|Living At A Time of Change
In Egypt, during the huge wave of
democratic mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Suez etc., the thugs
that the State sent out – some in uniforms, some exchanging their police
uniform for civilian clothes – killed more than 700 peaceful citizens.(1)
Peaceful, peaceful! was the exhortation
most often heard when protesters reminded their compatriots of the necessity
to remain calm. Any other move, any excited and rash action, was bound
to offer the generals in command of the armed forces an excuse for ordering
a far more bloody crack-down than actually happened. And at any rate, in
a democratic revolution, a few stones targeted at the police are without
any practical effect. The fire power of the army and police is something
no movement of unarmed civilians can challenge by physical force. If political
power would always depend on rifles, democracy movements could be considered
failed undertakings from the very beginning.
Those who have in the past advocated
militarist solutions as answers for the problems faced by a disempowered
and disgruntled population were wrong in at least one respect. Perhaps
successful revolutions, in the past have brought about a change of personnel
in the “executive” and even a new relation of power with regard to class
relations. But armed revolution always presupposed military hierarchies,
and these hierarchies tended to subsist in the aftermath of a victorious
Also, today, we see that the “elites”
are far better prepared to suppress armed revolt than they were in 1918.
And even then, uprisings of the people failed in Hungary, in Germany, in
Perhaps, we the people are weaker
today than the people was in 1776, in 1789, or in 1918, when we assess
our chances to effect change from a “military” point of view.
But perhaps, despite their better
preparations for counter-insurgency and for the suppression of mass demonstrations,
the rulers of today are weaker than before in other respects. Their policemen
and soldiers are not prepared to commit unlimited brutality against a peacefully
protesting majority. They suffer the consequences of austerity measures,
as well. And so do their next of kin.
In Egypt, the people on Tahir Square
shouted: “The People and the army are one.” That makes a lot of sense.
They did not shout, the top generals, the buddies of general Mubarak,
and the People are one. NO – the People and the army. The ordinary recruits.
The middle level officers. Those who did not and still do not profit by
millions of dollars the U.S. government handed over each year to the corrupt
generals running that military dictatorship.
It is clear that it is wrong to
antagonize the army or the police.
The flower the girl hands a police
officer during a demonstration is better than the stone thrown in his face.
They want you to disband? To vacate
a square? Okay; sometimes it makes sense to resist. To keep sitting or
standing where you are. ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE A LARGE CROWD AND THEY ARE
FEW. But don’t be foolishly stubborn. When it’s clear that you are only
a few hundred or one or two thousand only, and when you see that they’ll
start to beat people up, trampling on their democratic right to assemble
peacefully in the street, remember tactics used in the so-called Third
World by freedom fighters encountering superior forces. Dissolve, move
elsewhere to a rapidly agreed upon spot, and form a protest sit-in again.
In that hide and seek game, the people can always outwit the so-called
forces of order.
So don’t stick to “symbolic” places,
like the Bastille. Be rapid, “flexible” as the bosses call it today. And
don’t let pent-up aggression develop inside you, because they beat you
up cruelly, mocking your right as a citizen to be were you are, voicing
your democratic grievances, like the American revolutionaries of 1776 voiced
We have to have courage, as a peaceful
people demanding change. Everywhere. In Greece. In Spain. In Germany. In
Britain and in the U.S.
No government, whether it relies
on the power of the army and police or not, can run a country indefinitely
against a peacefully resisting majority. And every police of repression
that aims to break the will and courage of a peacefully resisting majority
will run out of steam in the end.
It is true that even as a peaceful
movement we can be temporarily defeated. But I prefer not to think of defeat
now. They chances that protest movements will grow are not bad. The situation
is bad for the “elites” in many ways. They have no way to handle the crisis.
They are groping for instruments, in the dark. The grievances of the people
are real. They talk about it, at home. They mutter. They sense that they
being conned. People are waking
up. More and more. Those who are most awake are out in the street today.
Repression may destroy courage and
cause the silence of a graveyard. But the apathy, passivity, the despondence
that ensues will ruin the economy and it will ruin culture and the ability
to create, to invent. In other words, those who think they can win by repressing
peaceful democratic demands of the majority will fail in the end.
Because the ruling elites in the
West understand this, they have tried sweet-talk. For many years it was
usual to offer bread and games, like the Roman emperors who offered it
to their subjects.
Now, the bread question is resurfacing.
It was the tinder that was set
aflame by the IMF proposals to cut subsidies for bread and gasoline in
Yes, the bread question was always
a central question in our “free” enterprise system. Before WWII, working
people asked for bread because they went hungry. Actually, for “bread and
Bread alone is never enough for
a human being. “Man does not live by bead alone.”
