Tag Archives: Greece

Is workfare slavery?

Social networking platforms have exploded with howls of outrage over the latest workfare scandal; I would imagine that real-life face-to-face conversations have done the same, but cannot confirm this due to not getting out of the house enough. The specifics of the case are that Tesco were caught advertising night shift positions with a “wage” of “JSA + Expenses” on the Jobcentre Plus website [Edit: Link now dead – presumably the advert has been pulled or expired]. John Harris, who has a good track record on unemployment-related reporting has written a great piece for Comment is Free that really puts this case into its current affairs context. I’m sure I couldn’t do this job better myself. Why bother writing this article then? Well, what I can do is put it into a much broader human-historical and theoretical context. That is, after all, what us Marxian philosophers are supposed to be good at.

Specifically I want to address the question of whether these ‘workfare’ schemes are a form of slavery, or at least reasonably comparable to slavery; many people have been throwing the term around, but some people have suggested that we shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or inappropriate, and I want to explain why. This article will include some discussion of violence, including sexual violence, and other intensely unpleasant and immoral practices, in case that isn’t obvious already. Also, it’s going to be largely historical lecture/analysis, so the first part might be a bit dry.

What is workfare?

Before anything else, I should outline the concept of ‘workfare’ for those unfamiliar with it. Essentially, it describes policies that enforce mandatory unpaid labour upon unemployed people. Workfare means the withdrawal of benefits if you do not accept the work assigned to you, but nothing more than your usual benefits if you do accept the work. This is the sense in which it is unpaid – you continue to receive the normal welfare payments that you would have been entitled to had you not been offered the work at all, but they are now conditional on performing the work where previously they were a basic entitlement.

In the UK this has been implemented in the form of at least two schemes. One, mandatory work activity, is absolutely compulsory if you want to avoid the withdrawal of your Job Seeker’s Allowance; the other, work experience placements, are technically opt-in (though a lot of pressure may be put on jobseekers to opt in), but cannot then be opted back out of after the first week. Essentially, you cannot decide that a placement is not working for you for any reason, and you must persist or else have your eligibility for benefits withdrawn. The opt-in nature of the placements and the restrictions on opting-out have sometimes gone unexplained to the jobseeker offered a placement.

Mandatory work activity is supposed to be of benefit to the community, and was spun as being charity volunteering and so on, but concerns have been raised about whether this has always been the case. Concerns have also been raised about the gender and race profile of those forced into this scheme, with ethnic minorities making up a larger proportion of those on mandatory work activity than those on optional work experience placements.

North American Black slavery

The type of slavery most people are familiar with is that practised in North America between the 16th and 19th centuries. This was probably one of the most cruel, brutal, violent and horrifying human practices to date. It is, in a sense, morally comparable with genocide – the main (perhaps sole) reason it stopped short of actual mass extermination was the potential for profit. Under these arrangements, white slave-owners could expect to get away with extreme negligence or violence, and this might extend to the point of rape or murder. In many cases sexual violence was used against female slaves by the slave-owners or their relatives, who then carried their children, and so on. It is difficult to overstate the morally revolting nature of this form of slavery and the practices associated with it.

It’s easy to see why people might be sensitive to the usage of the word ‘slavery’ when it brings to mind such a vivid, horrible and extreme image. Regular readers of this blog and people who know me personally will know that I have no particular affection for Trotsky. I will, however, quote him on this occasion as one of the few very good things he said is highly relevant here: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be… these are the rules”. Calling workfare ‘slavery’ may well conjure up unpleasant associations and seem like an over-reaction, but this is to let the deeply affective cultural memory of historically located practices eclipse a sober analysis of the social relations at hand. To understand why the diagnosis of workfare as akin to a form of slavery might be entirely accurate, we need to look at other concrete forms of slavery.

Roman slavery

Counter-intuitively, earlier forms of slavery were often less brutal than that we have already looked at. In Rome, for instance, slaves increasingly gained legal protections that allowed them to file complaints if their master mistreated them and protected them from execution without trial. Eventually the voluntary freeing of slaves by their owners became so common that the state attempted to legally regulate it so as to preserve slave stocks. Admittedly freeing did not mean that much in the context of Roman slavery, since even once freed an ex-slave did not become a true citizen, but rather a member of a distinct class of a lower legal status than citizens, and was still subject to (less stringent) labour requirements. Children of former slaves escaped this special class, having full citizenship status (whereas children of current slaves were born into slavery, as in the North American system).

Perhaps most importantly in relation to workfare, Romans practised a form of slavery in which individuals could be owned not by other individuals but by Roman society as a whole. They might be employed as servants to elected officials in the duties of their office, but they might also be accountants or secretaries. A slave of this kind was known as a servus publicus – literally a public servant, a slave of the body politic. Interestingly, it was not only the public servants who were given relatively important and skilled jobs – some privately-held slaves were employed as teachers, doctors, domestic accountants, barbers, etc. One of the reasons for this was that previously educated or skilled people could become enslaved through debt and other methods, so slavery was not merely the preserve of those seen as ‘animalistic’, ‘barbarian’ or ‘sub-human’; slaves may have previously been free citizens of some standing.

