Tag Archives: Syriza

On the Independent Greeks; and on Alliances

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kammenos

Six weeks ago, when Syriza formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks a common view among my friends was that this was Syriza’s first betrayal and that others would inevitably follow. The story was familiar; outside government, Syriza had promised to do politics differently, including granting 100,000 migrant children in Greece full citizenship, tearing down the refugee camps and rehousing the people in them. It would be the greatest challenge to Fortress Europe in a generation. But electoral parties are no different, the pressure of keeping in office always moderates reformists. And by joining with the racists of the Independent Greeks, Syriza was indicating its willingness to compromise on everything.

This pessimism was always unconvincing. After 40 years of left-wing parties exercising ever greater efforts to show how little they differ from the press-business neoliberal consensus, paling their flags an ever lighter pink as they went, Syriza is very clearly a different sort of project. And it was never going to be exhausted merely by its first, incomplete, compromise.

Being short of a majority in parliament, Syriza had no real option but to do a deal with someone. The KKE had already refused an alliance, foreshadowing its present position which is to vote with New Democracy and PASOK. The only other option, the River, was a party of neoliberal enthusiasts for cuts; on the central issue facing Greece –  austerity – the Independent Greeks were Syriza’s only possible allies.

And there are many different kinds of alliance. Such was the Parliamentary arithmetic (Syriza only needing two votes for a majority) that Tsipras had no need to water down on his commitments. This was reflected in his party’s deal with the Independent Greeks, where the two parties agreed to vote for migration policy along party lines (ie Syriza will get these measures through without needing the Independent Greeks’ support).

Far from dropping its promises, Syriza has renewed its commitments, on citizenship, and on the camps. The migration minister is Tasia Christodoulopoulou, doyenne of Greek migrants’ lawyers – the equivalent in England of giving our unreconstructed CLR James-ite Ian Macdonald the job. Indeed even the wretched four-month bailout deal has given Syriza additional reasons to maintain its promises to migrants. Precisely because its economic programme has become harder to implement, Syriza has needed to show that its social programme remains undiluted.

At this point, the voice of conscience intrudes. Isn’t the whole point about left-wing governments (or, at least, those worthy of the name) that they make no compromises, and in particular they do not, under any circumstances, make an alliance with conservatives or racists?

It may be helpful to review at this point some of the compromises that the party most often cited as a comparison, the Lenin-era Bolsheviks, made with its enemies. Brest-Litovsk, the recruitment of Tsarist officers to senior positions in the Red Army, one-man management in industry, the NEP, the Rapallo peace treaty under which the German military hosted its research facilities in tanks and chemical weapons on Bolshevik soil. The pamphlet in which the Bolsheviks drew up a balance-sheet on their experiences drew the inevitable conclusions – “to reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously. A political leader who desires to be useful to the revolutionary proletariat must be able to distinguish concrete cases of compromises that are inexcusable and are an expression of opportunism and treachery.”

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks is no outsider, having been an MP for New Democracy for 20 years and a former minister for the shipping industry. The majority of its MPs were recruited like Kammenos from the anti-bailout wing of New Democracy, although they have had at least one MP come over from PASOK. The party is fiercely nationalist, and enthusiastic about the Orthodox church. Its racism expresses itself in two ways, first, in a hostility to migrants, and second, in a tendency to explain the Greek debt crisis in terms of banks, and therefore Jews, who stand in familiar anti-Semitic trope as the imaginary, physical embodiment of all that is wrong with finance as opposed to industry.

Just as Syriza has profited from “pasofikation” (ie the dramatic collapse of the main party of the centre-left, in conditions where it ceased to offer its voters anything), the Independent Greeks seem to have their own plan to become over 5-10 years the main party of Greece’s political right. They act as if they believe that austerity will ultimately be cancelled, and that all the parties which attempted to enforce Greece’s debts will wither. One of the Independent Greeks’ key proposals is therefore to investigate the terms under which during the second half of the 2000s New Democracy agreed to a massive increase of Greece’s debts, and to prosecute the ministers responsible. A deal with Syriza, from this perspective, is merely the means to an end: the complete reconstruction of the Greek political system and the defeat of New Democracy, after which it will be left vs right politics as usual.

English writers tend to compare them to UKIP, but they are in other respects more akin to the kinds of far-right “independents” that became the third power in the House of Commons between 1918 and 1920, in a period of intense paranoia about German power. To understand their appeal you may recall the inventor and champion of middle-class life but serial debtor, Caractus Potts, in his war with the Vulgarian (i.e. German) Baron Bomburst. Beneath the castles of the Baron’s power are the children of the poor, held in debt bondage through the medium of the (Jewish) childcatcher. The secret of German power, it follows, is its hold over the debt. If only the Baron can be captured, the children will go free. But who will defeat the Baron? You could scour Ian Fleming’s books (or those of his predecessors Erskine Childers or John Buchan) for an answer but you will find none.

