After the referendum: The ongoing Greek crisis

July 8, 2015

A presentation to the July 6, 2015, Chicago News and Letters Committees Local meeting, by Franklin Dmitryev

Whither Greece?

What yesterday’s referendum showed above all was that the Greek masses reject the austerity program imposed on them by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, in collusion with previous Greek governments, both conservative and social democratic. Over 60% voted no, even after a pro-austerity propaganda campaign by the mass media and heavy economic pressure placed on the people. By capping loans to Greek banks, the ECB forced capital controls and bank closings in Greece in the days ahead of the vote, making life even more difficult for the working class and the middle class.

But the country’s forces of revolt have erupted again and again in recent years, as the economy melted down and austerity was imposed. The huge demonstration in Syntagma Square last night celebrating the No vote was only the latest manifestation. In 2011 the strikes and occupations were among the most militant in the world, and the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens was one of the links between the Arab Spring revolutions and Occupy Wall Street.(See “Greek youth continue the struggle,” “Greece: Tahrir Squared,” “Greece, democracy and the economic crisis,” “Greeks fight austerity,” “‘We are all Greeks,’” and “Spain, Greece, Europe: capitalist crisis and revolt.”) What has been happening over the last five years is a confrontation between the forces of revolt in Greece—workers, youth, immigrants, women—and the ruling classes of Europe through its continental institutions, backed up by global institutions and especially by governments and investors in the U.S. and China.

Popular assembly in Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, May 5, 2012. Photo by Adolfo Indignado Cuartero,

Popular assembly in Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, May 5, 2012. Photo by Adolfo Indignado Cuartero,

Let’s be clear about what austerity means. The word makes it sound as if it’s all about debt. And there continues to be a massive debt problem in Greece. But austerity programs are always about restoring profitability to capitalists, and therefore include not only cutting state expenditures—especially social programs, pensions, and government employee wages—and raising revenues (mainly taxes), but also so-called reforms of the labor market, meaning measures to drive down wages and benefits and any kind of protection of workers’ health and safety, rights to organize, and so on, as well as weakening environmental regulations.

The debt grew so large in the first place due to state aid to capitalists floundering in the context of the depressed rate of profit in Greece, which has never recovered to its 1980 levels, which in turn were far lower than the country’s rate of profit throughout the 1960s. And then after joining the European monetary union, or Eurozone, “Greek capitalism lived off the credit-fuelled boom of the 2000s that hid its real weakness,” as the Marxist economist Michael Roberts put it in his blog last night.

Greece’s economy was devastated by the global economic crisis of capitalism that began in 2007, in the course of which the dominant powers within the European Union have made sure that the brunt of the burden has been on the shoulders of the working classes and on the more peripheral European countries like Greece. The people of Greece—workers, immigrants, refugees, the poor, women, the middle class, in fact, practically everyone to varying degrees—have suffered tremendously and continue to suffer.

The bailout that was instituted five years ago did nothing to help the Greek masses. Its purpose was to protect international banks and private investors, so it mainly transferred the debt owed them onto the shoulders of Greek and European taxpayer-funded institutions. The country’s economic depression has continued to worsen. Unemployment is 27% and for youth is more than one-half. Real incomes and pensions are down by 40%. The GDP has fallen by a quarter.

At the same time Greece’s fiscal deficit has gone way down, public sector jobs have been slashed, and “Greece has gone from one of the lowest average retirement ages to one of the highest. In this sense, Greece had undertaken the most significant pension reform in Europe even before the latest demands of the Troika” [from the same blog post by Michael Roberts].

Many economists and even an IMF official acknowledge that austerity has failed and is the wrong approach for Greece.  The IMF now acknowledges that the Greek debt cannot be paid.  So why do the Troika (the creditor institutions) keep insisting on austerity and stubbornly refuse to consider any writedown of the debt, although it has consistently been one of the foremost demands of the negotiators for the Syriza government in Greece? Some pundits like Paul Krugman, the Keynesian economist who writes for The New York Times, view it as dogmatic adherence to neoliberal ideology. But the pragmatic interests of profit-maximizing corporations have a way of neutralizing such dogmatism. No, the recalcitrance of the European institutions is not just about dogma. The truth is that the rulers are willing to risk a lot in order to keep the working classes in line. In this case they are risking the chaos that would ensue, maybe even a financial meltdown, if Greece were forced out the Eurozone, which could happen imminently.

Some commentators from the Left suggest that it’s really about getting rid of Syriza, which refused to just knuckle under to the institutions, and/or to add momentum to the international race to the bottom in terms of wages and living standards of the masses. Those purposes may well play a role, but what underlies it all is that the rulers want to quash the rebellion in Greece and prevent it from spreading to other countries. Workers have suffered to a greater or lesser degree in all of Europe, and the countries where austerity has been imposed and workers have suffered most—Portugal, Spain, Ireland—are among the ones whose governments most vociferously oppose any concessions given to Syriza. They don’t want to see revolt reawaken in their own countries and topple their governments.

