When a pause may be the best that could be acheived

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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).

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10 responses »

  1. The focus now is Monday, upon whether the privatisation of Piraeus docks will be in the list handed in by the sub-government, & so quasi-government, to one of their bosses, the group of euro Finance Ministers. In terms of inter-state relations is this an instance (very much first, not last) of the famed relative autonomy?

    Piraeus docks is home from home for the Greek Communist Party. A SYRIZA-KKE battle is beckoning.
    https://viewpointmag.com/2015/02/16/the-view-from-the-grassroots-an-interview-with-giorgos-gogos-on-syrizas-election-victory-in-greece/ (31Jan interview, long & detailed, with a SYRIZA Piraeus docks leader)

    Unfortunately, as a former Health Minister, Adonis Georgiadi, said, “[t]he only red line Varoufakis still has is the one on his jacket collar!” – “Η μόνη Κόκκινη Γραμμή του Βαρουφάκη που έμεινε τελικά είναι αυτή που έχει γύρω από τον γιακά του…γί´αυτό μάλλον το φόρεσε!”

    And as Schäuble said yesterday, “[g]overnment is a date with reality, and reality is often not quite as nice as dreams” – “Regierung ist ein Rendezvous mit der Realität, und die Realität ist oft nicht ganz so schön wie die Träume.”

    The Troika is dead, long live the Institutions. Aber für immer und ewig?

  2. I am not sure a pause is the best option at a time when the rich are pulling their money out of Greek banks left right and centre – if you are fighting what is essentially a class war then at some point you have to start seriously fighting back and yet Syriza have tragically so far just committed themselves to retreat after retreat, which is only going to give confidence to the class enemy. Of course this could change – it is a very fluid and contradictory situation – but so far the signs are not good.

    The idea that the leaders of Syriza are like combatative trade union officials is also a little bit problematic – of course it applies in the sense that the Clyde Workers Committee slogan of ‘when the officials fight for the workers, we support them – when they don’t fight we act independently of them’ – fits for how the Greek left should relate to Syriza – but in general the Syriza leaders have no organic connection to organised workers like trade union leaders have, (but they do have an organic connection to the Greek capitalist state machine – something trade union leaders don’t tend to have). And this is where one can’t simply duck the question of reform of revolution in the manner that in classic centrist fashion you would appear to like to do. Because the leaders of Syriza are reformists – albeit left reformists – they will always tend to prioritise the ‘national interest’ over the ‘class interest’ – hence their alliance with ANEL – and see the organised working class as at best a kind of stage army to be mobilised when necessary for limited purposes.

    Given the potential dangers of Syriza now following PASOK and becoming – in your words ‘the domestic police for a global project of austerity’ – and if the key question is putting pressure on them below – then perhaps you might admit you were now wrong to be so dismissive of Antarsya – who are trying to build a revolutionary organisation which is orientated first and foremost on the Greek working class and around independent self-activity of that class – and with elections a secondary question?

    Of course perhaps I am just being a ‘moralist’ here (or as Richard Seymour called me a ‘hidebound hack’ and ‘an obtuse, parochial leftist who gets all of his information and arguments from reading Socialist Worker’ who is just putting forward ‘stark morality fables about the dangers of ‘electoralism’’) for making such an argument – but I wonder what you and Richard Seymour would make of Rosa Luxemburg’s point that ‘The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society. The government of the modern state is essentially an organisation of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.’ Was what Rosa Luxemburg was arguing mere ‘moralism’ or a ‘stark morality fable’? Or was Rosa Luxemburg not a moralist but a Marxist making a basic Marxist argument?

  3. I have replied to Richard now – the reason I didn’t before was not so much because a lack of politics to be able to but a lack of time – sorry. Look forward to your own response…

  4. Thanks – I’m glad you did respond to Richard’s

    I’m not going to reply to all the points in yours as it would cover a whole fresh blog posts’ worth of material, but just on the Syriza = nationalists formulation. It relies on an analogy that doesn’t work, it mischaracterises Syriza, and I disagree with you about the bloc with Anel.

