PORTUGAL: Forty Years of Democracy
Forty years ago, on April 25, 1974, a military coup organized by a group of young officers, the Armed Forces Movement (M.F.A.), brought down the Salazar dictatorship, which had been embroiled since 1961 in a colonial war on three African fronts: Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. This led to a year and a half of exciting social movements, which made a strong impact on political forces in Europe, from the ultra-left to the right. Both the political instability created in the region and the important role played in the social movement and in the new government by the Communist Party (P.C.P.) weighed on the global balance of power between East and West. A second military putsch, on November 25, 1975, put an end to this period of agitation and reestablished the “natural order” of things. These events, relatively recent, still mark Portuguese society, influencing the social movements responding to the current crisis.
The memory of April 25: Myth of the Victors
The official memory of April 25, 1974 is, as always, a construction by the victors. It is, in fact, the memory of November 25, 1975, the second coup, which reestablished parliamentary democracy, normalizing political life, and imposing a juridical framework of formal liberties and the respect for private property required for capitalist exploitation. Thanks to propaganda, habit, and forgetting, the popular memory of April 25 has finally disappeared into the official myth of the free market and democracy, the permanent delegation of power to a political caste. Though not completely, as we will see.
All sources confirm that the majority of the soldiers who rebelled on April 25 at first envisaged a modernization of the old regime, with a move to neocolonialism. Intuitively, by intervening directly, the popular classes anticipated this scenario and forced the military to modify their plans. Street demonstrations and attacks on the partisans of the old regime quickly led to strikes and workplace occupations, the formation of workers’ committees, the purging of business-owners and managers linked to the old regime, the expropriation of the great latifundia in the south of the country by agricultural workers, the creation of production cooperatives, and attempts at self-management. The end of the war was a widespread popular demand, provoking mutinies in the barracks and a rapid collapse of the military hierarchy.
The dynamism and breadth of this social movement led to its radicalization and promoted self-organization and the appearance of militant workers’ committees promoting self-management. This immediately confronted the authoritarian strategy of the powerful Communist Party, which, newly emerged from clandestinity, had joined with the provisional government installed by the military putsch. For a year and a half—a period of social agitation that ended on November 25, 1975—these two social tendencies were in conflict with each other, and also with the forces defending the private capitalist order, led by the Portuguese Socialist Party (P.S.P.), allied with the military hierarchy, and actively supported by the European and American governments.
The social forces demanding autonomous action, independent of the parties, to reorganize society under the control of those directly affected, were finally isolated, encircled by those defending an elitist vision of social organization, a version of state capitalism. These forces constantly tied the autonomous initiatives of the social movement to the state, giving the latter strength and legitimacy. The Portuguese experience shows, once again, that when the state gives a legal form to collective conquests it takes control of them and dispossesses the collectivity of its own power.
Despite the creativity and enthusiasm of this party-less (as the Portuguese called it) movement, one of today’s myths holds that the break with the authoritarian and colonialist regime was the generous work of the rebellious military—an idea benefiting from a century of military interventions in the political life of a weak bourgeoisie. This myth also provides comfort in today’s situation of powerlessness and lack of hope in collective struggle against the European crisis. The official memory of April 25 thus leaves unmentioned the spontaneous dimension of independent social movements, self-organizing practices, and direct democracy that characterized the period after the military coup, and emphasizes the construction of a system of parliamentary democracy.
Under the impact of today’s policy of austerity and social immiseration, however, other aspects of April 25, which seemed to have disappeared into the collective unconscious, have resurfaced: aspirations to equality and social justice, and distrust of institutional politics. It should be emphasized that—unlike in Greece—the current period of profound social crisis without new political perspectives has not favored fascist groups or those waiting for a leader. Salazarism remains a shameful reference in Portugal, even if superficial popular accounts can sometimes refer to it as a period “less bad” than the present. (Which in itself says a lot about the degradation of living conditions under democracy.)
The Roots of Amnesia
The social process of the effacement of memory is complex. It is rooted in the very reproduction of the capitalist system. In the Portuguese case, specific circumstances participate in this falsification. There was, first of all, the repression exercised by Salazarist fascism on the social history of early 20th-century Portugal, the high-water period of revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist activity. Then, the post-war years saw mass emigration, which effaced pasts, memories, and lived experiences. Finally, and most importantly, the lightning process of European integration spread the bewitching idea that we were entering a new epoch of wealth for all, a “modern” time when the poverty-stricken past would be hidden and the future would be an eternal present based on consumption, if only on credit.
