While it may be premature to speculate on the legacy left by the various social upheavals that have occurred since early-2011, the electoral tide sweeping across Europe offers additional evidence that something fundamental is happening. In Greece and France, voters serving a rebuke to the savage austerity programs imposed by the EU-ECB-IMF troika have rankled financial markets and cast a specter of uncertainty over the monetary union’s fate.
More than Nicolas Sarkozy’s unsurprising defeat in France, the remarkable and entirely unforeseen ascent of SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, in Greece, which seems poised for an even stronger performance in the June round of elections, has captivated progressives on both sides of the Atlantic. Their boldness in denouncing the barbaric cuts to social programs and public payrolls forced upon them by a capital regime which obsesses over inflation rather than unemployment, prioritizing bond traders’ rate-of-return over the living standards of millions of ordinary people, is indeed inspiring. Notwithstanding the relatively small size of the Greek economy within the EU – measured as a percentage of GDP it is comparable to the state of Kentucky in the United States – SYRIZA’s assertive posture has sent investors into a panic, fearful of the reverberations a Greek secession could have on the precarious Spanish and Italian financial systems. This collective anxiety in the world of finance should serve as a reminder that even if the Greek left does successfully form a government, they are certain to encounter a very difficult road ahead. The alarming rate at which deposits have been withdrawn from Greek banks in recent weeks may be a harbinger of the economic grind awaiting the country.
However encouraging these European political developments may be, the enthusiasm with which many on the American left have received them also reflects a grim reality at home: how far progressive forces in this country are from achieving anything comparable. In spite of the impressive and ambitious initiative taken by Occupy encampments across the country, we have been unable to slow the relentless bi-partisan austerity measures devastating every state, much less offer a coherent alternative program around which a mass base might be built and eventually contend for power. In Philadelphia, the municipal school district recently announced its dissolution, marking what may be the end of public education in that city; in California, Governor Jerry Brown is seeking to slash $8.3 billion from healthcare and welfare programs in his annual budget; and at the federal level, the ticking time-bomb of more than $2 trillion in cuts looms on the horizon, set to implode early next year. Given the crippling effects the decline in public sector employment have already had on the U.S. economic recovery, these draconian policies almost guarantee a long, painful stagnation, the costs of which, of course, will fall most acutely on those least able to bear them. It speaks volumes that on the 75th year anniversary of the original occupy movement, the sit-down strikes of 1937, legendary battles through which autoworkers in Flint, Detroit and elsewhere first won union recognition, unelected “emergency managers” and “financial review teams” in those very cities are now gutting municipal budgets and decimating public employee union contracts in secretive, closed door meetings.
It is thus clear that in spite of Occupy’s success at introducing the mainstream political discourse to the inequalities that define contemporary American society, this alone is no substitute for the level of mass organization – rooted in workplaces and communities across the country and endowed with material capacity and programmatic clarity – required to effectively respond to the crisis we face. Such a force is inconceivable in isolation from a dynamic labor movement, and consequently trade unions must be central to any such project. First and foremost, this involves defending public employee unions against the assault led by reactionary Republican governors and state legislatures across the country, following the lead of activists in Ohio and Wisconsin. As a consequence of several decades of deindustrialization and rabid employer hostility to trade unions, public employees now account for more than half of all union members, though nationwide almost eighty-five percent of the workforce labors in the private sector. Government is truly the last bastion of organized labor strength, and it is no stretch to conclude that, for generations to come, workers’ right and ability to organize and collectively bargain for a better livelihood hinges on these campaigns (support the effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker). Beyond the immediate struggles, however, a longer-term organization building strategy requires frankly assessing the abysmal state of the broader labor movement, confined by an authoritarian legal apparatus and faced with a massive unorganized workforce stricken with insecurity after more than three decades of neoliberal discipline.
Moreover, as Reaganism approaches its mid-thirties, an entire generational cohort has come of age with the commonsense assumption that there is no alternative to free market capitalism (TINA, as Thatcher succinctly put it). To many of these children of neoliberalism, trade unions, if not dismissed out of hand as parasitic and uncompetitive, are viewed as sclerotic or self-serving. Corporate media driven electoral extravaganzas have rendered an organizing approach to politics a foreign concept. And, perhaps most distressing, organizational structures deemed to at all infringe on individual agency are instinctively distrusted, a default orientation that neglects the simple fact that all real politics requires at least some level of personal discipline (a lesson the right knows all too well). Even among those serious about alternative political approaches, having such little exposure to and so few opportunities to engage in focused organizing activity, much of this generation (myself included) understandably lacks the practical skills needed to cultivate, sustain, and expand a base, know how that only comes with formal guidance, material support, and direct experience. Understood in this context, it is altogether unsurprising that anarchist tendencies, which often, though by no means always, reflect ideological underpinnings curiously similar to those of market utopianism, are so prevalent in younger radical circles.
This is the bleak reality that we must accept. While neoliberalism has gained momentum for more than thirty years, the institutions and organizations most capable of challenging its rule have decayed, as has our collective knowledge about their strategic role. Ignoring this basic fact and deluding ourselves with fantasies of our nonexistent power only leaves us weaker, allowing the level of social immiseration to deepen and providing fertile ground on which even more reactionary forces might thrive. Without an organized mass constituency, something we simply do not have and which we seem incapable of realistically imagining, protest after protest will rehearse the same tired platitudes while the political center-of-gravity continues its rightward drift. Such sober assessment of our dire situation isn’t defeatist; it is the necessary point of departure for any effort that is serious about winning.
Entering the last great economic crisis of this magnitude in the early-1930s, the labor movement was in shambles and a fundamentalist market ideology triumphant. Unregulated financial institutions wreaked havoc through their speculative practices, socializing much of their risk and in the process accumulating more capital than they knew what to do with. Beyond a few enclaves of skilled workers, the mass production industries were deemed impossible to organize. And in every city, hordes of the unemployed instilled fear among the working masses, constantly reminding those daring enough to challenge the tyranny of corporate rule just how disposable they were.
The parallels with the present day are striking, of course. Finance is again almighty, running the world and uprooting the lives of millions through the rhythms of its markets. Instead of producing electronics, automobiles and steel, our enormous unorganized population now slaves away providing services in retail chains, hospitals, and office buildings. Many of their employers seem immune to worker organization, but so too for many years did General Motors, and unlike their industrial cousins these service-driven firms cannot so easily wield the threat of relocation, leaving a community with the eternal scar of a vacant, idle factory and its chronic symptom of unemployment. In the face of comparably dismal prospects, we should remember, our predecessors used aggressive collective action to win a social safety net, however meager, that we until recently took for granted. Yet we should also remember that those struggles didn’t emerge from nowhere. They grew from and were given form by, among other organizations, the CIO, which owed its beginnings in no small part to material support from the United Mine Workers and other unions.
“The challenge of modernity,” Antonio Gramsci once noted, “is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” It is certainly healthy and productive to draw inspiration from ordinary people’s struggles around the world, celebrating their successes and learning from their setbacks, but we cannot live vicariously through them. If we hope to stand any chance at overcoming the merciless exploitation and environmental degradation that is the now the norm in this country, we first need to sweep away our illusions, recognize where we stand, and accept just how far we have to go.
Samir Sonti is a graduate student at Cornell and has been a union organizer. He can be reached at email@example.com.