Greece: postmodernism in power

March 7, 2015

From the March-April 2015 issue of News & Letters

Yanis Varoufakis, the Finance Minister in Greece’s Syriza government, shows where postmodernist attacks on Marx lead politically. 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” (“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, including one of the world’s most vibrant occupation and assembly movements, whose militancy Syriza worked to contain in 2011-12.

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

In Varoufakis’s hands, freedom is reduced to indeterminacy and contingency, which he counterposes totally undialectically to economic determinism. This repeats the postmodernist post-Marxist argument of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, which uncouples freedom from the emancipation of working classes from alienation 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, Varoufakis claims, 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—and pragmatic tactical maneuvers, 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 Louis Althusser, Mao Zedong’s perversion of Marxist philosophy. Mao revised the concept of contradiction to an indeterminacy, undermining Marx’s law of motion of capitalism. 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.

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.

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” (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. This is perfectly compatible with Varoufakis’s political actions.

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

Franklin Dmitryev

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