Anarchism in Interesting Times
A spectre is haunting the people of Europe, but this time it’s not one to be welcomed. All the powers of new Europe have entered into an unholy alliance to raise this spectre: Merkel and Rajoy, Hollande and Cameron, Irish Blueshirts and Greek state police. Where is the movement in opposition that has not been decried as terroristic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not cried out for law and order in the face of the more progressive parties? Two questions result from these facts:
To answer these questions, it is essential to examine the current wave of reaction across the European continent and asses its purpose and its source.
What’s in the box?
On December 16th of last year, in what was dubbed Operation Pandora, eleven anarchists were arrested as a result of police raids in Barcelona and Madrid. The raids, ordered by judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez, targeted several anarchist social centres, along with some private homes. They were carried out under the cloak of counter-terrorism, with several online media sources uncritically regurgitating the state’s categorisation of those arrested as being members of “anarchist terror groups”. Among the accusations at the time were “promotion, management of and membership in a terrorist organisation, possession and storage of devices or explosives and flammables, incendiary or asphyxiating, as well as the damage and destruction with terrorist purpose”, possession of a “suspicious” book called Against Democracy and the using the security conscious email provider RISEUP. The explosive devices in question were gas canisters used for camping.
Two others were later charged, eight of the thirteen were women. The supposed “terror group” they were accused of membership of, the GAC (co-ordinated anarchist groups) was accused of posting bombs and attacking banks. The “bank attacks” were all acts of vandalism at ATMs. On January 30th, seven of the remaining nine incarcerated anarchists were released on bail. Conditions included confiscation of passports and having to sign on three times a week. An accompanying police statement, revealed the real purpose of the raids: “according to the investigators, the structure of the GAC/FAI-FRI is disrupted in Catalonia, the stronghold of this criminal organisation with terrorist purposes against the Spanish State”
A month after the initial arrests, the Spanish state moved against its other traditional enemy, the Basque separatist movement. On the morning of January 12th, seventeen Basque activists, most of them lawyers, were arrested by the Guardia Civíl. Three of them were on their way to court in Madrid to act as defense for thirty five of their comrades in a mass trial. Only days before, 80,000 had attended a demonstration in Bilbao demanding the release of political prisoners. Like the case of Operation Pandora, the state action was clearly designed to intimidate a movement, rather than prosecute for specific crimes, and one of the charges was membership of a terrorist organisation.
It is hardly a coincidence that the arrests of anarchists and Basque activists came hot on the heels of the passing of the Civil Protection Act, or gag law (ley mordaza) as it quickly became known. This new legislation, which comes into force in July and was passed with only the votes of the ruling Partido Popular (PP), is a range of repressive measures to make life difficult of opposition movements. The laws ban protesting outside parliament buildings and occupying banks, removing barriers erected by police, preventing an eviction, photographing or insulting police officers, and has given the state the power to impose heavy fines without recourse to trial. Protesting outside parliament will carry a fine of €600,000, while burning the national flag could cost you €30,000.
While the exercise of authoritarian fervour under the Spanish PP may not come as a surprise, another source of repression at the moment, comes from a quarter that was less than expected. With the leftist SYRIZA government installed in Greece, it was expected that state repression against anti-capitalists would recede. SYRIZA had promised to close category C prisons, but that has yet to happen. On March 2nd, political prisoners began a hunger strike calling for the abolition of the 2001 and 2004 anti-terrorism laws, articles 187 and 187A of the penal code, the ‘hoodie law’, the legal framework for type C prisons, the prosecutorial provision of forcible taking of DNA samples, and demanding that the convicted 17N member Savvas Xiros be released from prison on health grounds.
From the get go, support actions on the outside were organised in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Anarchists occupied a Athens University on March 30th. On April 1st, a protest was held in the courtyard of the Parliament building. On April 8th a march from the anarchist district of Exarchia ended in clashes with riot police. On April 18th, the SYRIZA government sent police into the occupied university to clear out protesters and fourteen anarchists are now awaiting charges.
To call SYRIZA reactionaries however, would be extremely misguided, so something else must be happening here. The problem is that SYRIZA, for all their progressive rhetoric and good intentions, are prisoners of a rigged system. The ongoing repression of anarchists, the humiliating treatment of political prisoners, and the continuing existence of refugee detention centres is inevitable, as the machinery of the state does not grind to a halt because of a change in government.
