A new mood of resistance
Millions of Venezuelan workers struck in August to demand wage increases and protest increased gas prices in the largest general strike in that country in years. Market reforms and International Monetary Fund austerity measures have driven down Venezuelan workers wages by 67 percent since 1979.
The Venezuelan general strike is the latest evidence of the growing mood of resistance to the free-market orthodoxy that dominated the 1980s and 1990s. The resistance, like the market itself, spans the globe. It takes different forms, depending on the national context, but the sense of rejection of the reigning orthodoxy is growing.
"Not long ago I read the results of a poll in which 80 percent of the population said they oppose privatization. People used to applaud privatization...Now that everything is privatized, people are reacting saying that it was no good," said an Argentine activist in the July/August issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.
In Mexico in July, three years of economic crisis led to the election of an opposition Congress for the first time since 1913. The biggest beneficiary of the erosion in support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was the populist Party of the Democratic Revolutionwhose leader, Cuahtemoc Cardenas, won the mayoral race for Mexico City.
The Mexican election followed closely the upset election victory of the French Socialist Party. Conservative President Jacques Chirac, hoping to establish a mandate to continue his plans to slash the welfare state, called an election for June, eighteen months before it was required. Chirac expected to win a majority, sliced from the 80 percent of the National Assembly the French right won in 1995.
Chiracs ploy blew up in his face. Socialist Lionel Jospin, in coalition with Greens and Communists, riding on mass discontent with Chiracs austerity measures, won the prime ministership away from Chiracs ally, Alain Juppé. The key to Jospins victory was his promise to create 750,000 jobs in a country with 12 percent unemployment.
Only one month before Jospin beat the combined forces of the right, British Labour leader Tony Blair scored the largest victory over a Conservative government since 1832. The Labour victory unleashed a wave of expectation among British workers that they would finally get theirs after almost twenty years of putting up with Thatcher and Major.
Conservatives now govern only two of the thirteen major Western European countries. Many observers predict that the right-wing government of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will go the way of Britains and Frances Tories when he calls elections next year.
In some countries, like Britain, no great increase in workers struggle has accompanied the massive shift to the left in workers consciousness. A recent poll showed that 76 percent of people in Britain believe that "there is a class struggle" and 52 percent say the government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. At some point in the future, the gap between workers consciousness and workers action will close.
In Italy and France, on the other hand, mass struggle succeeded in shifting the political climate against the right. A 1994 general strike in Italy brought down the government of right-wing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. The French mass strikes in 1995 and 1996 unraveled Chiracs massive parliamentary majority.
These developments in Europe and Latin America (not to mention Asia and Africa) are the most recent manifestation of the growing polarization between classes in these societies. A widespread mood of resistance to the bosses prioritieswhether it be the European Monetary Union or free-market reform in Latin Americais developing after two decades in which the bosses have had it mostly their way. The U.S. isnt exempt from these developments, as the widespread public support for the Teamsters strike against UPS showed.
Existing reformist oppositions, like Britains Labour Party or Frances Socialists, have served as the main political channels for discontent with the status quo. Yet, for the most part, these oppositions have been timid. Ideologically, they have accepted much of the right wings pro-market rhetoric. Politically, they have tended to stake out positions which accept many of the conservatives priorities while promising to soften their impact. Economically, they are unlikely to deliver on many of their promises.
These electoral victories are therefore more important as a measure of working-class discontent than a sign that the traditional left partieswho themselves administered austerity in the past and will continue do so noware suddenly experiencing a permanent revival. What we are likely to see is growing political volatility with wild swings to the left and the right at the level of formal politics. As the political crisis deepens, mass disillusionment in mainstream parties of both the right and the left will produce increasing polarization. This can open up a wider audience to far-right politics such as those of French Nazi Jean-Marie LePen, but it will alsoespecially as working-class struggle intensifiesopen up the possibilities for the rebuilding of a revolutionary left.
In this new climate, the prospectsand responsibilitiesfor socialists are vast.
Nothing about the current situation guarantees victoryeither in the class struggle against the bosses or in the ideological struggle for Marxist ideas. Though highly uneven, class struggle is likely to intensify. In that context, the possibility of reconnecting a new generation of fighters with the genuine socialist tradition exists in country after country in a way that it hasnt for a generation.
