Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Debt Walkers Strike Back

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part.

And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.

And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

-Mario Savio, UC Berkeley Speech (1964)

The dawn breaks on a cold, winter day in a major Western city. It’s Monday morning, and the air is permeated by an ominous, dry silence. Some cars remain idly parked on the street, reflecting calm, while others have their windows bashed and their steel burnt black, reflecting chaos.

The sidewalks are nearly empty and most of the storefronts are dark and devoid of activity as well. There are no buses running, the subway system is out of operation, airplanes are grounded and shipping ports lay dormant.

Interesting and unusual animals wander about in the streets and alleyways, as if they had all suddenly decided to escape from their cages in the Zoo, out into the real world. Every few city blocks there is a spattering of homeless or a roving gang of restless, frustrated, filthy-looking teenagers.

The streets are no longer fit for routine travel by casual drivers and pedestrians looking for something to do or someplace to go.

It is all a rather disquieting and terrifying scene – perhaps one from the latest Hollywood flick about a civilization collapsed by viral infection, transforming masses of human beings into flesh-eating zombies.

Or maybe it was the influenza pandemic that evolved to resist vaccinations and treatment, spread through major cities like a wildfire and wiped out 75%+ of the human population, leaving only a few survivors to rebuild society from the bottom-up. Or perhaps it's simply what the Evil Empire left behind in its war-mongering wake.

What’s more terrifying than the cannibalism, debilitating symptoms or war-torn landscapes, though, is the fact that the zombies left behind refuse to drive gas-guzzling SUVs, commute 20 miles to work or shop for Christmas presents.

No zombies flocking to cities from the suburbs, no zombies slaving away at the factory or the office, and no zombies spending their bimonthly paychecks at the mall on computerized gadgets and cheap trinkets. That, more than anything else, is what the consumerist empire fears.

In coming days and weeks, we are going to continue getting a lot of official and unofficial economic "projections", revised and re-revised, such as the economic growth and budget deficits of various countries by the end of 2012, 2013 and beyond.

In Greece, they’re already telling us the rate of economic contraction will slow down and the budget deficit will be cut in half, as long as certain painful austerity measures are adopted. Needless to say, all of these projections will be WAY OFF and much worse than expected, just as they were last year and the year before.

Most academics and pundits conduct analyses and make predictions in a Vacuum Universe, where nothing outside of a frighteningly simplistic model matters. One of many factors left out of these models is the predictable socioeconomic reactions to "structural reforms" and bankster bailouts imposed by "technocratic", unaccountable governments.

There will be riots and protests and perhaps even pockets of full-blown revolution in some developed countries. Call them the "Arab Spring" or the "European Winter" or whatever you want, but they will happen and they will render previous projections meaningless.

What will be most disruptive to the current system of mandated growth, though, are not the riots and protests, but the strikes. Direct action from the people always faces the potential of being met with violent repression from their governments, but refusal to participate in economic activity is a much more stealthy and subversive threat to our political and financial overlords.

The machine’s propaganda lever will be used to label these people "lazy bums" or "parasites", but they will continue refusing to operate any of the other levers, and instead hoist their bodies on top of its gears.

Our twisted market system has bred a whole new class of human beings who are up to their eyeballs in debt, struggling to find any remaining scraps of gainful employment and incensed with the corporate oligarchies that pass for representative governments these days.

We may as well label them an entirely new species of humans –perhaps "debt walkers" - because that’s how far apart they must feel from previous generations and from their former selves. Our label is not meant to disparage, but illustrate a general reality that has evolved.

Rioters, protestors, strikers – these are all the debt zombies who have grown in number and influence over the last few years, threatening to pounce and feast on the current neo-feudalistic economic order.

As small and sporadic groups making a "stand" here or there, they may not seem like a force to be reckoned with, but as a relatively organized bunch, with weekly or even daily events planned, it would be a huge mistake to discount their influence, as most agencies predicting future economic growth and budget deficits do.

In two previous articles, Bailouts, Austerity and Rage: Calm Like a Bomb and People of the Sun, I outlined how people across Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain were becoming increasingly infuriated with their banks and their governments, and, in some cases, staging violent protests and riots.

We should expect this trend to continue, but, as I mentioned above, there is another very important aspect to the rage of these zombie debt slaves – their strikes.

The strikers are the ones to keep an eye on, despite their distinct lack of publicity in the popular media. These "walkers" are plainly and simply refusing to participate in what most consider "normal" economic activity for significant stretches of time.

They will play repeated games of chicken with their employers and customers (individuals, companies and governments), discovering who really has the raw drive to hold out the longest, before one, both or the entire system breaks.

This new species of the Western world is best observed in Europe right now, both in its "periphery" and parts of its "core".