Between 1945 and 1989/90 we experienced
a special situation in the West. There was a competition of “systems” of
government, each in charge of broadly speaking the same industrial society
although these societies of course differed in some respects. The one
“system” was wrongly labeled a “free” enterprise system even though it
was and continues to be corporate feudalism. And the other was called a
“Soviet” system although the “soviets” (the Russian word for councils,
i.e. town meetings and assemblies of the workers in a factory) had
been disempowered and turned into transmission belts of policies decided
further “above”, by the top layers of a party bureaucracy.
In the West, we have heard a lot
about the backward and repressive character of the “Soviet” system and
very little about its interesting aspects.
The extent of repression was enormous.
The “Soviet” etatist system used a combination of repression as well as
evoked idealism to achieve a vast, very rapid expansion and modernization
of the economic base in the period between the 1920s and the 1950s. When,
after the war and especially after the “deconstruction” of the image of
Stalin, idealism was replaced by disillusionment, only repression remained
and stagnation set in. The elites counteracted by reducing the level of
repression considerably, by inducing people to be pragmatic, by investing
less in heavy industry and the military industrial complex and more in
light industry that churned out consumer goods. In the early 1970s, even
miners in Karaganda who weren’t party members, who were Baptists
and anti-party, would owned a car and pay scarcely any rent for a
nice, modern apartment with central heating and a modern bathtub. Their
kids, though refusing to join the “young pioneers” and, when older, the
Komsomolsk youth organization, would attend high school and earn a high
school diploma. Health services were free and much better than today. The
health service, in another word, was on about the same level as that of
Italy or Oklahoma, in the 1970s. But then demands for more democratic breathing
space were voiced again, the scourge of repression returned, and productivity
lagged. Passivity grew. Corruption spread. Society was in decline. A process
that was aggravated by the cost of the arms race which the Reagan regime
forced upon the adversary. The collapse of the “Soviet” regime in the early
1990s was logical and predictable.
In the West, the elites knew that
in the 1960s and 70s, living standards in the “Soviet Union” had attained
an admirable level, taking into consideration the backwardness of the country
in 1918 and the destructions wrought by the Nazi German aggression in 1941
and the Nazi “scorched earth” tactics employed when the Wehrmacht troops
were forced to withdraw again after the surrender of one of the Nazi armies
in Stalingrad. Of course the price of rapid industrialization paid by ordinary
people had been as high as the price paid by the working class in the West
between 1830 and 1890.
In the 1960s and 70s, the elites
in the West knew what working people in the West knew: that no one was
threatened by unemployment in the bureaucratic etatist industrial societies
of Eastern Europe. That health services were free. That programs existed
for free vacations for working people and their families. That school and
university education was free. That working class children had a chance
to attend university and to become a scientist, an engineer, a physician
that was infinitely better than in all Western industrial societies. That
rents were low and not subject to hikes. Investment in the housing stock,
however, was focused exclusively on the production of new, modern town
quarters consisting of multi-story apartment buildings. Somewhat in the
Bauhaus style, but made of prefabicated concrete elements, that is to say
produced rather cheaply, in view of the limited funds that could be allocated
when so much of the budget was eaten up by “defense requirements”.(3) In
effect, the Eastern “people’s democracies” (democracies, in name only,
mock democracies – a bit like ours in some respects) pursued social democratic
policies aiming to improve the general material situation of the disempowered
working population, also of the elderly, and especially of the young, “the
future of our society.” It is interesting to see that the modern working
class quarters produced in the 1930s in Russia and again, in the 1960s
and 1970s in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia or East Germany, with their
moderate densities, their greens, their spacious streets, the wide spaces
between tenements, prefab buildings of moderate height, equipped with
balconies, etc. look so much like the working class quarters produced in
the 1960s in Sweden, in West Berlin, or in Bremen, Germany. Centers of
Social Democratic political power in the West, at the time.
Actually, the answer to the temptations
of social democratic policies in the East was the rise of Social Democatic
parties and the introduction of Social Democratic policies in the West.
The welfare state was taking shape in Britain, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium,
France, Austria and Germany.
This policy was not restricted to
Western Europe. It had been preceded by New Deal reforms in the U.S., and
it was echoed by “reforms” in U.S. occupied areas that were adjacent to
China where the revolutionaries had won the civil war in 1949.
In East Asia, under pressure from
their U.S. masters, the dictators in South Korea and Taiwan chose to hurt
the land-owning “elites” by introducing “democratic land reforms,”
giving private plots to tenants. Taiwan and South Korea were too close
to the Bamboo curtain, and left-wing rebellions in both countries were
seen as possible. In effect, the left was bloodily repressed on Cheju Island
in South Korea, and also throughout Taiwan in the context of the massacres
of civilians that took place in February 1947. In another factual
U.S. protectorate, the Philippines, the U.S. “advisers” obviously deemed
land reform unnecessary because it was too far away from the Bamboo curtain
to warrant the cost of turning it into a showcase of “democratic Capitalism.”
