The last months of raging capitalist crisis have seen devastating attacks begin on the living standards of workers and youth around the world. However, alongside the rapid economic downturn and attacks on our futures, a powerful fightback has developed in a number of countries, as millions have said “we won’t pay for your crisis!”
The magnificent movement which has begun in Austria over the last days – with universities occupied throughout the country, spontaneous mass demonstrations of 50,000 on 28 October and a national demonstration on 5 November, and reports that occupations have spread into neighbouring Germany - has underlined what has been a distinct feature of these struggles - the emergence of young people as a radical, fighting section of society. Anyone who attended any of the mass demonstrations, of tens (and hundreds) of thousands, that have taken place around the world against crisis, cutbacks and war in the recent past, will no doubt have noticed the thousands of youths who made up their bulk. Iran, a country where 60% of the population is under 30, saw the power of a generation cast aside in the mass movement which shook Iranian society in June. European countries like Greece, Italy and Spain have also seen mass protests and movements develop, which showed the power young people have to fight back. For the vast majority, these protests and demonstrations will probably have been their first experience of political activity, but will not be their last by any means. These movements, and the situation in Austria today, give a picture of the changed situation brought about by the crisis, and the politicisation and radicalisation which it has created. The next period will see even greater layers of young people mobilising, against the attacks of the crisis, in defence of their interests and for change in society. What is behind this developing youth revolt?
Impact of the crisis on youth
The crisis is understood to have been thrust upon the vast majority by a greedy and irresponsible elite and their system. However, unfortunately, the speculation and profiteering of bosses and bankers, facilitated by right-wing governments around the world, threatens to be decisive in shaping the lives of young people, in the months and years to come. The crisis has already had a massive impact on jobs and living standards. Millions of youth are now bearing the brunt of an economic downturn which was not of their making.
The jobs massacre which is developing, with record unemployment figures emerging across Europe, has particularly affected young workers. During the boom, when the capitalists boasted of low unemployment, young workers provided a cheap pool of labour for bosses, as profits sky-rocketed. They were often employed under inferior terms and conditions to older workers, with precarious employment, lower wages and fewer rights as the norm. In Spain (where youth unemployment is currently at around 39%) in 2008 for example, 63% of 15 to 24 year-olds in employment were on temporary contracts, many of only 10 days’ duration, and could be sacked at a moment’s notice!
Still, the argument was peddled that we were assured a bright future; that never-ending economic growth would ensure a future of stable, well-paid employment, and quality education, particularly in Western Europe.
That argument has been completely shattered. Rather than a new era of permanent affluence and opportunity, the current situation will feel to many like a turning back of the clock, with a return to mass youth unemployment a reality.
Education under attack - way forward shown in Austria!
Education has also been victim to savage cuts, as governments intensify neo-liberal assaults on all public services, including healthcare. The onset of the crisis was followed by the announcement of a number of vicious budgets, featuring serious attacks on public education. This was met with powerful struggles and protests in a number of countries in the last months of 2008, as mass youth and student movements shook Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
The situation facing Austrian students is similar to that faced throughout Europe, in both schools and universities. Savage cutbacks resulting in overcrowded classrooms, increasing workloads, and dismal prospects for graduates have become part and parcel of student life. The ‘Bologna process’, against which the Austrian movement has been aimed, represents a European-wide process towards the “marketisation” of public education. Public universities in Italy, Spain and Austria have had their boards of management opened up to representatives of big business, driven only by the desire to make education profitable for capitalism. This development, instinctively opposed by students in struggle in these countries, can only have a negative impact on the quality of education as well as scientific research and other roles played by universities, as all of these activities will be geared towards the maximisation of profit for business, not towards providing a quality, socially useful education.
The crisis has also seen new measures implemented which further restrict access to third level education for working class people. The Bologna process pushes a “user pays” education model, meaning a system funded by tuition fees paid by students themselves, a system already in place in Britain, where this year, over 600,000 young people left education, only to swell the ranks of the country’s now 1,000,000 unemployed youths, with up to £50,000 debt per person! In Austria, the prospect of a return of tuition fees was a big factor in the anger which has exploded into the current movement. The CWI emphatically supports the demand for free education, open to all, which has been taken up in Austria.
