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Right now, in what might be the largest coordinated actions yet, the people of Southern Europe are engaged in an international general strike against ongoing austerity measures. Action today centred on a near-total shut-down of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) along with several-hour national shut-downs in Greece and Italy. Workers in France, Belgium, Germany and others are also supporting and participating. Air travel, trains, industry and services have all been affected by actions, and massive demonstrations have taken to the streets of countless cities. Clashes with police have been reported in Spain (81 reported arrested in Madrid so far) and several Italian cities.

Guardian – Live Coverage
BBC Coverage
Democracy Now Coverage
Libcom – Live Updates

Since last year, Europe has been gripped by an enduring debt crisis. With southern nations like Spain and Greece failing to recover from the collapse of 2008, they’re requiring large bailouts to keep making their payments on national debt to wealthier (northern) nations. In exchange central bankers have demanded harsh spending cuts (“austerity”). Unfortunately, the cuts have only further devastated economies while bailout uncertainty during bargaining sessions has driven interest rates on their debt far higher, driving a cycle of more cuts, bailouts and recessions which has infuriated the continent.

In response, Europe has been witnessing some of the largest and most intense protests in a generation. Town squares were occupied, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and pitched battles were fought with riot police. There’s been several general strikes now in each of the nations afflicted by the crisis and a growing list of fallen governments. Last week’s two-day general strike in Greece, for instance, saw 80 000 in the streets of Athens and a particularly fierce battle outside the parliament, awaiting the latest austerity vote.

Today’s actions are a landmark for organizing across borders, and for the participation of large traditional labour groups like the European Trade Union Confederation who don’t usually get involved in such actions. An accurate number of participants isn’t available, but it’s likely to be in the millions. Today’s actions show a growing rejection of austerity which is beginning to connect across the continent.

This issue isn’t going away, and the protests are only getting larger.

Later this month, officials meet in Brussels to attempt (again) to sort out this mess. As the consensus grows, even in capitalist circles, that austerity has failed, Europe is starting to run out of options. Greece has been pushed the brink of total economic, social and political collapse, with Spain and Italy not far behind. More cuts, at this point, only invite disaster. Millions of people sent a message today, and unless it’s received soon, we’re going to witness a much larger, longer shut-down.

It’s budget time, and conflicts over “austerity” are continuing to rage across the western world. Canada’s budgets are out, Spain held a general strike Thursday and the situation in Italy and Portugal is continuing to worsen.

Greece and Italy
News from Europe just keeps getting more disturbing. Italy has now seen two men set themselves on fire to protest economic conditions. One did it outside a tax office, another outside the town hall over thousands in unpaid wages. Greece is taking an even scarier turn as the (unelected) government move on with plans to open 30 widely opposed “detention camps” for illegal immigrants, who they’re now attempting to scapegoat for their economic woes. This follows similar measures and proposals aimed at the Roma (“Gypsies”) in Italy and France.

These two nations are furthest along in “austerity” plans (especially Greece). They’ve both had their heads-of-state (Berlusconi and Papandreau) replaced by “technocrats”. Their economies are growing so toxic they threaten the EU itself, and austerity programs so have only worsened debt burdens by wrecking their economies. They’ve both seen enormous, riotous social unrest. Watching this from the relative security of a nation like Canada, it’s time to ask ourselves: is this is really the path we want to embark down?

Spain and Portugal
Spain yesterday saw a general strike grip the country, where (of course) some clashed with police setting tires and trash cans alight as barricades in the street. Yesterday, Spain announced their “austerity budget“, hoping to satisfy European Union creditors. It contains 27 billion in cuts, some of the worst cuts seen since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Spanish unions and protest groups are pledging to keep fighting. Neighbouring Portugal held a similar general strike last week, and business analysts are again beginning to fear that either of the above (or Italy) may become “the next Greece”. EU Ministers met today to discuss raising the “firewall” bailout fund closer to a trillion dollars, fearing another debt-crisis and bailouts which could cripple the European banking system.

