By Boaventura de Sousa Santos | Greek Left Review
14 Nov 2011
General strikes were quite common in Europe and the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They led to intense debates inside the labor movement and revolutionary parties and movements (anarchists, communists, socialists). The object of discussion was the importance of the general strike for political and social struggles, the conditions for its success, the role of political forces in its organization. Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was one the most salient presences in the debates. The general strike is back. In Europe, after Greece, Spain and Italy, the next one will take place in Portugal, on November 24. Why is the general strike coming back? What analogies are there with past social conditions and struggles?
Having different ambits (community, city, region, country), the general strike has always been the manifestation of resistance against general unjust and damaging conditions, that is to say, conditions likely to harm the working classes or even society as a whole, even if specific social or professional sectors might be particularly affected. Denial of civic and political rights, violent repression against social protest, unions’ defeats in their fight for social welfare or against the displacement of factories with direct impact on the lives of the communities, “parliamentary treason” (as the option for war or militarism) – such were some of the conditions that in the past led to the general strike.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are living a different time; the unjust and damaging conditions are not the same as before. Nonetheless, regarding their respective social logics, there are disturbing similarities. Yesterday, the struggle was for the rights of which the popular classes felt they were being unjustly deprived; today, the struggle is against the unjust loss of rights for which so many generations of workers fought and which appeared to be irreversible entitlements. Yesterday, the struggle was for a more equitable distribution of the immense wealth being created by capital and labor; today, the struggle is against an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth (confiscated salaries and pensions, working hours increased and working rhythms accelerated; taxation and financial bail-outs favoring the rich – the 1% according to the Wall Street occupiers – and condemning the 99% to an everyday life of anxiety and uncertainty, ruined expectations, and lost dignity and hope). Yesterday, the struggle was for a democracy that would represent the interests of the disenfranchised majority; today, the struggle is for a democracy which, once conquered, has been eviscerated by the corruption, mediocrity and gutlessness of the leaders and by non-elected technocrats serving the financial capital as they always did. Yesterday, the struggle was for alternatives (socialism) which the ruling classes knew existed and therefore repressed brutally whoever defended them; today, the struggle is against the neoliberal commonsense, amply reproduced by the media, that there is no alternative to the increasing impoverishment of the majorities or to the emptying out of democratic options.
In light of this, the general strike in Portugal wants to convey the following messages. First, the austerity measures approved by the Government for the new budget are counterproductive, since it is as true of governments as of common folks that no one pays their bills by producing or working less; they will lead to further measures, with the resulting impoverishment of millions (look at Greece); the sacrifices demanded of the Portuguese will never be compensated for by the markets because the latter thrive on always demanding more (look at Ireland). Second, the least damaging solution is a European one. However, to federalize the debt without federalizing democracy (the solution favoured by Germany: Eurobonds in exchange for total surrendering to Berlin’s financial control) will mean the end of democracy in Europe, and Germany should be the country least interested in such a possibility. As an alternative, the EU should be working fast toward the federalization of the debt together with the federalization of democracy (more power to the parliament, direct election of the Commission, a new mandate for the Central Bank). Since this takes time and the long term for markets is the next ten minutes, the Central Bank should start intervening at once and in such a way as to give unequivocal signs of the feasibility and credibility of the political changes ahead. With a new president and a different interpretation of the current mandate, this is within the bank’s reach.
Sociologist. Professor at the School of Economics of Coimbra University (Portugal). Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
THE GENERAL STRIKE
By Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Like other Europeans have done and will do, the Portuguese will hold a General Strike on the 24th of November. These popular actions possess a series of parallels with general strikes in Europe and the U.S. in the end of the 19th Century and first decades of the 20th Century.
General strikes were common in Europe and in the U.S. towards the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century. They provoked great debates within the labor movement and within the revolutionary parties and movements (anarchist, communist, socialist).
Much discussed were the importance of the general strike in the social and political struggles, the conditions for its success, the role of political forces in its organization. Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was one of the most prominent presences in those debates. The general strike—which never ceased to be present in Latin America and re-emerged strongly in the spring in North Africa—is back in Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal) and in the U.S.
The city of Oakland, California, which was known for the general strike of 1946, resorted to this measure again on November 2, and in the Spring of this year Wisconsin unions approved a general strike when the city of Madison was preparing to occupy the State Legislature building—which it successfully accomplished—in the fight against the governor and his proposal to neutralize the unions, eliminating collective bargaining for public administration [workers].
What is the significance of this re-apparition of the general strike? While it is true that history does not repeat itself, what parallels can be made with the conditions and social struggles of the past?
In different areas (communities, cities, regions, countries), the general strike was always a manifestation of resistance against an onerous and unjust condition of a general nature; i.e., a condition likely to affect workers, the working classes or even society as a whole, even if some social or professional sectors were most directly affected by it.
Limitations of civil and political rights, violent repression of social protest, union defeats on issues related to social protection and the relocation of companies with direct impact on the lives of communities, political decisions contrary to the national or regional interest (“parliamentary betrayals” such as the option of war or militarism): these were some of the conditions in the past that led to the decision to hold a general strike.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a different time and the onerous and unjust conditions are not the same as in the past. However, at the level of social logics that govern them are disturbing parallels that flow into the underlying drive/movement for a general strike on November 24 in Portugal.
Yesterday was the struggle for rights of the popular classes that were considered unjustly denied; today is the struggle against the unjust loss of rights for which so many generations of workers fought and that seemed to be irreversible achievements. Yesterday was the struggle for a more equitable distribution of national wealth generated by capital and labor; today is the struggle against an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth (confiscated wages and pensions, increased working hours and patterns, taxes and bailouts for the rich—the “1%”, according to the occupiers of Wall Street—and a daily life of anxiety and insecurity, the collapse of expectations, the loss of dignity and hope for the “99%”).
Yesterday was the struggle for a democracy to represent the interests of the voiceless majority; today is the struggle for a democracy, which after being partially conquered, was eviscerated by the corruption, mediocrity and cowardice of the leaders and by the technocracy on behalf of finance capital that it always served.
Yesterday was the struggle for alternatives (socialism) that the ruling classes recognized as existing and therefore brutally repressed the people defending them; today is the struggle against neoliberal common sense, massively reproduced by the subservient media, that there are no alternatives to the impoverishment of the majority and the depletion of the democratic choices.
In general, we can say that the general strike in Europe today is more defensive than offensive, looking less to promote the advancement of civilization than to prevent a civilizational regression.
That’s why it is no longer a question of workers as a whole, but rather a question of impoverished citizens as a whole, both those working and those who cannot find work, as well as those who worked their whole lives and today see their pensions threatened.
On the street, the only public sphere not yet occupied by financial interests, citizens that never participated in unions or social movements, nor imagined themselves to speak in favor of others’ causes are demonstrating. Suddenly, the causes of others are their own.
* Boaventura de Sousa Santos, PhD in Sociology of Law, is a Professor at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (USA).
Translation by Roberto D. Hernández
(Groupe Décolonial de Traduction – GDT)
Portuguese original: http://www.cartamaior.com.br/templates/colunaMostrar.cfm?coluna_id=5311