Kammenos’ thinking suffers from the same weakness: the Independent Greeks are furiously anti-austerity, and blame Troika, and behind them “Germany”. During the negotiations, they were if anything harder against compromise with the Eurozone than Syriza. In contrast to them, Syriza has an idea of how to renegotiate the balance of forces within Germany – by encouraging the election of anti-austerity parties in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and by promoting anti-austerity leftists in Britain, German, etc. The Baron can be defeated in other words, by the German Left Party, or (beneath it) by the German working class. Short of switching Greece’s client status to some alternative backer wealthier than Germany, Kammenos has no equivalent plan. His racism, in other words, constantly limits the desire for national independence which is his party’s rationale.

Syriza’s strategic thinking in response to the Independent Greeks appears to be as follows. The tasks facing the left (which remains a minority) remain too large for the social forces available. Therefore, the left has to try to split the right into two parts, a first with which it is possible to work, and a second (New Democracy, Golden Dawn), who are or will be beyond the pale. The Independent Greeks are sufficiently robust allies, not merely because they are committed to anti-austerity politics but because their social base reflects above all the influence of the Orthodox church, which has a very wide but very shallow hold over large parts of the Greek people and even dispossessed classes. If the recomposition of the left happens on the terms that both Syriza and the Independent Greeks want, Syriza predicts, the destruction of both Pasok and New Democracy, will not just result in the replacement of one old left-right rivalry with a new one (Syriza versus the Independent Greeks), it will also lead to a shift between left and right, with the future balance of powers foreshadowed by Syriza’s present hegemony in the coalition (it has 12 times as many seats as the Independent Greeks). Syriza will win because it will prove to have been the better fighters against austerity – and the (limited) polling evidence to date appears to be that it, rather than Independent Greeks, has been winning the most voters from New Democracy since the election.

An obvious attraction of this thinking to those of us outside Greece is that is a strategy for dealing which the right which envisages a victory over it. As such, it has an advantage over our usual way of thinking in which the right represents a significant social layer (the petty bourgeoisie) which has a static position of utter hostility to the workers’ movement, and whose racism is permanent and unsatisfiable. We have an idea that if this class throws up outlier parties, they may become so unpopular that we might isolate and physically defeat them. But we have seemingly no conception at all of how to go beyond a situation where they are not outliers but more respectable, and we (rather than they) are the unpopular minority.

Now the fact that a party has a plan does not mean that it is guaranteed to succeed. The gamble (as it is best characterised) risks treating the “left” and the “right” as if they were objective political realities rather than temporary relationships. Precisely because Syriza has had some success in quarantining off the bad parts of the right, they risk over-using the tactic. You can see this danger when it comes to the pending  prosecution of the leaders of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi revivalists, with their base in the police and their 5% of the vote.

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

There is a second area where the alliance with the Independent Greeks bears a risk; and it is in terms of Syriza’s analysis of its  problems with Europe. Because they are advocates of simple, conspiratorial thinking, the Independent Greeks tend to explain all of Greece’s difficulties simply in terms of “Germany”. Here they risk bolstering some in Syriza for whom neo-liberalism in Europe is a German  phenomenon, and all sorts of alliances (with the United States or Britain or with Italian or French technocrats) remain potentially open. The alternative tentatively emerging within Syriza, which gives the greatest weight to explaining the balance of forces honestly to the party’s supporters, is incompatible with that sort of fantastical thinking.

The alliance with the Independent Greeks remains a difficulty, then; even if it is not yet the fatal germ against which Syriza’s original critics warned.

A European Strategy for Syriza

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Guest post by John Palmer

[After the discussions in the comments on my blog last week, I invited John to write an article fleshing out what Syriza could gain from a policy of staying for as long as possible within the Eurozone]

GREECE-FINANCE-ECONOMY-FLAGS

In the politically highly charged post-mortem into negotiations between the Syriza government and the Euro-area powers, one fact should not be overlooked. In spite of the widespread view that Athens suffered a humiliating set back at the hands of the German government and its allies, the latest opinion polls show that more Greeks than ever support Syriza – enough to give them an overall majority in a new election.

This should not be entirely surprising. The mass of Greek voters do not blame Alexis Tsipras, or his finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, for the dogmatic refusal of Berlin and Brussels to recognise that their austerity strategy has failed. They also believe the Euro-area leaders – as well as Syriza – also had to make concessions. As the US economist, James Galbraith has put it: “What happened was that at the end of the day, the creditor countries and the creditor institutions took a step back. There had been through the entire process a very firm position taken by the German government that you had to sign up to the existing loan program, all of its conditions, lock stock and barrel, no changes that the elections have really meant nothing.

This was an untenable position. It was a position that over the time of these discussions lost the sympathy of the European Commission, and I think also of the International Monetary Fund, and also of several other major governments. And it was a position from which the German government at the end of the day took a step back, agreeing to the essence of the Greek position all along, which was to have a financing arrangement that would be in place over a four-month period, and then discussions about the specific terms, based upon a list that was submitted yesterday to the institutions.

So that strikes me–I wouldn’t call that a capitulation; I would say that what happened was that the German government, having taken a very tough line through the process, took a step back from that tough line in order to secure a basic framework agreement for going forward. And that’s where we are now.”

