Tag Archives: austerity

Learning to think like a revolutionary

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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 Austerity Games

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When Seb Coe invited the International Olympic Committee to select London as hosts of the 2012 Games he justified the bid in simple terms. If London won, he promised, more people would take part in sport than could be achieved by any of London’s rivals: “Choose London today and you send a clear message to the youth of the world: the Olympic Games are for you”. If London won more would be done for less money than could be achieved anywhere else.

Since London’s victory there have been some attempts to keep an eye on whether these two promises have been met. The London Organising Committee (LOCOG) publishes annual accounts, and there has been some scrutiny through the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

It now seems clear that there will be no increase in sporting participation as a result of the Games. In 2008 the last government set Sport England a target to increase adult participation in sport by a million by March 2013.

Civil servants from the Department for Media, Culture and Sport told the PAC in March that they believe sporting rates have increased by around 100,000 over the last four years (the number of adults taking part in sport has increased by around 1 percent).

LOCOG’s publicity says as little as possible about adult involvement in sport, although there are frequent references to the number of schools which have been sent Olympics merchandise (a cynic would suggest that this has also been a cheap way of disposing of tens of thousands of items marketing the main Olympic sponsors).

As for cost, the London Olympic bid was for £2 billion, of which, it was said, the majority would be raised from the private sector. In fact only some £700 million or so has been raised from the private sector.

The total cost to the public, has risen from £1 billion (in the original bid) to £11 billion according to latest reports.

The PAC is critical of a number of decisions LOCOG has taken, including decisions about security. The Olympics organisers’ security forces will include Typhoon jets and two amphibious assault warships, one of which (HM Ocean, which houses 800 marines) is to be stationed on the Thames for the duration of the Games. These are the most grandiose of “conventional” weapons. What are they intended to protect us against – a surprise attack by Argentinean hockey players?

Between 2005 and 2011, the organisers budgeted for 10,000 security guards costing £282 million. In late 2011 a decision was taken to increase the total number of security personnel (including soldiers) to 23,500 costing £553 million. LOCOG chose to give the contract for 6,000 additional security guards to G4S, a business which has a track record of granting well-remunerated non-executive directorships to former members of both Tory and New Labour cabinets.

“There is no evidence”, the PAC writes, that “the government has secured any price advantage” from renegotiating this contract.

In other words, although you might have thought that buying services on this massive scale would lead to a price reduction, the government and LOCOG appear to have accepted the first offer that G4S put to them. Don’t assume that the workers will benefit from LOCOG’s largesse. In a letter sent by Seb Coe to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in January 2012, LOCOG spelled out how G4S’s contract will work.

Big salaries for some

Nine hundred and four managers are going to be employed at G4S’s Olympic Project Management Office on generous salaries. As for the 16,000 or so security guards to be provided by G4S, they will be paid just £10 per hour. And G4S are “incentivised” (in their contract with LOCOG) to “identify saving opportunities in labour costs”. So if agencies can be found who will pay their workers less than £10 per hour, G4S will keep the difference.

Seb Coe is being paid £350,000 per year of public money for the Games. Meanwhile LOCOG chief executive Paul Deighton is being paid £800,000 per year, and altogether 16 executive directors of LOCOG are being paid in excess of £150,000 per year.

Just as there are two British economies, so it is at the Olympics: the rich are in permanent boom while the majority of workers find themselves in deep recession.

[from Socialist Review, May 2012]