Poets protest in Athens, Greece, against austerity in 2012.

Poets protest in Athens, Greece, against austerity in 2012.

As I said, the two opponents facing off in Greece for five years have been the Greek masses vs. the European rulers and their institutions. Until this year, Greek governments stayed on the side of the institutions. But this year one of the results of the masses’ opposition to austerity was that they broke down the two-party system and swept the previously marginalized Syriza, whose name literally includes the phrase “radical left,” into power. Syriza, however, despite its heated confrontations with the institutions, is not the masses. Rather, it is positioned in the middle between these two great forces, feeling pressure from both sides, which explains why Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seemingly caved in to some of the creditors’ most egregious demands shortly after he infuriated them by announcing the referendum.

Many of the left governments and parties in the world today identify themselves as populist, and even study the theory of populism put forward by the post-Marxist theorists Chantal Mouffe and the late Ernesto Laclau. Syriza, like other populist governments, sees the path to progress through using the masses, figuring out how to forge coalitions around specific issues like anti-austerity, even at the price of coalescing with reactionary forces like their governing partner, the Independent Greeks party, as taken up in our Feb. 3 statement, “On Greece and Syriza: Against the inhumanity of austerity, we pose the fullness of human liberation!” and the editorial in the March-April issue of N&L.

They remain in the middle between these two great forces, a position that becomes untenable when one of those forces is beaten back into submission. Thus the European negotiators have not only been trying to beat down Syriza’s government but use them to beat down the masses as well as throwing a monkey wrench into the economy to subdue the masses and attack Syriza’s popularity. However, while recognizing that a small country like Greece cannot win alone and must seek support from the peoples of Europe, Syriza has only spoken to the masses in other countries in order to get them to pressure their own governments. Syriza has not sought to stimulate the independent self-organization of the masses in those countries any more than it has in Greece. In fact, in 2011, when the Greek masses were most militantly self-active, Syriza tried to play a dampening role and rein in their militancy, partly in order to direct it into electoral politics, but more fundamentally because they do not trust mass self-organization and feel the need to channel it into Left party organization.

I do not have time to go into it much now, but in important ways this harks back to Raya Dunayevskaya’s critique of the radical intellectual Ferdinand Lassalle. (See Marxism and Freedom, chapter 4, and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, chapter 11.) Lassalle said his duty was to “bridge the gulf between the thinkers and the masses.” Dunayevskaya wrote that the opposite attitudes of the two intellectuals Lassalle and Karl Marx shed such illumination on the relationship of worker and intellectual as to “disclose the administrative type long before the administrators are armed with power” in the state-capitalist age. “Lassalle was the living proof that within the revolutionary movement itself the radical intellectual solution waits to strangle the theoretician who is blind to the creative energies of the masses. Lassalle was the anticipation of the State Socialist administrator of our day” (p. 77). This critique greatly illuminates the Left of today, so much of which sees Syriza as a role model precisely because their concept of socialism as planned economy has so much in common with that of the State Socialist administrator of the 1950s.

So let’s turn to the fatal philosophical deficiencies of currents within Syriza as well as some prominent ones criticizing it.

Let’s begin with Yanis Varoufakis, who just resigned as Finance Minister in Greece’s Syriza government, and who justifies his politics with echoes of certain postmodernist attacks on Marx. He remains important as someone able to articulate the theoretical basis of the actions of an important part of Syriza and the international Left. This self-declared “erratic Marxist” states forthrightly that the task of today’s Left is to save capitalism from itself, which requires “forging alliances with reactionary forces.” (See “How I became an erratic Marxist,” by Yanis Varoufakis, The Guardian, Feb. 18, 2015.)

In his mind, capitalism’s collapse would only help the Right so it becomes the Left’s task to save European capitalism “to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative.” However, the agenda he lays out is all about saving capitalism, not formulating an alternative.

Why in Varoufakis’s mind is the Left not in a position to oppose capitalism instead of saving it? One clue is his total lack of mention of the actual movement in Greece, today or in 2011.

He is correct that Marxist-Leninist and social democratic parties abandoned the category of freedom, which the Thatcher Right exploited. But he does not grasp why. Beyond much of the Left’s attachment to defending the totalitarian and clearly unfree USSR and China under Stalin and Mao as “socialist,” state-capitalism expresses itself in the administrative mentality that still pervades the Left. Leaving out freedom is no mere rhetorical mistake but a basic element of the administrative attitude.