Then, in a few years, the crisis set in, brutally calling that radiant future into question. In 2011 alone, the average annual per capita Portuguese income was cut by 800 euros ($1,088) by the combined effect of wage and pension reductions and increases in automatic deductions.1 Even this average, idiotically dividing total income by number of people and so counting bourgeois rentiers alongside wage-earners, reveals the violence of the attack on the living conditions of wage-earners and the lower classes generally. The paralyzing fear of returning to yesterday’s poverty in part explains people’s passivity and fatalist resignation.
Today’s Portuguese society is very different from that which stifled under the juridical and political authoritarianism of the Salazar regime and its colonial war. But its current fragility is of course also a legacy of that past. Portuguese fascism and the colonial war, complementary historical facts, were late episodes in the progress of a poor society into a fragile capitalist future. Integration into the European Union in 1986 brought breathing space but at the price of an aggravation of Portugal’s weaknesses. For this integration completed the destruction of that country’s small agricultural and industrial base, as it permitted large European business groups not only to swallow the little Portuguese market but also to take back a large portion of the European and bank funds allotted to the country for projects, from infrastructure to military matériel, by way of contracts financed by the European Community.
Today these funds reappear in the national debt due to be expunged by the sacrifices of the “average citizen.” Thus continues the decay of one of the oldest nation-states of Western Europe, whose history, since the loss of Brazil at the start of the 19th century, has been a succession of disasters and bankruptcies. In contrast, it must be stressed that during the last two centuries Portuguese society saw the emergence of cultural and political movements capable of expressing cosmopolitan, modern, universal values. Among them was the revolutionary syndicalism of the early 20th century, which overthrew the authoritarian monarchy and demanded Iberian federalism, a new idea contesting the stifling mediocrity of nationalism. Then, a half-century later, came the autonomous and emancipatory spirit that followed on April 25, putting an end to the fascist regime and to the last European colonialism.
The End of Reformist Hegemony
For three years, since May 2011, the Portuguese government has been under the supervision of the “Troika”—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The technocrats in charge have personally controlled the economic and political activity of the Portuguese state. They have imposed austerity measures necessary to assure service on the debt owed to the international banking system. The devastating effects of these measures have provoked deep social discontent and unprecedented protest movements.
What is new is that the revolt against these austerity policies has opened a way to the first relatively independent movements since the Portuguese revolution of 1974 – 75. Of course, political militants are active in them, but what characterizes the new mobilizations is the fact that they have developed without regard for the strategies of the leftist parties and unions, in response to calls made through social networks by activists speaking only for themselves. When I refer to the “left,” of course I do not include the Portuguese Socialist Party, a powerful and corrupt electoral machine, tied to diverse capitalist lobbies and especially to the real estate and tourism mafias that have dominated local politics for decades. The previous Socialist government was deeply compromised by its acceptance of the first austerity measures imposed by Brussels and the party is presently searching to remake its virginity in the “parliamentary opposition.” The classical left is structured around two main forces: the Communist Party, which continues to administer the south of the country and represents 10 to 15 percent of votes cast in national elections, and the little Bloco de Esquerda (B.E.) party, an organization of the “modern” socialist left, a front combining former Maoists, Trotskyists, and independent Communists.2
In November, 2010, during one of the first general strikes against austerity, a group of individuals and collectives—anarchists, independent communists, autonomous radicals of diverse origins unified by their anti-capitalism—made its presence known in street demonstrations in Lisbon. As one collective taking part in this initiative wrote, for the first time since 1974 – 75, the old left no longer defines “the political horizon for the large majority of people protesting in the streets.”3 In other words, the reformist framework of protest has been called into question.
The organizations to the left of the P.S.P., above all the majority union General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (C.G.T.P.), tied to the C.P.), understood that their hegemony was being contested. They immediately acted to isolate “their” base from the danger of contagion, protecting them from the “virus of radicalism.” C.G.T.P. goons went so far as to encircle hundreds of radical demonstrators in the street and denounce them to the police. But the amplification of popular discontent with successive austerity measures made such tactics—not well understood by the base—dangerous. Not only did the little anti-capitalist group grow in the course of the next few demonstrations, but it was soon the leftist organizations that disappeared, as their militants joined, as individuals, demonstrations organized through social media.
