Undercurrent #6

Sixth issue of Undercurrent from late 1990s.

Editorial

An underlying question whenever producing texts in the context of radical politics (or rather: anti-politics) is the relation between theory and practice. The complete rejection of any kind of theoretical critique, not uncommon in the broad milieu in which the undercurrent is located, is most of the time a barely disguised anti-intellectual resentment, which is not to confuse with a critique of the intellectual in his or her relation to the division of manual and intellectual labour. The incoherence of this rejection stems from the neglect of the fact that the praised practice, opposed to the useless babbling of the theorists, is always based on some "theoretical" concept of society. The reluctance to make these implicit assumptions explicit and thus make them the subject matter of a critical scrutiny ultimately prevents practice that knows itself. Marx writes somewhere that the distinct feature of proletarian revolutions is that they again and again pause to relentlessly criticise themselves. After all, while bourgeois revolution is the merely political expression of socio-economic developments - and thus blind execution of something already accomplished -the radical transformation of society, also known as proletarian revolution, is the complete upheaval of all the existing social relations which claims to end pre-history by for the first time consciously organising society. Critique, the theoretical anticipation of this transformation, is essentially negative. It seeks to destroy that which, while claiming to do the opposite, perpetuates the existing misery.

These big words, however, must seem ridiculous in the present situation. The type of self-critique Marx envisaged is necessarily obsolete given the absence of a significant movement that at least claims to be revolutionary. This touches upon the question of class on which we have sometimes conflicting views. Only some of us claim that there is a permanent "hidden" class struggle behind the appearance that the class has been incorporated into capital by transformation into ordinary wage-earners and citizens. Here is not the place to discuss these things. We are aware that as a whole, the undercurrent is remote from advancing a coherent line of argumentation. This becomes obvious when reading the piece of text on the following page and the critique of the campaign against the G8 summit in June. Ironically, some of the points made against that campaign in this issue could easily be applied to the contentious piece of text which some of us would rather not have seen printed. The poetic pathos was rejected by some as contributing virtually nothing to a political discussion while instead spreading a quasi-religious and mystic aura ("the air we breathe" etc.) that appeals to emotion and discourages critical reflection.

Put this dispute aside, we agree on the necessity to reject the notion of the all-encompassing "we" (comprised of all those involved in any kind of "oppositional" movements) that entails the demand to be always constructive (since we all want the same...) and thus inhibits the development of radical critique. In this sense, we don't expect this issue to be particularly popular, especially among animal rights activists and those in favour of spectacular global raves.

Editorial for undercurrent #6

editorial for undercurrent # 6

An underlying question whenever producing texts in the context of radical politics (or rather: anti-politics) is the relation between theory and practice. The complete rejection of any kind of theoretical critique, not uncommon in the broad milieu in which the undercurrent is located, is most of the time a barely disguised anti-intellectual resentment, which is not to confuse with a critique of the intellectual in his or her relation to the division of manual and intellectual labour. The incoherence of this rejection stems from the neglect of the fact that the praised practice, opposed to the useless babbling of the theorists, is always based on some "theoretical" concept of society. The reluctance to make these implicit assumptions explicit and thus make them the subject matter of a critical scrutiny ultimately prevents practice that knows itself. Marx writes somewhere that the distinct feature of proletarian revolutions is that they again and again pause to relentlessly criticise themselves. After all, while bourgeois revolution is the merely political expression of socio-economic developments - and thus blind execution of something already accomplished -the radical transformation of society, also known as proletarian revolution, is the complete upheaval of all the existing social relations which claims to end pre-history by for the first time consciously organising society. Critique, the theoretical anticipation of this transformation, is essentially negative. It seeks to destroy that which, while claiming to do the opposite, perpetuates the existing misery.

These big words, however, must seem ridiculous in the present situation. The type of self-critique Marx envisaged is necessarily obsolete given the absence of a significant movement that at least claims to be revolutionary. This touches upon the question of class on which we have sometimes conflicting views. Only some of us claim that there is a permanent "hidden" class struggle behind the appearance that the class has been incorporated into capital by transformation into ordinary wage-earners and citizens. Here is not the place to discuss these things. We are aware that as a whole, the undercurrent is remote from advancing a coherent line of argumentation. This becomes obvious when reading the piece of text on the following page and the critique of the campaign against the G8 summit in June. Ironically, some of the points made against that campaign in this issue could easily be applied to the contentious piece of text which some of us would rather not have seen printed. The poetic pathos was rejected by some as contributing virtually nothing to a political discussion while instead spreading a quasi-religious and mystic aura ("the air we breathe" etc.) that appeals to emotion and discourages critical reflection.

Put this dispute aside, we agree on the necessity to reject the notion of the all-encompassing "we" (comprised of all those involved in any kind of "oppositional" movements) that entails the demand to be always constructive (since we all want the same...) and thus inhibits the development of radical critique. In this sense, we don't expect this issue to be particularly popular, especially among animal rights activists and those in favour of spectacular global raves.

