Greece Crucified

ws jimagesAlexis Tsipras justified his humiliating U-turn, and commitment to imposition of austerity worse than he had just rejected, by saying that he had no mandate for Greece to exit the Euro.  Very true.  But he had just claimed that the referendum a week before had not been about the Euro.  By 61 to 39 per cent he has no mandate for austerity, which is what he said the referendum was really about.

He came into office promising an end to failed bail outs and has ended with a third one bigger than the first.  He called for debt reduction and now seeks support for debt inflation.

Such is the scale of the crushing terms of the latest ‘bailout’ that no one is attempting to say that it is nothing other than complete humiliation for Greece.  Even the Eurozone bureaucrats stated the truth behind the unpalatable words spewed out by their leaders – Tsipras had been subjected to “mental waterboarding” and had been “crucified”.

What has been mental torture for Tsipras will be brutal and catastrophic austerity for the Greek people.

I could write a whole blog on the capitulation of Tsipras and what looks like the majority of Syriza, and there would be good political reasons for doing so.  The policy and strategy of Syriza has been endorsed by Irish opponents of austerity such as Sinn Fein and these now lie in tatters.

In fact in my own view Sinn Fein is not even as radical as Syriza and this is an easy claim to substantiate.  It has already implemented austerity in the North of Ireland while hiding behind opposition to some welfare cuts.   In the South it supported the fateful decision to make the debts of corrupt banks and property speculators the burden of Irish workers and in doing so made the struggle against paying this odious debt much more difficult.

But there will be plenty of voices pointing out that what radical politics Sinn Fein has to offer have been trialled in a real life laboratory and been found wanting.  The capitulation of Syriza is in principle no greater than the Republican’s own acceptance of British rule in Ireland, acceptance of partition, surrender of weapons and dissolution of the IRA.  But that is all now a history that no one wants to talk about.

What is more important therefore is to try to understand what has happened and whether it could have been any different.  Not that it must be accepted that the ‘coup’ against Greece cannot or will not be resisted.  It can and will but it would be blindness to reality not to acknowledge that under Syriza the fight against austerity has suffered a demoralising defeat.

As that new aphorism says: it’s not the despair, I can take the despair.  It’s the hope.  Syriza gave hope.

Working out what has happened is not easy. For the man or woman on the street they see television reports of quantitative easing by the Eurozone involving the figurative printing of  millions of Euros by the European Central Bank, yet this same institution is involved in the vindictive pursuit of Greece for sums it could easily accommodate.

The proposals of the conservative leaders of the EU seem equally hard to understand or justify.  In fact for many they seem stupid, if not crazy. So draconian are they that they seem designed to achieve the very opposite of what they claim to be for.

The imposition of yet greater austerity when this austerity has demonstrably failed might be explained by ideological blindness.  And the humiliation involved might seem to invite rejection while being another attempt to remove Syriza from office.  But many commentators have explained that Syriza may possibly remain the only force that can push austerity through without complete chaos and collapse.

This humiliation is perhaps not just a message to a small and weak Greece but an unmistakeable one to a larger Italy and France: that the development of the EU will be under a model defined by Germany and its allies.  Yet even here the degree of malevolence can only invite small countries with parties equally blinded by reactionary ideology as Germany to wonder just what fate would befall them in an EU with such a definition of ‘solidarity.’

So while ‘good’ reasons might be found for what would appear to be ideological blindness the proposal for a “timeout” exit by Greece from the Euro appears as simply stupid; unless of course it is also a means of pushing Greece out permanently. But then it is such a stupid idea as justification that its purpose might only seem to be how open the imperial bullying can become, ‘pour encourager les autres’.

For the Greek people the surrender of even nominal control of their affairs is way beyond what has gone before.  The original proposal to ring fence €50 billion of Greek assets under German control,  to be sold at the discretion of its creditors, was such an open declaration of debt bondage as to render the humiliation utter and complete. What is yours is no longer even yours to sell.  Now it is reported it will simply be wasted on insolvent Greek banks with the needs of financial capital once again talking precedence not only over people but over real productive activities.

