Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Letters from Portugal: No dia 24, não vou trabalhar

Reports tell us that the protest in Lisbon on 15 October, as part of the Global Day of Protest was one of the largest demonstrations in the world on that day. This is in fact quite surprising for a country that, since the upheaval around the 25 of April 1974, has not been marked by grand demonstrations.  But then today the Portuguese have much to be afraid for; the consumerist paradise that was constructed in the years following their entry into the European Union seems to be falling apart with every passing day. Not a day passes when we are not informed that there are to be more cuts on social spending, that taxes have increased, and the Christmas bonus that is normally handed out will be culled. 

Eavesdropping on a conversation brought home the realization, that in a country marked by low salaries, the Christmas bonus, which amounts to the salary of a whole extra month, is very often the key to balancing basic household expenditures. Minus this bonus a good many homes will fall into very serious economic crises. Add to this, the general privatization of the economy and the sale of public assets. But, as if to add insult to injury are the suggestions that emanate from the Prime Ministerial Office that in the city of Lisbon, there are plans to curtail the hours of the metro system so that it stops even before midnight. This suggestion was responded to by one Portuguese person, as sending the message to the people that the role that the State had decided to play, was to only to ensure that the population could get to work. Beyond this limited objective, where the citizens are now seen as the route through which the State will pay off a debt, the State under the new leadership seems committed to abdicating its responsibilities.

It is for these reasons that the Portuguese landed up, from the leftist radicals, members of Catholic religious orders, and members of the comfortably placed Portuguese middle-class, to make their displeasure obvious. It was a heady experience, this sense of revolution; this boy getting up on one of the stone lions that sits guard before the Assembleia da República and burning a newspaper carrying the statement of the Prime Minister, the stand-off between the police and the people, and the general assembly of the people that followed. This general assembly saw divergent groups make their position, from the black boy who pointed out that it wasn’t, or it could not be just a ‘white’ thing, but the rights of the blacks in Portugal needed to be counted as well; to the person who pointed out that underneath the uniform they wore, the police-persons were their brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts. They may stand as a force between us and the Assembleia, but they would suffer the say cuts as those on the other side of that line. And then there were those leftist radicals (one has to love them for the sense of symbolic drama they bring to any demonstration), who urged an occupation of the Assembleia. 

In the course of this public assembly emerged a voice demanding a ‘Greve Geral’, a general strike of the population of Portugal, attempting a complete paralysis of the system, indicating how widely unpopular the budgetary cuts and other fiscal interventions were. This move was, as is to be expected, widely popular at the public assembly, and has been growing in strength, with various unions pledging their support to this general strike, and public discourse and discussion around the benefits of the strike growing. How effective this strike, scheduled for the 24 day of this month, will be in paralyzing the country, and in forcing some sort of rethink of the position this country finds itself in, remains to be seen.

It was under these circumstances that a little Facebook movement, called ‘Trabalhar’, popped up. The strap-line to this title read ‘No dia 24, eu vou trabalhar’ (on the 24th I will go to work). This ‘movement’ suggests that “Portugal is in an emergency, a situation brought about by the previous government. A general strike would work only to further harm the economy and send a negative signal to the outside world. On the 24 November, I will go to work, just as I do on other days”.

What is amusing about this little ‘movement’ is that like the comment on the decision to curtail the working hours of the Lisbon Metro, it has latched onto work. It seems to suggest that all that is at issue here, is about getting to work, as if hard work is lacking in the country, and it is hard work that will resolve the issues of this country. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is a truth about Portugal’s current crisis, it is that as was famously pointed out by Alessio Rastani in that famous interview with the BBC, it is not governments that rule the world, but rogue financial institutions that rule the world through their speculative actions. To make the strike on the 24th about working or not working then, is to deliberately obfuscate a significant point.

A good look at Portugal would cure us of the fantasy that the trivializing of larger issues to petty party politics is the unique curse of our country. Here a situation, where the governance is effectively in foreign hands, is being further compromised, not through a strike that could call for a general reckoning, but by making the issue of party politics, and viewing the whole situation from the narrow perspective of the country’s financially secure groups. Furthermore, what the general strike would prove is also that life is not about work alone. On the contrary, we work, only because we want to live. It is a shame that we are being made to apologize when we assert this right to not live by bread alone.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo 13 Nov 2011)

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