The Radicalization of the Movement
Going beyond the accepted discourse of the “political rights of the citizen,” the demand for independence from political organizations became a central motif. In the words of the text cited earlier, “things which were unimaginable a few years ago are now banal, ideas spread, possibilities enlarge, positions radicalize and everything becomes more complicated.” Thus there is a radicalization of some young people and of workers, who often go beyond the calculated tactics of their organizations to criticize the system and experiment with new forms of action and organization. Strikes have become more active, with picket lines, especially in the transportation sector. Collective protest actions have appeared spontaneously amidst demonstrations or general strikes called by the unions. The rejection of the political class can be seen in individual and collective protests that have made any public appearance by members of the government difficult. The rejection of politics is so strong that the parties are badly treated in demonstrations and their leaders’ speeches of are often booed.
On September 15, 2012, an appeal on Facebook by a totally unknown network, Q.S.L.T.—“Que se lixe a troika,” “Let the troika show itself!,” behind the initials of which hid a grouping of a few independent militants with activists of the B.E. and the C.P.—moved a million people, out of a total population of 10 million, to demonstrate in the streets of Lisbon, Porto, and other cities. In Lisbon, the participation of workers, unemployed, and young and old people from working-class neighborhoods changed the nature of demonstrations, which became more aggressive. The demonstrators made several attempts to invade the parliament building. In a significant episode, the chief of the C.G.T.P. was shouted down by a meeting of Lisbon dockworkers, mobilized against the austerity measures and determined to fight alongside the young people. Henceforth, the refusal to shout the slogans of the political organizations often produced silent demonstrations.
Then, the great demonstration of March 2013 marked a new turn in this series of more independent demonstrations. The Q.S.L.T. network gradually adopted a frontist tactic: its ultimate project was to provoke a political situation on which the institutional left could surf, and to act as the cement permitting the construction of the fabled union of (nearly) all the leftist groups. As a result the network was quickly discredited and their appeals found few echoes. This allowed the old leftist organizations, above all the P.C.P. and the C.G.T.P., to move to the forefront. The union and the powerful teachers’ union (also run by P.C.P. members) can always fill the streets with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, but their mobilizations are rituals without oppositional energy, controlled by “responsible” bureaucrats.
Old Left Recipes
The advances and retreats of the mobilizations express the incertitude of social consciousness. On the one hand, people are aware of a new situation, in which the crisis of the system is real and long-lasting. The idea that we are living through a passing moment has died and it is difficult to argue that the “normal” situation of the past can be brought back. This lucid vision is also a source of paralysis. For what is to be done? The political class is discredited and the illusion of a political alternative has dissolved. On the other hand, union proposals—repeated general strikes and weary demonstrations—are followed without great enthusiasm, for lack of anything better. It has become obvious to many that these old bureaucratic practices will not succeed at all in changing the policies in place. On the other hand, the enormous independent demonstrations of the past few years have not generated new forms of action or organization. There is at once an understanding that the old political and union recipes are inoperative in the new situation and a paralysis of thought and action, an incapacity to do something new.
From the P.S.P. to the socialist left of the B.E., all accept the monetarist interpretation of the crisis, attributing it to external causes, financial and speculative, though this interpretation leaves the system’s disequilibrium unexplained, these events on the terrain of exploitation where profit is produced. The political remedies proposed hardly differ: the P.S.P. holds to its neoliberal faith, tempered by a timid interventionism, while the socialist left demands neo-Keynesian intervention and political regulation of finance. All look at the economy in national terms. The Communist Party—like its Greek homologue—remains close to a neo-Stalinist position, proposing a confused “patriotic socialism,” based on negotiation of the debt and exit from the euro, as the answer to the crisis. This idea finds a small but non-negligible acceptance in society, is attractive to some nationalist groups, and comforts workers disoriented by their powerlessness. It has also provoked debate in radical circles. In fact, after years of European integration with a very weak productive base, abandonment of the euro would inevitably mean the bankruptcy of the state, gigantic inflation, the collapse of an already low standard of living, and the replacement of austerity directed by the troika with austerity imposed by a “patriotic government.” In other words, it would require an authoritarian government to assure a minimum of social consensus. While the Portuguese bourgeoisie and the rare local capitalists with international connections are moving their capital into the more profitable zones of the periphery—in Brazil and the former African colonies, Angola in particular—the P.C.P. directs its propaganda at the financial sector and the misdeeds of the “German management” of Europe.