Generally speaking we can say that in Roman society, especially in later periods, slavery was a truly class-based cleavage within society. Slaves in the later Roman Empire were recognised as thoroughly human, even if they did occupy an inferior social status. Some were given positions of responsibility and were able to earn recognition for their skilled public servitude. Some had good opportunities to earn their own money, and many achieved manumission through the good will of their owners or the public bodies in which they worked. Domestic slaves, though by no means lavished with luxury, might reasonably expect to live in better conditions than poor free citizens.

All of this paints a very different picture from the previous discussion of North American slavery. If I had to give an explanation for this, I would suggest that slavery in Rome was based on class power in its own right. By contrast, I would propose that the African slave trade and the Black slavery it created in North America was first and foremost a question of race power – slavery was a weapon that presented the content of racial oppression in the form of class oppression. The system of Black slavery has as many parallels in Nazi solutions to ‘The Jewish Question’ as it does in prior historic forms of slavery; it used segregation, demonisation, dehumanisation, brutal violence, and killing by force or overwork or neglect.

Greek slavery

Having considered Roman slavery, let’s take a look at the Greek model (which likely formed a huge influence over the Roman system). Once again the system changed over time, but generally slaves had a greater legal status than in the ‘classic’ case of North American slaves of African origin. Slaves could – at least in certain periods – own property, including land, and some had a status almost equal to citizens. In most Greek cities, a citizen that killed a slave (including their own) could expect to be severely punished, and could even face the death penalty themselves; if someone killed your slave you would not claim for damages due to their status as property, but pursue punishment due to their status as a human. Athenian law protected slaves from being beaten and Athenian culture generally demanded less diffidence and deference from slaves than in other systems, with citizens tolerating argument, etc. In other city-states the treatment of slaves was much harsher and their social and legal position was significantly worse.

Slavery in Sparta was analogous to the later servi publici – rather than being based on individual chattel ownership, the bulk of slaves were state-owned and were assigned to citizens while remaining common property. In keeping with general Spartan ideology, this class of slaves (known as Helots, and distinct from privately-owned slaves) were treated very poorly indeed. There is debate, but generally historians seem to agree that Helots could be killed with impunity at least at a certain time in the year, and that the attitude of Spartan citizens towards Helots was utterly contemptuous at best. On one occasion, the Helots were asked to nominate for manumission those who had best proved their bravery, capability, wits, and so on. 2,000 Helots volunteered themselves and were summarily slaughtered on the grounds that those with that much confidence in themselves were likely to be the most seditious and rebellious.

Similarly to the Roman economy, Greek slaves were not restricted to hard manual labour or domestic service and could practice a craft or profession, though most were employed in agriculture, mining and so on (this also was true of the Roman economy – the accountants and so on may not have been exceedingly rare but they were certainly the minority). They were sometimes forced into arrangements somewhat reminiscent of modern wage-employment, although it would probably be overstating the case to call these arrangements proto-capitalist. On the one hand, slaves could be hired out to other citizens as labourers, generating a profit for the owner. Conversely, some Greek slaves lived independently of their owners as traders, bankers, etc, merely paying a king of ‘tax’ to their owners. Slaves might earn enough to buy their emancipation in this way.

 It’s worth pointing out that as well as the common prohibitions on violence in the form of beating or killing, it was generally illegal to rape a slave (including your own) in Greece. There is an exception to the rule in that some male slaves were forced to work in brothels. Apart from this forced prostitution, the injunction against rape was widespread and in theory was strict, even if it could be broken with relative impunity due to minor punishments in some city states. Conversely, slave women could be raped with impunity in many American States (by White slave-owners or Black slaves or both) not because of minor punishments but because no such offence was even legally recognised. Greek law recognised the slave as having a basic degree of sexual autonomy and raping a slave was legally equivalent to raping a citizen; North American society generally considered Black women to be ‘unrapeable’ – even in the states that technically prohibited it, no jurors would convict a rapist, particularly if he was White and the owner of the slave in question. This even extended as far as child rape in some cases, with the Black rapist of a 10-year-old Black girl being allowed to go free on the grounds that there simply was no offence on the statute books or in common law that could conceivably be brought to bear against him.

Aztec slavery

A final example that’s really alien to our received notion of slavery – the Aztec model. In Aztec society, the children of slaves were born free, and slaves could free themselves in various ways. Firstly there was the traditional route of buying freedom, but there were also options such as proving mistreatment; running away was actually a legally recognised form of emancipation under some circumstances too, typically by taking flight in the market place and fleeing the city walls in order to step on some human poop, which was then presented to a judge as proof of the slave’s full escape. I have no idea why poop equals freedom, but apparently this made sense to Aztecs. Then again, as I understand it, they were constantly worrying about whether the sun was going to come up, so I’m not going to try to get into their mindset on this one.