Israels Reign of Terror
When "peace" means war
It is hard to find anyone in the Middle East who takes the "peace" process seriously anymore. Following July and August suicide bombings that killed seventeen Israelis in crowded Jerusalem markets, Israel locked down the West Bank and Gaza, suspended its planned handover of West Bank territory to the Palestine National Authority (PNA), and threatened war with the PNA instead. Meanwhile, Israels undeclared war against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon continued its upward spiral.
Almost seven in ten Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza favor a return to the intifada-style mass uprising against Israel, and 38 percent favor "armed attacks," according to a recent survey by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies.
The Clinton administration dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in September in hopes of getting the "peace" process "back on track." But the U.S., which supported Israel in every one of its provocations against the Palestinians, shares the blame for the current crisis.
Having stood alone with Israel in vetoing United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem in the spring, the U.S. joined with Israel in calling for Arafat to crack down on "terrorists" after the market bombings.
Of all the major players in the Israel-Palestine conflict, only Arafat seems to cling to the "peace" process. Having offered to play Israels gendarme in exchange for a few pieces of land that he nominally controls, he has little choice.
"In essence, the Palestinian leadership is trying to counter Israeli intransigence by proving to the U.S. and the world that it is the party committed to the Oslo process, in the hope that international pressure will be brought to bear on Israel," Louis Andoni wrote in Middle East International in June. "Meanwhile, it will continue to fulfill its obligations to protect Israeli security while Israel continues to form the shape of the future final settlement."
Arafats acceptance of Oslo and the "peace" process has locked him and the PLO in a vise whose grips Israel turns. To Israel, the PNA is useful only insofar as it represses the Palestinian population effectively enough so that Israel wont have to bother. Until the recent bombings, Arafats bloated security apparatusas many as 50,000 cops and security officers in an array of different agenciesfulfilled its appointed role.
Under the cover of the "peace" process, Israelunder both "pro-peace" Labor and right-wing Likud governmentshas achieved major strategic gains.
Israel has been able to reduce Palestinian workers employment in the Israeli economy. Between 1993 and 1996, Israel reduced the number of Palestinians working in Israel from 116,000 to 29,500.
Israel replaced Palestinian workers with Jewish immigrants from Russia, as well as non-Jewish contract workers from Thailand and Romania. The 1992-1996 Labor governments policy of "separation" of Palestinian workers from Israel has nearly reached fruition under Netanyahus right-wing Likud government.
This kind of economic warfare against the Palestinian population is the chief explanation for the drop in living standards among the Palestinian population living in the PNA-administered areas. Since the PNA took over formal rule of six West Bank towns and most of Gaza in 1994, the Palestinians living in those areas have seen their already miserable incomes decline by nearly 40 percent.
What is more, Israel has nearly managed to seal off areas under Palestinian control from any contact with areas under Israeli sovereignty while populating Israeli-held areas with Jewish settlers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forced Arafat to break off negotiations with Israel last March when he announced that Israel would continue to build a massive housing settlement on Palestinian land at Jebel Abu Goneim (known in Israel as Har Homa) in East Jerusalem.
The new construction would complete a wall of settlements cutting off the citys Palestinian population from connection with the West Bank. In combination with an almost completed network of superhighways connecting the West Bank to Israel, Israeli settlements aim to complete a de facto annexation of the majority of Arab land that Israel occupied in 1967.
All of this has left Palestinians living under the PNA angry and disillusioned with Oslo. Palestinians perceive Arafat and his cronies as repressive, incompetent, and corrupt. The PNAs elected legislative council agreed, urging Arafat to fire his entire cabinet for corruption in late July. And a small, but growing, minority perceives Arafat as little more than a stooge of the Israelis. Arafats recent "embrace" of leaders of the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations was an attempt to repair his standing.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy insisted that Israel "doesnt want the collapse of the [Palestine National] Authority." But Netanyahus threats to invade the PNA seem aimed at preparing the Israeli public for the possibility of reoccupying the PNAs territory.
If Israel takes this route, it will face a challenge better armed than children throwing stones. And the leaders of the PNA security forces will have to choose whether they will fight a war against Israel or a civil war against Palestinians.