The Paris Commune of 1871

Recently, the Sussex University library dedicated part of its space for a small exhibition on the Paris Commune. At first this came with some surprise: how was it that, in the midst of the boredom of academic life and the total lack of interest in any issues of importance, the library was willing to commemorate one of the most crucial proletarian revolutions of the nineteenth century? Yet, our surprise quickly vanished when we gave this exhibition a closer look. Not only is the exhibition of a purely academic nature (looking at historical events as spectacles and thus a-historically), but it is also taking the Commune out of context, describing it by using some of the most common illusions found in the bourgeois world. This article comes as a response to the exhibition. Our aim is not to convince the people responsible to take into account another perspective, thus falling into the liberal ideology of ‘all views should be heard’; rather, we aim to remind them that, even in the Disneyland they construct, the distortion of history does not go by unnoticed.

The Paris Commune emerged at the end of the war between Prussia and France. The defeat of France in the battlefields brought the Prussian army outside Paris, with the subsequent result of the formation of the National Guard. “Paris could not[…] defend itself without arming the working class, without transforming it into a military force and without training it militarily for war. But when Paris is armed, that means that the revolution is armed.” (K. Marx, Declaration of the General Council of the International Association of Workers for the civil war in France in 1871). When the chief general of France, Thiers, decided to surrender to Prussia the armed people of Paris refused to give back their weapons and declared the Paris Commune.

The library exhibition claims that this was a result of the nationalistic ideas of the masses and the fact that “… many Parisians who had borne the brunt of the recent German offensive on behalf of their country only to have surrender forced on them, felt angry and betrayed” (quote from the library exhibition). Yet, this presupposition clearly ignores a variety of facts visible to anyone who looks at the Paris Commune: firstly, on the 30th of March, the Commune declared that all foreigners could be elected in the Commune because “… the flag of the Commune was the flag of international democracy”. Secondly, this explanation fails to explain –or comprehend- the fact that the Communards destroyed on the 12th of April the monument of the victory of Vendome for being a symbol of nationalism and hatred among the people. The crucial role played by the foreigners in, and their treatment by, the Commune simply forbids the allegation that the uprising was a result of national pride.

Contrary to the ideological utterances found in the library exhibition, the Commune was to serve as the lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and it did so by establishing its dominance over the organisation of social life on the basis of a rejection of capitalist social relations and of the state apparatus.

The establishment of the Commune started with the formation of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage, responsible and revocable at all times, the majority of whom were workers. For the first time after 1848, the streets of Paris were safe, and that with the absence of the police. “We, said a member of the Commune, hear no longer of assassinations, theft and personal assault; it seems indeed as if the police had dragged along with it to Versailles all its conservative friends.”

At one point, the library exhibition claims that although “… from the very outset the Commune was associated in the public mind to Marxism, [but], beyond the similarity in name, the Commune had nothing to do with communism” (quote from the library exhibition). But what is communism if not the conscious decision of the workers themselves to take control of their lives through an armed revolution? How can this claim be accepted when all the acts of the Commune (abolition of private property; abolition of the military service; abolition of the rents owed to the rich; the creation of workers’ councils by giving all power over the factories to those who worked in them; the equation of all salaries in the Commune to those of the workers; etc) point to the direction of the destruction of the class based society and of class dominance?

As soon as Thiers had realised what was going on, he begged the Prussians to help him liberate Paris. The refusal of the Germans meant that Thiers was to perform the task by himself. The army started gathering in Versailles, and the battles with the Communards began. Although the Communards managed to hold their positions for some time, the constant bombing of Paris and the lack of co-ordination eventually led to the downfall of the Commune. In the aftermath, more than 20,000 people were executed, whereas thousands were imprisoned or exiled.

Surely, many mistakes were committed. The refusal, for example, to seize the French National Bank at a time when money was desperately needed was of vital importance. Or else, the existence of the armed artists who defended the Notre Dame from the arsonists in the name of an eternal aesthetic value, signified that the Communards were still indecisive in regards to their objectives and aims.

The internal problem of coherence does fall upon the spectre of the Commune, but “… it is time to examine the Commune not just as an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism, all of whose mistakes are easily overcome, but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has not been rediscovered or fulfilled to this day.”(Internationale Situationniste, Theses on the Paris Commune, 1962)

The attempt to present the Paris Commune as a nationalistic revolt, mainly characterised by a senseless mob1unable to even understand its own powers, testifies for the desire to eradicate the historical memory of any struggle for human liberation. Yet, what appears to have been one of the failures of the workers’ movement, remains one of its most important successes so far.

  • 1. At some point of the text accompanying the library exhibition, it is claimed that “… the generals were taken into custody by their own men and clumsily shot in front of the mob”. Surely, the geniuses who wrote this might have done a little more research before uttering such nonsense. What actually happened was that the two generals (Lekonte and Thomas) ordered their troops to open fire at an unarmed workers demonstration. When the soldiers refused, the generals started swearing at them with rage, something which resulted into the soldiers turning their guns against the generals themselves and shooting them instead. Clearly, this was an act of justified proletarian outrage and not one of a ruthless mob as they wish to present it.

