Hope in times of crisis

Europe is in crisis. Southern Europe —from Greece to Portugal—faces monumental economic challenges. The problem in Greece is well known, with pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Union brought to bear on the depleted Greek treasury. These three institutions, the IMF, the ECB and the E.U., are known as the Troika. Even ordinary people call it that. The jargon of the bankers has become part of the vocabulary of the streets. Lack of options—such as its own currency—forced the Greek government to follow the proposals of the Troika. Despite a mandate from the people to fight against the austerity proposals, the Syriza-led government in Greece capitulated to the Troika. Yanis Varofakis, the Finance Minister who resigned after the surrender, said that in these times coups did not come with “tanks but through banks”. Two in five Greeks live in poverty, and the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country has shrunk by 25 cent. Greece’s plight is not different from what has hit the rest of southern Europe. A derogatory name, PIGS, signals out the countries—Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain—that are now in the shadow of acute economic and social crises.

In Lisbon’s Cais de Sodre station, I met a group of Nepali boys. Their parents work in small shops or in the restaurant trade, whereas they work in odd jobs here and there. School is not part of their agenda. It is work that they seek. As we talked, two men and a woman drifted into our conversation. These three people, in the second decade of their lives, were also unemployed. “Finding work is difficult,” the woman said. The statistics bear her out. Official unemployment figures show that over a third of the young people in Portugal cannot find a job. There is fatalism here, but also resentment. Fingers point to Germany, the anchor of the E.U. and its banking system. Not far from us was a poster from the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). It read: Basta de submissão à União Europeia e ao Euro—enough submission to the European Union and the euro.

At the PCP office, I met Jose Angelo Alves, one of the leaders of the party. Alves, who was in his mid 40s, was familiar with India, having met the late Harkrishen Singh Surjeet, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He had also travelled to India. Aquino Noronha, a PCP member of Goan ancestry and an elected councillor in Lisbon, also joined us. Since so many of the people I met turned their attention towards Germany and the euro to explain Portugal’s dilemmas, I thought I would ask Alves to provide a detailed account of the crisis. After all, Portugal had suffered a fascist dictatorship from 1926 to 1974, had overthrown this dictatorship in a popular revolution on April 25, 1974, with the PCP in a leading role, and then had drifted into the eurozone, where it fell into a pit of stagnation and dismay.

For Alves, the revolution of 1974 was not a distant memory. That event lingered in every conversation. Popular sentiment against the suffocation of the dictatorship and its colonial wars in Africa and Asia led to mass protests for a different kind of Portugal. What came after, thanks in part to the PCP’s role, was a new compact between the state and the people, anchored in the Constitution. “Even though it was not a socialist revolution,” Alves said, “it enabled nationalisation of a section of the economy and it guaranteed social rights for the people.” Pressure from popular sentiment and the Left drove the counter-revolutionary bloc—the parties of the conservatives and the social democrats—to associate itself with the new state of mind. These parties had to “appear as socialist or social democratic”, despite the fact that they opposed those parts of the Constitution.

Portugal’s revolution came at a difficult time in world history. By the 1970s, the idea of “national development” came under pressure from the neoliberal policy preferences of the powerful Western states. The IMF and the eurozone drove an agenda that Portugal could not withstand. For 30 years, such right-wing policies of privatisation and cutbacks in wages and social rights became commonplace. Integration into the eurozone network was the instrument to marginalise the legacy of the 1974 revolution. Sectors of the Portuguese economy “were almost decimated”, Alves said. Portugal, like Greece, became subordinate to global bankers, with German banks as the symbol of the oppressor. Weaknesses in Portugal’s economy left it vulnerable to the credit crisis of 2008.

Progressive nationalism

Portugal, a country of only 10 million, was struck hard by the crisis of 2008. Its main banks had indulged in widespread fraud over past decades and could not withstand the turbulence in the global economy. Bond traders and speculators ransacked what remained of Portugal’s economy, sending its government to its creditors and to the E.U. for a bailout. Harsh austerity policies created political instability for the government and social pressure on the people. Poverty, unemployment and even hunger became part of the condition of Portugal. Between 2012 and 2013, mass protests flooded its cities and towns. The Movimento 12 de Março (March 12 Movement), the Geração à Rasca (The Desperate Generation) and Que Se Lixe a Troika (Screw the Troika) drew crowds as large as had been seen during the 1974 revolution. The general sentiment among the people was drawn from Portugal’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago: “Make every citizen a politician”. “We saw in these protests the temporary movement of the expression of the anger of the people,” Alves said. The PCP and the trade union movement decided to get involved but not to try and control the movement in any way. The manifestations or protests made an impact on the mood of Portuguese society, but they did not themselves produce an alternative. It was left to the unions and the various left parties to develop these struggles further.

