Dani Garavelli: Riots, general strikes – is the financial crisis turning politics back decades?

VIOLENCE on the streets; the word Revolution daubed in red paint on the walls of the Foreign Office and a union firebrand using the rhetoric of the class warrior: as the country confronts the scale of the ConDem cuts, we seem to have been transported back more than 20 years to an era of walk-outs and civil disobedience.

Not since Arthur Scargill led the miner's strike have the unions been so openly confrontational; not since anti-poll tax campaigners engaged in pitched battles with police has such anger been unleashed on the streets of our major cities.

So heightened is the climate, Len McClusky (known as Red Len), the man who led the BA cabin crew onto the picket line, marked his election as general secretary of Britain's largest union with an interview in which he claimed "an alliance of resistance" would rock the establishment and force the government to back away from plans which would "decimate the very fabric of the welfare state". Sitting under a portrait of Lenin, he said: "People power can do anything. People power bought down the Berlin Wall. We need to channel that power and that anger."

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But it isn't just the UK, with its student demos and flurry of industrial action which appears to be seeing a return to class politics. All across Europe, the citizens of the most debt-ridden countries are rising up in the face of the austerity measures their governments believe are necessary to bring their fiscal crisis under control.

In Greece - which received a $145 billion EU-IMF rescue bail-out in May on condition it got its finances under control - public sector workers staged a four-hour stoppage in protest against proposed wage cuts.

In Ireland, demonstrators forced their way into government buildings in protest at the Fianna Fail/Green coalition's handling of a financial crisis. That government is expected to be tumbled at a general election in January. On Friday the hard left nationalist Sinn Fein won a key by-election after fighting on an anti-cuts platform saying that foreign banks, not Irish taxpayers, should bear the cost of Ireland's economic failure. In Portugal, the two biggest unions, UGT and CGTB, brought the country to a virtual standstill with the first 24-hour national strike since 1988 in protest against cuts the government is trying to push through to quell speculation that it will be the next country to need bailing out.

Spain, Italy and Belgium - countries which could also be heading for financial disaster - have also seen civil unrest as debts continue to rise, with demonstrators storming the Colosseum in Rome and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Belgium is particularly vulnerable as it has an unresolved election result which has left it without a government since April.

What unites all these protesters is a sense of injustice: that ordinary workers are being asked to pay for the mistakes of bankers and the financial sector. Why should Ireland's population suffer a 12 per cent cut to the minimum wage while the foreign holders of its sovereign debt are shielded from responsibility?But will this sense of injustice - and the protests it is sparking - really translate to a political lurch to the Left across the Eurozone pushing it to the brink of self-destruction? If governments can't or won't implement the austerity packages required to secure IMF/EU bail-outs, could we see them defaulting on their loans (as Argentina did in 2001) or opting out of the euro so they can devalue? Is this death of Europe as we have come to know it?

Looking at images of angry young students lobbing missiles at police officers, it would certainly seem the winds of change are blowing through the UK. After months of apparently accepting the government's view that public spending cuts are the only way out of the financial crisis, ordinary people seem finally to be prepared to put up a fight.

But committed trade unionists believe - however deep the protesters' rage, and however genuine Ed Miliband's desire to distance himself from New Labour - there is little chance of a return to the classical "nationalisation of the means of production" type of leftism of half a century ago.

Even in Scotland, which has a lingering affection for socialism, there is little indication that a return to the politics of disorder is likely to lead to Old Labour-style politics.

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"There is significant agitated protest and real conflict across our society, but even though some of it will evoke the Left, it's really much more of a conflict about distributional resources in society and there's nothing left-wing about that at all," says writer, policy analyst and researcher Gerry Hassan. "There is nothing automatically progressive about students, farmers or workers protesting. A lot of people will have views or sympathies. Some may say 'shrink all public sectors pensions', others 'damned right, those students - their education is being sold off'.

But what's missing in all of these countries - even Ireland and Greece - is a wider account about what kind of different politics those people want beyond "no to the cuts".

Recently, the STUC has been trying to provide just such an alternative through its campaign, There Is A Better Way, which promotes the idea that there are other, more effective approaches to tackling our debts than the austerity drive.