    First the comparison with Labour. Labour tries to govern not for the politicised working class but for the whole nation, and therefore it consistently picks “defence” over “disarmament”, etc

    But I don’t believe that Syriza thinks like that. It doesn’t have the same defence to royalty, the constitution etc. Hence – a very minor example – Tsipras’ civil rather than religious oath on taking office (http://news.sky.com/video/1415262/new-greek-pm-sworn-in). Blair would have been horrified by changes to the pomp of office, Miliband wouldn’t have had the guts to change it.

    As I read it, Syriza’s “nationalism” is a choice rather than a belief that some things are beyond political discussion. The analysis works something like the following:

    To stay in office for more than a few months, Syriza has to win the tacit support of serious sections of people who ordinarily identify with the political right. It can win their support because many of the people who vote for New Democracy, for example, are trade unionists (ND having a very serious base in the Greek union movement).

    Therefore it has to make certain concessions to them. But in choosing the concessions it makes, Syriza must not sell its soul, it can only making concessions on the minor matters and it cannot concede on its core programme.

    It needs to talk to the right without being taken over by the right.

    If you read people who are in Syriza and care about it but outside the national leadership, they are relatively clear about this process. EG in the interview with Giorgos Gogos the Piraeus trade unionist which I link to on my most recent piece, this is how he explains the Syriza approach –

    “Maybe what I’m say­ing is too roman­tic and has no polit­i­cal expla­na­tion, but it’s my per­sonal impres­sion. I’ve seen this in my union. Some con­ser­v­a­tive peo­ple have seen mem­bers of our union, left guys, who are com­mit­ted and hard-working, and through their exam­ple, they are per­suaded that no mat­ter if you left wing or right wing, when some­body is fight­ing for some­thing that is right, and if they trust you more and they are con­vinced but you voted for SYRIZA, it’s ok. If you want to make bread, you put in flour and water and you mix it together and after that you have bread. This process I think will take place in the gov­ern­ment and will be expanded to society.”

    Syriza’s nationalism is, in other words, tactical rather than strategic, and it is for a purpose, to retain the support of the majority.

    These choices were very express when it came to Anel

    Syriza could not ally with the KKE because the KKE had made it clear before the election it would not back Syriza (and since the election it has been voting consistently with Pasok and New Democracy – eg in the new government’s first “confidence” vote – the KKE could, for example, have abstained, instead it chose to vote against the Syriza government. I trust you would agree with me that the KKE were wrong to take this position?).

    After the election, if Syriza wanted to have a majority it could have formed one either by voting for socially liberal austerians (Potami) or Anel.

    The Miliband Labour party would course have gone for the fans of austerity (it is the Greek equivalent of the Blairites). Syriza’s choice was to say that it would back people who were serious about a fight with the troika even if they are on the right.

    Here’s Gogos again:

    “In the begin­ning, I was quite skep­ti­cal [about the coalition]. But the major­ity of 149 MP’s gives them [Syriza] the oppor­tu­nity to have a role in this gov­ern­ment. Greek soci­ety in gen­eral is not so pro­gres­sive. A big per­cent­age of Greek soci­ety is quite con­ser­v­a­tive, not only in its way of think­ing, in its way of act­ing, but in its way of approach­ing sev­eral issues, for exam­ple, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or human rights con­cern­ing immi­grants. These are issues that many Greek peo­ple are not in favor of. They are quite con­ser­v­a­tive. The vast major­ity of Greek peo­ple are not so reli­gious, but quite attached to the tra­di­tion con­nected to the Ortho­dox church. The oath that the new Prime Min­is­ter, Tsipras, gave was polit­i­cal, with respect to the leader of the Greek church, say­ing that I’m going to give a polit­i­cal oath but also I want your good wishes for this gov­ern­ment to go on. It sends a mes­sage. So you need a con­ser­v­a­tive party that can sup­port you in this strug­gle, in the com­mon fight against the mem­o­ran­dum poli­cies, and after that, I think the Greek peo­ple will real­ize that rec­og­niz­ing, for exam­ple, the mar­riage between LGBT peo­ple, it’s not cru­cial, you’re not going to be affected, you’re not going to be infected, it’s a human right. So you are more pow­er­ful hav­ing a con­ser­v­a­tive party in this and hav­ing already some time, a year, six months in power, and hav­ing shown that you believe in what you are say­ing and you fight for it and you want to imple­ment it. It’s impor­tant to have a con­ser­v­a­tive audi­ence in such a gov­ern­ment so as to trans­mit some ideas. It’s more clever, let’s say, to have them inside, and hon­est, in the sense that you can say to them, for exam­ple, ok guys, we have a prob­lem with some thou­sands of kids that are born here in Greece, their par­ents were cit­i­zens of other coun­tries and they have no cit­i­zen­ship, but they are Greeks, they are brought up here, they have been taught in Greek schools, they are our children’s friends, so we should give them cit­i­zen­ship, they are Greek people.”