The longer the list, the better the action

The longer the list, the better the action

The campaign against the economic summit
undercurrent #6

On June 18th, leading politicians of the eight biggest economies will gather in Cologne (Germany) to talk about the future of the world economy and as almost always, this will be the target of protests. A world-wide alliance is forming which is according to the bulletin of the British activists' driven by the "recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social and ecological troubles." But what sounds like a point of departure for a critical analysis is unfortunately all the campaign has to say about its position. Instead of going beyond this kind of commonplace, it simply states that "a global movement of resistance is rising", and reading the few propaganda leaflets produced so far one soon realises that it is all about quantities. We are thus told that there were lots of people on the streets at last year's economic summit ("...2oo,ooo people in India..."), lots of agit-prop material has been produced ("20,000 lovely little folding leaflets..."), lots of different groups are involved (incl. trade unions, peace groups, church against poverty, national union of students - to name but a few) and, last but not least, the campaign bursts of fantastic ideas for action: "giving out free food...lots more custard pies...laughing all the way to the bank...sound system in balloon floating above the City!".

Them and us

"We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine" the campaign trumpets - but this them-versus-us-logic is odd on several counts. Not only has global capitalism - the alleged target - nothing to do with a simple "them". What is more, the collective "us" that is being invoked is utterly vague - "a growing alliance of social and environmental movements". The only thing all the different groups have in common is that in one way or the other they are affected by global capitalism - but that, again, is merely a commonplace, insufficient as a basis for collective resistance beyond the symbolism of raving a couple of hours against the gathering of some character masks in Cologne. But far from being a minor mistake of the June 18th campaign, this indifference towards the social content of movements is its very essence. In their own words: "The longer the list, the more effective the action." Following the requirements of media representation, it seeks to bring together masses. The result is pure mystification. On the one side, we have the apocalyptic scenario - "economic crisis, the millennium bug, environmental crisis, war famine, poverty" - which then is countered by the celebrated diversity of countless movements all around the world. The assumption is that anyone suffering from the present social order is by his very nature for its overthrow. Yet the vast majority of the groups and movements listed are directed against specific consequences and aspects of capitalism. The secondary weaving together of all the single-issue-movements leads not to a rejection of the totality of society - quite the reverse, it is simply an incoherent patch-work of people who, at least for a day, come together and party - or throw some custard pies in somebody's face.

"Global Capitalism"...

Preoccupied with listing groups and original ideas for actions, the campaign has dispensed with critical analysis. This is an immediate consequence of the aim to be as broad as possible: Any clarification of the political objectives of the June 18th campaign would reveal the lack of a political consent between e.g. the Zapatistas and the NUS, the trade unions and autonomist groups. This kind of short-sighted campaigning is based on the very absence of a clear critique of "global capitalism" in order to suit virtually everybody. What remains of the proclaimed anti-capitalism is but a bunch of slogans.

However, while radical critique of capital is obviously out even amongst those who pretend to practically oppose it, various resentments against certain aspects of the present-day situation are rather growing, with "globalisation" being buzz-word number one. The talk of "global capitalism" the campaign displays without any clarification is perfectly well in harmony with the present media hype about globalisation. This consists mainly of bemoaning the fact that, confronted with an apparently unlimited fluidity of global capital, the power of the nation state is vanishing . Virtually everyone has a dislike for "globalisation": Left-wingers are concerned about the future of democracy - since the politicians who are now allegedly rendered powerless were at least democratically elected whereas citizens have no say in the decisions that the vicious executives of multinational corporations take. Subcommandante Marcos, spokesman of everybody's darling, the Zapatistas in Mexico, sees the organic cultures of peoples being threatened by the evil forces of globalised finance capital. The French fascists of the Front National reject it as an attack on the sovereignty of the nation state and a threat to national culture. The recent campaign against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments), in many regards similar to the present June 18th campaign, drew exactly upon this ideology: As the MAI sought to give foreign capital a better position against national legislation, the opposition against it displayed a sometimes extreme nationalism and was practically propaganda for the state.

A common response to globalisation is thus the call for a re-regulation of the economy by the state. Neo-liberalism, another buzz-word used basically synonymously, is often countered with the demand for a Keynesian policy, popular especially among traditional lefty social democrats and trade-unionists. Keynes acknowledged that in order to prevent crises, the state has to intervene actively into the market by directly creating jobs (which, according to Keynes, could practically mean to make people dig holes and fill them afterwards) and generally raising demand (to compensate capital's tendency to over-production). It is not at all surprising that in the present situation lefty intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm proclaim "the end of neo-liberalism" and beg New Labour to adopt a more Keynesian strategy of taxation and redistribution. In general, there are hopes that the current hegemony of social democratic governments in Europe could clear the way for an alternative to "neo-liberalism". While the June 18th campaign does not rally for social democracy, the vague opposition to "global capitalism" it spreads is totally compatible with addressing the state as a supposed counter-pole to the market. And in fact, many of the movements the campaign is glad to have on board work along these lines.