One important distinction between Greece and Portugal has been the absence of fascist parties in the latter. During the worst period of austerity and crisis, Greece’s political climate allowed for the appearance of Golden Dawn, an authentically fascist party. Golden Dawn’s racism and xenophobia inflamed the narrowest Greek nationalism. Portugal was under fascist rule under the Estado Novo from 1926 to 1974. The appetite for fascism had not only been squelched by the 1974 revolution, but also, Alves said, by the creation of a progressive vision of nationalism by the communists. The idea of national sovereignty had been part of the vocabulary of the left, which did not allow a fascist strand to reappear in Portugal. This is perhaps the greatest gift of the 1974 revolution and the politics of progressive nationalism pushed by the Portuguese Left.

Elections of 2015

When the Portuguese people went to the polls in October 2015, the choices before them were clear. On the one side were the parties of austerity, the centre-right and the conservatives. They had pledged themselves to the Troika’s programme and had little distance between their policies and those of Brussels and the IMF. On the other side were the parties of the Left, the PCP, the Ecologist Party, the Left Bloc and the Socialist Party. The Left had positioned itself against austerity, whereas the Socialists had an ambiguous position vis-a-vis the Troika. The election results were inconclusive. The ruling elites in Portugal wanted the austerity parties to come back to power, but the popular mood signalled the opposite. The Left was in a dilemma. It could either allow the austerity parties to return as a minority government or it could provide support to the Socialist Party to enter government. “It was necessary to regain hope,” Alves told me. To allow the austerity parties to govern would have been catastrophic for the people in terms of policy and confidence. An alternative was necessary. “We know what the Socialist Party is about,” said Alves. There were no illusions when the Left decided to help the Socialists create a government.

The PCP, the Ecologists and the Left Bloc created separate bilateral agreements with the Socialist Party. Each of these agreements laid down the basis for parliamentary support. The PCP agreement with the Socialists had three parts. The first part detailed the agreements between the two parties and laid out a time frame for these policies to be put in place. The second had more points of agreement but set aside a time frame. The third part of the document listed the disagreements between the PCP and the Socialists. This last part is a public declaration of the issues on which the PCP and the Socialists will clash.

“A clash is inevitable,” said Alves. “We know where we stand and where they stand. When the clash comes, we don’t know the choice that the Socialists will make.” The integrity of the agreement, Alves points out, means that the Portuguese people know the positions of the various parties. There is no dissimulation of their views. The main area of disagreement is over Portugal’s position on Europe, which is why across Portugal I saw posters from the PCP announcing events or protests against the Troika. In the university town of Coimbra, for instance, a PCP leader, Vasco Cardoso, gave a talk on September 21 on the “Euro, Bank Debt and the Development of Our Country”. It is the kind of event that signals the gap between the Communists and the Socialists. Alves told me that there was now a section of the Socialist Party that had begun to lean towards the PCP view. Such developments would pressure the Socialists not to move into the camp of austerity.

The Socialists are now in power. Prime Minister Antonio Costa is the son of a Portuguese Goan writer, Osvaldo Costa, a member of the PCP and a celebrated poet and novelist. Costa’s government has very limited space for manoeuvre, constrained as it is by the E.U.’s rules and the Troika’s surveillance. Nonetheless, Costa’s government, under Left pressure, has pushed the minimum wage up, restored public sector wages and pensions and attempted to boost domestic demand.

Alves looked forward to the PCP’s Congress to be held in early December. Here, the Communists will discuss the year-long experience of offering support, along with the Ecologists and the Left Bloc, to the Socialists. But the deeper issue will be to increase the independent strength of the PCP. The people “might not vote for our party”, Alves told me, “but they trust our party”. With declining trade union membership and the crisis of social life, the reservoirs of the Left have been depleted. “We need non-classical solutions for the organisation of workers in the informal sector,” said Alves. The PCP youth have “made an effort to reach out to precarious workers, in call centres for example. It is a long process, but we need to be persistent. Precarious labour has been a sector to which we have given great importance in the past few months. The party has gone to places where it has never gone before.” The PCP, Alves said, was not a “social island”. It had to be among the people.

Noronha, the councillor from Lisbon, walked me out of the PCP office. He told me about his long history of work in the party and for the progressive movement. The evening in Lisbon was beautiful, warm and busy. There were signs everywhere of the distress that had taken hold of this country, the first amongst the European colonial powers. Old buildings of colonial glory looked exhausted. Their days were long gone. Portugal reinvented itself in the 1974 revolution. It was that popular struggle which allowed the country to set aside its long colonial history of plunder and violence. The inheritance of that revolution was almost squandered in the 30 years of neoliberal policies and the past decade of austerity. A brief window is now open to glance back at 1974 to restore public trust in the country’s institutions. The Socialists are now at the wheel, with the Left at their shoulder. Whether they can find a way around the roadblocks placed by the Troika is the real question. “I’m hopeful,” said Noronha, with a great big smile on his face.

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