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In for the long haul

The limits of the possible have expanded beyond the depressing confines of market fundamentalism, writes James O'Nions

June 22, 2012
5 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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Could Europe have reached a turning point? Syriza, the coalition of the radical left, may not have won the second round of elections in Greece, but they got an even bigger vote this time around. Across Europe the anti-austerity movement is posing an increasing challenge to the parties of austerity. The new president of France was elected on a platform pushed to the left by the Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In the Netherlands, the left-wing Socialist Party is running ahead of the centre-left Labour Party in the polls.

Outside the electoral arena, the Spanish 15M movement proved it has not gone away, with impressive reoccupations of a number of Spanish plazas. April saw a major protest in the Czech Republic against austerity and corruption, while Romania has seen mass popular protest against an increase in sales tax and the slashing of public sector pay.

The Blockupy Frankfurt protests are also important for a number of reasons. They represent an unprecedented attempt at pan-European protest against austerity; they are targeting in particular the European Central Bank, one of the pillars of European anti-democracy; and they are taking place in Germany, a country so far absent from the revolt.

Yet for all this, we still have some way to go. The advances for the left have been patchy, and importantly have lacked pan-European co-ordination, including commonly-produced alternatives and converging actions. From 2002 until it dwindled, the European Social Forum was an important, vibrant and well-attended space for this kind of internationalist organising, building relationships and sweeping away much parochial dust, even if it also suffered from an excess of rhetoric and political infighting.

We need to learn some lessons from that process, both positive and negative, while recognising that, ironically, the ESF never developed a strong enough focus on Europe itself in order to challenge its closed, technocratic institutions and its powerful elites.

A modest but useful ‘EU in Crisis’ anti-austerity conference in Brussels at the beginning of May proved that useful legacies of the ESF remain. This was evident from the presence of pan-European campaigning networks, for instance around the movement against water privatisation and for ‘remunicipalisation’. There was a determination to work together to better co-ordinate the movement across Europe. Now this initiative urgently needs to establish itself and incorporate significant social forces and grassroots activists, not just movement grandees and bureaucrats. Only then will it be able to call widely supported cross-border actions and raise the kind of solidarity that Greece will undoubtedly need in the coming months.

The need for common alternatives must also be worked on, even if it is no easy task. On the one hand some basic demands will have wide resonance and support: defence of public services and the social wage; taxing the rich and the financial sector; opposition to any racist backlash. On the other hand, significant areas of controversy remain. Stimulating economic growth through industrial policy is a key demand for many, but others have fingered growth as the culprit for the climate crisis and demand another solution.

The European radical left remains split over whether staying in or leaving the euro is the least-worst option. And at a more fundamental level, even those social democrats not chained to the neoliberal yoke propose merely to reformulate the class compromise that formed the original European welfare states. In doing so they ignore the fact that this post-war settlement was made possible only by the super-exploitation of the global South and the unwaged work of most of the female population. It was also a settlement which, though moderately redistributive, did not base its reform programmes on a challenge to the dominant organisation of production.

It is surely possible to overcome these differences to formulate some kind of united demands. But all the evidence suggests that this crisis of capitalism will not be short-lived. Opening up new areas for capital accumulation remains a vital goal for the 1 per cent, both through the privatisation of European public services and through the commodification of natural resources previously held in common, dispossessing the many people who depend on them.

We’re in this for the long haul, and to go beyond the current crisis, we need more than a hodgepodge of basic democratic demands and Keynesian economic management. Our movements need to start extending the experiments in assembly democracy that are taking root in neighbourhoods of Spanish cities. We must also spread the practice of creating alternatives as we resist – occupying and then transforming in all the areas of society we need to reproduce our lives, from food to free software. In this way, at least part of our common agenda can be that which emerges from our common resistance.

There is no crisis in the capacities and creativity of humanity. Thanks to the growth of movements including Occupy and the indignados, the last year has seen the limits of the possible expanded beyond the depressing confines of market fundamentalism. Now it’s time to blow those limits wide open.


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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