You could also become a slave in quite unusual ways, such as by trying to prevent the flight of a slave whose owner you were not related to, or by selling yourself into slavery (in which case you were given some time to spend the proceeds and enjoy your freedom before entering servitude. Slaves typically had to give consent to their sale in order to change owners and could marry and own property, including slaves of their own.

Slaves could generally not be sacrificed, though this was reserved as a punishment for those who had been sufficiently unruly, but the legal mechanism protecting them was stringent enough that I find it hard to believe many ever broke it. An owner would have to publicly prove three times, using three different instructions, that a slave was disobedient before they could be sold against their will, and a slave had to be sold in this manner three times before they were fair game for sacrifice; one wonders how many citizens were willing to buy a slave that had already been publicly proven to be disobedient on six occasions to 2 other owners, and therefore how many slaves ever made it to the third such sale. The exception to this was slaves captured as a result of war, who could be taken as prisoners specifically for the purposes of sacrifice.

Aztec seems remarkably merciful for a culture that regularly cut people’s hearts out. Here we have a system of slavery in which you can’t be killed except as punishment for severe disobedience, you can’t be mistreated or else you will be granted your freedom, you can run away to freedom and only your owner will bother to stop you, you can own your own property and have your own family, and you can’t even be sold against your will except as a punishment. This is a totally different type of system to the North American model. Once again, it is a question of class, not caste or race – there is social mobility in the slave class, slaves are significantly protected because of their recognised common humanity, and so on.

Slavery as a generic system

Having looked at several varieties of slavery, we should not understand the term as referring to a concrete historically-situated phenomenon, but rather as a universal/generic term, referring to a set containing various sub-categories.  We might even consider it to include penal hard labour or indentured servitude, but I won’t address these here. Slavery takes significantly different forms in different societies. To draw a comparison between slavery and workfare, therefore, is not to suggest that workfare shares all of the significant features of North American slavery.

Despite the racial imbalance between the two schemes that weighs more heavily in favour of ethnic minority jobseekers being forced into work, workfare – at least in the UK – is clearly not based on race power. It is not fundamentally a system used to segregate and significantly dehumanise in a similar way that Nazi propaganda did to Jews. I don’t think even the most ardent tory would consider the unemployed to be literally sub-human or non-human, or suggest that they were less evolved than those with paid employment, or that they lacked a soul that others had (plenty of people may, of course, think jobseekers don’t have a soul, but this is probably due to them being non-religious rather than to prejudice).

When we compare workfare to forms of slavery found in ancient societies, however, there is a more apt analogy. The position occupied by those on mandatory work activity is similar to that of certain types of slaves, and the basic social relations of slavery may be a useful and appropriate model for understanding workfare in the modern world. Drawing on a few of the features we have noted about specific forms of slavery, we can point out parallels with the servi publici or Helots, with the Greek slaves hired out as labourers by their owners, with the legal protections in place in some slave-holding cultures, and so on.

Parallels between workfare and slavery

A workfare labourer, like a slave, has certain legal rights and protections due to their basic humanity – the right to their own family life, the right to own property, freedom from corporal and capital punishment or other mistreatment, etc. Some of these rights are not available in most slave-holding systems, true. However, they did exist in some systems, so the lack of these freedoms is not a necessary condition for slavery.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, may theoretically be able to escape to freedom (in the form of emigration, for instance) or earn their freedom (by getting a better job somehow or setting up their own business or the like). But most of them will be stuck with no realistic way out due to their material conditions.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, is subordinate to the entity that controls their labour, in this case the state. The state is sovereign and has a monopoly on legitimised force – just as a slave cannot overrule their master or attack their master, the unemployed cannot realistically refuse or challenge the state, they must obey or else face destitution.

A workfare labourer, like a Helot, works at the behest of the state and receives a pittance in return from the state. Like a Helot, the unemployed must be economically obedient to the state in order to receive their means of subsistence.

A workfare labourer, like some Greek slaves, is ‘hired out’ to private firms for the purpose of generating profits for the employer; the benefit to the state is not identical to the benefit to the Greek slave-owner, but it exists. Consider, for instance, the political capital involved in running ‘successful’ workfare schemes, or the increased tax receipts that will follow from the increased profits of the firms involved in the schemes.

Most importantly, we can see a common logic to the structure of workfare and the underling common themes of slavery. The individual in question is forced to provide unpaid labour by an entity with the monopoly of legal power, economic power and legitimised violence in the relationship. The individual in question has little or no autonomy in how their labour is employed (in fact, some Greek or Roman slaves would have had substantially more autonomy in the employment of their labour power than many workfare scheme participants). The individual in question may theoretically be able to accumulate wealth and eventually emancipate themselves in some form, but is realistically unlikely to achieve this. The individual in question need not be performing back-breaking physical labour or domestic service, and they may even land a fairly enjoyable or skilled role, but most people in their position will be working in the bottom rungs of the contemporary economy.


