"200 years from now, archaeologists will wonder how our world could have been revolving the way it is today."

Livia Lumia and Michaël Verbauwhede

The ink had barely dried on the new government's agreement when the coronavirus pandemic entered its second wave. Solidaire went to meet the PTB spokesperson in order to talk about this issue. This encounter was also an opportunity to proceed to an in-depth analysis of the new political situation created by the 'Vivaldi' government that regroups the four main political families, like the Four Seasons: Liberals, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens.

Raoul à la manif

The meeting cannot take place in a Liège pub - pubs being unfortunately closed due to the pandemic - and so we are headed towards La Braise, the PTB premises in Liège. Raoul Hedebouw, well known for his punchlines, welcomes us there. The seriousness of the situation does not prevent "Raoul" - as he is popularly known - from being more determined and optimistic than ever. And always with a smile.

Is the new government better equipped than the previous one to fight the coronavirus in the face of this second wave?

Raoul Hedebouw. Yes and no. Yes, because there are significant differences in the Vivaldi agreement, such as the decision to invest an additional 1.2 billion in health care. Let me remind you in this respect that these funds have been promised thanks to a PTB budget amendment, in synch with the white coats social movement that was already active before the corona crisis. So, this is good news.

So much for the "yes". And what about the "no"?

Raoul Hedebouw. No, because not a single one of those euros has reached the hospitals yet. While it is now a matter of urgency. And this is why the white coats sector is mobilizing once more: "we have the gloves, but not the hands" is their slogan today. Funds have to be provided now. And not in 2021 as stated by Frank Vandenbroucke, our new Minister of Health.

This second wave, what does it mean from a political point of view?

Raoul Hedebouw. First of all, the admission of failure. It had been said that lessons would be learnt from the first wave. Today, however, we have run into the same situation. I do not agree with those who say that the citizens are to blame. Politicians who make such a statement are trying to cover up their own mistakes. First of all, political power has to shoulder an important part of responsibility. How is it that in Belgium we have to wait five days in order to get the results of our tests, whereas in China, 7.5 million people can be tested in three days? How is it that in Asian countries people are now living more or less normally? How is it that people over there can now meet their relatives? Why is this not possible in Europe? It isn't that the virus in China is different from here... No, it is because the policies that have been implemented are different. Our testing and contact-tracking system has been a total failure. And that's one of the two major differences with the model applied in China, South Korea, or Japan.

And what's the second big difference?

Raoul Hedebouw. That's the front line issue. In Kerala, India, each neighbourhood is provided with its own health centre managed by a multidisciplinary team: psychologists, social workers, doctors. They act preventively. They know their neighbourhoods like the back of their hand and try to make sure that people don't get sick. They are the ones who follow the population. Here, we have to turn to anonymous call centres. How many people were in charge of contact follow-up for diseases before covid in Belgium? Two officials per province. This is not serious. PTB chairman Peter Mertens explains this in his latest book, They have forgotten us: Let us not turn a blind eye to the experiences of Asian countries, let us learn from other people instead. Let us be humble enough to admit that European capitalism is not capable of solving problems.

You have been very critical of the new government. Shouldn't we give it a chance?

Raoul Hedebouw. I think that our new prime minister De Croo feared we might forget he is carrying on with the policies of the previous rightist government... There is no rolling back of any of the major measures taken by that government, such as retirement at age 67, tax shift, indexation skip, wage freeze...

De Croo wants to privatize the railways, but many people believe this will not happen with an Ecolo minister of Transport. The 1996 law on wage freeze is not being modified, but some people think that there will be a way this issue can be dealt with with a socialist minister in charge. Who is actually in charge in this government?

Raoul Hedebouw. The current sequence is interesting. In the 1990s and 2000s, there were far fewer ideological debates of this kind. There was a substantial agreement between the four traditional families (plus the N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party) to support the European liberal policies. The law on wage moderation was even passed by the PS (socialist party) when the MR was not in government: the government in place at that time was headed by Dehaene, and included both Christian and social democrats (CD&V and cdH). The traditional left incorporated competitiveness ("excessively high wages are the problem") that became part of its DNA.

Would the PTB really throw sand into the wheels?

Raoul Hedebouw. The interesting thing in Belgium in 2020 is that, for the first time in 30 years, there is an opposition to the left of the left, that is present in public opinion, in Parliament, in the media and in the field. This is something new, that compels traditional left-wing parties to adopt a rhetoric they would not have used in the 2000s. Ecolo and Groen did not have to make a strong case in 2003 when they implemented the liberalisation of the railways. Because the PTB was not strong enough to get the public opinion to see its point of view. In substance, the traditional left will not, as it has done for the past thirty years, apply a real left-wing policy. However, as far as form is concerned it needs to justify itself. And this is where it gets interesting. This debate helps heightening public awareness in all sections of the people who want to mobilize for social progress.

But if we listen to the traditional parties, we get the impression that they all agree to make the wealthy pay?

Raoul Hedebouw. There has been no debate on taxation of the wealthy for the past 30 years. Whenever government negotiations take place, this subject is never addressed. This time, however, they need a symbolic response to a left-wing electorate (beyond the PTB electorate, and I am delighted about that): "we have to get the money from the wealthy". For the first time, we are witnessing an official attempted scam. We have really seen all parties declare that there will be a wealth tax. "Don't try to ask how or why... The content is of secondary importance, but there will be a content."We scratched below the surface in order to find out what this was all about.

And what is this all about?

Raoul Hedebouw. What they are proposing is an inflow of 300 million euro. In Belgium, the wealthy 1 % have assets amounting to 500 billion. You do the math: 300 million out of 500 billion means a return of 0.06 %. This is ridiculous. And no one in the Vivaldi coalition could have denied that. A 24 billion budget deficit has been announced as a result of the covid crisis. One simple question persists, however: where do we get the money from? From the public services? From workers, by creating additional taxes? Our Millionaire Tax is a solution.

Today the government includes as many women as men. Is this a sign of progress?

Raoul Hedebouw. It is something positive. As is the fact that the Speaker of Parliament is a woman. We did support the candidature of socialist party member Eliane Tillieux, by the way. Because this is an important signal. And I do hope that we will go beyond symbols. The issue of retirement benefits is important in this context.

What about the famous 1500 euros retirement benefits... are we talking about gross or net?

Raoul Hedebouw. When people we approached in the street were signing our citizens' initiative law for the 1500 euro retirement benefits, they used to tell us: "what we want is net and not gross. And we want it now."And therein lies the rub. The government says: "It will be 1580 euros gross.” This is the figure on which there is agreement between political parties. All the rest is just talk. What would the net amount be ? 1450 euros. And on top of that, they are promising it for 2024. However, based on an inflation rate of 1.5 to 2 % (according to the European Central Bank's projections), this will translate into a purchasing power equivalent to 1365 euros. So, no, it's not the same thing. And finally, to make the link with the women's issue, the 1,500 euro retirement benefits promised by the government will be granted after 45 years of service. It is well known that 9 out of 10 women do not achieve a 45-year career. It is this inequality that needs to be addressed. But there is not a word on this in the Vivaldi agreement...

Another important issue: returning to retirement at age 65.

Raoul Hedebouw. Nor is Vivaldi going back on this measure taken by the previous government. Three weeks before the elections, however, parties claiming to represent the left had, through the voice of Elio Di Rupo for the PS, and Meryame Kitir for the sp.a, set the return to retirement at age 65 as the breaking point ... but since then, nothing.

Could they possibly have been confronted with the logic of power relations in government?

Raoul Hedebouw. All the evidence agrees: a return to retirement at age 65 was not even addressed once in 500 days of negotiations. This is unacceptable.

But PS chairman Paul Magnette says that those with heavy-duty jobs will be allowed to leave early...