It is clear that SYRIZA would like to be able to close the detention centres. Indeed, they have released a number of detainees, though they were mainly minors, sick and elderly. After a visit to one of the centres, minister of citizen protection, Giannis Panousis said, “I am ashamed, we are finished with refugee centres. We just need a few days. We will do what we said before the election and what we have said in parliament.” That was in February, but the detention centres that were erected by the Samaras government remain intact, as does the barbed wire fence along the border with Turkey, and Panousis has affirmed the government’s commitment to keeping Greece’s borders closed. On April 4th, migrants at the Paranesti camp went on hunger strike calling for its closure.
As with SYRIZA’s retreat on its economic programme, its difficulty in overcoming the authoritarian nature of the state lies not in the party’s programme, or in some comic book villain style conspiracy. To frame the argument in that way would be to suggest that someone else could have come to power and carried out what they had promised. No, there is no mask slipping, revealing the true authoritarian face of SYRIZA, rather, there are cuffs restraining their hands behind their backs. The legal framework they work within, cannot easily be dismantled and in their struggle to retain power to carry out even modest amounts of their programme they will have to use repressive measures to give the appearance of strong government. To do otherwise would to run the risk of the state taking measures to remove them by military coup or to open the door to the far right. The cry of law and order must be heeded if a party is to retain its right to rule.
Who pays the piper?
A few years ago, in Ireland, claims that governments in the European Union were using repressive measures against their people, that powerful individuals and organisations were exerting pressure on democratically elected governments to protect their financial interests, would have only been believed by the few who had experienced repression first hand, along with left activists. To many, these claims would have fallen into the category of conspiracy theory. Yet over the last year, thousands of anti-water charges protesters have come face to face with the real purpose of the state.
There have been dawn raids on protesters homes, water meter resistors imprisoned and the full force of government public relations, the state broadcaster and the capitalist owned media brought to bear against the movement. The connection between Independent newspapers, its owner Denis O’Brien and his company, GMC/Sierra who installs water meters and the charges has not gone unnoticed. Some will also remember the use of the Gardaí at Rossport to protect the construction of a pipeline for the oil giant Shell, which resulted in prison sentences and physical attacks on protesters.
Like in Ireland, repressive measures against protest movements and increasing state authoritarianism across Europe have been driven by big business and their desire for austerity measures to pay for the financial crisis. In a time when the majority of the population face a struggle to get by, the one percent richest have increased their wealth. According to a report by Oxfam earlier this year, they now own 48% of the world’s wealth, compared to 34% five years ago, and they will control more than half by next year. Not only that, but of the remaining wealth, 54% is owned by one fifth of the 99%.
Such a massive transfer of wealth from the majority of the population to the rich and super rich, requires the use of force. Certainly, they will use every means at their disposal, such as the media, the political apparatus and legal framework. But when these means begin to fail, the police and the military are brought in to defend state power and thus defend the power and wealth of the billionaires. While austerity policies have been carried out across Europe, Ireland, Greece and Spain were amongst the hardest hit, so it is no surprise that they have been on the front lines of resistance and the front lines of reaction. Make no mistake though, this process of heightening authoritarianism is Europe wide.
Sleepwalking to serfdom
The term “passive revolution” was coined by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci to describe significant change in political, economic, and institutional structures, without ruptural events like revolutionary strikes or insurrection. The term in the Gramscian sense is neutral and can apply to right or leftward change. Passive revolution can take generations to carry out and can occur via a series of seemingly unconnected events, that in and of themselves are presented as pragmatic or common sense. The key to carrying out this change, Gramsci contended, was through the control of education systems and thus the minds of children, control of the media and other cultural outlets and the control of language.
Since the end of the second world war, the European project has been a project of cultural and economic hegemony. In a sense, its logic has been the creation of a new authoritarianism to protect us against the old authoritarianism. Since 1948, there have been twelve European treaties, each one presented as common sense, each one making small changes that when taken together, resulted in greater centralised economic control and security cooperation between states. Since the beginning of the “war on terror”, reactive pieces of anti-terror legislation across the continent have gradually reduced personal freedom and have placed limits on our right to free association and our right to protest. Since the victory of Thatcherism in the UK, the ideology of TINA (there is no alternative), has spread across Europe, with anti-union legislation and bureaucratic negotiation processes rendering workers’ organisations ineffective. In other words, capitalist democracy has managed to carry out quite a lot of what the fascists of yesteryear sought to achieve without all the fuss of torchlit processions and labour camps.
