Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Anger can lead to reaction

In the Guardian we read:

In Portugal a visit now to the emergency room costs €20 instead of €9. A consultant costs €7.50. It is claimed that the budget cuts were responsible for a thousand extra deaths in February, 20% more than usual. Newspapers have begun to publish stories about people who claim to have been priced out of the public health service.

"They hiked the fees in January," said the hospital receptionist, pointing to the new charges for everything from jabs and ear washes to having stitches removed "...People are angry."

The health service is just one victim of sweeping cuts and increased charges for public services across Portugal.

The Portuguese government has been forced to sell many of its state assets, with a quarter of electricity grid operator REN sold to China State Grid for €387m last month. That came on the back of a €2.7bn deal for China Three Gorges to take 21% of the utility company Energias de Portugal. Chinese companies are among the few ready to bid for Portuguese assets. The REN bid, presented jointly with Oman Oil, was the only one left on the table. Even the oil-rich former colony Angola is being courted as Portugal tries to meet a privatisation target of €5bn set when the bailout was agreed. The TAP airline and airport operator ANA are up for sale, along with parts of the postal service, water utilities, state banks, the rail service and the oil company Galp.

A general strike on Thursday may show just how angry the Portuguese are. "They are driving the country towards disaster," said Arménio Carlos, the leader of the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers, who adds that as health, electricity and public transport charges shoot up, the €432 monthly minimum take-home wage now dooms hundreds of thousands to poverty.

Yet the general workers' union is not backing this week's strike.

The historian Irene Flunser Pimentel has noted a growing nostalgia for the days of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. "I worry that democracy is at stake," she said. " The middle class is beginning to suffer and, when you don't have a middle class, you are in trouble. This is becoming easy ground for a populist." Pimentel says the Portuguese cannot be expected to remain stoical for ever. "I think it will explode eventually," she said. "It is impossible for people to remain this passive."

An economic crisis can provide a stimulus for class struggle, but this need not always be the case. Economic crisis and increasing misery for the working class doesn't necessarily and inevitably lead to revolution. In some circumstances it can demoralise the class. Despite the existence of militancy, the class struggle can be contained if it falls under the sway of a bourgeois ideology. As Pimental suggests it is possible to see a reactionary ideology make a resurgence amongst the working class. If the working class is not already prepared it will be divided and defeated. That is not appealing prospect.

As to what revolutionaries can do, at the moment being such a small a minority, we can't do much more than keep on arguing that the only way-out is to replace capitalism by a system based on common ownership (instead of class ownership) and production solely for use (instead of production for profit) and to keep on urging workers to self-organise themselves democratically to bring this social revolution about. Only the self-organisation of the proletariat contains the potential to defend its own interests both in the short-term economic and the longer term political. That is our basic function - to point to the alternatives, to keep them alive and available.

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