I’m not arguing here that workfare is actually a set of social relations identical to a historical form of slavery or anything that extreme and specific. All I will say is that we can see from the above substantial cause for comparing the position of someone forced to work for free stacking shelves in order to receive a pittance more or less equivalent in value to the material necessities of life with the position of someone forced to work for free sowing seeds in order to receive the material necessities of life. It isn’t unreasonable, when we take a broad and cross-cultural historical view, to compare workfare to slavery.

I don’t think many people drawing the analogy here are genuinely trying to suggest that workfare involves the same power relations and holds the same cultural meaning as Black slavery on the plantations. What they are really saying is that slavery is a basic economic concept – the idea of forced, unpaid labour inflicted on an individual by an entity that stands in a position of extreme dominance over them. The note that historically the term ‘slavery’ has been applied to many other contexts dissimilar to the presumed-paradigm case of North American slavery is not merely to point to a precedent for this usage of the word, but is precisely to reinforce this argument that ‘slavery’ is a fairly universally-recognised and universally-applied concept which is, at bottom, free of ties to any specific historical period or class structure or racial divide.

I may not agree with some of the uses of the term, but I can recognise the political importance of identifying hyper-exploitative social relations or hypo-autonomous working conditions as slavery-like. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement combined the concepts of ‘wage slavery’ and ‘domestic slavery’ in one fell swoop: “slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to the kitchen sink”. Regardless of whether you agree with them, this was clearly a politically significant development in the women’s liberation movement and the socialist movement. Workfare is clearly not based on a brutal system of white supremacy, where rape and lynching is deemed acceptable and the labourers are deemed sub-human animals. It is, however, a hyper-exploitative system of class power and conflict, where workers find themselves in conditions of diminished autonomy and the general value of labour is driven down.

It is no more distasteful, unacceptable or inaccurate to draw relevant comparisons between workfare and slavery than it is to refer to forced sterilisation as genocide – yes, it is a term that these days is associated more with extermination of the already-living, but technically genocide simply means an attempt to wipe out an ethnic or national group, and this can be enacted by preventing any future generations being born too. Yes, slavery is a term associated with kidnapping people from Africa and whipping, but this is not all it means and is not the only form that it can take. It is important to acknowledge what workfare represents for taxpayers, who are essentially paying the wages of people they aren’t employing (that are often generating profits for other private firms).

It is even more important to acknowledge what workfare means for the working class; it is unacceptable that in the 21st century people will be coerced by the threat of absolute poverty and destitution to work without pay (often for the private gain of others), driving down wages for those already in work and contracting the supply of real jobs available for others seeking work. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if workfare ‘is’ slavery, but I propose that there are certainly striking and unavoidable similarities that merit attention and criticism.


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Labour History, Uncategorized

Should we be calling for a general strike?

by Edd Mustill

At the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) conference a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting debates was around whether or not we should, at this point, call for a general strike in Britain as part of a strategy for defeating cuts. It was the first time in a long time that I changed my mind numerous times during the course of a political discussion. I ended up abstaining (cop-out, I know).

The idea of a general strike is being pushed strongly by Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party, and less so by the Socialist Party. The cuts are a general attack on the working class that require a general response, which, so the argument goes, logically leads us to conclude that a call for a general strike is necessarily the correct call to be making.

There have been one or two general strikes in British history; the 1926 strike is indisputable, some say the Chartist “Sacred Month” in 1842 constituted a general strike as well. On other occasions, general strikes have been threatened or nearly materialised, such as in 1919 or 1972.

To drop a dead Russian into my article… Trotsky said that “a general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist account of all the concrete circumstances.” What is needed to make the slogan of a general strike any less empty than raising the slogan “revolution now”?

A few months ago Charlie Kimber (now National Secretary of the SWP) argued in Socialist Worker that the demand for a general strike is made possible because the rhetoric of trade union leaders shifts leftwards. We can start talking about it when they do, or at least when they talk about the fact that they’re not talking about it. Apparently the need for a general strike is implicitly raised by the union leaders themselves. Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party (SP) puts across a similar argument, saying that the TUC’s pledge for co-ordinated strike action has “unconsciously raised” within the working class the idea of a general strike.

According to these arguments, the ability of the workers’ movement to actually carry out a successful general strike is not a major factor. For some in the SWP the fact that people are, apparently, really angry, is enough proof that a general strike would be pulled off if one were called.

But what sort of general strike are people usually talking about? Most calls for a general strike focus on a 24-hour stoppage, such as has frequently occurred in Greece recently. Hannah Sell has pointed out that numerous 24-hour general strikes in countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy have failed to defeat austerity policies.