Why recruit the services of a psychopathic ideologue with a jackbooted political movement under his command, when you could just gradually change the law until any democratically elected government would have to stick to the programme? Both methods are similar in that they use an external threat to justify authoritarianism; The terrorist attacks on London in 2005 made it easy to put heavily armed personnel on the streets, it allowed the then Labour government to say, “these counter-terrorism laws are here for your protection”. The 2004 bombing at Atocha train station in Madrid and the Charlie Hebdo attacks this year in Paris played a similar role. When these laws are firmly in place, all you have to do is gradually expand the definition of terrorist to something so vague that you can lock up practically anyone who tries to resist austerity and state repression.
There’s a famous line in George Orwell’s nineteen eighty-four, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” That is certainly the dream for the rich and powerful, but while authoritarianism is intensifying, so too is resistance. The spirit of revolt is a difficult thing to extinguish, even with all the power of the state by your side. If nineteen-eighty four had a message, it was that even in a time of universal deceit and total hegemony of one ideology, an ending where the desire for freedom is completely extinguished is simply the unattainable fantasy of the ruling elite. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, with all their power couldn’t stamp out the flame of humanity. Winston Smith’s tears are really laughter and ridicule.
The point is to end it
The increasing repression of the Spanish state has not stamped out protest. If anything, the defiance and resolve of the government’s opponents has increased. Thousands have protested against the gag law and Operation Pandora. Contrary to state claims that they had seriously disrupted the activities of anarchists, on March 30th, they found it necessary to carry out a fresh series of arrests, this time under the name Operation Piñata. Thirty nine arrests in total were made, twenty four were released without charge, ten were released on bail with similar conditions to those arrested in the first wave, while five were detained. There have been demonstrations in cities across the Spanish state in protest.
As protests across Europe against austerity and state repression continue, the question we must ask is, how can we move beyond reactive protest to a point where we can envisage bringing this dark era of reaction to a close? Yes, we are constantly reminded that there can be no blueprint for a libertarian communist society, but how can we convince people that our solution is best if we don’t at least sketch out what the society we envisage might be like and how we might achieve that?
The solution that has been in vogue over the last few years, the left version of Gramsci’s passive revolution, should at this point be called into question. This is the path that SYRIZA are attempting to take, it is being shown to be a more difficult one to walk for the left than the right, as the Greek government’s plans are being foiled, not by guns and tanks, but by the dull thud of bureaucracy. The system is and always has been rigged in favour of the right. The right only need political change to carry out passive revolution, the left needs political change and a complete change in class relations. Any concessions won by the working class in the past required the mass struggle of mighty union organisations, and without the toppling of the capitalist system, those concessions proved to be temporary.
Furthermore, it is worth noting, that this path was taken under far more favourable circumstances by social democratic and reformist left parties in the past. The post war settlement, the spirit of ‘45 where major improvements were made in the conditions of the working class have all evaporated. To remain in power the British Labour government, at several junctures used troops to break strikes, in fact they did this on more occasions than the Conservatives. Left governments in France were accused of betrayal. The “comrade ministers” of the Communist Party there in the eighties instructed the unions to restrain workers’ action to let them get on with their job. In Bolivia today, the Morales government does deals with mining corporations at the expense of the indigenous population.
In both Greece and Spain, dictatorships were toppled in the 1970’s, but the wealthy individuals and corporations who backed up those regimes retained, or at least regained their influence over the state. The Partido Popular can trace its lineage back to the Franco dictatorship and the head of the Spanish state and commander in chief of the armed forces, is the son of General Franco’s successor, King Juan Carlos, who oversaw the transition to democracy. Removing the dictatorships without dissolving the power and wealth behind them, left the door open for them to turn back the clock on democratic freedoms.
From that it follows that we should not be shy about agitating for the complete overthrow of the capitalist system and for the dismantling of state authority. But it would be a mistake to stop there. It is often posited that to overthrow capitalism, the wealth of the capitalist class must be expropriated and put to work for socialist society. On the contrary, wealth should not be controlled, like the state, it should be dissolved. Financial wealth’s very existence is what gives the one percent their power. It is a method of control, a way to ensure that division of the world’s resources is carried out in a manner that requires bureaucracy and the division of labour. Rather than talk about wealth in monetary terms, we can start our sketch of the alternative by describing how we can produce and distribute the things we need, we can keep those parts of the productive machinery that fit our purpose and discard the rest, all the while creating new means of production that suits the needs of a new society. We can look to Rojava and Chiapas for some inspiration, where the weapon with which authoritarianism has been held back, is libertarian in nature. When we can elaborate a viable alternative, on a pan-European basis to begin with, we can shine a torch out of the darkness and light up the possibility of ending authoritarianism and inequality once and for all.
WORDS: Mark Hoskins (Follow Mark on Twitter)