Tragedy and Hope: Taking On the Economics of Austerity

July 11, 2012

Rachel Newton, the National Coordinator of the People’s Charter, tells the OT about the growing resistance against the austerity cuts and her delegation to Greece to meet anti-austerity politician, Alexis Tsipras.

In the recent Greek elections, whilst the anti-austerity party, SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, came second to New Democracy, it’s still crystal clear that the vast majority of the Greek people oppose the austerity programme. The Greeks came under immense pressure to vote for the pro-austerity parties, both internally and from leaders across Europe. Big employee meetings even took place where the managers warned staff that if they voted anti-austerity they wouldn’t have a job because all the banks would close down.

Even after all that bullying, New Democracy only just scraped in by a couple of percentage points (with 29.6% of the vote, as opposed to SYRIZA’s 26.9%) and they only did so by promising to somehow mitigate the austerity imposed by the EU/World Bank/IMF memoranda. So there is still no public mandate for the austerity programme in Greece, and the mass movement opposed to austerity will continue to grow.

In his commentary just before the Greek elections, Tony Blair stated that regardless of what happened across Europe, people had to accept “major structural reform and austerity”. It couldn’t be clearer that what’s being forced on the people of Greece – wholesale removal of rights and gains for ordinary men and women (pensions, health, education, protection of employees and collective bargaining) is what’s planned across Europe unless we stand up against it and demand alternatives.

Meeting Alexis Tsipras

Back in May I spent three days in Athens as part of a delegation jointly organized by the Peoples Charter and the Coalition of Resistance to meet with Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA. He outlined what he sees as the priorities for Greece: to tear up the memoranda imposing the austerity measures on Greece, to renegotiate the terms of the bailout, and to implement an alternative programme.

Tsipras talked about the importance of the social movement in propelling from below the opposition to austerity in Greece, and in particular he highlighted the significance of the Squares movement and its links to Occupy movements around the world. His anti-austerity programme included a number of measures similar to those in the People’s Charter: the socialisation of the banking industry and overhauling of the tax system, so that the wealthy in Greece and the corporations pay their share.

My personal impression of Alexis Tsipras from our meeting was that he seemed both down to earth and politically and culturally sophisticated (particularly by comparison with UK politicians!) He appeared in no way demagogic but rather thoughtful in approach. He appeared passionate and serious about bringing about progressive, systemic change. And he appeared to value all parts of the progressive opposition movement – on the streets, in communities, in parliament, and internationally.

A Greek Tragedy

During my time in Athens, the devastating impact of the austerity ‘shock’ policies was highly visible: queues for food at soup kitchens, destitute people in the city centre, health unions telling us about hospitals running out of medicines, increase in suicides as a direct result – two were reported while we were there.

There is evidence of an infrastructure breaking down. The firefighters union told us about the deaths of their members as a result of using faulty equipment, and driving around in 30-year-old fire engines that should be replaced, whilst police union representatives told us that they had to pay themselves to fix and fill up police cars. The police union told us that they did not think they should be suppressing the people, and that their members too were suffering from these policies. They had organized and joined in with demonstrations against austerity, and told how they too had been gassed and attacked by riot police.

Whilst in Greece, I also met with a national pensioners organisation, OSTOE. They were keen to use a European-wide network of pensioners’ organisations to raise awareness of the appalling situation facing Greek pensioners, who in many cases have seen their pensions halved.

Inspired and Impressed

I was shocked by what I found in Greece, but I also came away inspired and deeply impressed by those fighting austerity there – by their determination, their creativity, their democratic spirit. We met with the Mayor of Ellinikon, a municipality in southern Athens. He told us about the social solidarity that is developing between people, resulting in new ways of organising. People are buying potatoes, olive oil and other foodstuff directly from farmers through the town halls so that farmers can survive and people can afford basic food supplies. Volunteer health workers are providing free health services; children are planting olive trees; local residents forums are springing up, where people can go for practical support from one another, to express their personal stories, tragedies and get involved in the anti-austerity movement.

All of these are lessons in how people can defend themselves, a demonstration of the endless potential for organizing in our communities in new ways and how we can build a mass movement for change. Everyone we met reaffirmed the importance of international support for those opposing austerity in Greece and the delegation has led to a Greece Solidarity Campaign being launched in the UK. A common European movement in solidarity with the Greek people is needed more than ever as they now begin their fight to topple the ‘inevitability’ of austerity.

A New Way of Thinking

What we need to confront is the belief that there is no alternative – that people and politics cannot control financial institutions and corporations, that globalization is irreversible. And it is not surprising that this is the public’s view, as it is all around us in the media – it’s the only view the politicians and their pundits put forward.

The bank bail out in 2008 did, however, temporarily shift this perception, as millions could see that actually the banks are just businesses like any other, run by people who move vast sums of money around the globe to benefit people just like them and, likewise, that there’s nothing natural or pre-determined about globalisation. Millions could also see that if governments can choose, as they did, to intervene in a crisis to shore up the position of the super rich, they also have the power to intervene on behalf of the people they are supposed to represent.

Everything is Possible

The People’s Charter was set up by leading trade unionists, anti-austerity politicians, academics, campaigners and activists at the end of 2008. The goal of the campaign was to agree on and promote six basic reforms to our economy and financial system, reforms that would provide an alternative to the immense attacks that were being prepared on our health, our services, our pensions and our standard of life.

Its goal is to encourage a united mass movement that can sweep away those who seek to defend their past by ruining our future. In practical terms, we need our banks to be nationalised with a social purpose and to meet people’s needs. That means the government could stand behind all the debts and the investments that benefit the people (pensions, Local Authority finance etc.) and ‘default’ on the super profits and bonuses that go to the rich. We could have an investment bank that builds and rebuilds our housing stock. We could have a bank promoting new technology, green energy and cheap medicine, or we could put our savings, taxes and national insurance to work for all of us, not just the super rich. All of these things are possible. What is so far lacking is a political will to represent the interests of the majority.


Find out more about the People’s Charter on the website: