Monthly Archives: February 2015

Demanding the right to breathe



If there had been any doubts about the meaning of the agreement reached by Syriza and the Eurozone, they were resolved by the publication on Tuesday morning of Greece’s proposals to reduce its deficit.

Panagiotis Sotiris has subjected them already to a detailed analysis and I will do no more than endorse the points he makes that Syriza has agreed to an absolute cap on the public sector wage bill (and therefore a wage freeze), the agreement weakens Syriza’s previous commitments not to allow the auctioning off of homes which are in debt, and it concedes in principle to the continuation of the privatisation programme including of workplaces which are central to the Greek union movement such as the docks at Piraeus

If anything, there are still more criticisms could be made. For example an English-language audience will be attentive to the implications of promises to “develop the existing scheme that provides temporary employment for the unemployed”, or to “strengthen the independence of the General Secretariat of Public Revenues” (ie. the Greek equivalent of George Osborne’s Office of Budget Responsibility) “from all sorts of interference (political or otherwise)”, in other words from attempts by an elected Syriza government to control its own economic policy. And in addition Syriza has given the troika, now relabelled “the institutions”, an unwelcome, express veto over any future increases to the minimum wage.

One writer who wishes Syriza well has cautiously welcomed the agreement saying that it “cancels the previous Greek government’s planned cuts to pensions”, which may be true, but the proposals tabled by Syriza still involve cutting pensions by reducing early retirement, and index-linking of payments in future. In any event, the right comparison is not with the plans of the previous government, but with Syriza’s own Thessaloniki programme on which it was elected. This had promised to restore the Christmas bonus for pensioners, and increase pensions thereafter (along with public sector wages) as a means to increase demand in the economy. Both of these promises appear to have been quietly shelved.

The most important part of the Thessaloniki programme were the starting principles of Syriza’s policy in regard to the Eurozone, ie that it would “write-off the greater part of public debt”, obtain “a growth clause in the repayment of the remaining part so that it is growth-financed and not budget-financed”, and “include a significant grace period in debt servicing”.

Now, of course, you can only reach a fair agreement in negotiations with someone who is willing (or compelled) to bargain fairly with you. And, Syriza’s negotating position was reduced even beneath any foreseeable position of weakness by Greek savers’ removing £12 billion from their bank accounts.

To grasp the enormous pressure Syriza was under, imagine a trade union which is trying to negotiate a pay increase from a hostile employer, while at the same time, its savings are separately being withdrawn from the union’s main bank account at the rate of about 10% of all its money every single day. Whatever other difficulties Syriza may have had, it simply did not have the ordinary negotiator’s option of stringing discussions along in the hope that something better would emerge.

Without falling into the ritualistic language of “sell-out”, it is not hyperbole to accept that the Greek government is being “strangled” or to compare it to “a debt colony with a bit of ‘home rule’”. Those, including 20 Syriza’s MPs, the speaker of the Greek parliament Zoi Konstantopoulou and Syriza’s chief economist John Milios, who have criticised Tspiras for trying to portray a defeat as a victory when it is in Milios’ words “suffocating” are right; no healthy politics, reformist or revolutionary, can start except from stating the facts truthfully.

How then might the harm of the last week be undone?

A return to the movements (with two notes of caution)

There is an almost universal desire on the Greek left, from the leadership of Syriza as far as Greece’s anarchists, to see a shift from the government to the social movements, so that it is the latter which initiate policy and the latter which control the former. How this change is conceived depends on the politics of the different groups.

Syriza itself to some extent supports the idea, and included within its Thessaloniki programme promised to “empower the institutions of representative democracy and introduce new institutions of direct democracy.” The detail of the programme included legislation to allow referenda, removal of MP’s immunities from prosecution, and a democratisation of radio and television broadcasting.

But there is potentially a much more inspiring version of the same vision in which the balance of forces within Greece is changed by the emergence within Greece of powerful social movements demanding a return to the sorts of politics which won Syriza the election.

This would the best next step. But I do have two notes of caution. First, merely seeing the best hope does not conjure it into being. Among socialists in the English-language world, there is still often a conception that Greece has enjoyed a continuous five-year period of open struggle, with widespread workers’ strikes, occupations, etc, and that therefore it is inevitable that any moment now, a social movement will emerge which will have interests clearly opposed to both those of their own government and those of the Eurozone. And yet the pages of indymedia Athens, or of the major Marxist organisations in Greece, whether pro-Syriza or anti, do not give an outsider the impression of a society on the verge of open ferment.

Second, it is important that the re-emergence of social movements is not abstracted from their politics. The last occasion when a social movement “broke through” to challenge austerity was during the revolution which took place in Egypt from 2011. This was a movement which for two years, like the great revolutions of France or Russia, seemed to constantly renew itself. It had a similar effect to Syriza’s election in terms of raising hopes internationally. At its peak, workers were involved in around 1000 strikes or protests every month. Yet, at the end of the revolution, the fatal moment was the emergence of a counter-revolutionary force “Tamarod” which portrayed itself, plausibly, as just another reform campaign. The form which the counter-revolution took was a series of public protests which were widely (and inaccurately) described as the largest demonstrations in history.

Socialism means democracy; it means the abolition of the present state and its replacement by one governed by the mass of producers. Any process which tends in that direction is always better than one that does not.

Yet in a context where very many Greek unions are linked to the political parties which been voting together in parliament against Syriza (ie New Democracy, Pasok and the KKE) more politics is needed than the simple analysis which says that we have had too much of government and now we need a syndicalistic return to the movements.

What Greece needs is something more specific a local counterpart to the huge numbers that rallied in support of Chavez against the 2002 coup and then radicalised and transformed his government, in other words a mass movement with a democratising dynamic.

Breaking with the Eurozone (but)

Syriza’s survival as a government will depend on it taking measures which could be seen as the beginning of Grexit, i.e. the introduction of capital controls, and limits to withdrawals from personal and corporate bank accounts. If it does not introduce them, then in four months’ time, Syriza will be faced with the same difficulties it faced in the last week, ie it will be nearing the end of negotiations with hostile powers, while money drains out of its banks leaving its negotiators without any leverage at all over Greece’s creditors.

Accordingly, increasing numbers of activist in Greece would not just agree with this analysis but go further, arguing that Syriza must take Greece out of the Eurozone altogether. If nothing else, the politics of Syriza’s isolation in Europe seem to compel this approach. At present, it is in a minority of one, and even in if Podemos wins the Spanish elections in November of this year, the radical left will continue to be a tiny minority among the governments, and will lose repeatedly.

But the vision of a Grexit without a change in the underlying social relationships was criticised by Antonis Davanellos of Syriza’s Left Platform, in an article from 2011:

“a return to the drachma, if it happens under the direction of capitalists and their state, would have devastating results for the Greek population. The drachma would be undervalued from the start and would instantly lose even more value when it is introduced. This would wreak havoc on the value of everything that is important to wage-earners (their wages, pensions, housing, etc.) and also farmers (the value of cultivable land). On the other hand, the capitalists–who would retain over 600 billion euros deposited abroad, more than twice the sum of the Greek debt–would be able to grab for just pennies public enterprises, hospitals, land and more”.

Those who know their history will recall how the solution to the German debt crisis in 1923 had exactly the dynamic that Davanellos cautions against, ie that inflation enabled a massive concentration of wealth within Germany, with the largest businesses buying up their dozens of their smaller counterparts on the cheap.

It also involved the impoverishment of Greece’s savers who then turned to the far right, which is not something that the leadership of Syriza, motivated as they are by the fear of Golden Dawn, will countenance lightly.

And the assumption that Davanellos makes that Grexit would lead to devaluation (and therefore inflation) is, notably, accepted by Grexit’s supporters, for whom devaluation is of course the mechanism to encourage increased foreign trade. A devalued currency is intended to sell its goods abroad for less, kick-starting the economy – but even to formulate the policy in these terms is already to see Grexit as a strategy for defending Greek business, rather than Greek workers.

Moreover a Greece equipped within an independent currency would not lose the economic problems which are weighing presently on its workers. Greece would still have a debt larger than its GDP; merely announcing “we will not pay any more” would not make the debt disappear unilaterally. It might be for example that an independent Greece would seek to trade occasionally with the European states which surround it. They, of course, would attempt to make trade conditional on the payment in full of the debts they are now enforcing.

The problem is not Grexit but the failure to attach it to transformation from one kind of society to another – from one ruled by its bosses to one ruled by its workers. Socialists often make this invocation, sometimes ritually, but this really is a situation where seemingly the same possibility (the departure from the euro) can have a wide range of different outcomes, from the most hopeful to the most desperate.

The vision has to be not the restructuring of capitalism, but its defeat.

So, there are two solutions, albeit neither is straightforward. Yes, Greece needs a return to the movements, but one which arms Syriza (and its left critics) rather than its opponents in the parliament or the Eurozone and one which changes the relationship between the government and the streets.

Yes, Greece needs to take steps towards Grexit, and possibly Grexit itself, but one based on a changing dynamic between classes within Greek society, rather than the mere exchange of capitalism in one continent for capitalism in one nation.

Learning to think like a revolutionary


Syriza election reaction Italy

When I was young, I used to believe that I knew what a revolution would look like. It would begin with a bitterly unpopular government and a political system which allowed no space for dissent to be expressed. Anger with the government would rise and, with it, popular organisation, until the will of the people would be like a great wave of water overwhelming every wall put up by the enemy. An alternative revolutionary government would be formed; it would derive its support from the workers, winning other classes to their side because of the wholly principled way in which it would deal with every social question. It would be opposed by the wealthiest people in society and everyone willing to ally with them. Some kind of civil war would follow between these two powers. And then, when the triumph of the revolutionaries was complete within that first, fortunate nation, next they would face, and hopefully, but without any guarantee of success, defeat the hostility of the most powerful states of the rest of the world.

The coalition between Syriza and Anel is not a revolutionary government; and yet the mere fact that its representatives are prepared to state clearly that austerity is not in the interests of the Greek people has brought about already a greater challenge for orthodox politics than anything Europe has seen for years. In the shadow of Syriza it is possible to think as to what a revolutionary crisis would be like here – if we had a force with equal support and as eager to see the end of capitalism as Syriza is to halt our present epoch of austerity.

Much of what I used to imagine about a socialist revolution, I find myself questioning. I no longer think that it would begin within a political system which had succeeded in closing down any possibilities for tolerated dissent. The point about neoliberal capitalism is rather that it allows a certain, limited space to every possible idea, every desire, even the phantasm of its own destruction.

Therefore, especially in those countries which have seen a permanent shift towards a form of (albeit limited, capitalist) political democracy, I find it increasingly difficult to conclude that popular resistance will be expressed solely in society and not to some extent also in the state, that is, in part through the emergence of anti-system parties which stand for office and are part of a revolutionary alliance.

I do still believe that in a revolutionary crisis people’s anger against the system can be renewed, and grow, overcoming every obstacle in its path. Indeed just four years ago, the world saw something like that with a revolution in Egypt whose supporters stormed police stations, defeated a President, conquered everything, until eventually after many months they reached barriers they could not overpass.

The idea that two governmental forms can exist simultaneously for a time without either triumphing – and that this stasis can be reached in a single society, cut off from the rest of the world – seems to me to be an assumption specific to past decades when politics was limited to the nation state, where it was possible for revolutionaries in America (to whom the name of Trotsky was unfamiliar) to believe the local fable that he was a poor tailor of New York origins who had found himself by sheer fluke at the head of the Red Army. Such is the speed of communication these days that I no longer believe it is possible for a revolutionary force to emerge in one society without it already facing antagonists of international as well as domestic origin.

Indeed the ascendancy of Syriza forces those of us who wish the Greek left well to think through unfamiliar questions about what the traditional goal of a revolution (ie the smashing of a state) means, in circumstances where a serious left-wing party finds itself temporarily, seemingly, without domestic opponents and faced with an enemy that appears to exist only several hundred miles away.

It is a part of the answer to respond that Syriza’s enemies are not solely overseas. As I write, Syriza’s economists are drawing up – with many refinements, and under the shadow a troika veto – proposals to increase the income of the Greek state and reduce its expenditure. To do this, while at the same time raising pensions and the minimum wage and halting the previous government’s privatisation programme, they inevitably will have to promise that Syriza will suddenly clamp down of tax avoidance to an extent previously unthinkable in Greece.

Syriza’s new idea, that if it cannot be a government that gives to the poor it may at least be one that takes from the rich, might fit entirely within the formal limits of the politics of austerity (although I have my doubts that the Eurozone will tolerate even this negative process of redistribution), but if Syriza was to do this seriously, and properly tax Greece’s shipping magnates – they of course will respond by funding, to an even greater extent than they do already, any party at all that promises to bring about Syriza’s immediate defeat.

At this point, Syriza’s present ascendancy, its “Greek spring” where the leadership can claim the support of 80% of their population in opinion polls and can promise to govern in everyone’s interests without offending anybody, will inevitably begin to face much more sustained domestic opposition. The innocence of Syriza – in which it attempts to rule at first without domestic and then without international opposition – is therefore ultimately unsustainable. As is any theory which says that Syriza enemies can be reduced to the phantom, distant, figure of “Germany”. The longer it lasts, the more conscious the Syriza government will be of its enemies at home.

The repressive power of the state has, under conditions of neo-liberalism, been dispersed a little across different kinds of institutions and relocated to some extent from the national to the international and from the political to the economic sphere. It follows that what is needed is a successful struggle against all the institutions of the rich, Canary Wharf as well as New Scotland Yard, the ECB in Frankfurt as much as the Parliament in Athens.

So what should we do, those of us for whom Syriza’s success seems to offer the chance of a defeat to our own local rulers?

I do not accept that our function is to formulate better negotiating feints and bluffs than the present Syriza leadership. One of the rules of this new, interconnected left in which we all live is that our successes and failures are widely shared, they are no longer the property of any one group but are visited on everyone else.

It follows that you should always start if you can by assuming good faith in your fellow socialists. They are linked to you and you are linked to them, and they are entitled to a sympathetic hearing. The mistake of Varoufakis is not that he has spent too little time studying game theory. The problem with Tsipras is not that power has been thrust on him unexpectedly; rather he and his allies have spent three years preparing in their minds of this moment, and they have thought already as best they could the problems of every eventuality. If, for example, they do not believe that voluntary policies of Eurozone exit are a panacea, then we do not need to invoke bad faith or the simple label of “reformism” to explain their failure (especially not those of us who have long been sceptical of the politics of capitalism within one country which underpin the Grexit plans).

We do have a duty to supporting them – if your union or party is not already an affiliate of a Greek Solidarity Campaign, it should be. Syriza cannot be made responsible for organising giant protests against austerity in Berlin or London. That is the task for all the rest of us.

Learning to think like a revolutionary is not about creating a Monument of political purity capable of dismissing every new force according to its failure to get beyond political categories written down on paper before our grandparents were born.

There are new ideas, new people; not without grievous setbacks, the international left is at long last renewing itself.

The debate in Syriza concerning Grexit



Consider three people. First, Costas Lapavitsas is the recently-elected Syriza MP for Imathia and a lecturer in economics at SOAS. Four years ago, he was at the heart of an intense debate within Syriza as to whether the party should have a policy of leaving the Eurozone (“Grexit”). In an ebook ‘Against the Troika’ which Lapavitsas wrote with Heiner Flassbeck, and was published at the end of January 2015 by Verso, Lapavitsas and Flassbeck predict that a Syriza or Podemos government would be met by relentless hostility from within the Eurozone, and that its options would rapidly narrow:

“Without effective debt restructuring a left government would find it impossible to implement an alternative programme, even in the short run” … “There can be no conflict within the EU on [the debt restructuring] that would not also raise the spectre of EMU exit”.

They turn to the practicalities of Grexit. They suggest that a left government should start by insisting on the independence of its bank from the Eurozone, including alternative currency (i.e. short-terms paper loans, or “scrip”) denominated in Euro. This paper currency could become the first step towards re-establishing a national currency. A left government should also have capital controls to prevent money leaving the country on exit.

Lapavitsas and Flassbeck call for social mobilisation and negotiations towards a voluntary exit from the EMU. If consensual exit was not possible, Grexit could take place by first declaring a default on the country’s debts and ceasing to pay them, then redenominating the balance sheets of the central bank, commercial banks, private enterprises and households. The government would have to increase its circulation of money and should expect a sharp devaluation of its currency. Medicine, food and fuel would need to be administered (i.e. rationed) to get basic goods to those in need.

While they paint in some ways a brutal picture of a government necessarily operating in temporary conditions of extreme scarcity, they do also emphasise that the countries of the European periphery have vast unused capacity, to produce goods, medicines, even such basic needs as electricity, so that an economy which was allowed to grow back even if only to its 2010 state would be growing rapidly.

Second, Yanis Varoufakis the Syriza finance minister, writes regularly in English, chiefly on his own blog. In 2012, he was interviewed by a website on Grexit. In Varoufakis’ now-familiar, paradoxical style, he argued that Grexit was impossible not because it would have negative connotations for Greece but because it would be self-defeating for the other European economies.

The whole point of creating the common currency was to impress the markets that it is a permanent union that will guarantee huge losses to anyone bold enough to bet against its solidity. A single exit suffices to punch a hole through this perceived solidity. Like a tiny fault line on a mighty dam, a Greek exit will inevitably lead to the edifice’s collapse under the unstoppable forces of disintegration that will gain a toehold within that fault line. The moment Greece is pushed out two things will happen: a massive capital flight from Dublin, Lisbon, Madrid etc., followed by a reluctance of the ECB and Berlin to authorise unlimited liquidity to banks and states.

As for the risks to Greece:

Exiting the euro is not the same as cutting a peg (as Argentina did a decade ago) or exiting the Gold Standard (as Britain did in 1931, followed by the US a year later). The profound difference is that Argentina and Britain had their own currency and they simply severed its link to some exogenous hard currency – allowing it wisely to drift ‘south’ in order to restore competitiveness etc. Greece, Spain et al do not have a currency to devalue. We must do something that has never happened in history: Create a currency in order to devalue it! And since it takes months to create a currency, we are talking about driving countries that are already savaged by recession into an un-monetised state for months on end … One only needs to state this to realise the immensity of the hardship it will create.

A further interview in 2013 again emphasised the practical difficulties:

As for an ‘orderly’ exit, there can be no such thing. One only needs to think a little bit about what that ‘orderly exit’ might entail to realise that it is an impossibility. For the moment it is announced, all hell will break loose. Greek ATMs will run out, immigration officers in airports and ports (not to mention land crossings into Bulgaria and Turkey) will have to search people for cash, the banks will be closed indefinitely.

Although these articles do not make the link explicit, it would not be fanciful to see behind the fear of devaluation (and inflation) the fear that a lasting run on the Greek banks would permanently set the Greek middle classes against Syriza, in the same way that 1923 turned a generation of Germans permanently against Weimar.

Finally, Giorgos Gogos is a dockworker and trade unionist in the port of Piraeus; and a supporter of the Anasa (“breathe”) faction within Syriza, i.e. at a point somewhere between the leadership (Tsipras) bloc and its critics in the Left Platform.  Both PASOK and New Democracy have loyal party-run trade unions, he complains, which they ran like their pet businesses (or, in his word, “clients”); in a recent interview with Katy Fox-Hodess he insists that the Communist Party’s operation was fundamentally the same, “the Communist Party is part of this clientelism and has especially non-democratic ways of holding power within the unions.”

Syriza received one of its highest votes in the Piraeus B district, he notes, where the electorate includes many dockers and their families. He is proud of the part that he and other activists have played in winning the workers to Syriza – a process which took place largely outside the workplace, including through initiatives such as Solidarity for All in Piraeus, which provides food kitchens for workers without ever (unlike the food kitchens run by Golden Dawn) asking about their immigration status.

In 2011 and 2012 Gogos was following the debate within Syriza concerning Grexit. “I was following [Lapavitsas] during 2011 and 2012, for two years, I was following his speeches.” But ultimately Gogos decided that he agreed more with the Syriza leadership than with Lapavitsas or the Left Platform:

I was quite open to hearing such opinions but I was not persuaded that they have a clear answer especially for the first period of a transfer from the euro to a local currency. They didn’t convince me that they have something concrete to propose to the people for those first critical six months of transition. And you know, our society is not trained or educated to suffer under such terms. For example, if you leave the euro, the iPhone will be three or four times more expensive. I don’t care. I don’t give a damn. But many people give a damn about some items that they don’t even have the power to buy in euros. So I’m ready to wait for gasoline and to do my part and not to demand more but I know many guys around me that would be happy to simply take their share and their family’s share for the month. So I think we’re not trained well enough to confront such a danger.

There is not yet a “Greek revolution”, what we have rather is a left government trying to do what it can where the level of strikes has been falling for two years, where the strikes have been largely limited to the public sector, and where millions of ordinary Greeks – not merely the rich – have been removing their savings from the banks.

Whether Grexit will become a reality or not is likely to depend not only on the terms demanded by Berlin, nor only on the attempts by Syriza leadership to find a breathing space, but whether the likes of Giorgos Gogos reconsider and conclude that Lapavitsas or Varoufakis is in the right.


[em Português]

When a pause may be the best that could be acheived


Syriza has won nothing; austerity has not been cancelled. The agreement signed by Syriza is in every respect except one unfavourable to Syriza’s voters. The troika (now “the institutions”) still exists; if anything it will have greater powers, including an express veto over every aspect of Greek domestic policy which would “rollback … structural reforms” (ie potentially any policy involving any state spending). Moreover, control is not just to be exercised negatively. The document envisages the imposition on the Greek state of large numbers of foreign advisers (“technical assistance”) to administer tax collection, state spending, etc, in other words a cadre of privatisers present at every level of the Greek state imposing their advice on the elected politicians and reporting back to the Eurozone on any non-cooperation with policies of intensified austerity.

This wretched agreement did not come about because Syriza are “reformists”. There is a strange and unconvincing mode of analysis – to be found both in Britain and Greece – which insists that the only “revolutionary” option would have involved Syriza, immediately following the election, announcing Greece’s decision to leave the European Union, as if by so doing Greece would have been liberated from the sordid risk of compromise which threatened on any other path.

The risks of devaluation; the necessity of it

Grexit is still the most likely outcome of austerity. Indeed, one plausible reading of the last fortnight is that enough politicians (outside Greece) have decided on the inevitability of exit, so that the present compromise represents no more than intensified pressure from Germany, Spain, etc, to force Greece quickly out of the eurozone. If that is right, and Grexit does indeed happen within the year, its present champions may yet see the enormous risk that exit involves.

An independent Greece would be able to devalue its currency and in that way potentially reduce its debt significantly. But it would face many of the same problems that Syriza faces now. First, there would be the same run on the banks that Greece is already suffering with individual Greek citizens removing their savings from the bank system out of fear of its eventual collapse. Greek banks would need to be secured, in the short term, by finances from some patron (ie by the state incurring further debts). And the price of the new debtors would be – as with the Eurozone this week – increasingly detailed plans for prompt debt repayment.

Second, in the short term Grexit would be inflationary (indeed that would be its very point: to convert the debts from Euros to drachmas, whose value would then be reduced by deliberate state policies of tolerating inflation – ie the cheaper the drachma, the less Greece would owe to its creditor). The more effective it was at reducing the debt, the higher inflation would be.

Third, in so far as Greece still intended to have economic relationships with its neighbours they would be dictated by the terms of post-Grexit negotiations. And the same cadre of politicians in Germany and Holland, Spain and Portugal who are so evidently enjoying the dismantling of the Greek economy would be the ones to whom a post-independence Varoufakis would be sent on no doubt grim-faced and ineffective trade missions. The terms of the neighbours would be clear enough, we will trade with you only if you honour your full (ie pre-devaluation) debt.

A run on the banks, higher inflation, decreased opportunities for trade, all of these processes would have negative consequences for workers in Greece.

Over a period of years, devaluation might work as well for Greece as it worked (for example) in Argentina in 2002-2003; but devaluation in Europe after a five year prelude of sustained economic crisis would be a risk on a much grander scale (involving a new currency rather than simply the removal of a fixed exchange rate), success would not be guaranteed, and still less would devaluation by itself liberate Greek politicians in one stroke from the risk of class compromise.

Where however the left within Syriza is correct, against Tsipras and Varoufakis, is that the latter have been wrong to approach negotiations from the perspective that because Grexit is so risky, therefore it has to be excluded altogether.

No doubt Syriza’s leaders have been surprised to discover that they have not a single ally but seemingly 18 bitter enemies within the Eurozone. Simple politics dictates that Syriza faces the unconditional hostility of not only Germany (Greece’s largest creditor), Spain, Ireland and Portugal (smaller states which have signed up to austerity, bitter at the “unfairness” of the possibility that Greece, unlike them, might be allowed any concessions), Holland (central to the troika), etc. But their seeming innocence might have caused Syriza’s leaders to expect a little more from France or Italy, states with social democrat governments (i.e. neo-liberals of a different origin). Instead, they have received no meaningful support at all.

For all the hopes that Syriza places in Spanish elections in November or December, even with the present four months’ pause earned, those elections will still be 6 months away. Moreover, even if Podemos do win, the conversion of a minority of one to a minority of two will not “change the game”, unless a way is found to sponsor vastly greater German challengers to the CDU than exist presently.

At this point, the left in Syriza (and indeed the left Keynesians) are probably right, that simply in order to negotiate a less punishing deal Syriza might have done better not to write off from the outset any possibility of Grexit. For while leaving the Euro has enormous risks for Greece, it has risks even for Germany, and for Syriza’s other creditors, since exit by itself would show that the Euro is a temporary arrangement and that other states might in time also leave.

Prominent supporters of Syriza’s Left Platform have been warning for weeks that a compromise with the Eurozone would be disastrous. It would be hard now to disagree with them.

A breathing space

To speak of the left in Syriza is to come to that group of people who have most to gain from the end of this two weeks of diplomacy and the return to politics as usual. A month ago, Stathis Kouvelakis claimed that “the Left Platform plus the left wings of the majority bloc are actually the majority inside [Syriza]”; if so, then this majority has not yet made itself felt.

Inevitably, the left was likely to get isolated by the negotiations; after all, they were neither in the room nor on the phone calls where the decisions were made. But for two weeks the Syriza leadership has been able to exclude the left even from the local decisions where its weight might have been felt, eg over the Presidency. While the Greek President has few powers, and so the decision was seemingly a minor one, the Left Platform had expressed itself in favour of a left-wing candidate, and Tsipras felt able to ignore the left and indeed all the formal institutions (eg the Central Committee) in which inner-party democracy is supposed to be expressed.

There is a link evidently between the Syriza leadership’s contact with European powers, and its drift towards compromises with Greek capital.

Domestic politics needs to reassert itself; the leaders of Syriza need to find themselves justifying to their own MPs the deals they have breached, need to rely on their votes, and need to have certain red lines reinforced. This is the one advantage of the pause – the opportunity it allows for the left to control their leaders.

They need to be chastened, not praised. Pressure needs to come from below: because an alternative furniture is now only too readily apparent, in which Syriza becomes the domestic police for a global project of austerity.

If Tsipras and Varoufakis are like combative trade union officials, then just like their union counterparts, they still require to be watched, and for the workers to develop mechanisms so that they be held to account. Of course, this is the sort of thing that is easier to imagine in a large workplace (the report-back meeting, the vote afterwards), and harder to do when talking about people who have been thrust onto the national scale. But the difficulty of controlling a left leadership does not limit its necessity – unless the left somewhere learns ways of doing this then we will face endless cycles of defeat.

The best that can be said about Greece is that the government is not yet exhausted, its leaders have not yet settled into the roles prepared for them. The moralists  who would enjoy better than anything to complain about the inevitable betrayals of other socialists have not been proved right (yet).

On tax avoidance



When future generations look back at our present short epoch of world history which began with the elections of the Thatcher and Reagan governments (“neoliberalism”), no social wrong will seem more typical of this age than the shared refusal of the rich to pay their share in taxes.

Tax avoidance is the glue which binds together the retired sportsman, the bank client, and the Conservative donor.