"The heart of the economy"

The uncritical concept of capitalism the campaign seems to subscribe to is illustrated by the concentration on the financial sector of capital: the global actions will take place in the financial districts, understood as the "heart of the global economy". While production appears to be merely a technical process in which useful things are made, money and financial institutions are regarded as the essence of capitalism. Yet although capitalism cannot dispense with a developed banking system, it essentially depends on the production of surplus-value through the exploitation of wage-labour. The vast sums of value circulating in the banking districts represent the successful result of this process - and if they don't, the next crash is imminent. Therefore it would rather make sense to occupy some factories - if there is such a thing as "the heart of the economy" it lies there and not at Barclays' Bank.

This may sound like an irrelevant footnote. But one has to keep in mind that especially the recent crises in the financial sector have nurtured resentment against finance capital and prompted calls for a re-regulation of the world economy. The Times stated last summer that "the IMF's reputation has sunk to its lowest since the body was set up in 1944", and social reformists come up with proposals about taxation on "unproductive" speculative capital (so the state can redistribute money for the benefit of all and create jobs...). The campaign's concentration on the financial institutions fails to distinguish itself from these productivist and populist tendencies.

This misleading fixation on finance capital seems to be corrected by the second target of the campaign, the multinational corporations. But why privilege multinationals? Are national corporations less capitalist? Are small enterprises any better than "big business"? Significant parts of the campaign seem to stick to these notions: community-based cornershop versus Somerfield's, small peasants versus agro-capital and so on. "Small is beautiful" was after all a fairly popular slogan among eco-activists.

This perspective on capital gets professionalised by groups like Corporate Watch and the many initiatives busily cataloguing the many sins and crimes of individual corporations, which practically means, most of the time, launching boycotts and thus spreading the idea of "consumer's power". Thus, the opposition to Shell is based on their involvement in Nigeria, we are supposed not to eat certain chocolate bars because Nestle does this and that and so on. The critique of the fundamental logic of capital is replaced with a positivistic and moralistic approach. All this neglects the insight that capital in all its forms deserves abolition - and the family owned sweat-shop is by no means any less annoying as a workplace than AT&T.

Confusion and pseudo-practice

All this is not to say that the June 18th campaign would be in favour of sweat shops and state regulation, nationalism or social democracy. It is none of this, but at the same time shows no interest in analysing the dead-ends into which the articulation of social discontent runs today. Instead it employs a naive strategy of immediacy: the imaginative hippy-individual who "takes his desire for reality" is depicted as the ultimate response to global capitalism which essentially is comprised of banks and corporations, run by "them", the evil inhuman managers and yuppies. Everything is supposed to be so clear-cut and self-evident that any further reflection can be dispensed with - hence the ignorance of the many ideological and practical ways in which opposition gets neutralised (if it is not complicit with capital right from the beginning, as probably most of the groups on the campaign's list are anyway). The call for mass action amounts to confusion about the social objectives of the alleged "global resistance" and ultimately leads to mere pseudo-practice, i.e. much ado about nothing that gives those involved the illusion to lay the ground "for huge social and political changes".

A critique of animal rights ideology

Are animals a class? It is a sign of our times that many people probably respond to this question with a resounding: "Hmmmm, this takes some consideration.", instead of a prompt: "No, bollocks."

Foxes killed in hunts or cats tortured for whatever obscure purposes figure more prominently in the compassion-economy of the average decent citizen than someone like Simon Jones, a Sussex student taking a year off who was killed on the first day of his new shit-job which he was forced to take under the Blairite New Deal regime. Animal rights actions -- ranging from granny-friendly Sunday demos in the countryside over the absurd hunger strike of Barry Horne to the terrorist acts of the Animal Liberation Front -- receive vastly more attention than "people's" rights actions of any kind. The reason why all this is so can be found in the reformist ideology at the heart of the animal rights dogma(1).

Animals constitute the perfect victims -- they don't talk back. In contrast to oppressed people, who may not only be oppressed, but also racist or sexist themselves, animals are only passively suffering. This means that the activist is not required to deal directly with the objects of her activism. Instead, she will constantly inhabit a necessary role. Since animals cannot liberate themselves, the human liberator is needed. Since animals cannot decide their own fate (presupposing that a concept like "fate" applies to animals), the human liberator will always be necessary to take decisions for "her" victims(2). This gives the activist the gratification of being essential to the struggle. In contrast, would the aim be the liberation of humans who suffer under the capitalist system, who are forced into spirit- and, as in the case of Simon Jones, literally body-crushing work, the activist must loose her vanguard role rather quickly and the victims must become agents of their own freedom struggle. This loss of position can be an uncomfortable prospect for certain kinds of activists and the cause of animal liberation, where the power position of the liberator is guaranteed, appears as a welcome alternative.