While Americans were preparing to feast on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and Egg Nog, generally warming up their hearts for future episodes of ventricular tachycardia, and to raid every Wal-Mart in the country with their little children and pepper spray in tow, the Portuguese were preparing for a general strike in their land across the Atlantic. As Andrei Khalip and Daniel Alvarenga wrote for Reuters:

Portuguese Strike Against Austerity

"Portuguese workers launched a general strike on Thursday to protest against austerity measures imposed as the price of an EU bailout designed to keep Portugal afloat and stem a deepening euro zone debt crisis.

Planes were grounded, trains halted and public services interrupted as workers across the nation of 11 million protested against job losses, tax hikes and pay cuts agreed between Portugal and the troika of lenders -- the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The Naval Shipyards in Viana do Castelo in northern Portugal ground to a halt as all 700 workers downed tools, the local union leader, Antonio Barbosa, said.

All international flights to and from Lisbon and Porto were cancelled for the duration of the 24-hour walkout , according to the website of the airport authority ANA, and only minimum services connecting mainland Portugal with the islands of Madeira and the Azores were operating"

Perhaps these debt walkers realized that a country without functioning transportation networks is one without much exploitative economic activity. While the elite institutions continue running financial weapons of mass destruction across national borders, mounting a global attack on freedom, equality, justice and humanity, the Portuguese have decided to strike back. And here’s what they were chanting at the Lisbon airport while they did:

"The strike is general, the attack is global!"

The people of Portugal, of course, aren’t the only ones planning strikes. In Greece, millions of workers called for a general strike yesterday, a week before the Greek Parliament is set to pass a package of oppressive austerity measures mandated by the external authorities of the "Troika" (European Commission, ECB and IMF). Kathimerini (English version) reports on some of the details of this strike.

" Public services are to be paralyzed again on Thursday as thousands of workers walk off the job to protest an ongoing austerity drive in the seventh general strike this year.

As usual, tax offices, courts and schools will shut down, hospitals will operate on emergency staff and customs officials will walk off the job.

The national rail network will suspend operations all day as will the Proastiakos suburban railway service. Ferries too will remain moored in port as seamen join the 24-hour walkout.

…The metro will not shut down at all but trains will not run to Athens International Airport. They will stop at Doukissis Plakentias station.

The media held a 24-hour strike on Wednesday and will take part in work stoppage on Thursday to show their support for the protest action."

It’s unlikely this current level of popular resistance will actually force the politicians to change their votes, but it will certainly render whatever "structural reforms" they vote on next week meaningless over the next year. How does a country grow itself out of a deficit when many of its inhabitants simply refuse to accept slave wages and standards of living, and participate in “normal” economic activity, as long as the richest among them continue to live like kings?

It can’t and it won’t, not even in the short-term, and not until the politicians meaningfully respond to the resistance of their people. Their policy changes would have to be just as “radical” as the actions of the debt zombies, including a systematic cleansing of Greece’s banking sector and public debts, or else they may as well join the strike and not show up to their jobs, either.

That or the entire economy collapses in a disorderly process as the politicians dither, and then it finally gets a chance to start down a completely different path. Perhaps there are a few other options, but none that look very likely right now. What is certain is that there are plenty more strikes in the Western world that have occurred or will occur in the near future.

In Greece alone, we can take a look at the tourist website "Living, Working, Musing & Misadventure in Greece", and see a regularly updated list of ongoing and upcoming strikes and protests in the country (tourism in Greece contributes about 15% to annual GDP).

Meanwhile, the people of Britain launched their largest strike in decades two days ago. In what can only be seen as a reckless and insensitive provocation, Chancellor George Osborne shoveled on an unprecedented burden of public sector austerity on top of the already large “reforms” in his “Autumn Statement”, right before the strikes were due to start.

Mr. Osborne is probably also under the fanciful illusion that his government still has the upper hand with protestors and strikers (and voters), because the British economy will not be effected by their actions. Severin Carrell, Dan Milmo, Alan Travis and Nick Hopkins reported on this event for the Guardian:

Day of strikes as millions heed unions' call to fight pension cuts

”The UK is experiencing the worst disruption to services in decades as more than 2 million public sector workers stage a nationwide strike, closing schools and bringing councils and hospitals to a virtual standstill.

The strike by more than 30 unions over cuts to public sector pensions started at midnight, leading to the closure of most state schools; cancellation of refuse collections; rail service and tunnel closures; the postponement of thousands of non-emergency hospital operations; and possible delays at airports and ferry terminals.

Union leaders were further enraged after George Osborne announced that as well as a public sector pay freeze for most until 2013, public sector workers' pay rises would be capped at 1% for the two years after that.

In Scotland an estimated 300,000 public sector workers are expected to strike, with every school due to be affected after Scottish headteachers voted to stop work for the first time.