Years ago, I was a welfare officer in a southern English university. The college had generous policies to subsidise those students who survived on their parents’ very small incomes. Needless to say, in a college where around half of the students came from working-class families, no-one from this background was ever eligible. The income limits for a student’s family were set so low – circa £5,000 per year – than only the children of Dukes, businessmen and landowners were ever eligible. They at least had the good fortune of employing accountants, skilled in converting family businesses with real turn-overs in the tens of millions into paper debtors overwhelmed by fictitious losses.

The ubiquity of tax avoidance helps to explain why it was that the MPs cheated their taxes so exuberantly. Among those who spend their company’s money bribing MPs to vote against the regulation of the fracking industry or the press, it is entirely normal to declare as tax expenses the hire of chauffeurs, the purchase of light bulbs and toilet rolls, the paying-off of second, third or fourth mortgages. Every theft of the MPs was justified in the protagonist’s mind by the thought, “if I don’t do this, there must be at least thousands of people richer than me who get away with worse.”

For most of tax history, it was the rich who had to pay direct taxes on employment, while the income of the poor was assumed to be so modest that the majority of people could be taxed only on the food they ate. Under a system of pervasive full-time employment, it become possible to tax the income of the working-class majority. From that point onwards there has been seemingly no need to tax the rich at all – some money is generated without them, perfectly enough to keep a medium-sized state ticking over, even if the rich contribute almost nothing to public expenditure. And so we have our present tax system, where the large majority of people, because they work, are required to pay, while a small number of the self-employed in the middle are subject to relative tax scrutiny, and the taxes of the rich become – in effect – entirely voluntary.

In the mindset of the very rich man or woman, every other person’s tax avoidance is worse than their own. This is how it is possible to think of tax avoidance on a scale from “vanilla” to what – tax “kink”, Christian Grey style?

The millionaire who deducts from his taxes an annual salary to represent their housewife partner’s imaginary work as his “secretary” (another trick widely copied by the MPs) tells himself that at least he is better than the multi-millionaire who has washed his income through a dozen off-the-peg companies. And the multi-millionaire, for her part, might in a generous mood declare 1 or 2% of her income so that it looks like she is paying “something”. She tells herself that she is one of the good people, at least she declares a UK residence, unlike the non-dom super rich who can get away with paying nothing.

“Everyone avoids tax”: among the class of people who are indeed rich enough so that neither they nor their children will ever have to work – yes, tax avoidance is pervasive. But for the vast majority who work, we have no choice but to pay taxes.

You won’t know the effects of tax avoidance unless you have been hungry. You won’t know the effects of tax avoidance unless you have been threatened with eviction. You won’t know the effects of tax avoidance unless you have lost your job and then been refused benefits.

Tax avoidance is not something irresistible, like a patch of bad weather, but the product of a match between the choices of tens of thousands of people to benefit at the expense of the majority, and the unwillingness of our political class to confront a problem from whose negative effects they personally are entirely sheltered. (And in the shadow of a problem of this scale, it is entirely inadequate to launch forward in a temporary sally of bravery declaring a tax avoider “dodgy” before retreating the next day without setting forward anything to bring tax avoidance to a end).

Tax avoidance is not a victimless crime but a deliberate policy of successive governments which have chosen to use the incomes of the poor to subsidise those of the rich.

Why is Europe shrinking the Greek economy? Because of a tax deficit which has arisen largely because over several decades successive governments – for an even longer period than their counterparts in Washington and London – chose not to enforce the taxation of the Greek rich.

Why can we not afford proper pensions, free education or a publicly-owned NHS? It is nothing to do with an ageing population and all to do with the refusal of the rich to declare their full income for tax purposes. At the moment, they opt out of the system, every public expenditure must fall to make up for their missing contribution.

When demonstrations are not enough



Viewing Syriza through the prism of British Marxism is not a wholly rewarding experience. I do not feel much sympathy for that minority of my former comrades who admire Syriza because they seem to see it as offering an example of a clique capturing the leadership of millions of people, who are attracted to Syriza not in so far as it is often principled but because it is sometimes opportunist, and who want to offer their services as leaders of the movement here by claiming some of the qualities of Syriza (such as its leaders’ sharp-dressing and their relative youth) that are easiest to separate from the intense political crisis that makes these features engaging.

Nor am I altogether persuaded by others who complain of Syriza that it does not say enough about smashing the state. Undoubtedly, Syriza will fight its final battle against social forces (New Democracy, the fascists, the army) in Greece. But its immediate struggle is not against domestic so much as international adversaries. In this respect it is a harbringer of the social movements of the epoch to come.

Just as a century ago, Stefan Zweig described the way that the dramatic change of speed associated with new technologies (cars, telephones, aeroplanes) altered the rhythms of humanity, displacing generations that had walked slowly and spoke to each other in measured tones, who were fat at forty and proud of their corpulence, with younger, impatient people, so something like the same dynamic is working itself out in all our lives: the speed of global communication is altering the way we do politics. It is not just making people more confident to be contemptuous about politicians (“anti-politics”) it is also creating problems whose solution can only be international. And as one of Zweig’s contemporaries pointed out, when social movements cross borders the rules that ordinarily require all revolutions to limit themselves to political rather than social objectives cease to operate.

It could be that Syriza will smash the state to pieces, using workers, unions and co-operatives to forge a new workers’ state – but even such a formation would still face the problem of paying Greece’s debts. You could no more have socialism in one country in 2015 than you could a century ago. Syriza is interesting because it rejects the orthodoxies of neoliberal capitalism, an in so far as its relationship with its supporters may be changing, and the relationship may be radicalising and the party may be taking on (as in Venezuela a decade ago) something more like the character of an insurgent state. I do not say that it has yet done any of these things, only that the possibility remains open. Syriza remains interesting, then, as a serious project of left reformism, and to criticise it for not being revolutionary is to criticise it for lacking strengths which it has never claimed.

The idea that troubles me most is that Syriza is somehow just the product of a rising Greek social movement, which would inevitably be replicated in other settings – in Britain – if only we enjoyed social movements (strikes) of a similar scale. The usual criticism of the British left is that we demand the credit for all our successes and put the blame for all our defeats on other forces. Syriza gets the same treatment in reverse: when it fails to meet our hopes, Syriza gets all the blame but in so far as it does well, its success is put down to luck.

The method I am criticising is a way of thinking about social movements which replicates in the sphere of politics the mistake that “Leninists” used to ascribe to “syndicalism”. In other words, a politics which does away with contradictory consciousness and assumes that the mass of the people are always on the verge of protesting, and that the only direction of future protests is of continuous, further advance.

When this way of thinking is applied to Syriza, it operates by saying that the political sphere may show gains (or defeats) but in the end neither matters provided that political activists spend their time building social movements. For the calibre of any political leadership is determined ultimately by the mass movements which police it. No political victory can take place ahead of the extent of the political education of the masses in socialism, therefore it is there, in the movements, rather than in the political sphere, that all hopes must be aimed.

It is odd to find this argument, which reheats early Menshevism, asserting itself in the publications of people who consider themselves Leninists.

What Syriza is showing, and what they are missing, is the capacity of political actors to make decisions which change the balance of forces. Of course, this process cannot go on indefinitely, but at rare, key moments history is ruptured – time is beaten – objective circumstances are defeated and altered. “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself … The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” When a group of socialists are trying to do this, the only legitimate response open to those who consider themselves revolutionaries is to show interest, to give support, and to seek (in whatever limited way we can) to deepen this process.

No recent movement better illustrates the need to go beyond a syndicalism of protest than the revolution in Egypt, where the left was conscious of the need always to build the mass movements, and shy about intervening in the political sphere. Egypt involved hundreds of thousands of people in strikes and in protests. They burned down police stations; they toppled a hated President. When counter-revolution began there, it arrived in the form of demonstrations and further protests, with counter-revolutionaries taking on the garb of social movements for democracy (tamarod). And, in Chile, it was the same process: before Pinochet there were the truckers’ strikes.

The reason why an international generation of anarchists, syndicalists, and revolutionaries of every stripe adopted Communism in the 1920a was because they thought Lenin had discovered a theory of politics which classical Marxism lacked; ie that he and his supporters looked in every moment for the social forces that brought closer the revolution of all the oppressed, and that they did not wait for social movements, but believed that conscious political activity could open new opportunities into which the movements could advance. 

It is one disgrace of our Leninists that they cannot learn even this from Lenin.

The clash of civilisations: Varoufakis and Schäuble


Before setting off to negotiate what was to become the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the founder of the Red Army Leon Trotsky promised to use the negotiations to put the entire conduct of the War on trial:

“Sitting at one table with [the representatives of our adversaries] we shall ask them explicit questions which do not allow of any evasion, and the entire course of negotiations, every word that they or we utter, will be taken down and reported by radio telegraph to all peoples who will be the judges of our discussions. Under the influence of the masses, the German and Austrian governments have already agreed to put themselves in the dock. You may be sure, comrades, that the prosecutor, in the person of the Russian revolutionary delegation, will be in its place and will in due time make a thundering speech for the prosecution about the diplomacy of all imperialists.”

The military imbalance between a Russia desperate for peace and a German army still 12 months from disintegration dictated that Trotsky was not able to carry through, except briefly, on this promise. But he had his moments. At one stage, his antagonist General Hoffmann denounced the Bolsheviks because their government was supported by force. Trotsky replied:

The general was quite right when he said that our government rests on force. Up to the present moment there has been no government dispensing with force. It will always be so as long as society is composed of hostile classes … What in our conduct strikes and antagonises other governments is the fact that instead of arresting strikers we arrest capitalists who organise lockouts; instead of shooting the peasants who demand land, we arrest and we shoot the landlords and the officers who try to fire upon the peasants …

If you have not yet watched the meeting between the Greek minister of finance Varoufakis and his German counterpart Schäuble, I would urge you to do so, for their encounter reflects two ways of thinking no less implacably at odds than the encounter of Hoffman with the Bolsheviks.

Much has been made of Varoufakis’ untactful remark that Germany, by imposing poverty on Greece, was opening a path to the re-emergence of the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. But it is Schäuble who, on this occasion, interests me more.

Do not think that only Varoufakis uses his clothes to express an ideology. Wolfgang Schäuble, who normally dresses in a more authoritarian dark grey bordering on black, wore on this occasion a lighter grey suit which to anyone used to watching London politicians would appear loosely-fitting and cheaply-tailored. Far from wanting to come over as the official representative of one of the largest national economies on earth, everything about his demeanour conveyed a provincial bank manager on temporary secondment to head office.

His message was deliberately pedestrian; Greece has made progress in recent years in so far as its economy has shrunk, its state’s expenditure has declined and its operating costs were reduced. “Problems in Greece have not been solved but significant progress has been made in implementing the programme … Greece has achieved a primary budget surplus”.

The problems which Varoufakis determined to present as political, and therefore capable of discussion and potentially resolution, Schäuble described as problems of accountancy: Greek was in debt, that debt had to be paid. In so far as it proposes to spend more the Syriza government is in an error as basic as that of the schoolchild who adds up their seven times table wrongly in their head.

Of course, in order to convince yourself and to tell the world that an economic problem avails of only a single solution you have to be the servant of an ideology, and in Schäuble’s case it is the conviction that debt is only ever the product of recklessness by a debtor, and that all debts have to be repaid in full, even if (by this stage) the debts involve Greek citizens paying German banks at artificial rates appropriate to an economy which was then twenty-five percent larger than it is now.  One of Varoufakis’ favourite approaches is to accept the analogy neo-liberals always draw between national and household economics. But for over a century, he responds, we would have allowed citizens to declare themselves insolvent, clear their debts and begin anew. What other than deliberate blindness prevents us from applying the same logic to an indebted national economy?

