A Discussion of Syriza’s Referendum in the Current Crisis
Where has Syriza taken Greece? Which are the forces at play in the restructuring of the Greek economy? And what are the conditions of its radical critique? What follows is a discussion of Cognord’s text “Changing of the Guards”, including TH’s critical remarks on that text, Cognord’s reply to these remarks and Ady Amatia’s comments on the questions raised in this discussion. TH and Ady Adamantia are members of Sic collective.
For full debate, see SicJournal.org
Cognord, “Changing of the Guards”
— See full article here
TH, Remarks on “Changing of the Guards”
1. The insufficiency of the notion of a purely spectacular negotiation.
If we are to follow the machiavelian understanding of a staged negotiation, we are unable to understand what our comrade describes:
And when in May Syriza came up with a forty-seven page proposal officially declaring their will to continue with austerity, the negotiations collapsed after Eurogroup counter-proposals demanded further cuts at a level not ever demanded in the last five years of non-negotiated austerity.
If the continuation of austerity in Greece was the aim, then why was this proposal rejected? Syriza had already capitulated, and this was just a proposal, the 47-pages document could have become a 55-pages one without problem. European capital, and German capital in particular, would have never been able to even dream of such a chance to apply austerity in a ravaged country with a maximum of popular tolerance.
2. The specificity of the current Greek situation.
Understanding Syriza as just another Left to do the dirty job as usual is underestimating both the global crisis and the destruction of the Greek economy and society. Of course, a Jedi has to do what a Jedi has to do, and we are in a position to know a thing or two about any would-be manager of a piece of world capitalism with some traces of a human face. But radical critique has to understand what is new, different, specific, and how all this fits in the local and global inter-class and intra-class configuration. It cannot risk to be understood as leftist denunciation as usual.
3. What motivates the different capitalist forces in their attitude towards Greece?
In such times, globalization does not warrant that every disagreement and every confrontation is fake. There’s some real history going on, not everything is a staging. Radical critique cannot accept to rest on conspiracy theories, although some “conspiracies” do exist. History is not the deployment of a given script.
The explanation by a German greed to reap as much as possible and as quickly as possible from a battered Greek economy is rather out of the question. Everybody, including the IMF and any even remotely respectable economist, knew from the very start that the Greek debt was unsustainable and was never going to be repaid in full. As for real assets, German or other capitalists could easily get what they wanted if they put a somehow decent price.
The explanation by the need to impose German discipline on the rest of the Eurozone is much more plausible, but one should also see what it means. The lesson was already harsh, and the spreads on Italian, Spanish, etc., bonds were bound to rise in case of a Grexit. Did Germany intend to be more generous in such a case? Sheer sizes make this very relative. There can be no doubt that Germany intended to firmly impose its domination in Europe. However, there is also strong evidence that it has also methodically pushed for a Grexit. These last days it was revealed that Schäuble had already proposed a consensual Grexit to the then Greek Minister of Finance Venizelos back in 2011, and even after the ‘agreekment’ he is continuing to do so. A final agreement is not that certain.
A possible explanation could be that Syriza had to be utterly crushed, so that any thought of deviating from the one and only German TINA (or German-European, but let’s say German to make things easier) would be banished for ever. This is true, but the scenario of a ‘very brief passage in time’ for an anti-austerity Left had already been thwarted, as Syriza retained an immense popularity, much stronger than their election score. Why not sit back and watch Syriza dwindle through the application of the very austerity it had been elected to fight? An answer to this question has pointed to the imminent Spanish elections, but the acceptance of austerity by Syriza would have been a sufficient sign to any Spanish anti-austerity manager of capitalism.
The German push for a Grexit contained of course an element of propaganda. The bailout of, especially, German and French banks exposed to Greek debt through the public debt of Greece in 2010, presented the advantage of being able to blame everything on lazy Greeks, not on financial speculation. The same could be conveniently said about rising spreads in Southern Europe or about the recapitalization of Northern European (especially German and Swiss) banks through the draining of Southern European deposits. It is however to be noted that propaganda is never the decisive element. What Germany was pushing for was a compact Eurozone under its sway (I am told that recently there has been much talk in Germany about such a ‘compact’ Eurozone). Which means, among others, a stronger euro than in the case of a loose Eurozone. Some years ago German employers were pushing cries of alarm when the euro was rising compared to the dollar. This year their association declared themselves in favour of a Grexit. The core question is no more a weak euro to boost German exports. A strong and stable euro seems to be more desirable. This makes it cheaper to buy real assets in ailing countries (now Greece, tomorrow Italy, Spain, and so on). But it also means a strengthening of the position of the euro as an international reserve currency. Who controls this, can attract financial placements from all over the world, pay minimal to negative rates of interest on their bonds and, if need be, create money at will to dominate the world and impose a large part of global capital’s devalorization on others. Not bad, except that there is an incumbent.