In Varoufakis’s hands, freedom is reduced to indeterminacy and contingency, which he counterposes totally undialectically to economic determinism. This either/or repeats the postmodernist post-Marxist argument of Laclau and Mouffe. Their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics uncouples freedom from the emancipation of working classes through the revolutionary transformation of the mode of production. It suffuses his muddled revision of Marx’s concept of labor.

Not only does Varoufakis omit the domination of dead over living labor as what characterizes capitalism. He replaces it with “quantification” of labor, which he conflates with its commodification. This is a way to smuggle “indeterminacy” into Marx’s central categories.

On the basis of this revision, he blames Marx for the Left’s failures, insisting that we must “resist him passionately.” Marx supposedly knew “that capitalist dynamics spring from the unquantifiable part of human labor” and thereby “elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics.” He accuses Marx of toying with mathematical models so that Marx would not have to admit that his theories were “indeterminate” and “his ‘laws’ were not immutable.” The real target of his ire is Marx’s rigorously worked out law of motion of capitalism. Replacing it with “radical indeterminacy” justifies empiricist political oscillations—Varoufakis was earlier an adviser to Greece’s social democratic PASOK party—while downgrading the role of a philosophy of revolution.

Varoufakis is rooted in Laclau and Mouffe, who were intellectual leaders at the university where he earned his doctorate. They, in turn, took to its logical conclusion, via Althusser, Mao’s perversion of Marxist philosophy. Mao revised the concept of contradiction to an indeterminacy, undermining Marx’s law of motion of capitalism.

Dunayevskaya’s critique of Mao in Philosophy and Revolution (see Chapter 5, “The Thought of Mao Tse-tung”) provides keen insight into Laclau and Mouffe’s dismissal of dialectics. Mao’s “intuitionist and voluntarist alternative to dialectics” (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 162) constituted an attack on Hegel’s law of contradiction and a return to the retrogressionism that Hegel termed the Third Attitude to Objectivity, which rejects method and objectivity.

Laclau and Mouffe dismissed the Hegelian—and therefore also the Marxian—concept of totality because supposedly the necessity involved in mediation excludes all contingency. They thus vulgarized the Hegelian dialectic of self-determination into determinism. Their attack on dialectics leads to an absurdly implausible choice between binary opposites: absolute determinism or absolute contingency.

They make an absolute of difference, whereas to Hegel the dialectic of identity/difference is one of becoming—ceaseless motion and development—which they rule out. There is no positive in their negative.

The whole argument is based on vulgarizing Marx’s concept of “base and superstructure” to justify “indeterminacy” as an absolute—a new incarnation of Maoist voluntarism.

The postmodern attack on totality and “essentialism” winds up denuding post-Marxist theory of its class nature and historicity, to paraphrase Dunayevskaya’s critique of Mao (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 164). What constitutes and organizes social relations is now “discursive structure,” not, as Marx would have it, human praxis as it occurs within and against historically specific class structures and relations of production. According to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, even “the concept of mode of production had to be discarded as a legitimate object of Marxist discourse” (pp. 96, 100).

Moreover, “‘Society’ is not a valid object of discourse” (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 111). Let us bow to Margaret Thatcher, who famously claimed, “There is no such thing as society”! A Left rooted in this line of reasoning may very well come to power, but should not be surprised when it loses the ideological battle to the Thatchers of the world.

If “Society and social agents lack any essence” (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 98), then freedom is purely external to social agents, subjects of revolution do not create and determine themselves based on their social position and experiences, and there is no law of motion to society, no essence of capitalism, so abolition of capitalism is a merely contingent wish, not an essential goal, movement toward which inherently flows out of the social system’s internal contradictions. This is perfectly compatible with Varoufakis’s political actions. But then, Laclau and Mouffe reject the dialectic as “a doctrine about the essentially contradictory nature of the real” (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 124).

Our “erratic Marxist” throws out Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence and its power to open doors to a society on totally new, human foundations.

The Left Platform, an internal opposition within Syriza, criticizes Varoufakis and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, but is on the same ground. It favors an exit from the Euro monetary union as the only option. Costas Lapavitsas, a Member of Parliament who sides with Syriza’s Left, declared, “For Syriza to avoid collapse or total surrender, we must be truly radical,” warning against the illusion that Syriza could “change the balance of…forces in Greece and Europe…without breaking out of the monetary union and without coming into all-around conflict with the European Union.” Still, Lapavitsas and the Left Platform also want to save capitalism. He praises Keynesianism as “the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists” and dismisses Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as “terrible economics and a fetish.” (Michael Roberts ably criticizes Lapavitsas’s dismissal of Marxian economic theory, and his illusions about Greece’s ability to limit devaluation to 20% and negotiate a 50% debt write-off, yet Roberts stays confined within the vantage point of a Left government aiming to introduce “socialist measures” from above.) As steeped as Lapavitsas is in the monetary theory of administering capitalism, the limits of the “truly radical” shine through his disdain for revolutionary theory:

You don’t need socialist revolution in Greece, and you don’t need to overthrow capitalism in Greece to get rid of austerity….Politics…isn’t about theorizing, and it isn’t about lecturing in small rooms and so on. Politics is about society as it is….And the sooner that Marxists realize that, the more relevant and realistic their own positions will become.”