Thursday, Federal Minister of Finance Flaherty announced his “austerity” budget, as expected. During the speech a group of protesters raised a ruckus in the gallery and had to be “escorted out”. The day before, McGuinty released his, and the reality of the proposed cuts is beginning to sink in. Federally, over $5 billion in cuts have been announced, expected to directly result in about 19 000 public jobs lost over the next few years, raised eligibility ages for retirement benefits and gutted environmental oversight. The subject of new taxes was avoided, with the Conservatives hoping further investments in large resource-extraction projects like the Tar Sands and related pipelines will bring in more revenue. It’s being called the “least green budget in decades“, inflaming Environmental and First-Nations groups.

In Ontario, the main cost-cutting measure is a two-year public-sector wage freeze along with cuts to pensions. Over the next three years, cuts worth $17.7 billion are planned, with a third of it coming from wages. These measures follow a somewhat watered-down model provided by the Drummond Report, released earlier this year warning of dire financial consequences if Ontario didn’t deal with our deficits.

Canada isn’t Greece, Spain or Italy – we very clearly aren’t in the midst of a “debt crisis”. We aren’t even “sorta” grappling with one like France, Britain or America. We have the lowest debt-GDP ratio in the G7, our own currency and some of the world’s largest stocks of natural resources. Our economy was largely shielded from the shocks of the last five years for these reasons, and we needed a far smaller “bailout”. Our social programs aren’t all that lavish by European standards, and our economy is in far better shape. To say that Canada “needs” an austerity program is absolutely ludicrous, but that’s never stopped our politicians before.

Austerity Everywhere
The rapid spread of austerity programs, beyond borders and regardless of party in power, shows how widespread these problems really are. As much as I’d like to place the blame on Harper or McGuinty, they are only a few in the long list of politicians participating. Our new global economy has generated a global crisis, and it’s going to take a global movement to fight back.

Wages, pensions, social programs and other benefits have always been a battleground. They’re a part of the bargain we drive in exchange for our work and compliance with laws. Most of these rights and benefits were only gained at the end of long and hard-fought struggles. This bargaining session never ends – there’s always a mediation between us and those in power (bosses, the government, etc). There will always be efforts to peel back these gains and pay us less in one way or another. When this happens, people fight back. This is the subject of a very interesting paper now making the rounds online, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of the CEPR. From the ninety years they studied, they found “a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability”. These results were tested against all the usual explanations – recessions, democratic/autocratic governments and the amount of media coverage, among other variables, and none showed much effect (with the possible exception of limiting the powers of government’s executive branch…). The lesson here? If you begin to pay people less for their obedience, be prepared to expect less of it.

This fight is already underway. Big days to watch for include April 21st (Toronto), May 5th (Ottawa) and of course Mayday, May 1st (everywhere). There are already big conflicts underway in Quebec (students) and British Columbia (teachers, northerners), as well as many cities like Toronto and Halifax. With these budgets now on the table, Canada’s entry into this international conflict is now official. Austerity is everywhere and the effects are only beginning to be felt, but so is the backlash.

It sure is going to be an interesting spring.

Over the past two days, large, dramatic and unconventional strike actions have dominated the news…

Student Strike Still Growing
On Thursday, depending on estimates, a hundred thousand or so demonstrators converged on downtown Montreal in opposition to rising tuition fees. Around three hundred thousand students are now on strike, representing the, latest escalation in this weeks-long battle, in which neither side shows any sign of backing down. Since this began, students have marched, occupied buildings and blocked bridges in their attempt to keep Canada’s lowest tuition rates.

Return of the Wildcat!
Thursday night Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt caused a bit of a stir when she walked off an plane at Pearson airport in Toronto, where Air Canada workers began to heckle, showing their displeasure at recent legislation away their right to strike. Three workers were suspended as a result, a move which quickly inflamed tensions. Support workers began to walk off the job in an illegal wildcat strike which spread to Montreal, Vancouver and elsewhere, leading to the cancellation of around 80 flights and causing enormous damage to the company’s “brand image“. After about thirteen hours, strikers were forced back to work by a court injunction along with promises that nobody would be punished.

While all this happened, a group of Toronto anarchists and others took the opportunity to occupy Minister Raitt’s office.

Air Canada has been battling several unions for over a month now, and has resorted to help from the Harper government to legally block strikes by pilots and support workers (baggage handlers, ground crews etc). Air Canada has also earned scorn regarding the mass-termination of Aveos employees, a major Air Canada contractor, provoked a conflict with the union representing is laid off workers Tuesday when a few hundred former workers, blocking the road to Aveos and Air Canada offices, ended up clashing with riot police.