Deeper than this initial conflict, there is a much more profound clash about what economies are for – serving banks and companies, or people?

The logic of their clash shapes the areas into which the two economics ministers were constantly seeking to turn the discussion: for Varoufakis, the Greek debt was something that required an answer now, where the will of the people was sovereign, for Schäuble, no matter how people vote there is never an alternative to the rule of the investors. Let Greece starve a little, he sent the message back, and surely her people would come round.

For more than thirty years, we have let the Schäubles of the world rule, and it is not only Greece which has been impoverished: we can see their hand in the ever shrinking portion of the American and European economies that goes to wages, and the ever increasing portion of wealth taken by the 1%.

At Brest-Litovsk, of course, the Bolsheviks had to concede a humiliating peace, once almost worse than a continuation of the war, and yet within a further 12 months, their government had been entrenched, and it was the Hoffmans who had been consigned to history.

So it might still be – if in Spain, Podemos wins the election, if the struggle depends in Greece and if those resisting austerity in Greece can find solidarity in London and Berlin. If we are going to be free to breathe, the Europe of the future must first overcome the rule of the accountants.

Syriza and the poverty of philosophy



image: Giorgos Panagakis

For those of us who were until recently more sympathetic to Antarsya, the “other” left-wing coalition on Greece’s radical left, it is salutary to reflect on how well Syriza has done in the last month, and how poorly Antarsya has done by comparison.

The justification for Antarsya’s separate existence goes something like the following: Antarsya, unlike Syriza, is a coalition of the parties that believe that Greece can only be saved by a revolutionary transformation of the state. Syriza, unlike Antarsya, equivocates on this issue, and on the connected questions of whether the Greek government should remain in Europe or whether it should agree to pay any of the debt to its international creditors. Those who vote for Antarsya are voting for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism and, in so doing, they keep alive the possibility of a revolutionary politics. Syriza by contrast is merely reformist; and likely to every bit as shabby in government as PASOK, Labour etc.

Inevitably in the last election, Antarsya’s vote was squeezed to just 0.6% since the election became a referendum on the possibility of a left-wing government (which most politicised workers want), but by standing Antarsya has kept pressure on Syriza from the left. Its stance outside Syriza has all the benefits of being associated with a rising movement (the sales of Workers’ Solidarity the newspaper of one of Antarsya’s affiliates, have apparently never been so high), but none of the disadvantages of being associated with Syriza’s defeat, when that disappointment inevitably comes.

Who makes the revolutionaries?

Where this justification of Antarsya begins to fall down is with the assumption that the best alternative to a programme of reform is to offer a rival, programme of greater reforms. In this revolutionaries are different from reformists principally in that they ask for more. So Syriza offered Greek nationality to the children of all migrants; and, like a poker player, Antarsya “raised” them, by offering to legalise all immigrants in Greece. Syriza said that it would stop all the planned privatisations; Antarsya’s reply was to say that it would undo every privatisation in Greek history.

Using elections to make revolutionaries is not about out-bidding your rival, it involves an explanation of both any government under capitalism has only limited power, and how those limits can be overcome (only through a direct conflict with the international capitalist class). It is at this point that Syriza comes over as politically more sophisticated than Antarsya, because it had an analysis of its own limits as a reforming government (the European powers will not allow us to write off more than a small portion of our debt), and an idea of how to get beyond that limit (on the basis of agitation from outside parliament keeping pressure on the government, and on the basis of support from the left outside Greece).

Is protest enough?

In so far as they have a political strategy to deal with the problem of Syriza, Antarysa’s most articulate supporters are hoarding every example of Syriza’s betrayals, and counterposing to them the potential virtues of protest. The openings for a left-wing government in Greece are said to operate solely in relationship to the success of social movements. The reason why the Greeks have Syriza, it follows, while we are lumbered with TUSC, is that we only had the public sector pension battle while they have had 32 general strikes. But where is the mass movement supposed to come from, which will rise in such a direct and continuous fashion that it will be powerful enough to overcome the state? Syriza’s fault is said to be that it, like other reformist governments is continually conspiring to demobilise the mass movements by telling the workers to vote when they should be protesting.

Yet all of us who are watching Greece can see for ourselves that – admittedly only in its first two weeks, and so far during a honeymoon period – Syriza has not been demobilising the movements, rather it has opened new possibilities for them to emerge: by taking down the barriers outside Parliament, with the demonstrations in support of its attempts to renegotiate the debt, and by the propaganda of sending its ministers around Europe and demanding that the debt be renegotiated. It comes over as the equivalent in the parliamentary sphere of the trade union official you always wanted to have, the one who actually enjoyed a fight with the bosses, and did not back down at the first sign of trouble. People respond to a fighter: so far, the Syriza government is giving further confidence to the social movements.

Subject to the iron law that the global capitalist class has not simply renounced its hegemony in the face of a localised threat, neither will it, and therefore the big battles all lie ahead – Antarsya’s global supporters were wrong, and Syriza’s international admirers were right to challenge them, when the former predicted that Syriza would respond to power only by becoming increasingly moderate.

After Syriza us?

The final assumption that underpins Antarsya’s supporters is that the working class is Greece has an infinite set of opportunities and that if it should miss this one, that would not matter, since at another stage in the future another party would doubtless emerge on the left, which would be based on different people from different traditions, and would therefore be well placed to carry on the previously-missing revolutionary war against the state.

Should Syriza fail, it will not be simply politics as usual. The police and Golden Dawn will be jubilant, and their revenge on the movements will be no more tolerant than the counter-revolution now at work in Egypt.