This, however, does only demonstrate that animal rights activists are not and cannot be revolutionary, but not the twisted nature of their ideology. For animal rights activists, the alleviation of the suffering of animals, which is real and despicable, is and in their view should be the central issue of the struggle for freedom. This has multiple implications. For one thing, it places the suffering of animals on a higher level than the suffering of humans. This is the result of either self-hatred or an utterly twisted ideology of history. In the former case, animal rights activists see humans as using, abusing, torturing and killing animals for no apparent reason. This is, however, the fallacy in their argument. It is, of course, fairly easy not to be personally implicated in the process of animal exploitation (everyone can become vegan, for example). But this focus on immediate personal action, which is one of the reasons that make the movement so popular, simultaneously obscures a larger theoretical perspective which would make clear that animals are at present treated the way they are out of purely monetary motives. It is thus not some evil inherent in human nature that is responsible, but an economic system that in the name of profit commodifies everything.

Some animal rights activists recognise these contradictions within the movement and instead have dreamt up a bizarre theory on oppression. They recognise that humans aren't all bad and that humans in their roles as workers, women, minorities, or generally as the alienated are just as exploited as animals. Now, the theory goes that the exploitation of animals is the first and central instance of oppression. All others, wage-slavery, sexism, racism, etc. are outgrowths of this first oppression. Hence, we have to fight the exploitation of animals and everything else will fall into place. In other words, if only people learnt being nice to animals, they would learn to be nice to each other as well. It is rather futile to elaborate this strange perspective any further. Suffice it to say that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his German Shepherd dogs.

However, all this weirdness pales into insignificance when one analyses the reformist consequences of animal rights ideology: The narrow-minded and fanatical insistence that the most important problem to fight against is the suffering of animals. In essence this means that they really see nothing wrong with the economic order as it is, if only it weren't for those nasty experiments on animals and slaughterhouses. Many liberal activists within the movement freely admit that this is their position, epitomised in their heroine Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder (and the administration's favourite Sussex graduate), who managed to become one of the richest people in Britain with her brand of compassionate capitalism. Nevermind that she busts unions in her overseas factories; after all she really cares about these people and knows what is best for them. Unnecessary to discuss, these people are enemies, whether they like animals or not. However, within the animal liberation movement there are those self-styled revolutionaries who consider themselves as some sort of chosen people who have seen the light. Prime examples of this attitude is the Animal Liberation Front, but also those Hunt Sabs who are convinced that their paramilitary games in the countryside are an important contribution to the class struggle. The important thing to remember is, however, that the capitalist system does not need fox hunts or slaughterhouses. If anything, it would probably be better off without them as it could serve as propaganda on how compatible this mode of production is with good, healthy, enlightened values. And it is exactly this which is the central fault of the animal rights ideology. It does not attack the core of the problem, it does not attack the capitalist order.

As mentioned above, for the liberals (many of them with a post-68 sell-out trauma), this is the beauty of it. They can live out their fantasies of political activism without disturbing suburbia. But the more radical animal rightists, whose dedication this article neither doubts nor belittles, should consider how much difference it would make to them and to the living conditions in this world if only animal oppression was eliminated and the rest remained the same. Surely, the conclusion can only be that animal rights are not on the top of the priority list. Of course, a struggle aimed at, to use a trendy term, the heart of global capital takes a lot more uncomfortable analysis and vision than the simple animals=good, people=bad logic. But at least it is a struggle for liberation and not for a reform of a murderous system. This is not to say that animal rights should not be on the list of priorities as even a minor achievement like, say, the abolition of wage labour not automatically would entail a better treatment of animals.

Because there are much more important targets to attack and animal rights activists waste time and energy on a side-issue, they essentially serve to sustain the status quo. And in this context it is not a coincidence that animal rights actions receive much more media attention than real revolutionary actions. By focussing in on this kind of activism, the media and public debate function as PR agencies for the animal rights movement even when condemning it. In this way it draws people who have energy and political dedication away from the real struggle and keeps them in a safe realm in which the system can prove its generosity by apparently reforming itself as a consequence of public pressure -- wonderful, a people's democracy! Yet everything remains the same, expect for the system that has become stronger and in that way can more effectively go about its business of exploitation.

(1) We use reformism not in the strict sense, i.e. the legalist and parliamentary "road to socialism" through "gradual improvements" as opposed to a revolutionary strategy, but simply as a term for those who aim to change minor aspects of the present society while not contesting it as a whole.

(2) Tragic-comical results of this abound. Animals that are "liberated" from laboratories often either die in nature or return to the laboratories, because they are unable to survive by themselves. Another popular occurrence is the "liberation" of large numbers of one species into one area which consequently wreaks havoc on the eco-system of this area, killing loads of indigenous animals.

Schools of Revolt

Undercurrent on education struggles in Greece.

For the past two months, the greek educational system has been brought to an almost complete standstill. A vast number of schools has been occupied, followed by numerous universities. Technical schools have joined in, a situation which no longer resembled the traditional occupations which take place near the Christmas holidays every year. In the streets of Athens and other major towns of greece, militant demonstrations of vast numbers took place, not experienced for a long time. Also, big road blocks by pupils were witnessed all around greece. Their common basis: the fight against the new education law 2525, which aims at restructuring the education system towards the advanced needs of capitalism. The ruling classes have started to react with panic, while the media have joined in the propaganda of the State, constantly speaking of non-educational elements taking over the occupations to turn them into drug-trafficking places. At the time that this article is being written the situation has not changed. A first analysis of the events is attempted here, with the underlying purpose of shedding light on a struggle that seems to escape the limits of education and to extend its critique to the totality of contemporary society.