1926 - the right model?

The idea of such “warning strikes” is to increase the confidence of the working class. According to the SP, they are to form part of a programme where everything acts as a springboard to something else. So a chain of action develops which looks something like: local protests > a national march > a one-day public sector strike > a one-day general strike > an indefinite revolutionary general strike(?)

The first round of industrial action here, a public sector general strike, could effectively happen legally by different unions balloting separately and co-ordinating their strikes to take place on the same day.

There is a problem though. A one-day “general strike” is not really a general strike. Would this sort of “general strike” pose the question of power in the way that all classical general strikes supposedly do? No. No-one will seriously question where power lies in society just because the TUC, for example, tells them not to go into work on May 1st, especially if they know they will be back in work on May 2nd.

Socialist Worker on September 28th defined a general strike as “when all workers walk out on the same day,” but actually it is much more than that. Real general strikes are called as open ended actions, but cannot last indefinitely (people need to eat). So they raise the question of how to organise society in a different way, without the bosses. This began to happen, for example, in France in 1968. For a revolutionary general strike to be successful, the workers’ movement needs to be capable of rising to these challenges.

We are in a situation where even the more militant unions are finding it very difficult to win clear-cut victories. Witness the RMT in the London Underground dispute over job losses, and the FBU’s long-term battle over changes to shift patterns, for example.

What would a clear-cut victory for a One Day General Strike be? The government abandons its cuts programme? The government collapses? Or we have a successful staging post from which to launch the next, Two Day, General Strike…?

Spain 2010 - set piece?

For unions to be in a position to win serious disputes, we need seriously organised rank-and-file networks that can direct these disputes. Raising a general strike in the manner popular on the British left can lead to the faintly ridiculous spectacle of someone like NUS president Aaron Porter signing a petition in favour of a general strike, on the same demonstration that he is chased off by a militant section of his own union’s membership.

Set-piece strikes will not roll back the government’s programme or force their resignation. Jeremy Drinkall of Workers’ Power (WP) argues: “The events in Tunisia show how to bring down a government – just the threat of a general strike sent dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country. That’s why the Con Dems are so keen to avoid one.”

Perhaps in Tunisia the threat of a general strike toppled Ben Ali, but in Egypt the reality of what was effectively a general strike last week failed to bring down Mubarak.

In the last few days, the Egyptian working class has muscled its way even into the Western media explicitly, because strike action appears to be spreading. We could reasonably suggest that a sort of mass strike process has been going on in Egypt since the Mahalla textile strike in 2006.

A century ago Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet, The Mass Strike, attempting to analyse the strike wave in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution, and the prospects for something similar occurring elsewhere. In it she makes a distinction (at least in English translations) between the general strike as an event and the mass strike as a process. A general strike refers to an all-grades strike in a particular industry, or a general stoppage in a geographical area like a town or city.

The mass strike can last months or years, it can contain within it victories and defeats. It can explode in one industry even as it dies down in another. Within it, political and economic questions are inseparable:

“It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now it is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing set of phenomena.”

Sounds remarkably like Egypt to me. So, simplifying things a lot, we can see the effectiveness of the mass strike in Egypt as against the impotence of the set-piece “general strike” in Greece.

I’m not necessarily saying take the general strike off the table altogether. At NCAFC conference, WP comrades made the very reasonable point that if we as revolutionaries don’t raise it, it won’t get raised. But we always have a responsibility to explain properly what our slogans mean. What sort of thing do we want to see? A series of show-piece strikes, or the situation that Luxemburg describes above?

Let’s take a small scale example. The BA cabin crew dispute has taken the form of a series of set-piece strikes, which are now fighting only for the restoration of working conditions that were taken away as a result of the first strikes. It has lasted well over a year, with large gaps between action, rather than escalation. An alternative proposal would be, for example, to broaden the strike out across the industry, where there is a tradition of unofficial action among some baggage handlers (see the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005). We need to build rank-and-file networks, and popularise militant forms of industrial action like this. These are the sorts of actions that can create the conditions in which a real general strike could be successful.

It is worth mentioning that any action in Britain even remotely like what has happened in Egypt – political strikes, wildcat strikes, work-ins – would be illegal because of our anti-union laws, so were it to take place it would take on a political character because it would bring the working class directly up against bourgeois law. Egypt shows that fighting political and economic battles cannot be separated. A lazy call for a legalistic general strike risks artificially separating them, not to mention making the TUC General Council and union leaderships into something they are not (i.e. radical).

I’m still willing to be convinced that there are ways in which the general strike slogan could be raised right now that make sense. But I think we should prioritise rank-and-file organisation, and the broadening out of disputes at the grassroots through militant action, before we hold our breath for the TUC to deliver the goods.


Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

The February Theses

by Anne Archist

Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…


1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.