Raoul Hedebouw. He is using the same argument as Daniel Bacquelaine (former Minister of Pensions) did: "Not everyone will have to work until they are 67. There will be many exceptions". It is obvious that working until the age of 67 is unacceptable for people. Because in the face of death, we are not equal. The life expectancy of a worker without a university degree is 15 to 20 years less, on the average, than that of someone with a university degree. My father, for example, is a steelworker who now sees colleagues leaving, colleagues with serious heart conditions, etc. We are not equal in the face of death, be it in our careers, at school, etc. But there is more to this. There was an additional file in the previous government: that of arduous jobs. That is to say, that all those jobs that were going to be considered arduous would be specified. That file does not appear anywhere in the Vivaldi note. There is no guarantee that these arduous occupations are ever going to be specified. And as for me, I think the answer is very clear: at 67, all jobs are arduous.

Is having a government without the N-VA not a relief, though?

Raoul Hedebouw. I am glad that the PS and N-VA plan to form a government failed. Why is that? Because the bond that was keeping this agreement together was an over-regionalisation of many competences, including justice, health care, and important components of our social security system. It is clear that the PS went very far in the agreement with the N-VA and that this represented a real threat both to solidarity in Belgium, and to the unity of our country. That's why I'm glad to see that this project was cancelled.

But isn't the division of the country "in line with history", as the N-VA defends it?

Raoul Hedebouw. In politics, there is no line of history. In politics, history is created. Setting up Social Security was against the line of history, since it meant taking 25 % of the gross domestic product off the market. It meant reversing the course of history as it is seen by the liberals. But to us, it was in line with the history of the grassroots movement. There is no line of history "above the fray". There is a sense of class in history.

Isn't the PTB, when it criticizes the government, susceptible to be tarred with the same brush as the one that the N-VA and the Vlaams Belang (the extreme-right party in Flanders) are tarred with?

Raoul Hedebouw. That's precisely why we have to criticize the Vivaldi government. If we believe that the Vivaldi government, that is going to carry on with the same austerity policies, will win the fight against the extreme right, then we are sadly mistaken. But at the same time, we have nothing to do with this separatist opposition according to which all the problems experienced by the people are caused by "the Walloons". Or the "immigrants". The PTB is the antidote to such hate speech. We want to bring people together. We're a solidarity-based left. We are a left that believes in the class identity of the people. All together against the wealthiest 1 %. Between the Vivaldi block, and that of separatism and hatred, the PTB stands as the left-wing opposition block for solidarity. And we will also criticize the block that promotes hatred. The first time we intervened in Parliament on Vivaldi, we did so to criticise the NV-A and the Vlaams Belang, in particular with reference to their support for the legislation on wage freeze. In Parliament, members traditionally intervene from the centre to criticize the government on the platform opposite them. But here, for the first time in a long while, we witnessed PTB's side kicks to the right (laughs). Quite a few observers were impressed...

When the PS went to negotiate with the N-VA, was the choice rather tactical, knowing that there would be no agreement at that time. Or is there a will on the part of the PS to move towards regionalization?

Raoul Hedebouw. There has been a real turning point in the wrong direction at the level of the PS leadership: an acceptance of the confederal framework the N-VA wants to lead us to. Advanced negotiations were ongoing. There was no question of tactical move. It links in with a regionalist background that is present among an increasing number of PS leaders, notably Pierre-Yves Dermagne, now Deputy Prime Minister, leader of the PS at government level. That is a non-negligible signal, isn't it. To believe that withdrawing to one's own plot of land will solve the arduous challenge of establishing both a national and international balance of power in the face of finance and powerful capitalist forces is nothing but an illusion. Today, capitalism is organised on a European scale. Look at the Ryanair workers: they prevailed last year because they were active on five or six European sites at the same time. The difficulty for the left today is to mobilize all stakeholders both at European and national levels. As well as to succeed in influencing regions that may be less left-wing.

You are putting a lot of emphasis on "breaking points". What does that mean?