    Those of us who come out of what used to be the IST are familiar with the distinction between a Popular Front and a United Front. At its essence is the distinction between an alliance in which the most left wing force bends and shapes the alliance, or one in which it adapts to forces to its right.

    While the present coalition is clearly not either of these formations, the essential question is what matters – has Syriza adapted to Anel?

    Here, I think the answer is pretty clear – on the examples given by Gogos, will the government legalise gay marriage, will it give citizenship to the Greek-born children of migrants – every indication is that Syriza will do these things, and Anel will not stop them

    http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/02/09/greece-to-give-legal-recognition-to-same-sex-couples/

    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/13/syriza-and-the-immigrants-of-greece.html

    Both stories you will note were written after the coalition deal was reached

    • Thanks Dave – agree the interview with Gogos is well worth reading. However when you say ‘the present coalition is clearly neither a Popular Front nor a United Front’ I think you downplay the sense in which behind Syriza – or at least the Eurocommunist founders of it – is precisely a vision of constructing a Popular Front in the sense of a ‘broad democratic alliance’ in the ‘national-popular’ interest of the Greek people – which does precisely make some sense of the alliance with ANEL if you see the struggle to be fought as purely an external one with the Troika rather than also about questions of class power and state power in Greece itself. There is more to the distinction between a Popular Front and a United Front than simply which side of an alliance influences the other side – fundamentally as Trotsky wrote over and over again – it is about the class forces involved in the alliance to begin with. Trotsky favored a United Front of the working class – which would in itself be strong enough to pull the petit-bourgeoisie behind it without needing to make adaptations and concessions to nationalist ideology etc. Surely you remember some of this stuff from your years in the SWP?

      • Christian, I accept of course that if Syriza were thinking in Eurocommunist categories that the Anel alliance could be justified in those terms. But I don’t agree that this is how the people involved have understood or justified it. In particular, I don’t know if you read Richard’s attempt to read the coalition in more theoretically elaborate but actually very similar terms to the ones you are setting out? And the reply here, from someone who is a prominent member of Syriza: “This alliance has been, I’m afraid, a forced and quite pragmatic type of choice, devoid of any grand strategic design.” Personally, I’d assume Stathis is right on this one

      • And a further PS – I never responded to your quotations from Rosa Luxemburg. You do of course wholly misunderstand her.

        She was writing during the second half of the Dreyfus affair when it became apparent that high politics in France was moving to the left and that there was likely to be a Radical cabinet which might expect the Parliamentary support of the French socialists who would be rewarded with 1-2 ministries in return. The politics of this situation should be apparent – merely Parliamentary arithmetic dictates that it carried the immense risk of pulling socialists to the right and giving them the blame for policies they didn’t control (as has happened to the admittedly unprincipled Liberal democrats in Britain, for example, as a result of their coalition with the Tories).

        If you read her whole article, rather than merely the extract at the end which is quoted in an ISJ article, Luxemburg believed that playing this role – as a minority in a government you didn’t control – was thoroughly inadvisable but legitimate in emergency circumstances – https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1899/11/dreyfus-affair.htm

        So she was defending the majority position of the Kautsky-era SPD from Bernstein’s supporters and their French counterparts.

        What she was NOT considering is whether a Parliamentary majority of socialists was allowed to form a government – or whether there was some rule of socialist theory which says that in this unhappy circumstances they must first demand the abolition of Parliament and its replacement by a Soviet system.

        There is no Marxist consensus in history or anywhere else which says that it is inappropriate for socialist majorities in Parliament to form governments – indeed you might enjoy this article from the old IS which saw things rather differently to the way you do – https://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/peter-sedgwick-the-unilateralist-state/

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