This political stasis has led to a timid renaissance of collective activity, even of self-organization. The associative spirit has old roots in Portuguese history, having constituted one of the pillars of the anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist organizations of the beginning of the last century, to be taken up later by the Communist Party. Fought by fascism, it was finally destroyed by the individualism and egoism of the euphoria of democratic consumption. Today, what is most needed is the construction of collectives making possible a renewed sociability and dealing with practical problems of survival—first of all, providing food. Such efforts do not inevitably lead to the idea of a general reform of society. But in a society without the energy to struggle and ruled by the fetishistic and determinist categories of “the crisis,” the affirmation of autonomous initiatives independent of the state is essential. It goes without saying that the political and union organizations play no role in these collective initiatives, which in general start at the rank and file level, and are sometimes supported by small municipal governments.4
During the last few years, there have been a few isolated building occupations, with the aim of creating social centers. The most important such experience, rich with repercussions, was the 2011 occupation of the abandoned school, Escola da Fontinhas, by young activists, in a poor neighborhood of Porto. Their expulsion by the police a year later encountered strong resistance, showing that the occupation had put down roots in the neighborhood’s life. On the other hand, while there are more than 750,000 empty apartments in Portugal, with a growing number of homeless people, there is no movement to take over empty homes or oppose foreclosures. Similarly, up to now we have not seen collective expropriations of foodstuffs in the big cities, like those organized in Spain by unemployed groups, even while hunger has returned to urban and rural areas and food-charity organizations have been overwhelmed by demand.
The powerlessness of successive general strikes has pushed a minority to other forms of action. During the general strike of June, 2013, picketers and groups of young people attempted to close luxury stores in the center of Lisbon, where a large group of demonstrators left the official line of the march to try to close a highway outside of town. The intervention of the police was disproportionate: more than 200 people were arrested and caught up in a giant police and media manipulation flavored with “anti-terrorism,” which quickly collapsed in court. The union leadership visibly broke ranks with the demonstrators to preserve its image of respect for order. Finally, solidarity actions were organized in Porto to support the workers of the big city punished for having participated in the strike. The union bureaucracy showed its true nature there, opposing such acts of solidarity because they “do not help solve the workers’ problems.” Then, on several occasions in 2013 and 2014, precariously employed young teachers went beyond the moderate orders given by the unions, occupying streets and schools to call attention to their condition and to protest the authoritarianism of the Ministry of Education.
The economic recession increased inequalities, ate away at daily life, and destroyed the social fabric. Portugal, visited by tourists in search of tranquility under the southern European sun, is a dying country. With a birthrate of 1.28 in 2012 and a population in decline for years, Portugal is ranked the eighth country in the world in terms of aging, almost a fifth of the population older than 65. One out of four of these “seniors” lives in poverty. Barely 40 percent of the unemployed now receive (meager) aid while cuts in family support are aggravating the misery of poor families and their children. This explains why the rate of emigration has reached the level of an earlier age.5
For those who still have jobs, the future does not look brighter. For 40 years the minimum wage, in real terms, has remained stagnant in Portugal. In 1974, when the first post-April 25 government took office, the minimum wage was the equivalent of 548 euros or $745 per month; today it is 565 euros per month or 485 euros ($660) in 14 yearly installments, one of the lowest in Europe. At the same time, in six years the number of workers earning the minimum wage has increased threefold. Out of three and a half million Portuguese workers, a million make between 310 and 599 euros ($422 to $815) per month, and another million as much as 900 euros ($1,224) per month—while according to official estimates, the poverty level is 400 euros ($544) a month.
Social impoverishment and the proletarianization of the so-called middle classes is illustrated by an average drop in wages of 6 to 10 percent over the last 10 years for university-educated workers. The crisis has swept away the illusion of the famous “middle class” whose supposed arrival was the trademark of European modernization. In particular, educated youth are now forced to take the road of emigration, an irrefutable proof of their proletarian condition.
For the majority of Portuguese workers, whose standard of living is collapsing and whose future is looking dark, what concrete meaning can be given to “democratic achievements”? Here is Dorinda, a 54-year-old who has worked in a Porto textile factory since she was 11, and whose wage has only fallen since April 25:
How can you live on 485 euros? This isn’t living, it’s survival! I don’t like to talk about it. I feel a tremendous anger. In the factory, I see colleagues who are hungry. We have a lunchroom, where we bring our own food. By the end of the month, some leave the factory before the lunch break, to hide the fact that they have no money for a bowl of soup—especially colleagues whose husbands are also unemployed … We’d like to help them. … But we don’t have the means… Recently, [the bosses] hired more people, but they continue to demand that we work for nothing for four and a half hours on Saturday morning. Whoever protests, they tell her she is free to complain to the tribunal. Of course, no one dares to do it. … You know what I want? Another April 25!6
Here we are, once again, projected 40 years back. With this clarification: the April 25 glorified on high is not the one demanded by the exploited. And the April 25 to which the latter aspire is the one of which democracy does not speak, an end to injustice and social inequality, a radical transformation of life. Despite their resignation, inaction, and powerlessness, social tension is not decreasing and the specter of the “dangerous class” is always present. Overseeing the impoverishment of the poor while the rich become richer and richer is becoming difficult for the political servants of the bourgeoisie.