Its assistant secretary Stephen Boyd sees in the recent demonstrations the first green shoots of resistance and believes opposition will grow. "Once people see the impact of what the public service sector is going through - job losses, cuts in services at a local level - I would be surprised if there wasn't a shift to the Left and a more protest-oriented approach," he says.The problem is that - although this is widely seen as a bankers' crisis - the centre-left is heavily implicated in its unfolding. The biggest banking deregulation took place under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and this make it difficult for Labour to reap the benefits of opposition to the public spending cuts.

On top of this, were the ConDem coalition to be toppled, Miliband would be hard-placed to rehabilitate a left-wing ideology that has been systematically discredited since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"I'm sure he (Miliband] is genuine, but when you have a tradition that has been battered, it's difficult," Hassan says. "I mean Blair turned against Labour Party traditions and the trade unions and, though I don't think he started like that, he ended up embracing globalisation. When you diminish your own tradition for such a long time, how can someone else, however genuine, pick it back up."

As for the rest of Europe, Boyd says he struggles to think of any country where the Left is in the ascendancy. "In Germany, the centre-right administration is holding up reasonably well despite pressure to keep the country out of the level of participation in bail-outs that could be expected of it. In France, there has been a major shift away from Sarkozy in the centre-right, but the Left is not really in a position to benefit given that it is so fractured at the moment."

Indeed, Boyd believes there is a danger that - where countries are being put under pressure to surrender their fiscal sovereignty to the IMF or European Central Bank in exchange for a bail-out - they might lurch to the right.

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"In Ireland, the Left looks set to benefit from the crisis, and in Greece too, but countries that have recent experience of right-wing dictators, such as Spain and Portugal, could easily experience a move to the radical right. And today the talk has been of the contagion spreading rapidly to other countries, such as France - where national sovereignty is held even more dearly than in Ireland.

And who stands to gain there, the fractured Left or Le Pen's National Front party? Now that's scary."

With so many people rising up against public spending cuts, governments may find it difficult to push them through, or governments who do may be toppled for governments who don't, which might in turn lead countries to default on their loans and revert to their own currency.

Extreme euro-sceptics seem to be greeting this prospect with a I-told-you-so triumphalism, even though it would add to the economic carnage across the continent. But most seasoned commentators believe ditching the euro is unrealistic for those countries that are hovering on the edge of the abyss, as such a move would incur further financial penalties and leave the country's currency vulnerable to speculators and attacks.

Economically-stronger countries such as Germany and France could perhaps leave in protest to having to support weaker ones, but they have invested so much in the project that they are unlikely to do anything quite so drastic. "The French and German political elite are not going to walk away from it," says Hassan. "This is a 50 or 60-year political project that they have invested all their political capital in. It would take an economic tsunami - something powerful and unforeseeable - for that to happen."

One such doomsday scenario involves the contagion spreading so quickly that European leaders exhaust the $1 trillion fund set up six months ago to protect the single currency.

What is more likely, perhaps, is that we will see a two-tier euro (divided into more analogous north and south regions) or that euro weaklings such as Greece and Ireland would be expelled.

"I don't think we'll see the breakup of the euro and Germany returning to the Deutschemark, but what we could see is a more homogenous euro area purged of its low performers," said Domenico Lombardia, former executive board member at the IMF, who is president of the Oxford Institute for Economic Policy.

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It's unlikely, then, that the demonstrations engulfing Europe will cause a left-wing revolution. But that doesn't mean the key to solving the economic crisis in the long-term doesn't involve slaughtering some sacred cows.

According to Hassan, if the protesters want to change the world they need to do more than merely vent their rage - they need to come up with a vision. "I think there needs to be a politics of resistance. I'm absolutely in favour of trying to stop neo-liberalism, but I think it can't just be done by returning to a Left that was part of the problem or which doesn't exist any more," he says.

"I have to say, with some caveats, that David Cameron's happiness index, or maybe not his, but some happiness index, has a degree of relevance here; the kind of politics that works out the balance between economic growth and quality of life and what are the consequences you take from that.

And then there is the issue: is that a Right politics or a Left politics or, dare I say it, something that transcends those labels."