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Some facts about the cuts

by nineteensixtyseven

“The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.” Thus David Davis was overheard by the Financial Times in July discussing the Conservative-Liberal Democrat cuts agenda.  The Government have been giving all sorts of fiscal arguments for the unprecedented cuts in public expenditure but they have been unable to shake the accusation that beneath the rhetorical verbiage lies the traditional  Tory desire to shrink the State.

Firstly, as Red Pepper have reported in their handy guide, IMF World Economic Outlook Database figures show that the UK  actually has the lowest government debt as a proportion of GDP among the G7 countries.  Even before the 2007  financial crisis, comparisons of the level of public debt prior to 2007 showed the UK in a much better position than many comparable countries- even Germany, which has been cited as a model of fiscal responsibility.

Another major argument for the need for immediate spending cuts is the international state of sovereign debt. Just on Monday at the Tory Conference, George Osborne told us to “look at Ireland, and Greece, and Portugal, and you will see that the dangers have not passed.” However, the UK’s debt is qualitatively different from that of Greece, making a comparison unhelpful. The average debt maturity of Greek government debt is around 8 years, for Portugal it is 6 years and for Ireland it is a mere 5; the average for the UK is 14 years, one of the longest in the industrialised world. In other words, most of the debt UK’s debt will not mature for at least a decade.

Furthermore, the spectre of rising interest rates has been raised, but gilts are set at a fixed repayment rate once government bonds are purchased.  Therefore, the majority of government debt remains unaffected by contemporary economic conditions.  Indeed, on Sunday Germany just paid off its reparations from the Treaty of Versailles so one has to wonder what the rush is.  After the Second World War, with debt at around 250% of GDP, the UK managed to build that National Health Service; after the financial crash the Government has opted for brutal austerity.  These choices are political choices, not driven by objective economic necessity.

A  final reason why the UK cannot be compared with the countries mentioned by Osborne is that foreign investors only hold 30 per cent of the £800bn in outstanding UK gilts, much lower than Eurozone countries. Over 80 per cent of Irish debt is held externally, and the percentage for Greece and Portugal is similar.  According to the Financial Times: “This means the UK market is not subject to the more capricious nature of overseas buyers that are more likely to take flight in the event of negative news flow or poor economic data.”

Importantly, Ireland, which has been mentioned as a model for governments to follow in imposing austerity measures is now facing the prospect of a double-dip recession, not having grown at all since the first quarter of this year.  Spain, another austerity-stricken country, has had her credit rating downgraded after austerity was implemented, with the credit rating agencies citing poor prospects for further growth.  This could easily be the UK after the Comprehensive Spending Review.

In closing, the IFS has said that the cuts planned by Osborne will tackle 110% of the structural deficit, which is much more than is necessary by even the government’s dubious standards.  One is led to the obvious conclusion that Osborne and the Tories wanted to reduce the state anyway and are seizing of the flimsiest of evidence to cut us back to the 19th century.  The 25% plus cuts planned for public expenditure will, as well as lead to mass public sector unemployment, hit private sector growth in areas such as the construction industry which are dependent on public sector contracts.

These cuts, supported by only 36.1% of voters at the election, are ideologically-driven and tantamount to class war waged by the rich against the poor.  While the banks prosper under business as usual, it is the sick, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged who are left to bear the brunt of the economic crisis.

A variation of this article will soon appear in The Cambridge Student.

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Action against the cuts: ‘Resistance’ or actual political strategy? (Part I)

By Patrick

Richard Seymour has initiated a discussion on the New Left Project about the cuts and how to oppose them. Unsurprisingly, he calls for ‘a multi-party, multi-organization, trade union-based united front, the sole criterion for unity within it being agreement on the objective of preventing the cuts and advancing alternatives.’ He doesn’t say exactly what this united front will do, or how it will ‘obstruct the cuts agenda [and] also create a crisis for the government’. I assume the tactics he envisions are those espoused by the large anti-cuts campaigns like Right to Work, and the Coalition of Resistance: strikes, demonstrations, the occupations, and so on.

There’s been a lot of talk on the left generally about ‘resistance’ to the wave of austerity now sweeping Europe.

Riots and general strikes in Greece, huge demonstrations in Ireland, public sector strikes in Spain. The basic assumption about this ‘resistance’ is the more the better – once ‘resistance’ reaches a certain level – once the general strike is long enough, once the demonstrations are big enough, the cuts will be defeated, austerity will end, and the rich will be made to pay for the economic crisis. However, no-one ever explains exactly how this resistance will grow, and exactly how it will defeat the austerity program.

A logic of ‘resistance’, of pure anger mechanistically resulting in struggle, of a fierce fight necessarily resulting in victory, is ridiculously simplistic. Let’s look at Greece: we’ve seen a series of general strikes with more than half of workers walking out for a day. In May we saw regular demonstrations of hundreds of thousands (in a country of only 11 million), we saw riots and an attempted storming of parliament. But austerity has rolled on – the international financial markets and the IMF have forced the ruling ‘socialist’ government to adopt a harsh programme of budget cuts, and no amount of ‘resistance’ appears able to stop this.