The Fertile Territory of the Unpredictable
Forty years after April 25, Portuguese society is again at a turning point. April 25 showed that the fascist form of government was outmoded, no longer adaptive to the new forms of exploitation established in the country after World War II. In capitalism, the forms of political power constantly seek to correspond to the conditions of the exploitation of labor. Today, crisis conditions impose a reconstruction of the previous juridical framework of wage labor, which constitutes the foundation of the democratic system. Negotiation, co-management, and compromise are, little by little, being replaced by the exercise of power in a world of work made precarious and flexible. As it introduces new forms of political power, less consensual and more overtly authoritarian, the democratic state is changing its face, hardening its nature, sliding towards a dictatorial mode of functioning. In Portugal—as in fact everywhere—social immiseration is accompanied by an augmentation of violence, at the workplace and in social life.
This general tendency towards political authoritarianism goes together with a crisis of the system of representation visible in all the old democracies. The delegation of power in a parliamentary framework appears emptier and emptier of content, a cover for the generalized corruption rotting the political castes dependent on the economic power centers. This is also the case in Portuguese society, which in 40 years has passed from an enthusiastic discovery of electoral politics to rude disillusionment with democratic representation. This trajectory is illustrated by the high rate of abstention from elections, which has exploded from 1974 to today.7
Under these circumstances, we can find hope in the awakening of numbers of young people and minorities of wage-workers determined to oppose the destruction of their conditions of life. To cite again the text Sur le passage de quelques milliers de personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps, this hope is also “an appeal to travel together the bumpy road, full of forks, which opens before us, with the choices and risks that that involves.” One is tempted to add that if the future that we share with our enemies, defenders of the capitalist system, is unknown, our fertile territory, that of social emancipation, has the virtue of unpredictability.
An alternative to the present state of affairs cannot become reality without a large social mobilization outside of the old political and union organizations. The latter function according to their nature, following the logic of the capitalist system, with the goal of reproducing the world as it has been and remains. After years of “the construction of Europe” these organizations can do no more than propose a return to the past as a solution to today’s problems. Apart from a few propagandistic statements, they make no effort to connect the struggles on different sides of the borders. The Portuguese situation is in this regard revelatory. In fact, the movements in Spain against the destruction of public services, against expulsions from housing, and for the occupations and expropriations, are passed over in silence or largely ignored by the old organizations that continue to think of politics in the Portuguese nationalist framework. Only the little currents that have emerged during the last few years are interested in them. At a time when solidarity could give new vigor to the struggle against European capitalism, the official left’s return to nationalism is a sign of defeat, one more confirmation of the fact that the old organizations defend the wage-earners only in periods when exploitation can reproduce itself profitably for the capitalists. All the more reason not to expect them to fight to destroy the system at the origin of the disaster looming before us, in whose functioning they participate in a “responsible” manner.
These are signs visible in broad daylight in Portugal, a fragile little country on the periphery of European capitalism.
1. Study published in O Publico, July 29, 2013.
2. Recent elections show the B.E. losing support, despite the social crisis, while the C.P. has gained strength thanks to its nationalist and anti-European positions.
3. Sur le passage de quelques milliers de personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps, Ediçoes Antipaticas, Lisbonne, 2013, edicoesantipaticas.tumblr.com
4. An example is the proliferation of collective vegetable gardens in little towns and villages.
5. In Europe today the status of immigrants is in a way more precarious than in the immediate post-war years. “Detached workers” must remain provisionally in the country where they are working, and tied to the manpower business in their country of origin who “detach” them for jobs abroad. There are more than a million such workers in Europe, earning wages 30 to 40 percent lower than the norm in the “host” country. The Portuguese and workers from Eastern Europe form the majority of this “low cost” labor force. In France alone there are around 20,000 workers in this situation.
6. Publico, Lisbon, April 13, 2014.
7. More than 50 percent of voters abstained from the September 2013 municipal elections, and more than 70 percent from the European elections in May 2014.
CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.