It is since the early 1990s that
the necessity for a class compromise in the West has been put in doubt
by the “elites”. And not only put in doubt. They have virtually turned
their back on it.
The trade unions and their allies,
the Social Democratic Parties, were slow and in fact often reluctant to
But the “elites” had an answer for
Corporations and very wealthy individuals
in some if not all Western democracies routinely give large sums to both
major parties. Both openly and legal, as campaign contributions; and illegally,
in a clandestine way.
In some Western European countries,
even ordinary citizens hoping to run for office on the local level, the
provincial level, let alone the national level, are routinely “supported”
financially by big business in order to have a better chance to build an
A typical example is that the former
German chancellor, Mr. Kohl, was an employee working for BASF, a transnational
corporation. The corporation “encouraged” him to enter politics and
run for office.
That it is necessary to have considerable
private means at your disposal in order to have a chance to run successfully
for Senator in the United States has been noted by many critics. It turns
democracy into a pasttime for the rich.
In Germany, at least one of the
two major parties has demanded of people who wanted to run on their ticket
for a seat in city hall to pay one thousand Euros into the coffers of the
party, a demand that is totally illegal. It reminds some of us of practices
in the Roman empire two thousand years ago, and of the medieval Catholic
Church. Then, you bought an office, in order to squeeze a far bigger amount
out of your “clients” or “subjects” once you were in office.
In Italy, the sources of the fortune
of Mr. Berlusconi are unexplained; some critics think of him as a “straw
man” of organized crime. If we look at his predecessors, we will remember
that an elder statesman of the so-called Socialist Party, Mr.Craxi, had
to stay in exile in Tunisia to evade jail; apparently he had been sentenced
because of contacts with the Mafia. Andreotti, a prime minister, was found
guilty of this crime, as well. In France, corruption is at the core
of the conflict between the present conservative President of the Republic,
Mr. Sarkozy, and a former conservative foreign secretary. That big sums
were changing hands is undisputed, and everybody knows the name of the
lady (a wealthy industrialist) responsible for illegally giving funds to
the majority party of Mr. Sarkozy. We simply don’t know who exactly took
the money. A “Socialist” President, Mitterrand, was involved in the Elf-Aquitaine
corruption scandal, and the name of the former German Chancellor, Mr. Kohl,
was also named but the German judicial system, in the view of one Swiss
investigating judge, was surprisingly unable or unwilling to investigate.
In France, again, former conservative
President Chirac is too old now to realistically stand trial in court,
because of corruption charges. Like Berlusconi, he has evaded justice again
and again, by apparently seeing to it that trials were postponed. Or perhaps
other reasons contributed to this unability of the judicial system to persecute
cases of corruption involving various people in high office. If we would
probe deep enough, we would probably be able to come up with more examples,
and would implicate politicians in far more countries, including those
in Washington, D.C. and in various states of the union. Didn’t an Illinois
politician try to “sell” the seat vacated by Senator Obama? And who would
seriously think that big business is not “buying influence” in the U.S,
when it supports Republican candidates but also (though often to a lesser
The need for a class compromise
in the heart and center of the modern Capitalist world, in the fortress
of the Western “elites” that dominate and exploit the world, has never
existed in a comparable way in the so-called Third World. That is why repression
was always open and shameless in these parts of the world. IF APATHY RESULTED
AND DEVELOPMENT WAS BRAKED, ONLY THE BETTER FOR “OUR” ELITES IN THE WEST
– at least that was the dominant though tacit view for several decades
in the post-WWII era.
The collapse of the “competing”
East European system changed everything.
Now, it is safer to invest everywhere.
No need to fear that a “Third World” country will switch to the “wrong
camp” and that investment there will be irrecoupably lost.
Also, no need any more to “pander”
to working people in Western Europe and the United States of America, in
Canada, or in Australia and New Zealand. The old arrogance and racism
found among some “white” WORKERS in the West when they talked of their
peers in Brazil or Argentine, in India, Turkey, Tunisia or South Africa,
is waning. The unions have been frontally attacked by Thatcher in Britain.