The UK Border Agency is braced for severe queues at major airports after learning that staffing levels at passport desks will be "severely below" 50% despite a successful appeal for security-cleared civil servants to volunteer.

"We will have the bare minimum to run a bare minimum service," said a Whitehall insider. Many major public buildings and sites, including every port, most colleges, libraries, the Scottish parliament, major accident and emergency hospitals, ports and the Metro urban light railway around Newcastle and Sunderland will be picketed.”

The TUC said it was the biggest stoppage in more than 30 years and was comparable to the last mass strike by 1.5 million workers in 1979. Hundreds of marches and rallies are due to take place in cities and towns across the country.”

It’s too bad that politicians like Osborne are not paying attention, though, because, if they were, they would see that these types of strikes are going to continue on for months and years if need be, and they are one of many factors that are screaming loud and clear that it’s all downhill for economic growth and public deficits for the UK from here on out.

Perhaps the British Lords of Debt should take a harder look at the report just recently produced by their own Office of Budget Responsibility, which took a hacksaw to its own estimates for growth that were produced a few short months ago, and mirrors forecasting trends in just about every other country in Europe.

Such huge downward revisions have become characteristic of just about every private and public institution in the business of making projections, as they desperately try and remain credible in the eyes of those people who have been living with reality for years now. They won’t be successful, though, because that credibility is long gone. Their analyses and models are just more garbage products that people will refuse to consume in the near future.

Why continue leading “normal” lives and playing by the “normal” rules when the system itself is so abnormal and unjust? Everyone, including the general public in all of Europe and America, should take a hard look at how the austerity cuts are hitting the poorest among us far worse than the richest, as illustrated by this graph from the Institute for Fiscal Studies:

All of this oppressive austerity and systemic inequality is not limited to the Western hemisphere by any means. The world’s second largest economy, China, also presents a stunning example of how fast one can go from a “booming” economy to a rock hard landing, both financially and socio-politically. The recklessly financed cheap labor, industrial export model is simply no longer working for countries like China, and their debt walkers are no happier about it than those of Europe. Ben McGrath of the Worldwide Socialist Website reports:

Strikes rock manufacturing centres in southern China

Thousands of factory workers in the manufacturing cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan in China’s southern Guangdong province have taken part in strikes over the past two weeks to protest cuts to wages and other conditions.

On November 17, 7,000 workers stopped work at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory in Dongguan. The Yue Cheng facility had recently fired 18 middle managers and cut overtime. Many workers also faced losing their jobs as the company prepared to shift production to inland China or another country, such as Vietnam, where labour costs are lower.

…The tensions continued this week, with security guards patrolling the industrial park. Workers told Reuters that the strike continued. They were clocking in, but refusing to work at the assembly lines. “We are willing to work but you must also pay us enough to survive,” one worker said. Another declared: “Even during the financial crisis [in late 2008 and early 2009] we didn’t see pressure like this.”

Starting from November 21, two-thirds of the 800 employees at lingerie maker Top Form International Holdings’ factory in Shenzhen staged a five-day strike against a piece-rate wage system and onerous daily production quotas.

On November 22, 1,000 workers at a Taiwanese-owned computer factory in Shenzhen, went on strike over excessive overtime from 6 p.m. to midnight.

…China’s export industry is based on cheap labour and sweatshop conditions. A shift toward domestic consumption would necessitate higher wages for workers, undermine export competitiveness and therefore accelerate job losses in the export sector.

In April, in an attempt to ward off growing social discontent, the Shenzhen authorities increased the minimum wage slightly from 1,100 yuan to 1,320 yuan a month. Even this meagre increase caused companies to speed up plans to reduce their workforces and shift production to cheaper provinces and other countries. Top Form International, where one of latest strikes occurred, is reducing its sewing workforce from 1,000 to 400, by moving to Thailand where wages are even lower.”

What we see in China is just a different type of “austerity” – one in which the private sector must suppress wages before a sizeable middle class ever gets the chance to even form, or the public sector ever gets a chance to over-spend with salaries and entitlements (and wars). The Chinese zombies have been forced into a state of leveraged fury, just like everyone else.

The only questions that remain now are (A) how long before the American zombies make like their debt-walking brothers and sisters across the Atlantic and Pacific, and generally strike back against a devolving financial consumer empire of exploitation, and (B) what kind of damage they can really cause to this system when that inaction gets going.

If localized resistance movements continue to grow and others follow in the footsteps of Occupy Oakland, which is quite likely at this point, then perhaps it won’t be very long at all. This particular flick may not follow a Hollywood script or have a Hollywood ending, but you can count on it earning its place in history as something real; something that followed its own script and helped change the world.


  1. "We support public administration and local governments in driving profitable projects and working with our private partners." B2G