International youth in revolt
On Wednesday, it was reported that a number of universities in Germany had been occupied by students in solidarity with their Austrian counterparts. A burning interest in the struggles taking place internationally is evident. Last week, German occupiers enthusiastically communicated via video link, with their comrades in Austria. German students have proposed that their day of action on 17 November be turned into an “international day of action” for free education. This development is an indication of the explosive anger that exists across the continent. What is happening in Austria at the present time offers a glimpse into the next period, one that will be characterised by increasing social explosions. In Austria, Greece, Italy, Spain France and elsewhere in Europe, students and young people have been among the first in society to indicate that they are not going to take the situation lying down. The effect that this can have in society and on the wider working class has been shown in Austria, where the initiative taken by students in fighting back has become a focal point in a country where vast reserves of anger have been built up in reaction to the crisis and the government’s response. The initiative of students and young people in struggling has the potential to become a focal point for a wider struggle against bosses’ and governments. Mass support exists for the struggles of the students in Austria amongst the wider working class. National trade unions, under pressure from below, (and even pensioners’ organisations!) have pledged their support for the militant action taken in the universities. This gives a picture of the explosive nature of the present situation, not only in Austria but internationally.
In Greece, the recent ‘December days’, a youth and social revolt, sparked by the murder of 15 year old, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, by police which saw daily mass protests, represented perhaps the strongest expression of youth anger and discontent since the outbreak of the crisis. The basis for the Greek movement lay in the dreadful conditions suffered by the Greek majority and by youth in particular. After twenty years of neo-liberal governments and austerity measures, one in four of Greek youth are now left unemployed, with those with work on poverty wages. The last few years had already seen significant struggles, such as the massive successful strikes and occupations of 2006, in response to university reforms. Their anger, shared by the wider working class saw their concerns taken up by militant workers and trade unionists, playing an important role in boosting the massive mobilisation for the general strike of December 10. Their mighty movement, which paralysed society for weeks, was an indication of the power that young people have; both in fighting for their own interests and in sparking off wider social and workers’ struggles.
In Italy also, young people’s initiative in taking to the streets in their millions against the governments attacks on education had far-reaching effects. Their “wave” of protests and occupations in November 2008, forced the idea of a militant fightback against attacks on education firmly onto the agenda. The trade union leaders, pressured by the massive showing of solidarity with the youth amongst workers and the general mood of anger at declining living standards and the effects of the crisis, were forced to act and call a general strike on 12 December. The students participated in mass demonstrations on the day, in full knowledge that the calling of the strike had been a direct consequence of their movement. This reflects the instinct of students and young people in struggle to unite with workers to fight for their shared interests.
Fight for a socialist future!
Movements against education cuts, unemployment and the effects of capitalist crisis are overtly political. Students and young people throughout Europe have been explicit in their opposition to neo-liberalism, privatisation and the application of capitalist principles to education. However, the politics of these movements is not the politics of the main parties anywhere in Europe, which put the profits of the rich over the needs of people.
The failure of capitalism to realise its promise of stability, employment and education for young people will result in dramatic shift in youth consciousness to the left. Contrary to the capitalists’ promise of constantly developing living standards, most young people, particularly in Western Europe, are now looking into a future in which they are worse off than their parents’ generation. This realisation, amongst the mass of young people, has fuelled events like those in Greece, but also those in Eastern European countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania, where big protests have been seen, as young people come to terms with the reality of capitalism.
As the crisis develops, years of mass unemployment and substandard, inaccessible education beckon for young people internationally. Many young people are beginning to draw the conclusion that capitalism cannot provide for their future and are beginning to search for alternatives. Only in a socialist society, when the futures of young people are no longer gambled in the capitalist casino of booms and slumps, and when the planet’s vast wealth and resources are used to benefit the majority and protect the environment, rather than used to line the pockets of the super-rich, whose greed and recklessness has led the world economy into rack and ruin, can a decent future be secured for all.
Young members of the CWI have played a key role in the youth struggles which have taken place in a number of European countries recently. Only last week, members of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) in Rouen played a leading role in school students’ strikes against the attacks of the Sarkozy government on education, involving thousands. In Greece, members of Xekinima, which participates in SRYIZA, were the only ones to offer a viable programme and strategy to the movement and argue for a clear socialist alternative. In Britain, the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign, established by Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales) members, has become a point of reference for young people who want to fight back. In future struggles, the CWI can serve as an international banner for youth, in the movements that develop, who want to fight for a socialist future.