Another General Strike
Thursday also meant a General Strike in Portugal, one of the many poorer EU nations now grappling with a debt crisis, mass unemployment and harsh austerity measures. Large parts of the small country were brought to a standstill as ports, schools, roads, trains and public transit were brought to a halt by strikers. Small clashes with police were reported, with two reporters from the state news service among those injured by cops.

Strikes Everywhere
It’s not just the number of strikes that’s remarkable here, or how far they’re reaching. The return wildcat, student and general strikes shows how the tactics and movements themselves are changing. Actions like these haven’t been seen on a scale like this since the revolutionary tumults of the 1960s. Autonomous direct actions like these were once the norm, in the days of the “Wobblies” and other radical, grassroots unions which fought for worker’s rights before such organizations were protected by law.

The wave of austerity programs which are now sweeping the western world are provoking a powerful backlash. While many took to the streets and occupied parks last fall, the drive to cut wages and jobs has only intensified. In response, people are taking their resistance to the next level. While these corporations and governments may be massive and powerful, they could never function without huge networks of workers and willing participants. When even a few groups decide to stop participating, it can disrupt the entire system, especially when it threatens to inspire others to do the same. It’s no coincidence that revolutions are often associated with student and general strikes, as they threaten the functioning of society in ways no simple “protest” ever could.

Within another few days Canada is expecting a Federal “austerity” budget, and Spain is due for the next general strike. As news of these actions and others spreads, we can only expect many more conflicts like these in the coming months, both here and abroad. Major demonstrations at parliament and wide-ranging strikes across the continent are now being planned for early May. Some are even beginning to call it the “Maple Spring”. It may still be too early to tell whether this will be enough to reverse the impending cuts, but it now seems certain that little else can.

They’re calling it “the winter that wasn’t” – another record-setting year of low snowfalls and warm temperatures which seems now to have jumped from our prolonged November right into June. Sure, Hamilton had it better than most – we didn’t see our rivers freeze solid or watch whole towns get lifted off the map by tornadoes, but a snowless Canadian winter is no less dramatic. Hamilton has already seen our first smog day before the end of our traditional snowstorm season. Whatever the cause or the consequences, it now seems official that winter is over.

At the end of last fall much of the Northern Hemisphere was in revolt, between the Occupy Movement in North America and the widespread austerity protests in Europe. Though coordinated police actions played a big role in shutting this down, one can’t avoid the conclusion that weather played just as large a role. Even marching in below-zero temperatures can be bone-chilling, and attempting to “occupy” a park can be downright dangerous. In weather like this, however, those actions can be downright enjoyable.

North America is now witnessing a re-awakening. Occupy Wall Street recently returned to Zucotti Park for their six-month anniversary, only to be evicted by police. A small group is now attempting to occupy Union Square. Occupy St. Louis saw mass arrests and truncheons when protesters tried to march away from a park eviction. Occupy Miami protesters staying at a local apartment building found themselves at the end of assault rifles held by foul-mouthed federal agents. Elsewhere, the Quebec student strike continues to rage, especially after one youth may have been blinded in one eye by a concussion grenade from police. Last week, of course, also saw Montreal’s yearly protest (riot) against police brutality, as riotous as ever in light of this tragedy. Montreal police also brought in the riot squad yesterday to clear picketing, laid off, Aveos workers. Canada has also seen widespread protests against the Harper government and his Robocall Scandal as well as the new proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline from the Tar Sands to the BC coast. Huge parts of Italy are in revolt, largely focusing on a proposed high-speed rail line running from Lyon to Turin. The NO-TAV Movement has spread to many cities and throughout the countryside, coming to represent the many frustrations of the Italian people with the EU and their own government on a wide array of issues. Even China is again seeing unrest over Tibet. Oh, and there are General Strikes planned for Portugal (tomorrow) and Spain (next week).

It isn’t over.

In the year since the Arab Spring, and it’s now clear that it’s not just the Arabs, and it wasn’t just that spring. Every act of defiance and repression has only galvanized others, spreading virally through the world’s new digital nerve centres. Traditional kinds of resistance many thought were long-dead have returned all over the globe. Squatting, occupations of public (and private) spaces, general strikes, massive street protests and even outright revolutions. Russia, China, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa have all been gripped, making this the largest wave of protests in generations. As springtime comes again, in a stunningly beautiful and frightening manner, we can only expect it to spread further.

