A Load of Old Cobblestones
Author: Simon Stander
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/05/2006
The University of Peace is based in Costa Rica where businesses, government, police and unions are positioning themselves in the event of street demonstrations. Costa Rica is going to enter CAFTA. That will be mean private sector competition in such traditionally public industries as power and telecommunications and insurance. Way back in 1948-9 after the last serious upheaval the country saw the establishment of a welfare state and the abolition of the armed forces. At the time that was seen as modern and progressive. Now entry to CAFTA and the potential dismantling of much of the welfare state and of union power in the public sector is seen as progressive. What was once revolutionary is seen as reactionary. Curiously, this is more or less the same underlying process as is happening in France this very week.
When I was at school in England our history lessons always pointed to the French as the place of forever revolutions: 1789 was the famous one of course, but there was also 1830 and the end of Bourbon Charles X and later in 1848 his successor was forced out by yet another revolution. Four years later Napoloeon’s nephew seized power, and he, in turn, was turfed out in 1870. Much more recently, in 1968 the students on the streets saw Charles de Gaulle packing his bags and ready to depart. Maybe the cobble-stoned streets helped, as weapons were always to hand.
The latest disturbances may well only be the beginning, not of revolution, but of the painful adjustment of the French economy and society to the rolling back of the welfare state and the freeing up of the labour market and the insertion of the final nails in the coffin of the trade union movement. The current conflict is about the workers maintaining the status quo, not change, as was the case both in France in 1968 and in Costa Rica in 1948.
Basically the major countries in Europe, France, Germany and Italy, are facing what the UK went through during the Thatcher/Major period in the eighties and early nineties. Global capitalism demanded the freeing up of labour, the destruction of labour power, the reduction of taxes in the interests of maintaining the rate of profit, cuts in public spending and the consequent rolling back of the welfare state: expensive higher education, reduction in health provision; cuts in welfare benefits, privatization of services and selling off public assets.
Marx referred to the spectre that was haunting Europe in the nineteenth century: the spectre of Communism. There is now a new spectre haunting Europe: that of a supposedly geriatric form of capitalism and lack of competitiveness in the face of not only the USA but China and East Asia. The answer by the frightened governments of Europe and their finance and trade ministries is the Thatcher remedy. In the UK this led to vicious fighting in the streets led by the miners. The miners lost. Anyone who has seen the movie Billy Elliot will recall that he was a miner’s son and while he danced the day away his family were locked in battles with the police. However, we may see more barricades than ballet in the next few years. In any case, watch the press for running battles not only in France but in Germany and Italy. For my part, I am wondering how long it will be before the traffic builds up here in Costa Rica in the capital San Jose and the major ports of Limon and Puntarenas. Watch this space in the event of flying cobblestones around the world.
Bio: Simon Stander is the Editor-in-Chief of the Peace & Conflict Monitor