Raoul Hedebouw. For left-wing forces, the "breaking point" concept is important. It is a point on which the social balance of power is crystallized. You know you won't score 100% on your programme, but you set a breaking point because of popular mobilization on it. You will not go along for less. When I hear Paul Magnette say that this return to retirement at age 65 was just a symbol... It is clear he doesn't understand what a breaking point means for the left. In 1936, the breaking point was holiday pay: it was a demand. Certain sectors already had their holiday pay. At a certain point, however, a social asset will crystallize into an interprofessional demand for all workers, and become law.

How can social progress be secured?

Raoul Hedebouw. A counter-power has to be created. In the streets, in neighbourhoods, in businesses, through union and citizen mobilization. A counter-power represented by a party like the PTB, that embodies this break with the dominating capitalist system, has been developing in the field and has expanded from 10,000 to more than 19,000 members in just a few years.

Is this possible from the opposition benches?

Raoul Hedebouw. The working world must develop into a real force, go out and win. As it did last year with the "White Coats Fund". This goes to show that it is possible to win from the opposition benches as well. This is important and it is illustrated in our people's history. When the struggle for universal suffrage was launched, there was no majority in Parliament to adopt it. Only wealthy people were sitting in Parliament!

Can we expect mobilization in the coming years? Wouldn't it have been easier to get people to take to the streets with the N-VA in government?

Raoul Hedebouw. I don't think so. Mobilization has not been qualitatively different during the Di Rupo (2011-2014) government or the Michel government (2014-2019). The Di Rupo government has also seen large demonstrations concerning wage freeze or retirement, among others. This is an example of the performance of trade unions in Belgium. Political lobbying is present, of course. But when it comes to defending the interests of workers, we can see that compromise is excluded. Rather, the challenge will be to find ways of mobilizing people in the time of corona. The Vivaldi agreement had not yet been signed when trade unions mobilized on 28th September. So, regarding this aspect, I trust our grassroots movement.

The health crisis is also becoming a social crisis. Many companies are resorting to lay-offs. What can we do about this?

Raoul Hedebouw. First, many companies have made millions in profits in recent years. They have been hoarding that money. It seems logical to me that the State should ask them to take collective responsibility for today's social challenges. This can be done, for instance, by reducing working hours in certain companies. Let's take Sodexo for example. This company decided to lay off 380 workers, whereas reducing working time from 38 to 34 hours a week could have saved all those jobs. Yet Sodexo made a profit of 1.3 billion for the year 2019.

But that won't be enough. New jobs must also be created.

Raoul Hedebouw. I believe in public industrial initiatives. The market is not going to be able to tackle issues pertaining to certain employment sectors. In his book, Peter Mertens proposes a Prometheus Plan, a plan for public investment in four sectors: energy, transport, digital and healthcare. We must invest massively in these sectors of the future, and that will enable us to create thousands of jobs.

Millionaires' tax, Prometheus Plan, collective reduction of working hours: Is the world after going to be a bit like that for Raoul Hedebouw?

Raoul Hedebouw. Not just for me, for all peoples. I'm sure that in 200 years' time, historians will say: "There was a time when people lived under capitalism. The allocation of resources in society was submitted to the logic of profit, without any regard to the people's needs."And people will say that we were crazy. Archaeologists will wonder how our world could have been revolving the way it is today (laughs).

But what should we do today?

Raoul Hedebouw. People are angry. And some people want to direct that anger towards immigrants. The 1930s have shown us what this can lead to. We, the left of the left, have an important responsibility: directing people's anger to the top. Making them aware that those responsible for the crisis are the multimillionaires, the speculators. Don't ask the PTB to become just another party. For, if that were to happen, who would be left to bring hope to the people? By betraying its principles, the left allowed the Vlaams Belang to take root in the Antwerp working-class neighbourhoods. By supporting liberalism in the 1990s the left caused the working-class neighbourhoods in the north of France to give up voting for the left, and turn to the Rassemblement National instead. That's exactly what is happening today. That is where we bear an important responsibility as a political party.

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