As I write this hundreds of thousands have again filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, and hundreds of thousands more march in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast , demanding an end to the authoritarian, pro-US government , pro-neoliberal regime that has caused the Egyptian people such suffering under the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak. Along with their revolutionary fellow Arabs in Tunisia, Egyptians fighting for democracy and for a better life, and against injustice and inequality are on the front line in the battle for global civilization today. For it is civilization itself, global society as a whole that is at stake in the struggle taking place in the streets and squares of Egypt and across the Arab world. To understand this however, we need to understand the full, global context of these struggles and revolutions.
Our entire global civilization, or to be more precise, the domination over and exploitation of global civilization, has, for over 30 years rested on five pillars. These four are: the defeat of the US labor movement and working class during the Reagan years; imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs by the IMF and World Bank in most of the world under the excuse of the Debt Crisis; the defeat of the Iranian and Polish revolutions in 1980-81; the crushing of the revolt of workers and students in Tiananmen Square in China in May 1989; and the cordon wrapped around the oil fields of the Persian Gulf making sure that the production and distribution of oil would take place under conditions that enhanced and maintained capitalist profits and rule. This may seem like a strange list, and indeed it may be difficult at first to see what they have to do with each other.
Briefly, the defeat of the US working class, which was very combative throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, with waves of wildcat strikes, widespread refusal of work discipline and wage and work control demands that threatened capitalist power at the workplace gave a free hand to US multinationals and what became the neoliberal model of capitalist rule based on few or no rights for workers, low wages, competition for labor but not for capital, a fragmentation or even demolition of old fortresses of union power and, with Reagan’s defeat of the Air Traffic Controller’s Strike, any model of government neutral or even favorable to workers in the struggles between labor and capital.
Defeating the working class in part required the massive increase of interest rates by Fed Chairman Paul Volcker which not only demolished the US auto and construction industries, strangling unions, but also raising the interest payments owed by countries throughout the Third World and Eastern Europe that had borrowed money recycled by banks at initially low interest from the proceeds of the petrodollars earned by oil producers during the previous Oil Crises. The debt now became unpayable, creating a de facto state of indentured servitude for the working populations of most countries in the world ever since. That condition was imposed by the SAPs of the IMF and World Bank, which, in only superficially altered form continue to this day, extending neoliberal rule , with its inequality between the rich and the rest in every country and its free hand to corporations and concentration of wealth and power, everywhere. Up to a few days ago, one of the countries most celebrated recently by the IMF for its economic policies was Egypt. There, half the population of over 80 million live on $2 US dollars a day or less, the World Bank’s definition of absolute poverty. Were it not for the remittances sent by immigrant Egyptian workers in the Gulf States, Europe and the US many Egyptian families would starve. The rule of Hosni Mubarak is inseparable from the inequality and poverty that characterizes the lives of Egyptian working class people, and the global governance organizations who initiate neoliberal policies. The revolt against Mubarak’s regime is therefore a revolt also against neoliberal policies, inequality and the capitalist power of global governance, which backs up and disciplines national governments worldwide. As Naomi Klein showed in Shock Doctrine, authoritarian government has been necessary to impose policies that increase inequality and reduce the income of working people in favor of a small elite of the rich. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are the most advanced points, along with the revolutions in some of Latin America against neoliberalism, against capitalist global governance, and with this against US hegemony.
But neoliberalism might never have come about. Along with the struggles in the US factories, workers struggled for control of workplaces, for less work and against exploitation in Italy, Britain, and elsewhere in the mid-to-late 1970s. Two of the high points were in Iran in 1979-80 and in Poland in 1980-81. In Iran, where the dictatorship of the Shah had integrated Iran more closely into capitalist markets with its attendant inequality, the most gigantic demonstrations in human history up to that time were followed by the decisive blow: the general strike of the oil workers. Workers councils were set up in workplaces around the country. But the Islamic right won the struggle with the divided left and crushed the effort at workers’ self-management. In Poland, the largest working class movement ever shattered Communist Party rule, and for a year and half, the Solidarity movement, a self-organized movement of nearly the entire working population was governing Poland through the power of workers to strike. A proposal by the left of Solidarity at their convention in Summer 1981 proposed workers’ control of all workplaces, and at that point plans began for the coup d’etat that crushed Solidarity in December 1981. The Solidarity that won elections in 1988 and ended Communist Party rule was a pale imitation of its old self, as intellectuals in the meantime won over by neoliberals and Margaret Thatcher gained power and once in power imposed Jeffrey Sachs’ shock therapy which further fragmented workers power in Poland. By the mid-1990s Poland had the highest unemployment rates in Eastern Europe.