Something is wrong with ‘resistance’ as a mode of action, something is incomplete. The crucial elements are inadequately linked together. What is needed is an understanding of the project of austerity, leading to a strategy of struggle, and a programme of transforming society.

Understanding Austerity

Many argue that the UK does not need to cut public services by 25%. Sunny Hundal argues that we should proclaim ‘the cuts won’t work!’: many social Democrats and centre left economists are saying that harsh cuts may tip the country back into recession, and maybe start a deflationary spiral in the short and medium term.

However, the Tories (ConDems, LibCons, whatever you want to call them) are not just stupid, economic illiterates who are taking Britain down an ill-conceived path to ruin, egged on by ‘bond vigilantes’ in the financial markets. They aim to slash the state whist raising regressive taxes for a reason: harsh austerity is part of a transformational project, and it’s only beginning to be revealed.

George Osborne claims that the ‘bloated’ public sector is ‘crowding out’ private enterprise, he claims that, once public spending is cut, private sector growth will accelerate, creating more jobs than were cut from the public sector.

This may actually be true – a period of mass unemployment will follow budget cuts over the next few years, wages will be driven down as people search for work anywhere they can, more people will be forced to buy services from the private sector, as public services will be crumbling, and a few years of uncertainty will discipline country’s workforce, ensuring that they prepare themselves for work in a casualised private sector – that is, long hours, few benefits, and little or no union representation.

We may find ourselves, five years hence, with a booming private economy, with growth coming from private schools, private hospitals and the security industry. This situation would be characterized by a high cost of living combined with low wages, harsh discipline in work, and a very low level of trade union membership. Everything from hospital administration to state schools will be run (if not funded) by the private sector, and though unemployment may be quite low, every job will be a McDonald’s job – disciplined, regularized, with crap conditions and no creative outlet whatsoever. If you want to see this future, talk to someone who works in one of the academy schools run by a major bank or a religious nut.

Once the project is complete – it’s game over – unions will be even weaker than today, schools will have the last bits of progressive education eradicated, the NHS will be practically privatised, students will have no time for political action amidst their two-year business degrees, and workers will have no energy for political action amidst casualisation, overtime, and low wages. Many poor and dispossessed people will have already turned to the easy answers offered by racism and fascism.

The project of austerity is about changing the society we live in, and it does have a logic to it. Austerity, unemployment and lower standards of living translate into increased control of the private sector over services, workplaces, and people’s lives. It will allow capitalism to bounce back with a vengeance. If we are to oppose austerity, we must understand and oppose this logic.

[Coming up in Part II: Working Out a Strategy of Struggle]


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Greece and urban terrorism

by nineteensixtyseven

The long tradition of urban terrorism in Greece has lured its head again in the last few years.  It was thought to have come to an end several years ago with disbandment of the 17 November group but the  death Alexis Grigoropoulos after being shot by a policeman in December 2008, and the intense social crisis as a result of the recent austerity measures have seen a resurgence in groups using terrorist tactics.  Whilst one always has to be wary of agent provocateurs, the latest manifestation of the urban terrorist phenomenon appears to be a group calling themselves The Sect of Revolutionaries.

The very name (‘Sect’) should lead us to be sceptical of the efficacy of such groups.  Indeed, there has been a long tradition within Marxism which has been implacably opposed to individual terror for several important reasons.  In 1911, Leon Trotsky wrote an article in which he argued:

“Only the workers can conduct a strike. Artisans ruined by the factory, peasants whose water the factory is poisoning, or lumpen proletarians, in search of plunder, can smash machines, set fire to a factory, or murder its owner.  Only the conscious and organised working class can send-a strong representation into the halls of parliament to look out for proletarian interests. However, in order to murder a prominent official you need not have the organised masses behind you. The recipe for explosives is accessible to all, and a Browning can be obtained anywhere.”

In other words, even a ‘sect’ can murder a prominent official (an unnamed group murdered the chief aide to the minister of public security, Michalis Chrysohoidis, using a parcel bomb) or a political leader.  But, as Trotsky says, ‘the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them.’  This requires mass action behalf of the organised working-class.  These groups however are, for reasons of necessity given their inherent illegality, small and conspiratorial, and therefore develop an elitist dynamic.  In other words, ‘individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.’  This is antithetical to mass democratic politics and can attract all sorts of unstable individuals, interested in violence for the sake of violence.  This appears to be the case with some of the recent groups in Greece.  The Sect of Revolutionaries declared in 2009: ‘We don’t do politics, we do guerilla warfare.’