Thus in many ways, its failure to actually work being the first, its effects on undermining the legitimacy of the EU second and materially weakening the incentives to solidarity among its members third, all make the bailout deal a defeat for the idea of a European Union.  This is not even a European imperialism to rival the US, Russia or China but an imperial core and vassal periphery.

The price being paid seems so unnecessary because the main demand of Syriza – in order to give hope and reduce the impact of austerity, i.e. debt forgiveness, will be given and is already hinted.  Not in the shape of outright reduction but in the form of postponing or extending repayments and similar measures on the interest due.  After all, what cannot be repaid will not be repaid.

What matters however to the right wing conservative leadership of Germany, the Netherlands etc. is that their strength, and by extension that of the European imperialist project, is not diluted by the weak European nations and that the Euro remain in position as a world currency and not a vehicle for default and certainly not by what is considered an advanced nation.  Greece must be bled dry in order that the Euro remains strong and the pretensions of the EU remain in place.

The vision of a united Europe is not being abandoned by Germany etc, but it is one in which austerity is the bond that unites. It can be claimed that austerity will be inflicted on German workers if crisis hits the German banks; except of course that Germany has broken the rules before and would do so again.  It is easier to be ideologically blind when the price is paid by someone else.

Could it have worked out differently?    Syriza had hoped that enlightened self-interest would have combined with pressure from the US and the legitimacy gained by the referendum to mitigate the demands for austerity by Germany, The Netherlands and all the other little right-wing led states that curry favour with the powerful.  They have been rudely disabused of their illusions.

The more fundamental reason for this outcome is the weakness of the alternative at an international level.  Where were the left wing Governments calling for debt forgiveness, an alternative to austerity or even its reduction?  Where were the mass movements pressurising their Governments to accede to Greek requests?  Greece could not push back the demands of much stronger states on its own but on its own it was.

The demand for a revolutionary socialist alternative seeking the destruction of the Greek capitalist state and take-over of the Greek economy by its workers fails to provide any sort of immediate alternative, which is what we are discussing, for two rather obvious reasons.

Such a strategy relies on the aspiration and activity of the working class and the Greek working class neither desires nor is organised to destroy the existing state, create its own and take over the running of Greek production.  The anti-capitalist ANTARSYA for example got less than 1 per cent of the vote and Syriza, it should not need to be said, is not a revolutionary party.  How does a revolution arise out of this except through a long and painful process of learning lessons and making advances on this basis?

I was recently reading an article entitled ‘Marxism and Actually Existing Socialism’ written, what seems like a long time ago, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which defended Marx’s theory and politics.  In it the author wrote that:

“Marx envisaged that socialism would come first in the most advanced industrial societies of Europe, and it has not done so. Arguably, however, Marxism is capable of comprehending this fact. In any case, this is a matter of detail, even if an important one; and it seems difficult to resist the conclusion that, in its broad and general outlines, Marx’s account of the historical tendencies of capitalism has been remarkably confirmed by historical events.”

But of course the coming of socialist revolution not to the most advanced countries is not a detail, not even an important one.  It has been fundamental to the development and future possibility of socialism and has led to the very definition of socialism being distorted and disfigured.

Socialism is not possible in Greece alone any more, and certainly less, than it was in Russia not least because it is too weak and poor.   It is obvious that no other working class within any other country in Europe is at a stage of development where it could either join or support working class rule in Greece.

This does not mean Syriza should not have taken office or that it should not have engaged in negotiations with the Troika. Its strength however derives fundamentally from the class consciousness and organisation of the working class and not from any superior moral position.  The building of an international European party of the working class, of a militant current within the working class movement including trade unions, and of international workers’ cooperatives is the only road to creating the foundations for a successful conquest of political power.

On the other hand capitalist economic and political crises and socialist propaganda are, respectively, simply the occasion for such a conquest and the means of spreading word of the need for it.

