On Sunday, June 17, Antonis Samaras walked into the press centre as the winner of the repeated Greek parliamentary election. It was late at night, and the leader of the conservative New Democracy party was flanked by a gaggle of sweaty and decidedly rotund admirers. To a clued-in observer, the very girth of these men was a signal that the sordid operation jointly engineered by the international financial institutions, Bruxelles, Berlin, the world’s largest banks and the global corporate media was entering its next phase.
The ancient Greek elites that ran the country for the last forty years only to literally bring it to the brink of third-world destitution now finally handed it over to the international financial gamblers. What hurts the most is that almost a half of the Greek electorate decided to vote for them. The mandate the new government thus received is a mandate to implement the full gamut of its ‘modern economy’, a nightmarish vision certain to transcend the region in ever-gruesomer shockwaves.
Clearly collaborating with the international financial institutions, the EU had done all it could to hox the prospects of Syriza, the Greek coalition of radical leftist parties. Led by the charismatic Alexis Tsipras, Syriza is pushing for saying no to the drastic austerity measures. Its agenda is nationalising the banks, fighting to keep a strong public health-care and educational system, and positioning itself as a dam against the mad flood of privatisation threatening everything there is and ever will be.
How did the EU help the predators? One week before Greece’s election, Brussels granted Spain one hundred billion euros of aid – an action many Greek voters interpreted as the promise of a softer-cuts scenario for them as well, if only the conservative block is voted back into power. But this was only a skillful feint. Brussels, Berlin and Washington were simply nervous about Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza leader, possibly having some sort of a back-up plan to follow the country’s pullout from the Eurozone… A back-up plan that would probably be all about forging new alliances with Moscow or Beijing.
Global capitalism fighting for its own survival
»This election was crucial for the survival of global capitalism,« feels Statis Gourgouris, a professor of classic literature at the Columbia university in New York. »The election demonstrated that the majority of the Greek people is refusing to accept the dismantling of its social and economic infrastructure. The people are refusing to condone the flash impoverishment across the broad strata of society, the annihilation of the next generation’s future, and the vilification of an entire way of life. Even more important, Greek society demonstrated it would not accept being used as an experiment in neoliberal economics.« Leer más
Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
On Wednesday, April 4, nine in the morning saw a 77-year-old man yelling in the middle of the teeming Syntagma square – the emotional centre of the Greek protests against the dictat(orship) imposed by the international monetary institutions. The old man was screaming at the hated parliament building, and his cries amounted to a seething denunciation of the fact that his debt will have to be repaid by his children and his grandchildren. After he’d said his peace he leaned against a tree, pulled a pistol out of his pocket and shot himself in the head.
The suicide of this desperate Greek pensioner carries a heavy symbollic significance. It evokes the spirit of the Czech patriot Jan Pallach, 21, who – protesting the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia – set himself on fire on January 16, 1969. It is also strongly evocative of the self-immolation of Mouhammed al Bouazizi, the Tunisian grocer who triggered off the Arab spring. Leer más
By Luna Bolívar / Translation: Blanca García Bertolaza
By Luna Bolívar / Translation: Blanca García Bertolaza
The biggest volcanic island in the world started its mutation towards huge laboratory in the nineties. The 103,000 square kilometers on the edge of the North Pole offered excellent conditions to experiment with wild capitalism. Iceland gradually lost interest on its fish, its sheep and its horses, and set itself onto the conquest of international markets. The “vikings” were taking the world by storm. They bought everything. They grew endlessly. And soon they could boast about owning half of Denmark, a country that had once dominated them and from whom they could not become independent until 1944. Practice seemed to confirm for a while the thesis of a new generation of Icelandic politicians, among which were David Oddson and Geir Haarde. Yes, it was possible to turn this traditional and remote territory, birthplace of the sagas, into the richest State in the world. In the United Nations rankings, Iceland ousted Norway as the best place to live in the world. “Flat-screen TV’s and Range Rovers became the symbols of the pre-crash era”, Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, political scientist from the University of Reykjavik, explains.
In the “post-crash” era, Iceland gets a taste of getting out of the crisis. Activity continues in the biggest volcanic laboratory on Earth. What happens when wild capitalism fails? Can a currency recover after having lost almost 70 percent of its value in just one year? How does a society that didn’t know employment shortage face a 10 percent unemployment rate? And the key question: How long does it take to get into shape a State in debt for 200 percent of its GDP.
“God save Iceland”. Little more is remembered about the speech Geir Haarde, then prime minister, pronounced on October 6th 2008. There’s no need either. The phrase is an accurate sum up¿?. In their frenetic expansion, the country’s three biggest banks had not been too careful. When the international economy entered recession, the house of cards built by the insatiable vikings fell apart. The government had to step in. And the country on the limits of the North Pole ended up doing a balancing act on the verge of bankruptcy.