The defeat of the Iranian revolution by its own leaders, the Ayatollahs, eliminated the alternative to today’s order in the Middle East – capitalist rule and exploitation of labor and oil resources maintained by Israeli occupation (over Palestinians once a major source of labor power for oil fields, now seen as a dangerous example for people elsewhere in the region), and by dictatorships across the Arab countries. Workers power and democracy would mean a region that overcame the nominal division into nation-states where a major resource and the skilled labor that goes into producing and moving it would be used to develop society and enhance the lives of the populations there. The defeat of the Polish revolution by its own leaders in compliance with the IMF meant that today’s European Union became inevitable – one where the 1989 revolutions did not demand democracy while maintaining a fairer distribution of wealth, did not create workers control of production, but instead imposed neoliberal policies with the domination of global governance organizations that with national debts means that the wave of national democratization around the world has been neutralized so that democratic governments have little option but to please investors, markets, currency traders, and ratings agencies, with the results being greater injustice and inequality. Eastern Europe’s democratization, which might have led to a different, democratic and socialist Europe, instead led to the East being the source of cheap labor power for German, Italian and French businesses, who no longer create many jobs for their own national workforces. The bankers’ EU was born with the neoliberal turn of Polish Solidarity.
Is it really possible that the seeming victory of the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the defeat of the Revolution of 1989 in China led to the same outcome? The Chinese New Left has now made clear to us that the Tiananmen Square revolt was not just about students, who demanded liberalization and democracy but were often sympathetic to free market policies. The majority in the Square were workers, and along with the general strike in Shanghai and strikes throughout much of China these were the real threat to Communist Party rule in May 1989. This working class revolt was directed against the neoliberal policies already being implemented, with great inequality, mass unemployment and declining wages and reduced welfare policies by Deng Xiao Ping’s government. With the crushing of this opposition, Deng was free to carry out his Southern Tour which signaled the full turn toward privatization, market policies and neoliberal globalization. The defeat of workers at Tiananmen is the basis of today’s global market with production increasingly centralized in China, enabling capital to defeat workers elsewhere by undercutting their demands with Chinese price competition. The recent strike wave in China, the rising wages and subsequent inflation of prices of Chinese-made goods has already undermined this pillar this past year, with effects ranging from the changed and more aggressive bargaining demeanor of the US government toward China on a number of issues (compared with its obsequiousness two years ago when Secretary of State Clinton went to China), the beginning of rethinking investment in China by many global companies – a major source of the economic uncertainty today, to the weakened profits of Wal-Mart.
But the spectre of Tiananmen hangs over popular revolt ever since 1989, and its horror was recently reinforced in Thailand, where a mass occupation by the Red Shirts movement for democracy against the monarchy and military rule on behalf of the rich was crushed with a massacre in the streets of Bangkok. This massacre, which came at a moment nearly analogous to that of today in Egypt’s revolution, led to barely a squeak of protest from the world. Yet when Burma (Myanmar) next door massacred its citizens and when Iran did the same last year, the world screamed. The difference is that Thailand is highly integrated into the world economy, and before the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 it was Thailand, not China, that for the previous decade had had the highest growth rates in the world. The message was clear: so long as a government is friendly to the US, so long as it plays the game of global capitalism – be it China in 1989, or Thailand in 2010, it is okay for it to massacre its own people even in front of the whole world. This message was further underlined by events in Honduras where the democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup barely criticized by Obama and Clinton even when it began openly assassinating its opponents and crushing huge democratic demonstrations against the military regime. Only the unprecedented phenomenon of hundreds of thousands who turned out in 2002 to stop a coup against the democratic government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela sent a different message. Those demonstrations broke the fear that had held Latin America in its grip ever since Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government in Chile in 1973 and the rule of the military in Argentina and which had been the insurance policy underwriting neoliberal policies throughout the continent during the 1990s. Revolutionary governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, leftist government in Paraguay and other benefits have derived from those demonstrations.
The impact of Tahrir Square is even greater than that of the crowds that defended Chavez at the Presidential Palace nearly a decade ago. For the eyes of the rest of the world outside Latin America have been long focused by other events – wars, 9/11, the Palestinian issue, oil prices – on the region that the Egyptian revolution is taking place in. With Al Jazeera providing reasonably friendly round the clock live coverage, and the world’s media there, only Tiananmen Square can compare to this as a global moment of popular revolution. But the Egyptian army, like that of Tunisia, has so far refused to fire on the protesters (in 1989 the Beijing garrison also refused and it was an army from Szechwan led by a relative of Deng that carried out the massacre) and today seems openly on their side, protecting them from the murdering gangs of pro-Mubarak security forces and hired hands that has been attacking the people in the square for the past three days. The example of Tunisia did not take long to spread far and wide, despite the absurd attempt by all kinds of Western commentators to claim that the revolt would not spread because of the specificity of Tunisian politics and society. Of course the outcome, forms of struggle and political solutions will be different in each country, based on their institutions, political culture and history, as well as the events on the ground, but it is clear that the methodology that has sought to separate Arab countries into hermetically sealed cubby holes is flawed. Postmodernism taught for decades that universalisms were sources of repression. Today we see that this wrong. It is precisely the universalism of the Arab people, their unity first with each other across their national boundaries and second with the rest of the working people everywhere in the world, that is both the main theme and the desperate need urgently being asserted in these revolutions. We were told that the Middle East was different: that it was part of something called “The Islamic World” and that only Islamist politics existed aside from the dictators (the New York Times ran an article mere months ago asserting this for the entire region).