How can one possibly explain repeated, and continuing, interventions by the US administration in favour of some German leniency for a Greece run by Syriza’s government? This came as a surprise to everybody in Greece, and the Greek Vice-Premier Dragasakis admitted yesterday that there would probably have been no agreement without US pressure. This also seems to fit well with an ever bolder attitude by France and Italy during the crucial last week of negotiations (not to mention the spectacular U-turn by Sarkozy in just one week – from Grexit, yes, absolutely, to Grexit, no way). An explanation for the American attitude, popularized by the media, is geopolitics. True, but the US could have insisted on Greece’s continuing membership in the EU and NATO and not bother much about the Eurozone. Another explanation, is American nervousness about the bursting of the [global] financial bubble. Also true, but not enough in itself. On the one hand, the Greek problem was known to everybody and discounted in the markets by the day. This is not usually the way bubbles burst. On the other hand, the financial size of the Greek problem was quite big, but not much compared to a similar situation in, say, Italy, not to mention the colossal size of the world market for derivatives. I think that one has to take account of what I mentioned about international reserve currencies. It is improbable that the US would refrain from fighting the emergence of a compact Europe under German control.
4. How are class relations reconfigured at the level of politics and ideology?
What is the mass behind Syriza in Greece, at least up to the agreement? Sociological insight will not do, whereas [Zaschia Bouzarri]’s remarks about the concrete forms of the decomposition of workers’ identity are more than relevant. Greece is of course not representative of the situation in other countries, but, being an extreme case of a ravaged ex-advanced country, it is useful in showing the shape of things to come. Partisan discourse has been eroded to an unprecedented extent. You can talk to almost anybody, including traditional right-wing voters, about almost anything. You can hardly tell a public servant from a (waged, semi-waged, unwaged, would-be waged or unemployed) worker or a pensioner or a shopkeeper, all united by a sense of a common situation, a common precarity, a common ruin. Voices are low, faces are serious, there is much discussion, confusion, schizophrenia, despair, and much, much anger. The surprising result of the referendum had little to do with hope or conviction; it was essentially anger against fear, and anger largely dominated. “The bastards are ruining our lives, we are not going to say thank you”.
I am seriously tempted to term this a meta-people. Little to do with what we used to call ‘people’, petty existences going after a petty survival, little to do with citizenism, with the affirmation of rights; it’s all about survival, about a community of distress, about an anger against the corrupted, the plunderers of public wealth, the tax-evading plutocrats, and what else. It is impossible to foresee anything, not least because of the actual globalization into the mega-capitalist crushing-pot. However, I cannot stop thinking of this meta-people as a possible foreshadowing of the proletariat to come: not in itself, not for itself, but against ‘them’.
July 16 2015
A Preliminary Response to TH’s Remarks
The article “Changing of the Guards” was written for Brooklyn Rail, after the request of Paul Mattick, and was the third part of a series on articles on Syriza. It does not stand on its own, but is a continuation – and thus quite often an expansion or addition – of points made in previous articles. So, some of the incompleteness that TH. identifies is addressed in previous articles. But, more importantly and beyond that, these are newspaper articles and not theoretical texts. I never claimed that any of them are complete, or that they aim at providing a consistent analysis of the current state of the capitalist crisis – in Greece or elsewhere. In the best of cases, my aim was to provide an expose of what is contradictory, non-sensical, illusory and false in Syriza’s proclamations and policies, in a more or less journalistic way.
Having said that.
The overall argument (in all these articles) is not that the “confrontation” between Syriza’s government and the Troika is “fake”. Rather, I asserted that the “conflict” between Syriza and the Troika was and remains at a spectacular level, which mystifies and politicises their differences in such a way as to present them as substantial. I stand by the assertion that opposing versions of capitalist restructuring are not essentiallycontradictory, or at least, they represent a contradiction at a level which is spectacular. From the point of view of proletarian subversion, the content of the disagreements, conflicts and breaking points of the “negotiations” is insignificant. As I wrote,
The ease with which both Syriza and the troika threw around these numbers was nothing but an indication of their contempt for their actual meaning. For what was there to see behind these numbers but imaginative variations which denoted tax increases, direct and indirect wage and pension cuts, and privatizations?
