2012 saw the world’s workers and students still pummeled by the ruling-class austerity drive — and still fighting back in record-breaking ways, from Athens and Moscow to Calcutta and Chicago. As they did, their rage met with increasing state repression: tear gas, raids by spy agencies, and laws criminalizing dissent and shredding civil liberties.
An even bitterer pill to swallow was the undermining of valiant struggles by poor and working people by their own supposed leaders. Sabotage of this kind contributed to 2012 drawing to a close with only partial and tentative victories and defeats on both sides of the class divide.
But one thing is clear: with recession persisting, the austerity push is intensifying, not letting up. To defend the gains they have won over decades, workers and young people will have to counter with a redoubled fierceness of their own.
A deadly serious tug-of-war. Europe was a focal point of clashes in 2012. As the European Central Bank demanded cutbacks in social services so that bank bailout funds could be repaid, hundreds of work stoppages took place in Greece, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. As these unfolded, the dynamics of militancy versus conservatism were clear.
Like the Democrats in the U.S., the social-democratic parties in Europe advertise themselves as parties of the working class, but carry out the bosses’ agenda. These are parties like PASOK in Greece, the ruling party in charge of implementing austerity until voters dumped it in June. European unions and labor federations are tied to these parties, like U.S. and Australian labor organizations are tied to the Democrats and the Australian Labor Party.
This means that even while strikes increase, top union leaders blunt their effect by limiting them to a day or two, giving lots of advance warning, and weakening demands — as in “fewer cuts” rather than “no cuts!”
In Brazil, public workers striking for better pay stayed out for months. Unions were key to bringing the Workers Party (PT) of President Dilma Rousseff to power; now she is paying them back for their support with proposals for legislation restricting public-sector strikes.
In South Africa, when appallingly low-paid platinum miners struck, they had to go up against not only the ruling African National Congress, but also the officially recognized miners’ union, allied with the ANC. In August, police killed 34 miners — but did not stop the miners from ultimately winning wage increases.
Backbone of protest. Countering the leaden influence of corrupt “people’s” governments and parties and their faithful followers in the movements is the energy of the most oppressed, fueled by desperate need.
In India, where 400,000,000 people live in absolute poverty, up to 100,000,000 people took part in a one-day walkout demanding higher wages, pension improvements, protections for temporary workers, and an end to privatizations. In the Chicago public schools, where 87 percent of the teachers are women and 91 percent of the students are of color, the teachers’ union forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take a step back from the Obama administration’s assault on public education and its workers.
Young people, with extremely high rates of unemployment around the world, have been in the forefront of protest everywhere. In February, university students in Quebec launched what would become the biggest and longest student strike in the history of North America, demanding no tuition hikes. The students finally won their demands, bringing down a provincial government in the process.
Youth are key in mobilizations for the environment, in which indigenous people also play a crucial role. Native women and men in the U.S. sparked the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline, which has involved thousands in civil disobedience. And, on the U.S. East Coast, networks of the youth-led Occupy movement, along with grass-roots organizations in immigrant and people of color communities, provided aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy who were ignored for days by official relief agencies.
Changed fortunes for the movements of 2011. But times were tough in 2012 for Occupy Wall Street and 2011’s other explosive international movement, the Arab Spring.
The Occupy phenomenon, though it lives on in efforts like Hurricane Sandy relief and action against home evictions, lost much of its steam thanks to violent government repression and a lack of direction due to the dominant influence of anarchism in the movement. But the radical spirit of the movement profoundly changed the nature of discussion about the economic crisis. And, for many people, the example of Occupy made resistance seem like a viable option again.
For resistance to succeed, however, it needs conscious revolutionary leadership. Nothing demonstrates this more than the fate of the uprisings against dictators in the Middle East and North Africa.
For now at least, these heroic undertakings have been largely co-opted by a combination of Western imperialist countries, regional elites like the Saudis, and religious reactionaries. But Middle Eastern freedom fighters have not given up — including Palestinians, whose cause remains a burning issue in the region.
What’s needed to move forward. 2012 saw no slackening in the U.S. government role as global cop and guarantor of corporate profits. As union officials and leaders of social movements predictably threw their support to Democrats, it was an election year in which the top candidates barely discussed war or even, in any serious way, jobs — let alone growing climate change.
At year’s end, the “fiscal cliff” looms large — the sweeping tax increases and deep spending cuts due to kick in if Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on some other plan to lower the deficit. Given the economy’s still bleak performance, whatever the outcome of negotiations, it will not be good news for the working class in the U.S. or elsewhere.
If protest is to grow and become more effective in 2013, a shakeup is needed in the labor and progressive movements. Union members and grass-roots activists will only be able to truly confront the powers-that-be by confronting their own leaders first, demanding real representation in fights with bosses and banksters, and stepping forward to provide leadership themselves. It won’t be easy, but it’s the only way to go — and this crucial effort deserves full support from the socialist Left.