As I have said before: the worst result would be Syriza implementing austerity.  It should now reject the bailout, call fresh elections on such a platform and if elected pursue an alternative.  If in opposition it should develop a movement as set out above.

The alternative it should pursue is that which the Irish should have carried out in 2008.  Let the banks go bust and let its owners and lenders take part in a ‘bail-in’ in which they pay the price for their investment in insolvent companies.  This is sometimes known as capitalism.

A radical Greek Government would encourage Greek workers to turn the banks into cooperatives that would shed their bad debts into a ‘bad bank’ (like NAMA in Ireland, in theory if not in its practice) and guarantee deposits that would fund development of worker owned enterprise.

The Greek debt would thereby suffer default and the reactionary gamblers Merkel, Juncker, Schäuble, Draghi and Dijsselbloem would see where the chips fall.

The blogger Boffy has suggested that a solution to the currency problem would involve electronic Euros that would allow circulation of money without the requirements for additional notes etc. from Brussels.  While this could work for the domestic economy I cannot see how it could function as a means of payment for international trade and, while Greece is a relatively closed economy, it cannot function without it.

In any case the leadership of the EU would, on current form, expel Greece from the Euro and introduce its own capital controls on the country.

Greece would be forced into issuing a new currency, a new Drachma, which the people do not want.  This could not be done quickly or without significant disruption.  It has been asserted that the argument that this would result in devaluation and a massive reduction in Greek living standards is false because the catastrophe predicted has already happened.  ‘Internal devaluation’ has already achieved what external devaluation of the new currency would otherwise have done.

I am not convinced by this argument but this too might be academic if the EU decided that Greece would no longer be part of the Euro.

The strategy suggested therefore provides no guarantee of success.  There is no ‘technical’ solution or answer in this sense.   And why should one be expected?

I have said that socialist revolution depends on the prior creation of a working class power consisting of an international party, international trade union action and development of workers’ cooperatives on an extensive scale.  What on earth could substitute itself for these?

What is suggested is a strategy for struggle and not a ‘solution’ but we have reached the stage where not even the leaders of the EU can present false promises on this with any credibility.  Austerity will continue not to work.  Struggle is what we have.

 

Some comments on the Greek referendum

Greece3543The decision of the Syriza Government to call a referendum on the proposed austerity proposals of the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) in return for another ‘bailout’ programme reminds me of the Irish austerity referendum three years ago.  It gave rise to one of the first posts on this blog.

The Irish people voted by a large majority to support austerity.  Will the Greeks do the same?

The Irish voted reluctantly to accept austerity (how else could you do so?) because there was no alternative at hand.   The arguments of the Left that the Irish State could lead a growth agenda of Keynesian stimulus hardly convinced when that State had just bankrupted itself bailing out the banks.

Both the reason for the defeat and its effects have not been appreciated.  Of the latter it is enough to ponder the proposals of the trade unions behind the largest sustained opposition to the austerity agenda – the Right2Water proposals for ‘A New Fiscal Framework for a Progressive Government’, which proposes additional State expenditure of €9.4 billion over 4 years.  This would amount to less than 4.5% of the 2014 level of Government expenditure.

The Right2Water’s ‘Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government’ contains a section which proclaims the need for additional investment in the water and sanitation system of “between €6 and €7 billion”, which leaves just around €2.5 to €3.5 billion for education, health, investment and everything else.  This is not so much an alternative to the current Government’s strategy as a variant of it.  So much have horizons been lowered.

According to the authors of this document the rules of the EU will be adhered to while seeking flexibility within them and negotiating additional scope for spending.  But the case of Greece exposes that the rules of the EU, ECB and IMF can be bent to suit.

So the claim that joining the Euro was irrevocable has been discarded by the leading powers in the EU to be replaced as the biggest threat to the Greek Government and people – vote against our austerity plan and you are voting to leave the Euro.

