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Tag: lisbon

Portugal: All Quiet on the Western front?

Cape-Adamastor-Portuguese-fleet
by RICARDO NORONHA*, euronomade 

Taking the blue pill

Far removed at the western tip of Europe, like the cousin one occasionally hears about, the ‘P’ that starts the ‘PIGS’ has been the subject of a thorough marketing operation that displaced its position in the European imaginary, from being ‘the next to follow Greece’ to becoming the success story of adjustment under the Troika and the ‘good student’ of austerity policies in the Eurozone. In spite of more recent warnings by the IMF, according to which the meagre economic recovery of the last year stands on shaky ground and can be offset at the slightest rise in oil prices or interest rates in the international markets, Portugal is frequently incensed by the German government and Eurocrats of all sorts as ‘the case that went well in Southern Europe’. A slight increase in exports (including revenues from a tourism boom in Lisbon and Porto), a precarious (and fading) trade balance equilibrium achieved through massive cuts in public spending and wages, extra revenues from a privatization plan that brought in investment from State-owned Chinese companies and Angola’s plutocratic elites (real estate purchases also increased significantly after several licensing rules were ‘simplified’ and special visas were conceded to big investors), are usually referred as proof that expansionary austerity is possible and that the failure of the policies prescribed by Troika in Greece is due to endogenous causes, beyond the reach of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. Simplifications such as these are bound to find traction in the international media, just as happened around the time the Memorandum was signed, in 2011, when the Portuguese, like the Greeks, were portrayed as ‘lazy big spenders’ that would soon be joined by the rest of the Southern European countries.

The fairy tale of Portugal as a ‘success story’ – even if we ignore the massive social cost it implied, with poverty affecting over 20% of the population (reports of hungry children passing out at school became frequent) and unemployment reaching a historical high of 17% (in spite of successive attempts by the Government to disguise the numbers with all sorts of publicly funded internship programs), resulting in mass emigration of over five hundred thousand people (the precise number is difficult to determine, but it is reasonable to admit that it was equivalent to 5% of the population) – is based on a persistent attempt to forget that none of the targets included in the memorandum (namely reduction of the State deficit and State spending) were achieved and that the fundamental change occurred when the European Central Bank started buying Portuguese public debt without limitation, thus bringing interest rates down and ending the relentless attack carried out by financial investors against the Southern European countries’ sovereign debt since 2010. Massive changes in labour laws, extraordinary taxes imposed on retired people and wage workers, along with blind cuts across the public sector (mostly in the national health service and the public education service, while the police budget was raised) were undertaken without any visible impact on the country’s competitiveness, economic recovery or fiscal discipline, but the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup, who have been persistently harsh in their judgements of Greece and its need for further ‘adjustment’, have been more than happy to select whatever data best suited their political agenda, so as to invent ‘diligent student’ of austerity.

The political nature of this marketing operation is ever clearer if we recall its chronology: it was the quick electoral breakthrough by SYRIZA in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain, both underlining the immense failure of the politics of internal devaluation, that created the need for a success case to keep alive the narrative upon which austerity in the South is served to the public opinion and voters in the North of Europe. The particularly servile posture of the Portuguese government helped make this operation successful, in a deal that suited both sides, since its internal unpopularity and political isolation (just a year and a half ago it was under a barrage of criticism from even neoliberal hardliners, and no minister could risk walking the streets unless surrounded by a wall of police) could only be compensated through an equally deceiving narrative for domestic consumption, portraying its actions as a ‘painful but necessary remedy’ that would show positive results in the medium-term, just as both the European institutions and the ‘markets’ were starting to notice. By some sort of coincidence, this medium-term coincides with both the Portuguese electoral calendar (general elections for parliament will be held next October) and the Spanish one (late December), while unexpected (?) Greek elections made confrontation within the Eurogroup a major focus of international attention.

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Fragments of Europe

madrid2

by Jacob Blumenfeld,  May 6th, 2014, Brooklyn Rail

Strolling down the promenade in central Madrid on a Thursday afternoon, I glance left and see a Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham), I look right and find a shop full of Catholic kitsch, left again and it’s a bar selling overpriced tapas, right again and there are two glass doors brimming with hundreds of shielded riot cops about to explode onto the Puerta del Sol. They are waiting for the 20,000 high school students marching against austerity and cuts to education. If anything goes wrong, they are ready. Too bad though. The first windows are broken elsewhere.

