General strikes were common in Europe and in the U.S. towards the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century. They provoked great debates within the labor movement and within the revolutionary parties and movements (anarchist, communist, socialist).
Much discussed were the importance of the general strike in the social and political struggles, the conditions for its success, the role of political forces in its organization. Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was one of the most prominent presences in those debates. The general strike — which never ceased to be present in Latin America and re-emerged strongly in the spring in North Africa — is back in Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) and in the U.S.
The city of Oakland, California, which was known for the general strike of 1946, resorted to this measure again on November 2, and in the spring of this year Wisconsin unions approved a general strike when people in the city of Madison were preparing to occupy the State Legislature building — which it successfully accomplished — in the fight against the governor and his proposal to neutralize the unions, eliminating collective bargaining for public-sector workers.
What is the significance of this reappearance of the general strike? While it is true that history does not repeat itself, what parallels can be drawn with the conditions and social struggles of the past?
In different areas (communities, cities, regions, countries), the general strike was always a manifestation of resistance against an onerous and unjust condition of a general nature: i.e., a condition likely to affect workers, the working classes, or even society as a whole, even if some social or professional sectors were most directly affected by it.
Limitations of civil and political rights, violent repression of social protest, union defeats on issues related to social protection, the relocation of companies with direct impact on the lives of communities, political decisions contrary to the national or regional interest (“parliamentary betrayals” such as the option of war or militarism): these were some of the conditions in the past that led to the decision to hold a general strike.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a different time and the onerous and unjust conditions are not the same as in the past. However, at the level of social logics that govern them are disturbing parallels that flow into the depths of the movement for a general strike on November 24 in Portugal.
Yesterday the struggle was for rights of the popular classes that were considered unjustly denied; today the struggle is against the unjust loss of rights for which so many generations of workers fought and which seemed to be irreversible achievements. Yesterday the struggle was for a more equitable distribution of national wealth generated by capital and labor; today the struggle is against an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth (confiscated wages and pensions, longer work hours and speedups, taxes and bailouts that favor the rich — the “1%,” according to the occupiers of Wall Street — and a daily life of anxiety and insecurity, the collapse of expectations, the loss of dignity and hope for the “99%”).
Yesterday the struggle was for a democracy to represent the interests of the voiceless majority; today the struggle is for a democracy, which after being partially conquered, was eviscerated by the corruption, mediocrity, and cowardice of the leaders and by the technocracy on behalf of finance capital that it always served.
Yesterday the struggle was for alternatives (socialism) that the ruling classes recognized as existing, therefore brutally repressing the people defending them; today the struggle is against neoliberal common sense, massively reproduced by the subservient media, that there are no alternatives to the impoverishment of the majority and the hollowing out of democratic choices.
In general, we can say that the general strike in Europe today is more defensive than offensive, looking less to promote the advancement of civilization than to prevent a civilizational regression.
That’s why it is no longer a question of workers as a whole, but rather a question of impoverished citizens as a whole, both those working and those who cannot find work, as well as those who worked their whole lives and today see their pensions threatened.
On the street, the only public sphere not yet occupied by financial interests, citizens who never participated in unions or social movements, nor imagined themselves speaking in favor of others’ causes, are demonstrating. Suddenly, the causes of others are their own.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, PhD in Sociology of Law, is a Professor at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (USA). Translation by Roberto D. Hernández. The original article “A Greve Geral” was published by Carta Maior on 16 November 2011. En español.