Being still the most backward country of the European Union, greek capital has realised the imminent need to speed up the process of modernisation of the social relations - something the right-wing governments were obviously not able to accomplish. The election of K. Simitis (a personality heavily favoured by his European counter-parts, as their remarks following his electoral victory clearly demonstrate) as prime minister of the social-democratic government indicated that greece was entering a new phase of drastic changes. The PaSoK government was dedicated to implement the needs of capital, but it was under serious pressure to speed up this process in order to meet the requirements of the Maastricht Treaty and to join the 'festival' of the Single Market. It adopted a Thatcherite attitude and showed from the very beginning that nothing opposing their plans would be tolerated. Starting from a gradual restructuring of the work relations, and moving on to decreasing the number of farmers, the road to structural modernisation (read: hell) was paved with the determination of the government, the collaboration of the unions and the occasional use of the riot police. But this road had to eventually go through the educational system. And, as the integrated unionists exclaim, since the educational system is the channel through which the labour force is allocated in the production, its re-organisation was inherently necessary in every step of the restructuring of greek capital. Yet, their plans for the educational system did not proceed according to their wishes.

The greek educational system in the past

The emergence of social democracy as the commonly accepted model of social organisation in the 60's and 70's indicated a major opening of what was formerly a highly selective, elite school system to the majority of the population. Under the ideological banner of 'equal opportunity', the new school system was created so as to adapt into the populist outlook of the state, but its democratic image could not balance the reality of a class based society. The new educational system, being responsible for the selection of the future labour force, suddenly found itself at the centre of the major social conflicts.

The gradual collapse of social democracy highlighted the anachronistic character of the social democratic educational system. Important changes started to be considered, and the right wing government of the late seventies and early eighties attempted the first reforms, focusing on the need of directly connecting the universities to the market and introducing the notion of specialisation. Although these plans did not succeed under the conservative governments, the election of PaSoK in 1981 managed to gradually implement these changes.

In the winter of 1990-1991, the second major attempt of the right wing government to adapt the educational system to the advanced needs of capital was introduced. A major conflict broke out, quickly turning into a political crisis, with the eventual resignation of the minister of education. Once again, it became obvious to the ruling classes that the necessary changes had to be implemented by the 'socialist' PaSoK. Thus, in 1997, PaSoK voted in parliament (during the summer holidays of course) for the educational law 2525.

The law 2525/97

The new super-law is obviously all embracing. Starting from the teachers in the schools, it is then extended to the pupils and it finally alters the university system. Its overall purpose? The creation of the education-market, functioning totally on terms of its laws and priorities.

Concerning the teachers, the law essentially abolishes the previous way of employment. Under the old system the teachers would enter their name in a year list and wait to be appointed by the state. Although this system had its faults, it basically forced the state to treat all applicants on an equal basis, and it guaranteed permanent employment for those who were appointed. With the new system, this is being replaced with a further exam which effectively introduces the notion of failure, and forces those who fail the exams to become flexible/temp workers in search of employment outside the education system. In essence: it decreases the number of teachers by rendering those who fail unemployed, and, more importantly, personally guilty for their unemployment. For those who manage to pass the exam, a destiny not much better awaits them: their permanent assessment by state officials, with the ultimate aim of making them totally obedient workers.

In relation to the pupils, the new law transforms the schools into race tracks of competition. It attempts to decrease the number of those going into higher education and it does so by altering the system of entrance. While in the past, those who finished school would have three chances to go through an exam system in order to get into university, this is now being replaced by a constant exam period during the final years at school, which, among others, means that pupils now only have one chance to get into University. Those who do manage to get the paper indicating that they have finished school will be allowed to enter university, but the fact is that even less people will actually be able to get hold of that paper.

Through constant assessment in the school, the workload will be severely intensified. The fragmenting and alienating competition among the pupils will be increased, since high achievements in school will now be determinant of the pupils' future, and the class divisions already existing within the schools will be enlarged. Under the new system, those who do not 'perform' as well as the others will be sent to the TEE (technical schools), thus ensuring that their labour force is not wasted but skilfully absorbed in the production. The distinctions between the 'good' obedient pupils and the 'bad' disobedient ones will become the everyday experience of the pupils and the hallmark of the 'new' innovated education system.

Regarding the university students, the new law contains a series of changes in the programme studies that essentially indicates a shift to more market-oriented programmes. The university degree will suddenly be measured in terms of the credits that the individual student has collected throughout the years of university/misery life, in contrast to the previous system where every degree carried the same value regardless of the grade, thus increasing individual competition. But even when the students have managed to get the degree, they will then be forced to follow the new "flexible" studies' programmes (PSE) which will 'upgrade' their degree (i.e. add credits to it), and render them more flexible to exploitation. The new system brings forward the concept of 'life-long training', which effectively means that the students will constantly try to equip themselves with the 'necessary' qualifications to find what in the end turns out to be a temporary job, since the employer will prefer the graduate with the more modern qualifications (i.e. the more credits). Unemployment then cleverly becomes a matter of personal failure: it is your fault that you can't get a job, because you are unable to follow the PSE in order for your degree to be upgraded to the level of advanced exploitation.