The word “socialist” is getting a lot of press these days. This past weekend, it captured national attention after a big debate at the NDP’s national convention in Vancouver. It seems many wanted to remove the term from the party’s official constitution, to give the party a more moderate image and hope to attract voters. The convention voted otherwise, and so for now, they’re still “socialists”. Since the NDP’s stunning win of over a hundred seats in the recent Federal Election, this was probably inevitable, but it does raise a lot of questions.

As long as I can remember, the moderate left has been possessed with a kind of paranoia about not being seen as “moderate enough”. This kind of fear kept the NDP in the shadow of the Liberals for years, as they simply copied out all the best parts of the NDP’s (watered down) platform. This gave the NDP the illusion of being next to useless – why vote for them when the Liberals are promising all the same things, and might actually win? The NDP’s recent success has as much to do with the implosion of the Liberals as it does with the (very real) leftward shift of Canadian opinion, and Layton knows it.

This is a big part of the reason I haven’t worked with the NDP in a very long time. Not only is this strategy self-defeating, it borders on outright dishonesty. And the ultimate result, either way, is that nobody on the “organized left” is willing to actually argue a “leftist” position. When this happens, centrists and “right-wingers” win by default, and the population at large is left without any radical alternative.

The next part of the story comes from Europe, where established “Socialist” parties are taking a beating. In Spain and Portugal, ruling Socialists have lost recent elections over the outright disgust of Spanish society over their handling of austerity measures, whom either voted Conservative (Spain) and Centrist (Protugal) or refused to vote and took to the streets and squares instead.

What does “Socialism” mean when a ruling Socialist party is willing to push austerity cuts on the population on the behalf of EU and IMF? Not a whole lot. And despite the very clear dislike of capitalism present in the new wave of European radicalism (particularly in Spain), not a whole lot of it is using the “S-word”.

The final part of this story comes from our neighbours to the south, the Americans. We’re all familiar with the culture of red-baiting, and absolutely over-use of terms like “socialist” (eg. “Obama is a socialist”). In spite of all this, a recent poll of Americans showed that even if you use the dreaded s-word, a surprising number are all for it. Only 53% of Americans believe capitalism is “the best system”, about half that are unsure, and about 20% said socialism. Among young people, it’s nearly even, with 37% saying capitalism, 33% socialist and 30% undecided. Pretty startling numbers if you believe Fox and CNN reflect “America”.

Since Reagan, Republicans and others have repeatedly attacked many parts of “the government” – schools, public services, health care etc – as essentially “socialist”. Unfortunately for them, those are the parts of the government that people actually like and tend to rely on. The predictable backlash has been that people really aren’t all that scared of the idea anymore, especially if the alternative is Reagan-style “big government” (more cops, prisons, armies and corporations).

Like so many other terms in modern politics, “socialism” has been used and abused to the point of meaning almost nothing. The 20th century left socialists with a legacy of failure in nearly every arena of statecraft – from the autocrats of China and Russia to moderates of the west. And while there’s clearly a demand for an alternative to capitalism, socialism in general seems far less clearly defined than it did a century ago.

If there’s a future for socialism, it’s going to have to be a lot more grassroots. The dream of a workers’ state has proved absolutely unworkable in nearly every form. With all the general strikes and popular uprisings in the last year, there hasn’t been much in the way of a “party” rising to lead, especially a socialist one. Perhaps, though, with the death of the (dreadful) notion of a governing party which can make all our dreams come true, the actual issue of workers controlling production can be discussed.

If the word “socialism” won’t do, how about syndicalism? Or mutualism? “Economic democracy”? Open-source? Autonomist Marxism? Or (gasp) anarchism? What does it take to get a serious discussion of an economy that isn’t run by government bureaucracies or investors and profiteers? We’ll probably never again be able to use the term “Soviet” (worker’s council), and if many corporations get their way the term “co-operative” will become just as tainted. Whatever words we use, it’s that idea that matters.

Liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” – Mikhail Bakunin (Marx’s famous anarchist adversary)

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