For me, this was the content of the “negotiations”. The percentage of VAT, the exact fiscal surplus, the specific amount to be gained from privatisations. In other words, austerity as the common ground, its extent and scope being the point of divergence. Did Syriza and the Troika disagree at this level? It seems so. Does it matter? Only if someone decides to prioritise certain forms of austerity over others.
For this reason, my claim was that the only real content of the “negotiations” between Syriza and the Troika (since February 20th), and since the option of Grexit was rejected by Syriza, was the way in which further austerity would be accepted in Greece without causing a social explosion. This became the essential selling point of Syriza, mirrored in Varoufakis’ quoted passage that Syriza is “uniquely able to maintain the public’s support for a sound economic program”. It does not take much to understand what a “sound economic program” was for Syriza.
The forms through which I expressed this, and the language used, could possibly be misunderstood as the expose of a “given script”, and as such, a “conspiracy theory”. This might well be the case (my English writing skills are limited), but sometimes this interpretation is simply a matter of perspective. Claiming that Syriza is in chorus with an aim of capitalist restructuring could be interpreted as implying a “conspiracy”. Or, it could be seen as a way of rejecting the notion that different understandings of capitalist restructuring are in fact actual contradictions.
TH. claims that “radical critique has to understand what is new, different, specific, and how all this fits in the local and global inter-class and intra-class configuration. It cannot risk to be understood as leftist denunciation as usual.” From the very first text on the Brooklyn Rail, I attempted to stir clear of the typical leftist denunciations of Syriza and tried instead to take Syriza’s proclamations at face value and then explain their inconsistencies. Maybe this was not successful, but this was the aim. In contrast to other radical left texts that I read (which more or less rejected Syriza merely for being part of the State, for being social-democratic etc), I avoided ideological denunciations. I accept that I did not write texts which explained “what is new, different, specific and how all this fits in the local and global inter-class and intra-class configuration”; I admit that this certainly sounds like a worthy undertaking, but – as was once said – “I don’t feel I am up to the task”. Nor do I see my role in this moment to do such a thing. But I don’t think that any analysis which does not live up to these standards is reduced to leftist denunciation.
In reference to the concrete example that TH. mentions in relation to Nantia Valavani’s statement it is, I think, again misunderstood. The question (“I would be interested to hear someone explain …”) is clearly addressed to supporters of Syriza, who kept proclaiming that – at least – Syriza is interested in a certain amount of “social justice”. Taxing the ship owners in Greece was part of Syriza’s pre-election campaign. The abandonment of this “promise” with the excuse that it runs against the Constitution is mere nonsense. But what is the key point here? Do I care if ship owners are taxed or not? Not in the slightest. Do I find this abandonment of a pre-election promise scandalous? That is also nonsense. If anything it is a simple indication that Syriza’s strategy was to promise everything to everyone, a strategy that was abandoned as soon as they became government and got busy establishing and normalising relations with representatives of capitalist accumulation in Greece. There was no hint in my article that Valavani is “on the payroll of ship owners”. That, I grant you, would be a “leftist denunciation”. And though I would not deny such a possibility, I would deny any interest in it. I also fail to see in what way my article gives the impression that the Greek mess is a “nice little crisis as usual”.
TH. points at a supposed contradiction between claiming that the “negotiations” between Syriza and Troika were “staged” (see second paragraph of my response for that) and the fact that Syriza’s 47 page proposal was rejected. But what he is ignoring in this case is what I provide as the undercurrent of these negotiations: the difficulty of making austerity acceptable in Greek Parliament (and by extension, to the Greek public). When the 47 page proposal was made, and it looked that a deal could be reached on its basis, Merkel’s response to the widespread enthusiasm on all sides was indicative: “First, this deal has to be passed by Greek Parliament”. This was the problem of the 47 page proposal. To maintain a spectacle of “harsh negotiations” (which was Syriza’s only selling point internally), the intransigence of the Troika had to be constantly re-asserted. And it was.
