US, from Europe to China, can interrupt that course.

Over the past month, this draconian austerity which capitalism, left or right, democratic or not, must impose has produced a new wave of struggles in Europe, with – for the moment – its epicenter being Spain, where the unemployment rate has climbed to 25% (40% for youth), even as the remnants of the “social wage” are being shredded. The response has been a wave of occupations of the “public space” in dozens of cities, not unlike the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt, also sparked and extended through the social media, and like the demos in Egypt daring the authorities to move against the thousands camped out day and night, in permanent debate and discussion about how to respond to the economic crisis and the waves of austerity that it has brought in its wake. And while much of the discussion has focused on demands for “real democracy” in opposition to the parliamentary version under which Spain has lived for the past thirty years, the debates in the popular assemblies created by the occupations have also focused on capitalism as the cause of the absence of any perspective for the future other than ever-more austerity and unemployment. The leaflet that we print below, with its focus on the dictatorship of the economy and money, the reduction of human beings to commodities, clearly show how while the forms of the struggles owe much to those of Tunisia and Egypt, its content has also matured. The movement in Spain is composed of many young people, but also those of other social strata. This made possible a mixture of the population. A very important element in Spain is that the older people lived under the Franco dictatorship, then, under the “freedom” of “democracy”. The current protests are thus a sign of a loss of illusions, to be transmitted to the movements in the Maghreb, whose populations, up to now, have never lived under a democratic tyranny.

Eighty cities were involved, which shows the significance of the movement. Moreover, it is illegal to publicly express political opinions on election day. The movement thus positioned itself against the law.

The movement posed a fundamental question for class consciousness: that of perspectives. In that, again, as in other recent movements, there is a questioning and a loss of illusions about “the future” that capitalism has in store for us.

One demand was “no bread for chorizo”. It should be known that chorizo is a term that also designates robbers, gangsters. This demand thus has a dual meaning: on the one hand, there is no more sausage to put on the bread and this indicates impoverishment, on the other hand, the double meaning of the word chorizo indicates a personalization of the class enemy. Where globalization made the ruling class abstract, diffuse, difficult to identify, one finds here the idea that the ruling class is well identified, identified as a band of robbers whom we are no longer willing to pay. But, if this is a potentiality, it is also a potential danger: the risk of limiting the identification of the enemy to part of the political class, and not to capitalism as a whole. At the same time, while the occupation of the public space provides new modes of struggle, links must also be forged between these movements and the working class at the point of production, for it is there that capitalism most fears the specter of revolution.

Lastly, the movement mobilized, as in the Maghreb countries, an educated fringe of youth. This shows the creation of a fringe of those excluded from the production process, which, at the same time, is educated, but which is also connected to the re-composition of the working class and the movement of proletarianization of the middle-class. This opens up the possibility of “new forms of struggle” to which we must remain very attentive. One facet of these struggles which is particularly significant is the speed with which they can spread: from the Maghreb across the straits to Spain, and now with new reverberations in Greece, Italy, in France too. The possibility of immediately learning about upheavals in other countries, no matter whether the media reports them or governments seek to limit knowledge about them, means that the sparks of resistance to capital can spread with a velocity previously unknown.

Internationalist Perspective

June 1, 2011

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