The State presents, the Media represent

Although resistance to this law seems a rather obvious reaction from all sides, it is quite important to stress the crucial role played by the government and media propaganda in determining the public opinion against any sort of resistance to the government's plans. By pointing at the previous nature of the education system, and specifically at certain parts of it that were commonly accepted as wrong, the government aimed at presenting its reforms as an attempt to rid the educational system from all these undesirable elements.

Thus, for the teachers, the negative aspects of the old system were severely emphasised (the fact that some teachers had to wait for a long time before being appointed was prioritised as a negative aspect in relation to the plans of getting rid of a large number of them), so as to present the exam system as providing a more direct and meritocratic way of employment (or should we say unemployment). Moreover, the exams were supposed to improve the level of teaching, an argument which worked in a twofold way: on the one hand it appealed to those (parents, etc) who were complaining about the low level of teaching experienced in the state schools (without however questioning the fact that taking a three hour exam does not improve anyone's level. It has to be noted that the official language of the State sometimes replaced the minimal ability of thought among its passive recipients.) On the other hand, it created a further fragmentation between the pupils and the teachers, since, apart from seeing their teachers as personally responsible for the oppression and alienation they experience, the pupils sometimes identify these problems as stemming from the low level of the teachers. Thus, some pupils were ready to accept the proposed reforms as a means of improving the situation in the schools. Yet, although it is unavoidable, and indeed healthy, for the pupils to direct their anger towards those who represent this alienation, one of the most promising things of this movement was the fact that the pupils refused to accept the propaganda of the State and did make minimal -but crucial- connections with those of the teachers' who refused to accept the law and who, in one way or another, continued the movement of June.

In terms of the pupils the propaganda was more skilfully disguised. The old system of entering university through an examination at the end of school was indeed appalling. Pupils were supposed to learn whole books by heart, and were assessed almost in relation to how many comas and words they forgot to add when memorising the texts in their exam paper. Thus, when the minister proclaimed that with the new system everyone with a paper saying that they have finished school would get in university, a lot of people fell for it. Moreover, even when the actual reality of the new law started to become known and understood, a lot of people were ready to accept it on the pathetic grounds that at least some changes were made in the education system.

As for the students, not much needed to be added to the already generalised feeling of competition and submission to the new needs of capitalism. The majority of the students in greece already accept the status quo, and even if a lot of them voted for the occupations, it seemed as if this decision was more influenced by their desire to extend the Christmas holidays by a few weeks, than any actual opposition to the law. Moreover, the fact that quite a lot of students' occupations started to collapse one after the other shortly before the official holidays, indicated at that time that the students were not prepared to lose their term. Needless to say that once again, the social role of the student was exposed for what it actually is: a passive and universally despised role.

The pupils' occupations

The first occupations of the schools started in late October. Soon they spread out, and by early December more than 1000 schools (there are about 3500 schools in greece) were occupied, followed by numerous university occupations, all with the same 'demand': the complete withdrawal of the new law 2525/97. However, the form that the struggle took was not always as promising as its numbers.

So far as schools are concerned, it is crucial to understand that they are very separated from each other, something which does not allow a direct and constant solidarity among them. Apart from the spatial distance and a lack of communication channels, the schools are separated from each other on the basis of a peculiar but strong factor: the pupils of one school tend to identify with 'their' school as being 'the best' in the area, and disregard all other schools. This self-imposed ghetoisation makes some pupils very reluctant to accept -or sometimes even consider- the attempts of students or teachers (or whoever else) to extend the struggle and make valuable connections with other sections of society, a fact which is worsened by the existence of a 'Communist' party-led 'Pupils' Committee' which pretends to be the only true representative of the pupils' movement.

Loyal only to its dogmatism, the 'Communist' party (KKE) calls for local road blocks instead big demonstrations, and tries to eradicate any radical expressions of the pupils, who in the midst of the revolutionary situations they create, start to develop a more rigid critique of contemporary society and of its lackeys.

However, the 'Communist' party is obviously not in control of the movement, and many pupils have reacted very reasonably when facing them -in many schools, representatives of KKE have been violently kicked out. Furthermore, autonomous committees have been created to counteract the KKE one and their actions and leaflets managed to overcome the dead end of KKE's ideology and to radicalise the content of the struggle.

The Students

The students' position is different from that of the pupils. The experience of the political students has led them into rejecting the dogmatism of KKE, but has not led into a critique of ideology as such. Hence they are massively drawn into splinter left wing groups whose only difference to KKE is proportionate. Unable to understand or analyse contemporary society in a revolutionary way, the militant ideology of students stops them from developing a critique of student life. As such they only relate to the struggles in a spectacular way.