But a viking doesn’t give up so easily. “It might sound like a nationalist cliché, but we are a people that if we fall, we get back up. Maybe that mentality is a consequence of the climate we live in. Or of the fishing culture: if you haven’t fished today, you go out again tomorrow”, Bára Ómarsdóttir explains.
Fish are interesting again in Iceland. And sheep and horses. Since the collective impact of October 6th, the island is going back to its roots. “Now more local produce is being consumed. Traveling inside the country has gotten back the popularity lost during the boom, when Icelanders vacationed abroad several times a year. Before people remodeled their homes completely like it was nothing, today people recycle and reuse more and second hand clothes are being worn again”, the Icelander describes.
“We are living a time of big changes in Iceland”, Bára Ómarsdóttir comments, and she is not only referring to the fact that people now mend the socks they used to throw away. What has been set in motion in the island is a true revolution: the “cooking pot revolution”, they call it, because armed with them the citizens went out to make noise in front of the Reykjavik parliament until in January 2009 Haarde’s government fell. Protests like these had not been seen in 60 years, when the country became a founding member of NATO against the population’s will.
The prime minister’s resignation –sick of cancer- and the punishment of his Independence Party in the later advanced elections were not enough, however, to appease the anger of the Icelanders. David Oddson, Haarde’s predecessor who went from head of the Executive to head of the World Bank with the correspondent and ignored conflict of interests, had to leave his office. In April 2010, a Parliamentary Investigation arrived to the conclusion that both of them, like other high-ranking officials, had favored with their negligence the financial collapse. Haarde will have to take responsibility in a court of law.
Iceland is trying to start over. Get back the values that got away through the gates opened by money. Rearrange the priorities: in daily life and also in politics. Now the Icelanders don’t only remember their fish, but also that their Althing is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. In this Assembly got together the goði, the chiefs of the clans previous to the introduction of Christianity, since 930. Always in absolute equality.
“The principle that we are of equal is part of our national identity. No one, regardless of their position, has a right to usurp power”, Bára Ómarsdóttir asserts. 1,200 island citizens were chosen at random in 2009 to take part in a “national encounter” along with organizations, pressure groups and politicians and debate -all of them on an equal level- over the options for the country’s future. Now, 25 common citizens -and no politicians- try to include in the Constitution the proposals made in that meeting.
Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir sits in the new constituent assembly. “Of course it is an honor to have been selected”, she admits. The only requirements: being over 18 and having more than 30 support signatures.
“We are still not too sure about that changes we are going to make in the Constitution: if we are going to rewrite all of it or if we are going to modify some parts. We have just started working and we are still familiarizing ourselves with the national encounter ideas”, the political scientist tells. “The truth is, the task of reforming the Constitution was due since our independence in 1944. Now a series of factors have converged and made it possible and I hope that, at the end of the process, we will have been able to give more room to subjects such as the fact that the power emanates from the nation, the humanist values and the environmental subjects”.
With a population of 320,000 people, in Iceland last names are almost unnecessary. But size is not relevant when it comes to set into motion a participatory democracy, Bára Ómarsdóttir thinks: “any country can choose a group of people to draw up a Constitution. Here there were also people against doing things this way, but in the end they could not impose themselves, and I’m glad”.
Size doesn’t seem to be crucial either on another battlefront: the Icelanders refuse in an impertinent way to be the ones to pay for the debt their banks had with British and Dutch clients, and that the broke entities cannot pay back anymore. London and The Hague temporarily assumed their citizens’ compensation, and now they demand from Reykjavik 3,800 million Euros. An agreement between the three countries -approved by the Icelandic government and Parliament- planned the refund of the money in a 15 year period at a 5.55% interest rate. But the President of the Republic imposed his veto, and the Icelanders voted “no” in a referendum twice, the last one on April 10th.
The payment would increase even more the Icelandic debt and it would call back to the ghost of bankruptcy. But it’s not refunding the money what sparks off popular opposition, it’s the terms of the agreement. Meanwhile there are rumors that an improved version of the document could go around, but already from the first rejection at the polls the system fell upon Iceland with all its force: the international loans granted to the country as support for the economic crisis were suspended, the application to join the European Union called into question.
Joining the EU does not worry Icelanders too much. During the past Spanish presidency it became clear that the conflict with Great Britain and the Netherlands goes on away from the access contacts. And, anyway, the idea of belonging to the Community club and having to abide by its fishing norms is hardly attractive in these latitudes.