The propaganda campaign by the EU leaders includes European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, who says he feels ‘betrayed’, and complains about a lack of “good faith” and “sincerity” from the Greeks.  This from a man who presided over the building of Luxembourg into a tax haven.  Yet he sees fit to question the Greek Government and people over their right and capacity to raise taxes.  Has the tax evasion facilitated by Luxembourg not contributed to the Greek predicament?

Christine Lagarde of the IMF proclaims she wants “adults in the room” with whom to negotiate, attempting to infantilise the Greek Government representatives and by extension the Greek people.  This is the Lagarde who has been placed ‘under investigation’ in a fraud case.  One can’t help but recall the behaviour of the previous head of the IMF, Dominic Strauss-Kahn.  Getting fucked by the IMF is a pleasure for no one.

In the current case this involves Troika demands for drastic reductions in the pensions of some of the poorest Greek pensioners and increases in VAT that will hit both those who will pay increased prices and the small businesses compelled to charge them.

On the Left these demands of the Troika are likewise treated as in effect an ultimatum which should lead to exiting the Euro – as the only effective response to the unceasing demands for austerity.  What for the leaders of the EU is a threat which the Greek people should retreat from is for some on the Left a major part of the solution.  What for the former is a recipe for chaos is for the latter the way out of it.

In my view the former are correct.  Exiting the Euro would lead to a new Drachma that would involve massive devaluation and a large reduction in Greek workers’ living standards.  Cutting one’s own throat is not preferable to having someone else do it.  If Greece is thrown out of the Euro it naturally has no choice but that is not a choice it should itself make.

It is clear however that the choice at the end of the day is not Greece’s to make.  It is not in a position to compel a significant reduction in austerity or debt relief even while many commentators who support the austerity demanded admit that debt relief is inevitable.  The reason that they demand austerity nevertheless, even while recognising that it has failed, is that they seek the removal of the Syriza Government.

The EU leaders tried it last week and now seek it this week through refusing to accept Syriza’s huge concessions, refusing to extend the ‘bailout’ and through freezing ECB liquidity provision to the Greek banks.

The Greek workers should reject the austerity plan from the EU and reject the non-solution of leaving the Euro.  Only on the basis of fighting austerity and refusing a go-it-alone nationalist solution can it minimally seek to build a movement that would stem the demands for austerity.  What the Greek crisis shows is that such austerity can only be fought at an international level.

What does this mean?

Well, let’s look at what the Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason, who is covering the crisis, had to say.   Exit from the Euro may be inevitable he says because of democracy – the population of Northern Europe would not support the transfers required to reverse austerity inflicted on Greece while the Greek people may no longer accept it.

In this he is at least partly right.  Only an international campaign of solidarity with the Greek people, which explained that the bailout was not for them, but for the German and French banks and hedge funds who invested in lending to Greece, could explain the real function of austerity and lay out the grounds for convincing those outside Greece to reject it.  On this basis it might force a retreat from the austerity demanded by other EU Governments, including the repulsive Irish one.

Within Greece it would require not just an ‘OXI’ vote but a mass movement that would compel implementation of a Syriza programme to tax the oligarchs through occupations to open the books of these businesses and in doing so help put in place a rigorous system of tax collection.

In itself this would only form the starting point of a workers’ alternative – one that is based on development of worker owned production.  Such workers’ cooperatives are the alternative to the weak and crony capitalism from which Greece suffers.  It offers practical proof of the socialist alternative and is a basis for its growth this side of political revolution.  The latter in turn will gain credibility from practical demonstration of a socialist programme.

The lack of such international and domestic conditions caused defeat for Irish workers in their referendum.  A very different vote in Greece would be a step forward for Irish workers now.

On the other hand the very worst result would be defeat in the referendum and a Syriza Government implementing austerity.

While the Dutch hatchet-man Jeroen Dijsselbloem again reveals the Euro leaders agenda of getting rid of the elected Greek Government – “ who are we trusting” he says if Syriza promised to implement the austerity it had just rejected, Varoufakis is quoted as saying that Syriza would do just this.  “If the people give us a clear instruction to sign up on the institutions’ proposals, we shall do whatever it takes to do so – even if it means a reconfigured government.”

