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