2.5 million took to the streets on general strike in France on January 29, 2009. (Photo: Farfahinne)
The basic issue is the same there and here. Capitalism generates another of its regular, periodic crises, only this one is really bad. It begins, as often happens, in the financial sector where credit invites the competition-driven speculation, the excess risk-taking, and the corruption that explodes first. But precisely because the non-financial rest of the economy is already on shaky feet -- resulting from the growing economic divides between the mass of workers and the corporate profiteers -- the financial breakdown is spread by the market to the entire economy.
The basic response is the same there and here. Governments serve their masters. This means borrowing trillions (from those masters with the money to lend) in order to bail out their other masters: the failed banks and other corporations who threaten to take whole national economies down with them. The government bailouts "work." That is, they temporarily help banks, insurance companies, desperate corporations, and investors to avoid total collapse. But the bailouts also cost governments massive new budget deficits paid for by massive additional debt obligations to their lenders.
The basic dilemma today is the same there and here. Lenders to governments threaten to stop lending or even to pull their loans unless governments guarantee that they will pay interest on all their new debts as well as repay them. The guarantee that lenders everywhere demand is the same: governments must set aside funds -- by either raising new taxes or cutting government payrolls and spending -- that will go to the lenders.
The next step is different there than here. In France and across Europe, the governments' response to their masters' demands is called "austerity": painful added costs and lost public jobs and services impacting chiefly the mass of working people. In contrast, in the US, Obama "opposes" austerity, especially in Europe, because he has hopes that an export boom might lead the US out of its economic crisis. Europe is the chief buyer of US exports, and austerity there would inevitably reduce their purchase of US output.
However, while Obama opposes austerity, the 50 states and virtually every city and town are busy actually imposing austerity on the US. This is because cities and states are losing tax revenue (because of unemployment and home foreclosures) and yet are forbidden by law to borrow for their operating budgets. Hence every state and local government is either raising taxes and fees or cutting payrolls and public services or taking all three steps. There it's "austerity"; here it's called "prudent fiscal management."
But the biggest difference between there and here is the people's reactions. On Tuesday, September 7, somewhere between 2 and 3 million French citizens stopped work for a general strike. Their target was one part of the French government's "austerity program" -- a proposal to raise the minimum age to receive a partial retirement pension from 60 to 62 years of age and for receiving a full pension from 65 to 67 years. General strikes have also occurred in Greece and are planned in Spain. All of Europe has agreed on a day of strikes and demonstrations against austerity continent-wide on September 29. These will be led by trade unions and actively supported by left political parties, community organizations, church groups, students, and still others.
The general idea motivating and inspiring Europeans to undertake these massive actions is quite simple. The economic crisis, they argue, was caused by capitalist corporations' investment decisions -- and especially those of financial corporations. It has already caused huge job losses, reduced outputs of goods and services, and immense new government debts. Now governments propose to offset those debts by imposing additional costs on the mass of people. This amounts to shifting the costly burden of the capitalists' crisis -- and their government-financed rescues -- onto the working people. This has gone too far; the people will not permit it.
In Europe, this idea is extremely popular. In France, the leading national polling institute recorded a 70 per cent public opinion support for the September 7 general strike against the Sarkozy government. This public opinion and the general strike are chiefly the results of decades of ongoing anti-capitalist agitation (in the daily newspapers, inside trade unions, by explicitly anti-capitalist political parties, from intellectuals articulating critiques of capitalism and proposals for post-capitalist social change, etc.). The capitalist crisis by itself need not produce organized mass mobilization against austerity, let alone mobilization that includes significant anti-capitalist dimensions. The proof of that lies in the US to date. The crisis response there is very different from what it is here.
There is a basic lesson in all this for the US left. It concerns why millions march there but not (yet?) here. The failure to develop, support, and widely disseminate anti-capitalist criticism and proposals for non-capitalist alternatives undermines the capacity for mass mobilizations to protect and advance working people's interests, especially in times of crisis. Even to make a political difference on so limited an issue as changing the age of retirement, effective mobilization of workers requires that they understand that issue in a much broader framework. Workers who see themselves in a broad social struggle for justice and for basic social change toward a better society can also then grasp and act on a particular issue with a sense of its historic meaning and implications.
Rick Wolff is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York. He is the author of New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006) among many other publications. Check out Rick Wolff’s documentary film on the current economic crisis, Capitalism Hits the Fan, at www.capitalismhitsthefan.com. Visit Wolff's Web site at www.rdwolff.com, and order a copy of his new book Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It.