I have to admit, writing these lines at the start of November, that after digesting the daily reports from our national battlefield (Zuccotti Park, Oscar Grant Plaza, Austin, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Nashville, Portland…), my eyes flicker across the world map to Greece, and my heart beats a lot faster. Now there, surely we can savor the whiff of a pre-revolutionary situation!
It must be the dratted Leninist in me, even after years of therapy. Surfeited with somewhat turgid paeans to the democratic gentility of the OWSers, I clamber up to the dusty top shelf, furtively haul down Vladimir Ilich’s “April Theses” of 1917 and dip in: end the war, confiscate the big estates, immediately merge all the banks into one general national bank… The blood flows back into my cheeks, my eyes sparkle. Then, hearing my daughter’s footfall outside the library, I shove Lenin back into place, scuttle back down the ladder and pluck a copy of E.F. Schumacher, even though I’m not at all sure what is on the OWSers’ reading lists or Twitter menus.
Now take an arc of Greek history, as evoked in a photo that landed in my inbox at the end of October, featuring a group of Greek demonstrators in front of the Parthenon holding a white banner with “OXI 1940–2011” written on it in red and black letters. In Greek “OXI” means “no.” The e-mail reminded me that the “no” of 1940 was the answer, given on October 28, to the Italian ambassador relaying Mussolini’s demand that Greece open its borders to the Italian army. The “no” thus marked Greece’s entry into World War II. Annual ceremonies have officially commemorated this response to Fascism.
But this year, the e-mail reported, “the official parades were taken over by the people,” who chased away the government representatives and in most cities organized their own parades.
In Salonika, “the President of the Republic left in protest,” and for the first time in the postwar history of Greece the military parade was abandoned. A 5-year-old child sat in the president’s chair, “and the schools and people paraded before him!” In Athens, “where nobody was able to approach the Education Ministress and the parade went on ‘as usual’ under Draconian police measures,” some schoolchildren “paraded waving black handkerchiefs before her, while others turned their faces away as soon as they approached her.”
On the morning of October 28, a group of artists, authors and academics smuggled a big OXI sign onto the Acropolis, “wrapped up around the body of an excellent theater actress under a very large coat. And we managed to demonstrate for more than half-an-hour on the Acropolis itself!” The group could do this because “all policemen were at the parades’ battlegrounds at Syntagma and everywhere in Attiki [district] and none managed to climb Acropolis in time.”
OXI in 1940 to Mussolini. OXI in 2011 to the bankers seeking to plant their neoliberal jackboots on the neck of the Greek people; OXI to the bankers’ local collaborators.
Toward the end of World War II, an enterprise of Western capitalist intervention (a new chapter of which the NATO coup recently closed with great destruction and bloodshed in Libya) undertook its maiden voyage in Greece, in the British and American onslaughts beginning in 1943, with Stalin’s tacit OK. By 1949, at the end of a fearsome civil war, the left had been decimated, slaughtered, imprisoned, forced into exile. Ahead lay dictatorship by the right, mirrored in Spain and Portugal.
I don’t doubt that if by chance the left in Greece today evicts the local political agents of the international banks, it will not be long before a NATO intervention, covert and then overt, is under way, using the usual arsenal of assassination, drone attacks and armed support for whatever security forces do not defect to the left.
Sixty-six years after the defeat of Hitler, forty years on from the neoliberal capitalist counterattack that ratcheted up its tempo in the early ’70s, the premises of the system are under fearsome pressure, powerfully evoked by demonstrations from Athens to Oakland. Greece is essentially bankrupt, but so is the United States, conjuring up worthless dollars in volumes far beyond the wildest dreams of medieval alchemy.
The strength of the OWS movement lies in the simplicity and truth of its basic message: the few are rich, the many are poor. In terms of its pretensions the capitalist system has failed. Nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs in the United States have disappeared since 2000, and more than 40,000 factories have closed. African-Americans have endured what has been described as the greatest loss of collective assets in their history. Hispanics have seen their net worth drop by two-thirds. Millions of whites have been pitchforked into penury and desperation.
But for all its simplicity and truth, how much staying power does the OWS message have as presently deployed? In terms of its powers of repression, the system has not failed. To date, the OWS movement has not even confronted the moneyed elite with a threat on the scale of the 1999 protests in Seattle. There are many options lying ahead for the OWSers to ponder, though they should remember Lenin: there is never a final collapse of capitalism unless there is an alternative.
Having briefly tasted batons and pepper spray, OWSers should know that when capital feels it is being pushed to the wall, it will stop at nothing to crush any serious challenge. The cop puts away his smile. The indulgent mayor imposes a curfew. “Exemplary” sentences are handed down. The prisons fill up. Organized repression can be defeated only by organized resistance, nationwide. How to mount this is the OWSers’ urgent, immediate challenge.