Such an approach would discredit any sort of Left alternative and pave the way for a hard right Government to eventually push through austerity on a demoralised workers’ movement.

The long resistance of Greek workers to austerity has given hope that we are not yet at such a result and that the struggle against austerity will continue.

Syriza and Ireland

syrizaimagesThis Sunday the Greek people will go to the polls in an election that could see the beginning of the end of austerity in Europe.  That anyway is the view of some on the left across Europe.

The potential election of a Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) Government, promising a radical reduction in the debt burden, has the potential to galvanise and set an example to the rest of the PIIGS.  It could incite a combined movement in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain that would reduce the debt of these countries which has been a prime driver of austerity.  Through radically reducing the requirement to service and pay down enormous debts such a step could launch a definitive movement away from neoliberalism towards a radically different Keynesian social democratic alternative.

The elections in Greece will be followed this year by elections in Spain, in which a like-minded Podemos movement has grown, and in Portugal, and may also be joined by an election in Ireland despite the claims of the current Government that it will run in office until 2016.  Of the five PIIGS therefore at least three and possibly four may see elections this year.  Even elections in Britain could see the ousting of the Tory devotees of austerity and neoliberalism.  In fact the policy that might inspire the PIIGS is not confined to them but might apply right across Europe.  And Syriza is in the vanguard of this movement.

Is such a scenario a real possibility?

Let us notice what makes such a claim plausible.

Firstly the proposals of Syriza are not solely on behalf of the Greek people although as a Government it will be able to negotiate only on their behalf.  Syriza proposes a European Debt Conference modelled, with delicious irony, on effective debt forgiveness of (West) Germany in 1952.  This was carried out explicitly in order, or so it was claimed, to normalise relations between Germany and its creditors and to promote economic development.   That deal wrote off half of the debt, stretched repayment of the rest and for the first few years provided only for payment of interest, which was also limited.

Syriza proposals are more limited. Their policy could be based on an academic paper which proposes that half of the debt would be bought up by the European Central Bank (ECB) with either an interest holiday or interest charged on the remaining debt at a low rate.  The debt taken on by the ECB would not be written off but would be paid back only when the remaining debt left to the country had been reduced to 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In effect economic growth and inflation will have eroded the real value and real impact of debt repayment.

However in one very important sense the proposals are much more radical than the German precedent, because the Syriza proposal is that this plan applies to every country in the Eurozone with debt over 50 per cent of GDP (all but three countries).  The Irish state for example would see its debt reduced from 108 per cent of GDP to 50 per cent, saving €3.7 billion each year in interest payments, so reducing the need for cuts or tax rises and facilitating greater state spending and investment.[i]

It has been estimated that this would reduce sovereign debt in the Eurozone area by about €4.5 trillion.  It is asserted that this would not risk inflation because the ECB debt purchases would be funded by massive borrowing from private banks.  There would be no money printing since the money is borrowed.  And sure why worry about inflation when deflation is so clearly the enemy?  And who pays the interest on these loans?

Well, it is recognised that there will be losses in paying back the private banks, between €50bn – €60bn in each of the first 5 years, and €1trilion over 40 years, but it is argued that the borrowing costs of the ECB would be low and that renewed economic growth would compensate.  It would be cheaper than the current policy of austerity and expansion of the ECB balance sheet required to bail out the banks.

It is recognised that this may not be enough in the short term for some countries so that, for example, in order to prevent continued austerity in Greece the ECB would have to take over the debt that would be required to be issued in the next five years.  This would also be required because over 50% of outstanding debt has to be paid back within the next 5 years in Italy, Spain, France, Holland and Belgium and to cover this new debts would have to be taken on.

For Marxists the point is not that some monetary scheme has been devised that will solve capitalisms’ problems.  Nor is it the point that Syriza will go into negotiations and cannot expect, as in all negotiations, to get its original plan agreed, even discounting some conscious intention to betray the hopes of its supporters in order to accept the logic of capitalism.