In contrast to the Left Platform’s illusions about breaking austerity within capitalism by breaking with the Euro, Antonio Negri and Raúl Sánchez Cedillo display an opposite illusion that remains on totally non-revolutionary, statist ground. (See “The hope of the democratic monster, between Syriza and Podemos.”) Saying nothing about the law of value, their basic economic category is debt, which somehow translates into “a European currency” being the bulwark against “the powers of global finance.” This currency will be democratized “by the majority of the European democracies,” so that instead of a banner of revolution we have “the central themes of the welfare state” and “democratic control of the European currency. This is the storming of the Bastille today.”

One of Spain’s new Left parties, Podemos—which, like Syriza, is steeped in postmodernist theory—has also made a splash among the international Left. Its founder, Pablo Iglesias, sees the path to change through winning elections, since 

the duty of a revolutionary is to win….That’s why we must bring together everyone who is committed to change and decency, which is nothing more than turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a manual for government….[Our program is] what any social democrat in Western Europe would have talked about thirty or forty years ago.”

Tellingly, he invokes Lenin, without naming him, as a genius able to formulate a simple message. In the 1917 Russian Revolution, 

He didn’t talk to the Russians about ‘dialectical materialism,’ he talked to them about ‘bread and peace.’ And that is one of the main lessons of the twentieth century.”

It is no accident that Iglesias separates Lenin’s concrete political message from both philosophy and revolution, in keeping with his own party’s pragmatic, reformist approach.

Lenin prepared for the 1917 revolution with a return to Hegel and a philosophic break with existing Marxism, including his own past. And while he is rightly critiqued for not making that philosophic break public so that it could help future generations confront the transformation of the successful 1917 revolution into opposite, he did ask Bolsheviks to study the Hegelian dialectic and he did fight to make his Bolshevik Party promote loudly to all the workers and peasants not just “bread and peace” but “All power to the soviets!”

What unites all these current tendencies is not the question of whether Syriza’s program is radical enough but rather that their program, the program of the Left Platform, the program of Podemos and those of prominent Left critics of these parties, all are programs for taking power and using the state either to save capitalism from itself or to move toward socialism, as they understand it—but are not based on releasing the self-activity of masses in motion as the prime mover of social transformation.

To use Lenin’s phrase, they are not based on the masses, “to a man, woman, and child,” controlling production and the state. Revolution is virtually absent from their concepts. And nowhere in sight is the question of what happens after revolution, when it can be transformed into its opposite or move forward toward freedom. Nowhere is there recognition of the fact that counter-revolution comes not only from the economic and military power of today’s ruling classes and their states but from their ideology, and that the philosophy of revolution in permanence is therefore needed to resist counter-revolution coming from within—before, during, and after the revolution.

When Karl Marx faced this kind of unprincipled unity, his answer began with making the distinction between joining together for actions and bargaining over principles. He did not stop there but went on to sketch a general view of the direction society needed to go after the revolution, “when a new generation can finally see all its potentiality put an end once and for all to the division between mental and manual labor,” as Dunayevskaya put it. (See “On THE Philosophic Point and Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy,” March-April 2014 N&L; also The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, p. 7.)

Marx opposed a Lassallean concept of organization that accepted the division between mental and manual labor, viewed the masses as backward, and therefore sought a shortcut to socialism through the state.

Much of the Left is intoxicated by the apparent path to power through broad, somewhat indiscriminate unity—never distinguishing between power to the Left and power to the masses in motion. Many would like to emulate that path by silencing theoretical differences in order to forge unity, perhaps electing one or two socialist city council members. The smell of even potential power clouds the historical memory of where this disastrous path led in the 1930s. The spontaneous actions of the masses, including occupations of workplaces, defeated fascism in France and dealt it a severe blow in Spain’s revolution; however, Popular Front governments stifled those spontaneous actions and ended in the Right’s victory. When the Left takes over administering the crises of capitalism today, where will the vision of an alternative—a society on totally new, human foundations—be? Who will fight those who would do the thinking for the masses, and specifically fight them by taking responsibility for breaking down the separation between the actions of the masses from below and the organization of thought that embodies the vision of a totally new society?

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