With around 25 percent unemployment, and 50 percent youth unemployment, the prospects for a good life in Spain are not high. The economic crisis has crushed many dreams and evicted many locals, but the royal palaces and grand museums are still polished clean and packed with tourists. The squares are no longer centers of political discussion; that was already exhausted in 2011. Discussing ¡Democracia real YA! in public is a fine step, but it’s no substitute for the overthrow of economic domination. A social strike on the scale of March 29th, 2012, which shut down the economy in Barcelona and most of Spain, has not occurred since. People protest, barricades are built, bank windows are broken, buildings are claimed, squats named, centers socialized, pamphlets spread, and the museums are still full.

If Lisbon is the most beautiful city in Europe, it is also the most abandoned—decrepit, for sale, slowly decaying like Detroit. But this is not due to deindustrialization, urban politics, or endemic poverty. It’s a story of debt and crisis, capital flight and real estate bubbles, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Every once in a while, a protest or a strike will pass by your street or through a gorgeous square demanding this or trying to stop that. But to whom are they speaking when they chant? Is it Merkel, “Brussels,” the Portuguese, the rest of Europe? Who hears their provincial wails?

It’s Saturday in Berlin, the sky is half blue and half black, and right as I’m about to begin working my shift at the bar, lines of riot cops march down the street, van after van after van full, followed closely by a small demo, 200 maybe, mostly autonomists, antifascists, communists, housing activists and some locals holding signs about rising rent, gentrification, capitalism. Behind them, another few thousand riot police. Nothing happens, as usual.

A few days earlier, a nearby square occupied by refugees, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, was cleared. For almost two years, refugees lived in this Platz with makeshift tents, food donations, and some support from leftists. Politicians and policemen have been trying to evict them for a while, claiming health and safety reasons, but they were blocked thanks to the strong solidarity from anti-racist groups. But on this one foggy morning, the strategy was found: choose some leaders from the camp, make a deal with them, and then let them dismantle the camp themselves. And so it was done. When the activists arrived, the chaos was too far-gone. The police intervened later, after the fights within the camp had already broken up any hope of unity. The square is now a permanent police-zone.

Berlin has become a mecca for crisis refugees from southern Europe, with Spaniards, Greeks, and Portuguese competing for jobs with Polish and Russian immigrants from the former Soviet states, as well as the long-term Turkish community and, of course, the decadent Germans themselves. Along with floods of British partygoers, American tourists, Israeli exiles, and French Erasmus students, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Iran, and Syria are making a presence in this formerly homogenous place. Vietnamese and Korean zones exist on the outskirts, with the center of the city still negatively shaped by the history of the wall. With its low unemployment, cheap cost of living, and reasonable welfare provisions, Berlin is an ideal city for global surplus populations evading the terrors of economic and political catastrophe in their own lands. Germany itself has a negative birthrate, and so immigration has been encouraged by the government to make up for the gap in job-seekers. This process has reshaped Berlin from an Eastern outpost of the Cold War into a cosmopolitan hipster millennial party-town. The new class composition that undergirds this development has yet to express itself in struggle. For now, everyone is a member of the partying proletariat, no one a member of the party.

In a former nuclear silo an hour north of Berlin, 60,000 people dance non-stop for four days every summer to electronic music of every sort on 20 stages with no cops in sight, all self-organized by a bunch of older and younger antifascists, punks, and technofreaks. It’s a self-proclaimed communist holiday in which music, theater, cabaret, film, art, sculpture, workshops, dance, food, drinks, and fire are produced by each according to their ability and distributed to each according to their need. This communism lasts four days long. Then it’s back to work.

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Scenes from the class struggle in portugal

Recently, members of CiSSi (Communists in Situ-Section Internationale) went to Portugal, Brazil, and Spain to document the class struggle there. Here is the first of our results.

Scenes from the class struggle in portugal 1/2

Scenes from the class struggle in portugal 2/2