The significance of the proposals is that it provides a concrete platform around which workers across Europe can organise and struggle together, and a series of elections that can be a focus for such struggle.  This is not to invest illusions in either elections or Syriza, who are condemned by some for having shifted from a policy of debt repudiation to one of simply extending repayment under more favourable terms.   If a practice of simply condemning the limitations of reformist politics were the answer we would no longer have the problem.

The Syriza programme is one that workers and socialists can support because it reduces the burdens they face and would deal a big political and ideological blow to austerity and the parties who have peddled it.  It would deal a real blow to reactionary political parties seeking nationalist or fascist solutions.  Through a successful campaign workers could gain strength and confidence to build up their organisations, their own social and political power and their own confidence and class consciousness.  The latter is the role that Marxists can play by advancing a programme that does all these things.

The victory of Syriza would allow an opportunity to directly organise workers on an international programme on an international basis.  It is remarkable that this significance has been somewhat missed.  So, for example, the call promoted by the Fourth International correctly argues that “their victory will be ours, but their defeat too” but appears to fail to appreciate that this can be so because other European workers will not just be in solidarity with Greek workers but can actually be part of the same struggle, demanding the same deal for their country, so that “our victory will be ours and our defeat will be ours too.”

This is made tactically easier by Syriza not proposing either to leave the Euro or leave the EU.  There can be no pretext that the demands of Syriza can be dismissed because they no longer want to belong to the club.

These policies have been condemned as examples of betrayal of earlier more radical promise but they are not just tactically recommended.  As argued before in the various posts on ‘The Left Against Europe’, the growing unity of capitalism provides the material basis for the international unity of the working class.  This is why a united international struggle against austerity is more immediately and concretely possible in the Eurozone than one against similar policies pursued more or less independently by separate capitalist states each with their own currency.

So to return to our question – is such a scenario possible?

It is possible to argue that it is, for the simple reason that the Greek debt is too big to be paid back anyway.  Some means of addressing it is required and the Syriza route is eminently preferable for workers than the slow death march of austerity and repeated minor debt ‘haircut’ so far embarked upon.

The second is that by the very fact that the Syriza plan is reformist there is no necessity for a life and death struggle by the forces of capitalism to defeat it.  The Syriza plans do not call the system into question, which both sets limits to what it can achieve but also provides scope for negotiations between a Syriza Government (and other PIIIGS Governments should they be elected or so inclined) and the IMF/ECB /EU/German State alliance.

The rallying of the Greek workers behind Syriza is one of many proofs that a revolutionary overthrow of Greek capitalism is not currently on the cards and is not therefore a realistic immediate alternative.  The revolutionary alternative today consists of preparing for such an eventuality tomorrow.

Not by either passively or even ‘aggressively’ preparing for socialist revolution but by the cumulative development of the power of the working class suggested above, with the certain knowledge that a revolutionary break with the capitalist state and system will be required.

To condemn Syriza for negotiating with capitalism when it cannot be overthrown is a bit like condemning trade unions for negotiating a pay award when they should be overthrowing the wages system.

The third has been pointed out here – Syriza will be damned if it does not get some sort of result and the executor of that judgement may be the fascists of New Dawn.  It is not only Syriza who has an interest in ensuring this doesn’t happen.

‘Ireland is not Greece’ we have been told repeatedly over the past five years or so.  If Syriza is anyway half successful Ireland will look pretty stupid if it isn’t.

[i] It is interesting that the authors go beyond the argument that this is some sort of socialism saying that “The left ought to be strategically against privatizations, having at the same time as an ultimate target the gradual historical replacement of “state control” by democratic forms of social control (unfortunately this type of discussion has not been adequately developed within the left).”

Why have the Irish not revolted? Part II

imagesausterityIn my first post I qualified the view that there was something particularly weak in the resistance of Irish workers to austerity but argued that nevertheless an explanation is needed.  To develop this further we need to ask what this austerity has involved.