This was in effect the aim of the referendum too. It has become pretty obvious that Tsipras was actually expecting (and hoping) that the “Yes” vote would win in the referendum, as this would clear them from being responsible for imposing austerity. The stage was set: the mass media in Greece were clear in their proclamations that a “No” vote would mean that Satan would take charge, and there was not a single European official who did not add that a “No” vote would directly mean Grexit. But the result surprised everyone (Tsipras and the Troika) and their actions after were clearly to pretend like it never happened. This – and the signing of the eventual deal – has brought Syriza into a very fragile position, but given that neither Syriza nor Europeans see any credible opposition at the moment, this fragile position (with a possible coalition in the horizon if Syriza’s “rebels” gain momentum) is translated as a stable scenario. And this could well be the case.
The overall question on what exactly is the aim behind the treatment of the Greek economy by Eurozone officials is probably the key question, but at the same time the most difficult to answer. The most possible scenario that I can come up with is that a process of harsh devaluation will reduce labour costs to such a degree that the Greek economy might become competitive vis a vis other Balkan economies and not other Euro countries. This does not explain everything that has happened, but I have to admit that I find other explanations (such as “Germany’s need to discipline” or the notion of an attempt to “humiliate Syriza”) as vague and very problematic. To say the least, they “psychologise” the actions of centres of capital accumulation.
I agree that Germany’s quasi-open call for Grexit is partly propaganda and partly realistic. But I would explain this divergence between the two as an expression of the internal contradictions of Germany’s self-understanding. I have failed to find any credible account on how a Grexit (and its consequences) can be contained, and in this respect, I find the statement of the head of the Bundesbank (that a Grexit will have tremendous economic consequences for the German economy) more credible than the war cries of Schauble.
My concluding remark in the article is pointing at the same process. The underlying argument is that parts of the German political and economic class have fallen for the propaganda that they have created in relation to Greeks (“German taxpayers have been paying too much for those lazy Greeks”), to the extent that they end up believing it. The reality however (and I am convinced that key players are well aware of that) is that German taxpayers have not paid a single cent so far and they would only be forced to pay something in the event of a Grexit. The logic is quite simple: Germany’s gives loans (not gifts) to Greece that are repaid with considerable interest rates. Furthermore, the continuing crisis and instability means that German (and other) bond yields and borrowing costs are extremely low, something that allows them to save billions of euros (“One study, by German insurance giant Allianz, has calculated that Berlin saved 10.2 billion euros in 2010-2012 because of lower borrowing costs, as yields on its 10-year bonds fell from 3.39 percent to 1.18 percent now.”). On the other hand, it is also pretty clear that a Grexit would mean an immediate non-payment of Greece’s obligations, something that would mean the immediate loss of billions of euros, an amount far beyond the ridiculous 14.4 billion euros that Germany has already put aside in provisions linked to the euro zone debt crisis.
In relation to the US involvement, I fail to see where TH. bases his claim that the US has been lenient towards the Greek government. First of all, signing the deal yesterday (with the help of the Americans, as Dragasakis said) indicates no leniency whatsoever, as the deal signed is far worse than anything signed so far in Greece. Secondly, the position of the IMF (as a key representative of US interests in the eurozone) might appear as rather puzzling, but only at first sight. IMF involvement in the Troika has a clear deadline (March 2016). The continuation of its involvement might well be in the IMF’s interests, but in order to ensure that, they need to impose some debt haircut, not because they align themselves with Syriza, but simply because IMF rules forbid intervention and bailout agreements in countries that have unsustainable debts. The recent DSA of the IMF makes it clear that Greek debt is uviable and that if it is not cut, it will remain unsustainable and would thus preclude IMF continued participation in the program. And it is only through continued participation that the IMF (or else, the US) can ensure their involvement in Eurozone politics.
Last point concerning the mass that supports Syriza. While I would not deny the “decomposition of the workers’ identity”, I would refrain from reaching concrete conclusions of its implications at the moment, let alone come up with a narrative that sees a unification “by a sense of a common situation, a common precarity, a common ruin”. At the moment, the only thing we can say with some certainty is that a very large percentage of the Greek population (I would claim around 60%, in accordance to the referendum results) has simply had enough of austerity and can no longer tolerate it. This does not tell us what they would like instead, but it does point –negatively – at what they cannot live with anymore. For me, the overall situation in Greece indicates that what we should expect in the immediate future is an attempt by political parties (new or old) to take advantage of this huge, un-represented, gap. But it is clear that this (attempt at) representation will take the form of an open support for Grexit and a return to the drachma. The illusion that people’s lives can improve in any way within the eurozone has received its final blows with Syriza’s agreement. So the next “cycle of struggles” in Greece will most definitely take the form of a struggle between those will try to represent the “drachma party” and the rest. What proletarians will do in this context, however, remains to be seen.
