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From the time of the Black Panthers I remember the following small story. Long after Black Power won and established its rule in the States, two black businessmen in posh suits were entering a pub in Manhattan when they saw a group of poor white youth sitting with some guitars on the edge of the pavement and singing. One of the black businessmen tells his friend: “See what beat those white folk have in their blood”.

For long time revolutionaries from the 3rd world used to look from above on their comrades from the imperialist centers. It is true that they enjoyed better living standards and more freedom, but all the real action was in other places. The imperialist countries gained so much from robbing the poor people all over the world that they could buy the consent of their own working class with social benefits and democratic freedoms, corrupt the elite and local leaderships and give a civilized look to their class rule.

This is not true anymore. With China surpassing the US as the major economic power and after the political and economic failure of its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the imperialist countries’ ability to bully and rob the rest of the world is not what it used to be.

This led to the global financial crisis that started back in 2007. This time it is not a cyclic crisis, correcting over investment and over capacity, but a structural crisis that already lasts 5 years and is not going away anytime soon. The Assisi 2012 Anti Imperialist camp was a great opportunity for us, coming from the Arab World in the idle of its revolution, to learn how the people in Europe are coping with this crisis.

Greece

On Friday morning, August 24, we met to hear about the situation in Greece, where the crisis is most severe. The comrades from Greece told the story of collapsing health services and education, idling fields and factories, rocketing unemployment and a population that is not sure whether it will have enough to eat. They described the rage of the people at the feeling that they are forced to pay the price for the corruption of the elite. They spoke of the despair as all the sacrifices of the poor people are tunneled to repay the banks and not to rebuild the economy that they destroyed.

But however clear it is what the international and local financial oligarchy is doing and causing, the alternative is far from clear.

Petros Al Achmar, from the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE) and the newly formed left coalition Syriza, presented the new hope of the left. Building a coalition of many political forces of the left since 2001, Syriza succeeded to raise it share of the vote from 5% to 27% during a short period in 2012, as the economic and political crisis reached new heights and people looked for an alternative that is different from the current corrupt system. Petros stressed that the key to the rapid development of Syriza is not only the collection of existing forces but also the openness to the new activists of the mass movement. It required the readiness of the leadership to hear and learn from the new activists and not to force on them its own ready solutions.

As Syriza prepared itself to form an alternative government after the June 17, 2012, elections, and as it rides the mass protest movement more than it leads it, its positions are duly reflecting the mood of the masses. It means that it is clear who is to blame for the crisis, but not too clear how to get out of it. Basically the question of exit from the Euro zone was not yet decided. To say the truth, I don’t know what the right path is, and whether Syriza could lead it, but I enjoyed hearing representatives of the sincere left in Europe trying to cope (even if only mentally, till now) with the task of leading their country.

Yiannis Rachiotis from “Antarsya” and Mikhalis Tiktopoulos spoke for the other part of the Greek left, which is not part of Syriza. They clearly proposed exit from the Euro zone but were more pessimistic about the potential of the mass movement for real influence on the state’s crisis. To some degree they were closer to the Anarchists position (that was not represented), which concentrates on fighting the system in the streets more than on posing a practical alternative. (Though comrade Yiannis made a nice try at posing concrete steps which a future left Greek government may take, including, for example, issuing internal bonds. As before, I enjoyed this one too.)

Italy

The last session of the Camp, on August 26, was dedicated to the crisis in Italy. The economic crisis in Italy is far from the Greek climax, but the crisis of the political system is even more profound. I will not handle it in much detail, but I wanted to mention Italy in connection with the Greek discussion because of the appearance of new type of social movements.

In Sicily a strong protest movement led by farmers and lorry drivers challenges the austerity and neo-liberal policy of the government. It was formed outside the established parties, blaming the whole elite, established political parties and the media for corruption and responsibility to the economic crisis.

From Sardinia we heard Felice Flori, leader of the Sard shepherds. He spoke of a unique local experience, with a broad coalition of popular organizations forming an “assembly” to challenge the established power. He showed a high level of consciousness when he spoke of the deliberations how to build popular power independent of the establishment, while trying to influence the established system through participation in elections.

This new type of popular power, building from the local level by uniting organizations of popular struggle, may be the way to solve the puzzle posed by the Greek comrades. If you start with taking the government from above, let’s say through elections, you may find that with the tools of a capitalist government you can’t really implement a very different policy. If you just fight it in the streets you leave it to the representatives of the system to lead and to give solutions. Maybe they are simply unable to do it. The ordinary people that suffer from the crisis must have some intermediary steps to develop their role from protest to leading a new type of society.

Independence vs. European Unity

Both in Greece and in Italy, one main scheme was the need for national independence or sovereignty. The most convincing argument in this direction is that the rules of the European Union are a dictate of Capitalist Neo-Liberal policies that the local government has no way to challenge. Regaining local independence in decision making is a pre-condition for trying to do something else.

This is in contrast with the natural tendency to think that a greater union is progress. It makes sense at a time of crisis to take a step backward in order to gain self control in a smaller framework. But the left should also regain the initiative and pose its own vision for European unity.