Some commentators would have a ready explanation.  In terms of the share of taxation in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in terms of the share of Government spending in GDP and overall deficit as a percentage of annual value added there has not been ‘savage austerity’ so there has been nothing to rebel against.

Here unfortunately we have no choice but to enter the world of economic statistics where only the naive can expect clear objectivity and accuracy.

A post on the Irish Economy blog records that (adjusting the statistics for the well-known effect of foreign multinationals in the Irish State significantly overstating economic performance) living standards measured in GDP per person (in Purchasing Power Parity values) declined by 14 per cent from 2007 to 2011.  This is a bigger decline in living standards than in Portugal where the fall was only 1.6 per cent, in Spain where it was 4.9 per cent and Greece where it was 8 per cent.  In terms of national income (another measure) the drop was bigger – 20 per cent – and it will have fallen further since then.  It would appear that the relative quiescence of Irish workers needs additional explaining.

But does it?

Any Irish statistic that uses GDP is immediately suspect for the reason above but not only because of this.  GDP is a measure of value added which means the 2007 figure will include property produced at vastly over-inflated values.  Houses and offices built and priced at one value will have been shown subsequently to have been worth 50, 60 or 70 per cent less, or sometimes to be completely worthless.  A moment’s thought reveals that this is not a characteristic simply of Irish statistics but of measures of capitalist production everywhere.

When we think of the effects of the banking industry on measures of economic growth we again see that this measure is seriously distorting, not only because of the difficulties of capturing accurately what is happening, but because of the nature of capitalist production.  This takes place through the production of commodities whose real value is only realised after production. The value of these commodities is elaborated through the workings of the market which reveals the socially necessary value of output in a cyclical fashion.

For economists wedded to capitalism recessions are always the result of exogenous shocks outside the system or of purely irrational behaviour within it, which amount to the same thing.  For Marxists the cycle of boom and bust is how the values of commodities are established and then re-established in a constant process.  By nature therefore there can be no precise measure of value produced at any one point in time or over any one period.

In figures for GDP the distinction between use value and exchange value is absent never mind any accounting for how really ‘socially useful’ the use values produced are – ghost estates and weapons compared to commodities actually consumed by workers. This is to be considered on top of the well-known criticisms of measuring living standards by GDP.

There are alternative measures we can review but before we leave behind this discussion we should appreciate that what we have been looking at is not simple mismeasurement of economic activity but one form of the appearance of real contradictions within the system.

From the point of view of our particular investigation we can make two points.  That a critical review of some of the figures means the boom was not as boomier (to quote Bertie Ahern) as some statistics might appear to show and the recession not as sudden and complete a reversal as might first appear.  The expectation of more or less immediate revolt might therefore be less justified?  Other evidence however might suggest that such a view should be considered a relatively minor factor.

Secondly, the constant reporting of such economic statistics plays an ideological role such that workers must accept real changes to their lives on the basis of these statistics.  Workers are subject to such pressures not just in the recession but also in the boom – encouraged to get into unsustainable debt for example.  To the extent that they do the latter they are then under ideological assault to accept that they, along with everyone else, ‘partied’ and went on a ‘mad borrowing’ frenzy, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny has put it.

Some commentators might argue that a recognition of ‘guilt’ has played a role in short-circuiting resistance but the existence of such undoubted views is as much a result of demoralisation as a cause of the lack of resistance.

There are other statistics we can look at to see if there are material reasons for the lack of opposition apart from this particular ideological one.

What appears a more relevant statistic is called Actual Individual Consumption which encompasses goods and services consumed by households including government services such as education and health provision.  This would appear to show that between 2008 and 2011 living standards in the Irish State fell more than in Spain and in Portugal but less than in Greece or Iceland.