July 16 2015
Some Thoughts on Cognord’s Text and TH’s Response
[…] How can a ‘people’ avoid being national and citizenist? I have not been in Greece in recent years to be able to clearly know what you mean. When I go back I notice a lot of destitution, physical and mental poor health and of course anger, which is, however, very often mis-directed (racism, frantic attempts to recover from ‘national humiliation’)… What has changed in ‘people’s’ discourse since the squares? That’s a very interesting question and I would like to know more.
Some more thoughts:
Having read Cognord’s texts, as well as his response to TH, I think his reassertion of his approach (to expose Syriza’s inconsistencies or manipulations) clarifies what I have a problem with. While his texts point out inconsistencies that should alarm any ‘believer’, I feel like this approach reduces things to the level of personalities and decision-making. Tsipras said this, Varoufakis said X and did Y, they gave in and they did not live up to their programme, and then they wanted to implement reforms anyway. But why did they do that? Would everything have been different if Syriza were real defenders of the interests of workers? There are certain limits once a self-proclaimed radical finds oneself as head of state, and these are the limits of capitalist reproduction. This is not because people’s personalities become corrupt by power, but because the state plays this very specific role. Example: the state has to manage the pension system, when there are no funds because they were spent on haircuts and debts, and because unemployment is 30%, so they decide to raise the pension age. Perhaps some expected Syriza to turn Greece into Cuba or to print money without currency reserves. The left wing of Syriza would indeed want Greece to become something like Cuba. But would that make life easier for proletarians or would it be even more disastrous? I am pretty sure I am not saying something new here that Cognord would not have thought about already, so then, what is then the point of this criticism? What are its implications and what conclusions does it draw? I feel as if Cognord is more angered by Syriza politicians than he is angered by the fact that it is now clearer than ever that the suffering for workers, unemployed, poorer pensioners in Greece has no hope of abating even slightly, regardless of what any Greek politician will do, and also, which is worse, regardless of how much they struggle. Yes, we knew that demands were asystemic, but I think things are even worse. Even the most defensive and modest of demands are asystemic, which means a relentless and very rapid worsening of life, the scale of which is unprecedented. We imagined communisation as destructive, but now it seems that even the slightest struggle has a ‘scorched earth’ scenario hanging over its head.
There is also one inaccuracy, by the way, in the introductory paragraph of Cognord’s recent text with the reference to the ‘minimal Keynesian’ programme: Lapavitsas, a Syriza MP, called the Syriza programme ‘mild Keynesianism’ ever since before the elections (check out his BBC interview). It is pretty clear that Syriza is an inconsistent party anyhow, but I don’t think it helps the analysis to depict all of them as self-interested cynics who colluded with EZ politicians to impose more austerity on purpose. This is not because I am convinced they are good people, but because a personalising analysis would suggest that, if they were more honest, then better things would come. But this is blatantly not the case. If they were more honest, they would either not have gained power at all, or they would simply resign because their programme is impossible, and Samaras would be back in power. These were the options. You can call me ‘reformist’, but I would not want a return of the ND govt, until perhaps Syriza manages to become absolutely identical to it, i.e., a government of outspoken racists. And I think that the passing of the laws to grant citizenship to 2nd generation immigrants, and of civil partnership for gay couples, however measly and limited, have practical and symbolic importance for these groups in a context where racism and homophobia, including the scale of abuse, have been on the rise. Yes, all the options are really dark, but some are downright hellish. That is why I see no point in either cheering for and excusing Syriza or vilifying them.
The real question is, in my view, what are the options now for class struggle in Greece? Because it is now clear that no matter what struggles do they will be crushed by a combination of heavy policing and currency blackmail, which was already the case, but now it has all become far more blatant. It’s easy to vote ‘no’, but total economic collapse is frightening in reality, and not only for those in power. The response to the absence of money is mass looting, of course, but can this really go further, especially if it only takes place in one country? We have seen again and again how quickly and violently social order is restored after such outbreaks. The other response to lack of money is alternative currencies and solidarity economies. We know the limits of these also. The most depressing thing for me though is the lack of significant mobilisations anywhere else in Europe except Spain (and these under the Podemos banner, which might mean they are about to be weakened).
July 17 2015