The next stage in the analysis is to ask why urban terrorism has appeared at this particular conjuncture.  One clue is in another proclamation from the Sect.  ‘Our guns are full and they are ready to speak,’ it said. ‘We are at war with your democracy.’  This, in many ways, is similar to the proclamations of groups in the 1970s such as the Red Army Faction in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy.  One thing that Germany, Italy and Greece have in common is a collective experience of Fascist and/or authoritarian governments.  Politically, the experience of Fascism left an imprint on the state in Italy and Germany, and perhaps equally importantly it had a lasting residual influence on the way German and Italian citizens perceived the state.  Influenced by the New Left and Marcuse’s ideas of the ‘repressive tolerance’ of western democracies, many of West Germany’s young radicals harbored a deep antipathy towards the Federal Republic and were inclined to associate it the past crimes of Nazism. This interpretation was given more substance by the chancellorship of Kiesinger, a former Nazi,  and the murder of Benno Ohnesorg by the police during protests against the Shah of Iran in 1967.  Thus, despite the warnings of intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas, they talked of the Republic’s ‘structural violence’ which they wished to provoke so as to uncover the state’s ‘constitutional mask.’  Democracy, therefore, was perceived as a shallow layer concealing a darker reality.  Or, as Rainier Warner Fassbinder, an RAF militant, expressed it, ‘Our democracy was decreed for the Western occupation zone, we didn’t fight for it ourselves.’

Similarly, in Italy the channels for oppositional politics were curtailed in ways which made the promise of liberal democracy ring hollow.  Following the landslide victory of the Christian Democrats in 1948, the second largest party, the Italian Communist Party, was effectively excluded from power.  Despite its massive influence on account of its role fighting Fascism in the resistance, its members were subject to constant propaganda and actual repression. Close cooperation between the state and the Confindustria and the exclusion of working-class parties from power were the twin pillars of the Italian political system between 1948 and 1960.  Many of the state’s personnel were left over from the Fascist regime, and the Republic inherited Fascist laws like the Rocco Penal Code.  Moreover, in between 1948 and 1954 an estimated 75 people were killed and 5,104 injured in police action against protests and political strikes.  The political structures were characterised by rigidity, with the Christian Democrats always playing the dominant role in coalitions and thus being able to restrict the political program of the parliamentary left.

The post-war development of Greece has parallels to inter-war Italy and Germany in so far as irreconcilable social tensions were not solved but merely repressed by the experience of authoritarian governments.  In Italy and Germany the repression took the form of Fascism and Nazism and then, as we have seen, continued in the more muted form of rigid parliamentary democracies; in post-war Greece it was the regime of the Colonels.  The Greek Civil War (1944-49) was fought by UK and USA-backed forces against the armed wing of the Greek Communist Party (who led the resistance against the Axis occupation) as part of a Western attempt to ensure Greece did not align itself with the Soviet Union.  As in Spain, the civil war left a bitter legacy of resentment and political polarisation and the Communist Party was banned.  In 1967, fearing the victory of George Papandreou in the elections of that year and the supposed ‘Communist’ takeover that would apparently ensue, a group of right-wing army generals led a coup on the 21 April.  What followed was seven years of arguably Fascist rule.

Fascism is a last-ditch attempt by the ruling-class to forestall social revolution in a heavily polarised country in which the bourgeoisie cannot maintain hegemony through ‘normal’ democratic channels.  However, the historical legacy of Fascism is to increase the disconnect between citizen and state (which must already exist to an extent as a problem to which Fascism can present itself as an answer), to unmask the potential of state power in the collective memory of the population and to aide the development of a political consciousness uninhibited in its desire to wage war on the state apparatus.  In Italy, the widespread social crisis in 1969 of students and workers eased imperceptibly into the violence of the Red Brigades, violence which had a surprising degree of support, at least at the  beginning.  The 17 November group similarly emerged from the Athens Polytechnic uprising on in November 1973, when the government sent a tank crashing through the gates of the university.

This latest wave of terrorism has come at a time when Greek society is undergoing a deep crisis.  Voters elected a Socialist government only to find it forced into taking harsh austerity measures which threaten to destroy the fabric of Greek society.  In many ways, given the political tradition of groups such as 17 November, the nihilistic terrorist response is predictable.  However, it is not the answer.  Individualistic terrorism has, in the example of Tsarist Russia or more recently in a milder form in the United Kingdom, been used as a pretext by the state to curtail civil liberties and suppress oppositional groups.  Groups such as the Red Army Faction were not linked to any wider social movements and justified themselves ideologically by transposing ‘Third World’ liberation theory in to the context of advanced capitalist economies in a very shallow manner.  The Sect of Revolutionaries have gone one step further and have denied politics entirely.  Nihilism desires to destroy existing structures but as an ideology of negativity it provides nothing with which to replace them. The answer lies not with small and isolated groups but instead with mass organisations of workers such as the trade union movement and political parties.  Armed individuals cannot hope to bring down a socio-economic system which pervades every aspect of life and enmeshes and enslaves millions in its web of relationships, nor can they establish anything else on its ruins.  Only those enslaved millions can do that.


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