Today we see that people in Egypt want democracy. They want social justice. They want their nation to govern its own fate. They oppose exploitation and want to do something about the unbearable and unsustainable inequality created by neoliberal capitalism. Their revolution, directed necessarily in the first place against Mubarak and his regime, like that of Tunisians was directed immediately against Ben Ali and his, is also sparked by poverty, unemployment and inequality. It necessarily opposes global governance organizations’ policies. It conflicts, inevitably, with the increasingly global ruling class, the elite that meets at Davos every year to come up with common polices for the problem that Karl Marx identified in Volume Three of Capital, a unitary, single profit rate with shares in it decided on based on power and capital, this time globally. Egypt has seen one of the world’s greatest strike waves over the past few years, 3,000 strikes involving at least two million workers since 2004, and this is part of a global strike wave that has been building over the past three years, with epicenters also in Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, South Africa, South Korea and elsewhere. This strike wave, now intersecting with strikes and protests in Europe against EU-initiated austerity programs, is a worldwide protest, a growing movement against global governance in its present form, the neoliberal regime of inequality and injustice that it governs and imposes, and the national governments that ally with this global ruling class, integrate their personnel increasingly with it, and carry out its polices against the interests of their own peoples.
Such a revolt in the Middle East inevitably, however, goes further in its implications – for as it spreads from the Arab countries without oil to those with oil, it places much of the power of the current world order into question. It challenges the regional power of the policeman Israel that keeps an eye on the area’s population which might otherwise threaten to hold the world’s oil as an instrument of power to make its own demands for access to the wealth produced globally. It challenges the power of the United States since these dictatorships are all US-backed. It challenges, in other words, the whole world order. Just as the Palestinian issue has never only been about Palestine, and peoples of Arab countries always made that clear, the current revolutions are also struggling against the parochialism that has been imposed on the Arab peoples. Attempts at a “peace process” have precisely been to isolate the Palestinian struggle from its wider implications and importance and cut it off from its allies. Those allies are today overthrowing their dictators and the tyranny of postmodern politics in a global world. A political solution that attempts to improve the lives of people region-wide will challenge the pillar of world order that has depended upon the control of oil to control capitalism and exploit the world’s working class more effectively.
So, three of the pillars are in danger at once – control of oil, global governance imposition of austerity and neoliberalism in the Third World, and the horror of Tiananmen Square for any working class ready to challenge its fate as cheap labor in the global economy. That is the meaning of Tahrir Square – it is the end of the era of Tiananmen Square that has already begun with the strikes and labor organizing in China itself. It is a threat to the world capitalist order. This has been recognized – the BBC which has had openly pro-Mubarak and colonialist coverage of the Egyptian events throughout the crisis – and the business press and networks have discussed only the economic damage caused by the revolution – really caused by Mubarak’s refusal to go and allow democracy. The ratings agencies – Standard and Poor, Fitch and Moody’s have all attacked the people of Egypt by downgrading Egypt’s credit and bonds – making sure that any subsequent government there will have few options and little room for maneuver. It is long past time that people struggling for justice anywhere have a right to expect those of us in countries where these enemies of humanity masquerading as neutral technicians providing useful information are based organized demonstrations to defend them and to expose their role in rule and exploitation over people, of the anti-democratic function of these unelected dictators at the ratings agencies.
The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, aside from being near the Middle East and its oil and being part of the Arab world, are also part of the Mediterranean. In Greece, global governance in the form of the EU and IMF have imposed a draconian anti-working class program against the ferocious resistance of the Greek working class – resistance that came just up to the point that Tunisians decided to go past. French workers desperately defended their welfare state rights in mass general strikes last year. Spanish and Portuguese workers have carried out the largest general strikes in the histories of their respective nations. British , Irish and Italian workers and students have likewise been struggling against austerity policies and in the case of Italy against a leader whose similarity with the Mubaraks of the world is striking for the head of a democratically elected government. Indeed, democratic countries have recently seen a wave of a soft version of what political science textbooks call “delegated democracy” – an awful phrase that basically means, “I won the election so I can do whatever I want”. The political aspects of the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt may not be entirely irrelevant to us either. In Eastern Europe likewise, strikes and protests against EU austerity policies have revealed the class nature of that organization, once seen as a great democratic conquest by the peoples who freed themselves from tyranny in 1989. The fourth pillar holds for now, but is not without challenge. Sooner or later, perhaps on a European scale this time, the original meaning of Polish Solidarity will arise again in new form. That will leave one pillar left.
STEVEN COLATRELLA lives in Padua, Italy.