They have been weakened by Republican anti-labor legislation, by the court
system, by NAFTA, in the U.S. In Germany, corporations like SIEMENS
have used millions of Euros so that yellow company unions could be established,
their leaders being in close contact with top management. VOLKSWAGEN invited
top union officers of the metal workers union, the equivalent of the U.A.W.,
to brothels in Rio de Janeiro and paid for a Brazilian luxury prostitute
and her apartment in Germany, all at the service of the top union representative
at VOLKSWAGEN Inc. Of course, cash payments are also a common but less
openly conducted way of assuring good cooperation between elected union
representatives and management. A bus driver in Germany recently reported
that the bus company had twice sent him an unearned amount of thousand
Euros, with a note that they hoped “for good cooperation”. This happened
shortly after he had been elected shop steward. So the practice of buying
influence has spread even to the lower levels, in the provinces.
At a time when a massive attack
on salaries and wages – that is to say, on the general level of income
or the “standard” of normal decent working class existence that had evolved
in the Social Democratic decade (ca. 1965-1975) in Western Europe –
is under way, and this at an accelerated rate since the 1990s, it is obviously
cheaper to buy the representatives of the people than to buy the approval
of the entire working population and of working class retirees by
continuing “welfare state policies.”
The social conquests of social democratic
decade, and the social reforms that preceded it since the advent of the
New Deal (and in Western Europe in the wake of WWII ), are obviously a
thing of the past. They negatively affected the rate of profit of big business.
The reforms were a concession, and
the class that owns and controls Capital to a noteworthy extent must have
felt it was taken hostage by social democratic reformers who more or less
indicated, “you can cooperate with us, but we need to show the rank-and-file
that it’s worthwhile to cooperate; they must see, realistically, that it
pays to be good friends”: well, or else, you can face internal labor unrest
inside the castle while you have the Barbarians outside the walls.
With the “end of history” at hand,
that is to say, their final triumph, the “elites” shook off the shackles
that braked their power. Capitalism could accumulate so much faster, and
they could triple their fortunes so much more quickly, when its dynamics
was no longer “braked” by high wage demands of unions, by early retirement,
by the burden of pension funds that corporations like GM had consented
to contribute to.
Today, dear reader, the fast accumulation
has ended in a superfluity, an enormous abundance, of capital that is involved
in a desperate flight for safe havens: Gold, land bought up by corporations
in Ethiopia, investment in luxury apartments in a ridiculous spot, at the
edge of the desert and of the polluted Persian Gulf. They erected the world’s
highest building in a little Sheik’s revolution-threatened no-man’s land,
an energy-wasting Disney-land conceived by postmodern architects and eager
investors, under conditions that defy all demands for sustainability. The
elites and their financial institutions, in other words, are desperate
because they don’t know anymore what to do with all the liquid means at
their disposal that they have squeezed out of the world’s laboring women
and men (and children, in many places).
No, the “elites” hardly pay taxes
any more because the accumulation process is still not fast enough. And
so public coffers are empty, more and more governments, including the U.S.
government, the British government, the Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and
Greek government, are on the brink of default. And the people get indignant
Seems that the “End of history”
also announces a new beginning.
(1) A good early assessment of the protests in Feb. 2011 is offered
by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani, “Political Energy Powers Exhausted
Protesters”, in: IPS NEWS, Feb.7, 2011 (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=54389
- backup copy: egypt.FEB7.2011.pdf
(2) The IMF also recommended cutting gasoline subsidies in Egypt, claiming
that such subsidies favored the wealthy. Of course an increase of the price
of gasoline immediately translates into higher bus fares. Which hurts ordinary
citizens who are by and large poor. Cf. Amira Saleh and Mohsen Abdel
Razeq, “IMF calls on Egypt to abolish subsidies on petroleum products”,
in: al-Masry al-Youm, Jan.23, 2011 (http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/news/imf-calls-egypt-abolish-subsidies-petroleum-products
backup copy: EGYPT-23.1.11.pdf
(3) Investment in pre-war buildings was almost nil. In East Germany,
for instance, much of the pre-war housing stock was privately owned; owners
could not raise rents which could well be at a level of 30 Marks for a
downtown Berlin apartment in the 1960s and ‘70s. The upside of it was that
there was no gentrification. Grannies lived downtown because the rent was
affordable even after they had become a widow. On the other hand, owners
had no funds to carry out repairs. They would address the city government,
asking it to take over the property when the city demanded that they carry
out inevitable repairs. Usually, the city would decline to take over the
house, claiming they had already taken over so many houses that their budgets
simply did not allow them to be responsible for an even bigger housing
stock. So the fact that old buildings fell in disrepair cannot be overlooked.
No one thought of the possibility to turn old houses over to tenants,
the only ones who would have been capable to care for them well.
ohne Parteien? Eine ganz reale Utopie- Ein Gespräch
mit der Schriftstellerin Juli Zeh
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Dieterich, "Transición al Socialismo
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