It could be more dangerous if the combative citizens had to learn that the market’s forces are too powerful for a single volcanic island, even if it is the biggest one in the world. In the end, directly or indirectly, they are going to end up paying for their banks’ extremely expensive broken china, believes Bára Ómarsdóttir. “That is why I would have preferred a negotiated solution from the beginning”, she says. But, what kind of avenging and poised Vikings would those have been?
by Cristina F. Pereda / translation: Blanca García
The main characters: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Wisconsin Senate Democrats, who fled the state on February 15.
The secondary characters: US president Barack Obama. Republican and democratic state representatives. Labor union leaders. Filmmaker Michael Moore.
The events: Senate Democrats block the vote on Walker’s bill by fleeing the state. Thousands of citizens occupy the Wisconsin state capitol to protest against Walker. Last Friday, a court order made protesters lave the building, which is still full of signs . The demonstrations continue outside. More than 70.000 people have protested during the last three weekends.
The key: A budget bill that looks to cut back on state deficit by eliminating collective bargaining rights for state workers.
The question: What does a state’s deficit have to do with workers’ union rights?
Wisconsin has a public deficit that can reach $137 million next July and $3600 million by 2013. Scott Walker, a republican governor who has been in office since January, wants to make history with a radical reform. Walker argues that a big part of that deficit is due to how much public workers’ wages and benefits cost the state. The average salaries are higher than in the private sector. And workers also get bigger benefits such as state-paid health care and pension plans.
His proposal involves making state workers pay for half of their pensions and double what they pay now for health care. But he can’t make them pay without negotiating with the unions, who are against those measures. Solution: cut back on public workers’ union bargaining rights.
And after that? Immediately after there would be easier layoffs and many workers would go to the private sector, where they would benefit from less rights. The context of economic and employment crisis doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in any citizen about to lose their job.
But what happens if Walker manages to pass the bill might be the biggest change in the history of Wisconsin’s retirement pensions system. If there’s a chain reaction, other states might follow in his footsteps.
Right now, Wisconsin has one of the most generous public systems in the US. It’s the 9th nationwide and the 30th worldwide. But it has a price. The state covers the cost of these workers’ pensions, once they retire, besides part of their health insurance. With such conditions, workers have an important motivation to always remain in their workplace.
The system makes sense in those areas in which companies invest resources to train their employees. But that doesn’t always work. In fields such as education, the current crisis has put workers’ unions in the spotlight. They obtained permanent contracts for teachers barely two years after they start working, but they also made it difficult to get rid of inefficient ones. The consequences for the educational system were already portrayed in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”.
The reduction in mobility and competitiveness, which is often blamed on unions, can sentence an economic powerhouse like the US. Which is why Wisconsin republicans, headed by Walker, defend a pension system like the one in the private sector. The worker and the company share the health care and pension payments, building a private fund while the work relationship lasts. If the employee moves to a different company, the fund’s money is still his.
Until now, states have been able to fund public workers’ benefits. Utah or Michigan anticipated the crisis by imposing conditions similar to those in the private sector to avoid the present situation. Wisconsin can’t hold anymore a system that worked last century, but not this one. The excuse is the economic crisis, demographic growth, union rights… but the only answer might be a change much more radical than to erase unions off the face of the earth.
Michael Moore showed up this week saying that Wisconsin being bankrupt is a lie. In his speech he spoke to the anger of thousands of workers that, like in the rest of the country, wonder why should the citizens be the ones who pay once more. They already financed the rescue plans with their taxes. The $150.000 million have run out and states are in the red again.
Possible outcomes, arranged by probability:
Outcome 1: Democratic senators don’t leave their hideout in Illinois. Walker doesn’t reach a deal with them. Before passing the bill, he lays off 1500 state workers.
Outcome 2: The democratic senators turn up. The police, who has a warrant to arrest them and take them back to Wisconsin, finds them. Or an anonymous citizen finds them and turns them in to the police. They go back to Wisconsin and, forced to participate in the voting, Walker passes the bill thanks to the republican senate majority.
Outcome 3: Democrats and republicans reach an agreement through the secret talks they’ve been having for three weeks. Democrats agree to state workers having to pay more for their benefits and republicans withdraw the proposal to eliminate union and collective bargaining rights.
Outcome 1+2+3: Whatever happens, we will be hearing about Wisconsin until the 2012 election. We will see Obama – probably the democratic candidate – and his republican opponent debate on this during the whole campaign. Every candidate will have to answer questions about deficit, the American economic future, workers’ rights and, above all, how they would have handled the Wisconsin issue. Hopefully, someone will have found the answer before.