No one in their right mind would suggest that Syriza is winning the struggle to defeat mindless austerity or that the pressures on Athens to retreat will not be re-doubled in intensity in the weeks ahead. I agree with those who urge Tsipras and his comrades not to gloss over the compromises they have been forced to make or the profound challenges ahead. In that sense, they should emulate the Russian Bolsheviks who never denied the terrible price they had to pay to Imperial Germany for the Brest-Litovsk treaty ending Soviet involvement in the First World War.

Some of the criticism of the Syriza strategy made by the Greek and international far left is, however, based on misunderstandings. For example those calling on Athens to defy Berlin and impose capital controls to prevent money being drained from the banks do not realise that this can be done under Euro-area rules. This what the Cypriot authorities were forced to do last year. It may be something Syriza adopts but the recent statistics show that capital is starting to return to Greece.

Leaving aside the Greek neo-Nazi and populist far right, and a small minority on the left, the mass of Greek workers rightly suspect – indeed fear – talk of abandoning the Euro. They remember the disasters which Drachma devaluations brought in the past and suspect it would mean an even more terrifying collapse in living standards.

But are the Greeks right in believing that Syriza should struggle to change the Euro-area, indeed the European Union itself, from within? Is there the remotest chance that Syriza could trigger a shift in the balance of class forces needed to secure a radical change of economic policy? Where in the EU are the allies to be found else to bring this about?

It is essential here to avoid exaggeration. But there are some signs that popular opinion in most EU countries is swinging against any prolongation (let alone intensification) of austerity. It takes different forms in different countries. In Portugal even the leader of the Social Democrats (the Mayor of Lisbon), who is favourite to win the next election, has declared he will negotiate an alternative agreement with the Euro-area authorities.

Of course we should not hold our breath. But the financial markets will be quick to see another crisis point in Portugal if talk of an economic policy change grows. Should a forced Grexit be seen as pre-figuring a possible Portuguese or even Spanish default, Berlin will be at risk of losing astronomic amounts of money.

Indeed why stop there? Market suspicion could easily fall on France and/or Italy – which may be why Berlin has just agreed to give both government more time to come into line on deficits and debt. Of course the right wing governments in Lisbon, Madrid who have insisted on the unpopular austerity policies are desperate they are not exposed by any concessions given to Athens.

The European Commission has already signalled it favours some relaxation of the current terms of the Greek austerity “agreement.” The balance of opinion in the elected European Parliament is in favour of even more substantial concessions because austerity has only succeeded in increasing rather than decreasing indebtedness.

Another important factor working Greece’s favour is the growing alarm among mainstream academic economists that the austerity card is being overused. In any future policy review it would not be surprising if even bodies like the IMF and the European Central Bank signalled to Berlin and its allies that some fiscal relaxation was in order.

None of this is to attribute any inherent or dependable progressive orientation to the EU institutions. They reflect the ideological tenor of the great majority of pro neo-liberal EU national governments. Nor can any confidence be placed in the mainstream social democratic parties whether in opposition or in coalition with the right – as in the case of the German SPD.

But political parties have to keep a keen weather ear on the fluxes in public opinion. Tolerance of austerity is wearing thin which is one reason why some even the populist far right – such as the French FN – is giving expression to public anger about public spending cuts and falling living standards.

Important in this context are the signs of a new restiveness stirring among workers in both northern and southern European countries. In Germany the Metal Workers have just forced through a major, inflation busting wage increase and public sector look set to follow. There have been strikes by airport workers against job losses in Denmark, Finland and by Portuguese transport workers against privatisation plans.

None of this is to suggest an imminent change in the economic or the political balance of forces which Syriza will have to confront in its struggle to survive and to win tangible relief for the Greek people. Pressure is growing from hard line right wing German tendencies (Alternative fur Deutschland, PEGIDA but also within the CDU/CSU) against any concessions to Greece.

A swing to the right in the recent Hamburg election brought Merkel’s CDU percentage vote down to the mid-teens.  Little wonder Schauble and co are worried.

I agree with those in Syriza (and commentators like David Renton) that Syriza must strengthen the societal groups at its base and ensure the government is more actively accountable to them. This will, however, involve these organisations also taking some very hard decisions on priorities and compromises. The Greek foreign ministry should be encouraging the maximum contact between Greek social interest groups – obviously including the trade unions – and comparable organisations throughout the European Union.

The next weeks will be crucial. It will be essential to use the maximum political leverage to ensure a substantial revision of the terms of the policy review. But Syriza cannot avoid having to play a longer term strategy. It should be judged by how it balances these priorities with maintaining the commitment of its support base to fundamental change both in Greece and throughout Europe. That is why it is bound to be a lengthy war of positioning.

For those socialists who regard their political pedigree in some sense as derivative of the so-called “IS tradition” I would like to quote from a leading article on the issue of European integration written in 1961 during the first debate on British membership of what is today the European Union, by the first editor of ISJ, Michael Kidron: For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure.”

Demanding the right to breathe

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50days

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

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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 debate in Syriza concerning Grexit

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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

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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).

When demonstrations are not enough

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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.