• The Alter-Summit: Unity of Action Is Necessary

  • By Felipe van Keirsbilck | 16 May 13 | Posted under: Alter Summit
  • Recent events surrounding attempts to ‘save’ Cyprus enable us to draw two different conclusions. On the one hand, they confirm that Europe is entering an ‘austerity’ dead end based on submission to market forces (particularly the financial markets) and on generalised competition (especially fiscal competition). On the other hand, however, it can also be shown that there are economic alternatives available: massive taxation of major wealth or capital controls – which are considered impossible measures when we propose them but present no problems when Mrs Merkel’s solutions are put into practice. The only thing lacking is the political determination clearly to break with the Troika’s ultra-liberal principles and those of the European governments. There remains, however, the problem that, despite a fairly broad consensus in progressive parties on the principal desirable responses, this political determination will continue to be absent as long as a united and determined European social movement does not force it onto the agenda.

    This is why the need to unify the activities of Europe’s social movements around some specific and urgent common political objectives is so clear. The Euro has been saved … for the umpteenth time, but the European social model and democracy itself are very endangered. Moreover, the different national resistance movements, however determined and creative they may be, have shown their limitations. The shouts of a million demonstrators in Lisbon, Madrid Rome or Athens only produce a slight murmur in Frankfurt or Brussels.

    To go from the recognition of this need to the possibility of united action, we have to bring our interpretation of the crisis beyond the usual activist circles to the broader population, and this should be done at two levels. First, by stressing that its origin, its depth and its extent are essentially political. In 2008, following the outbreak of the ‘sub-prime’ crisis, Sarkozy or the G20 indeed blamed ‘immoral’ capitalism, promising to bring it to heel (and end tax havens, for example, by the end of 2009, but with the contamination of public budgets, the discourse changed: The problem had become ‘the cost of social security’, ‘excessive state expenditure’ and the wage levels. Therefore we must replace the narrative of the ‘inevitability of economic crisis by that of a crisis’ with political origins whose solutions are, therefore, political.

    Second, we must reconnect the concrete national struggles with this European explanation. For example, the solidarity committees in Athens or Thessalonica opposing the cut-off of electricity or the anti-eviction movements in Spain are confronting concrete local issues and with national legislation and police forces. We believe that behind these very real issues lie common causes: European policies. As long as our activist circles, who have a vision of the austerity logic of the Troika and the EU, are separated from the struggles of the poor, the workers and the rest of the population around very concrete issues and social movements, we will continue to be powerless. This is why the dominant powers and the media that serve their interests are developing an ‘economic’ and ‘national’ discourse about the crisis. Behind these political conjuring tricks what is being targeted is the European social model and real democracy.


    Democracy: For whom and how?

    During the 20th century, in a variety of forms and at different paces, a consistent democracy was established in the western European states – in eastern Europe, while political freedom was denied, a certain number of social advances (education, health, housing, etc.) were guaranteed, according to  rights recognised as fundamental in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is essential to remember that the project of democratising the oligarchic societies of the 19th century aimed at much more than a collection of institutions and procedures (electoral, legislative, etc.). To describe a democracy as consistent it must have a central objective accompanied by the necessary means. The prime objective is not the ‘quality of governance’, the legality of procedures but the progress of real citizens’ equality – equality not only at the polls but also in real access to essential resources: knowledge, culture, security of existence and decision-making power.

    Pursuing such an objective requires acquiring the means to break with false equality, hypocritically expressed: ‘In its majestic impartiality, the Law forbids everyone, rich and poor alike to sleep under a bridge or steal bread’, as Anatole France ironically put it a century ago. Demanding equality means first of all recognising inequality and trying to oppose the power of collective action to the power of money and accumulated privilege. Long before Sarkozy and Berlusconi, privilege and wealth have made possible the exercise of power – not only over people and property but also over the mechanisms of decision-making and elections. This is why for those who want real equality, no parliament, even one elected under the most admirable of constitutions, would be enough.

    What defines a democracy worthy of the name is a society that has quality as its principal objective and freedom of collective action as its essential resource. This is exactly what democracy is beginning to lose, at any rate since Maastricht (1992), with the construction of Europe under the influence of the neoliberal revolution gradually replacing the sovereignty of states through a complex political system in which the national leaders built together, ‘in Brussels’, the political constraints they needed – and which they hasten to denounce when they go back to their own countries.

    The issue is not to reject the European Union. If our democracies have known better days, this was certainly not due to some magic virtue of the nation (a nationalist withdrawal would be the worst of solutions) but rather thanks to the power of social struggles.

    The 2008 crisis dramatically accelerated this impoverishment of democracy. If virtually all the governments are carrying out socially devastating, democratically suicidal and economically absurd austerity policies this is not because they have all been simultaneously struck by total idiocy. It is because they see in this crisis a unique opportunity to achieve in a short time what they could not do in 30 years: switching to a regime of permanent austerity resolutely in the service of competitiveness and profit.

    Faced with this ‘silent revolution’ (as Borroso himself calls it) all those who are dedicated to real democracy – one that is not satisfied with legality but seeks equality – see the necessity and the urgency of unity of action between trade unions, social movements, those active in the cultural and scientific fields as well as those political leaders who have not given up on progress.

    But how can we build concrete bases for stronger coordination that takes into account the diversity of national realities, organisational cultures and types of movement? This is the central objective of the Alter-Summit  – a network of trade union organisations, social movements (ecologists, feminists and precarious workers, etc.) from 30 countries in Europe around a concise Appeal pointing out the historic and political extent of this ‘crisis’ (see the Appeal at www.altersummit.eu). We have identified 3 conditions:

    1.  The first is the possibility (already largely achieved) of establishing a network that respects the balance between the components (particularly between trade unions and movements) and between regions of Europe, with clear working rules – which is what the European Social Forums lacked. Thus the Alter-Summit takes up the spirit of the ESF (‘Another Europe is possible!’) but wants neither to repeat nor replace it. The Alter-Summit has also clarified its relations with the political forces: If we want really to force a change in the EU’s policies (oppose the Fiscal Compact, austerity and the destruction of collective bargaining …) we need the unity of all available forces. We therefore call upon political public figures who fully endorse these objectives to join us – but we do not want parties, as such, to be in the leadership of the movement, nor do we want them to ‘represent’ us. The social movement does not need spokespeople. Everyone must carry out the struggle in their own field: the trade unions inside the firms, the social movements in their spaces and the political parties in the parliaments and political discussions…

    2. The second condition depended on expressing a limited number of political priorities that are widely shared and very urgent, regarding debt, austerity, the transition towards an ecological and social model and the ‘socialisation’ of the banks. It is essential to keep to a short list of priorities; otherwise it will be impossible to create a really common basis.

    3. The third major condition is the convergence of forces, witch expressed in the ‘Summit of Peoples and Alternatives’ on 7 to 8 June in Athens is not just another conference of ‘European specialists’ but a real popular mobilisation, rooted in the realities and in the national struggles. In many countries national co-ordinations are working to make this mobilisation a success.

    Our adversaries, Mrs Merkel, Messrs Draghi and Barroso et al. have managed to use the financial crisis as a fantastic opportunity for attempting to impose their vision of society. It is not yet certain that we could not do the same.

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