The most striking example is that of NAR (New Left Trend), a splinter group which disassociated itself from KKE only a few years ago, and which enjoys a certain dominance in the student milieu, but which has not equally disassociated itself from the dogmatism of Stalinism. Although more populist than actually Stalinist, NAR has always tried to impose itself as the uncontested leading group of any student struggle, with the purpose of increasing its power base and improving its militant image.

The rest of the left wing groups have not so far managed to contest the dominant image of NAR. Even though they personally disagree with its practices, they have proved totally useless in confronting them at a collective level.

However, it needs to be pointed out that not all student groups are in the same pathetic position. Some anarchist or autonomous groups have appeared with a more rigid critique of university, and they have tried to point out that the struggle is not a merely educational problem, nor is the specific law only a problem of education. In their leaflets, they have pointed out that the struggle should not confine itself to a mere opposition to this specific law but should extend to a generalised critique of the society the ruling classes are trying to build.

Although much credit should be given to them, their correct understanding of the underlying purposes of the law does not always lead them into an understanding that even if the law in itself was withdrawn, this would represent an important victory since it would mean that state and capital would be abandoning one of their major tools of modernisation in greece. Thus it is quite common to read anarchist leaflets stressing that the law 2525 should not be considered a priority, an argument which sometimes gives the impression that the particular struggle does not interest them.

The struggle continues...

The hopes of the government and the minister that the situation would de-escalate after the Christmas vacations were not satisfied. The pupils increased the amount of occupied schools, and the militant demonstrations did not stop. Yet, some things had changed.

For the government, the continuation of the struggle transformed the educational problem into a major political crisis. The stubborn attitude of the minister now demanded the (unwilling sometimes) support of the rest of the government, whereas the majority of the newspapers started demanding a solution dictated by the prime minister himself. At the same time, the government initiated a 'crisis committee' (composed of the ministers of education, law and order, internal affairs and justice) with the purpose of resolving the problem. The result was a major 'campaign' of 'distressed' parents (read: members of the party of PaSoK) attacking the occupied schools with the aim of physically stopping them.

On the other hand, the students' occupations were also increased, indicating that the pupils and students were determined to continue the struggle until the law was totally abolished. The pupils' response to the 'distressed parents' only meant that even more pupils stayed in the occupied schools to protect them, and that their dedication to the struggle became more fierce.

At that point the opposition party of the right wing proposed a vote of no confidence against the minister of education in parliament. This was a decisive move. At first it was treated with contempt by the left, since it indicated that the whole of PaSoK would be forced to fully support the minister of education, and as such he could not resign in the near future. However, this move was cleverer than that. The subsequent support of the whole party meant that the education problem was now officially a government crisis that could no longer be resolved by positioning the minister as the scapegoat, followed by a resignation from his post. The proposal of the opposition party meant that either the prime minister would force the minister of education to resign (thus causing serious internal problems) or else that the whole government would have to resign.

The struggle now

The situation at this moment seems to be at a halt from both sides. The passing of the law 2525/97 remains an unavoidable necessity for the government and Capital, but the situation seems to indicate that the government will be forced to back down, since the pupils are in a position now that they have nothing to lose by continuing for a few more weeks (whereas the government has).

The situation at the moment is explosive. The government's last chances depend on terrorising the pupils (Arsenis declared that many schools have effectively lost the winter term and would thus have to repeat the whole school year), while the pupils strongly depend on whether connections will be made with other sections of the population.

At this point, the necessity for the continuation of the struggle poses itself historically; the fight against the law 2525 will either go beyond the limits that the various professionals (unionists, students, 'communists', etc) seek to impose on it, or it will collapse. For the outcome will not only determine the future of greek modernisation, but it will also prove to be the basis upon which further struggles will be fought.

February 1999

(Some ideas for this article have been ripped off from the greek magazine TPTG )

An account of the June events outside the exam centres of greece is available at the Collective Action Notes website

postscript:

this article was written when the pupils' movement was still going on, and reflects all the hopes that we carried at that time. Unfortunately, the movement lost, the education law 2525 was passed and nothing remains today of the struggle (apart of the proletarian memory). This was a crucial development. Greece had not seen a major struggle kick off since the early 90's, and many people (including us) placed many hopes on the potentials of the movement of 1999. To have won that struggle would have meant that the proletarian experience would have had a - small but important - victory in its history, a fact that would have aided it to face the struggles to come. These hopes were never realised. The results of this can be felt today.

When a new law announcing major changes in the work relations (institutionalisation of flexibility, temp work and the rest of capitalism's modern inventions) was announced last summer, many people thought that a fierce resistance would emerge. Workers were openly coming out saying that blood would have to be spilled before such a law would pass, the union hacks seemed to be at a loss, and the government was desperately trying to find some leeway through which its changes would be accepted with the less reaction. But, and although the situation is still ongoing, it seems to be the case that no major reaction is on the table. The General Confederation of Greek Workers (the main union) did call for two one-day general strikes before christmas, but participation in these was all but promising... Nothing is lost permanently and so long as the class struggle exists all hopes are permitted, but we cannot fail to notice that, had the law 2525 been scrapped due to the class struggle, further struggles would have had a ground upon which to stand and unleash their terrible, but yet only potential, strength.