Actual Individual Consumption

State

2008 index

2011 index

Percentage fall

Ireland

109

100

8.3

Spain

99

94

5.1

Greece

104

94

9.6

Portugal

84

82

2.4

UK

123

118

4.1

Iceland

122

107

12.3

 

This measure is made up of a component of GDP so is subject to some of the criticism above.  We have already seen that three different measurements of living standards result in reductions in living standards of 20 per cent, 14 per cent and over 8 per cent, depending on dates and the measurement adopted.

What we can say with certainty is that living standards fell abruptly and significantly due to the crisis and it is not obvious that the severity of the fall in any country determined the relative extent of opposition to austerity.  It is necessary before drawing any conclusions to look at what might be at least some of the components of the fall in living standards, not by any means only a result of the effects of Government austerity policies.

By one measure unemployment in the Irish State increased from 3.4 per cent in 2007 to 10.4 per cent in 2012, a tripling of the rate in only five years.  The economically inactive, which must contain many who have given up hope of getting a job, increased from 27.5 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 to 30.8 per cent.

Using a different measurement unemployment in the Irish state was 13.5 per cent in January 2013 compared to 17.8 per cent in Portugal, 26.8 per cent in Spain and 27 per cent in Greece.  Clearly the crisis has hit the latter countries much harder than Ireland.  It is by no means clear that higher unemployment breeds resistance since its function under capitalism is to facilitate increased exploitation of the working class.  The mobilisation of the unemployed is not always for progressive reasons, which is one reason we have noted before that economic crises often breed reactionary movements.

Once unemployed some workers face the prospect of hardship and one measure of this defined as deprivation, or being without two or more basic items, has increased from 11.8 per cent of the population to 24.5 per cent in 2012.  The possibility of this is affected by the level of welfare an unemployed personmight rely upon and this is measured by the net replacement rate, or the payments due to the unemployed as a percentage of previous net income.  This obviously depends on whether the person has children or is married etc.

Net Replacement rates 2011

 

No children

2 children

Country Single person One earner

Married couple

Two-earner Married couple Lone Parent One-earner married couple Two-earner married couple
Republic of Ireland 50 81 75 64 75 81
Greece 49 54 75 58 63 80
Spain 79 76 90 77 75 89
Portugal 75 75 92 77 76 91

 

The table shows that Greece has significantly lower replacement rates than the other selected countries for most categories but that the Irish state’s is generally lower than Spain’s and Portugal’s.  It would not appear that the prospect of a more significant loss of income as a result of unemployment has spurred opposition in Ireland relative to that in Spain or Portugal.

The other obvious way workers cope with periods of unemployment is falling back on any savings that they have accumulated.  The following table shows the movement in net financial assets per person (€) in the various countries:

Country

2007

2011

Republic of Ireland

23,634

26,279

Spain

21,698

16,328

Portugal

19,950

19,750

Greece

19,681

10,105

Euro area (17 countries)

37,289

36,201

 

The table shows the Irish State to have the highest level of financial assets (though much below the Euro area average) and that this even increased between 2007 and 2011!  Since these figures say nothing about the unequal distribution of wealth and we know that many have suffered unemployment, cuts in wages or tax increases, it is clear that certain sections of Irish society are bearing up quite well.  In the other countries financial wealth fell and in Spain, but particularly in Greece, fell quite dramatically.

Such average figures hide as much as they reveal.  Average household disposable income in the Irish state fell from €49,043 in 2008 to €41,819 in 2011 but this was still significantly higher than in 2004 when it was €38,631.  Right wing commentators have often made the observation that incomes have often just gone back to such and such a date and we are all much better off than before the boom kicked off in the first half of the 1990s.  This is undoubtedly true for many but doesn’t provide an answer why as a class Irish workers have resisted austerity so weakly, unless the argument is that expectations have very quickly reduced.  Is this however another result of defeat or a contributing factor to it, or both?

Averages can obscure because it is precisely the unequal incidence of the effects of capitalist crisis that can have decisive political effects.

Unemployment has increased dramatically but its incidence is not uniform.  Employment in construction has collapsed, from 258,000 at the start of 2008 to 102,000 at the end of 2012, a fall of over 60 per cent.  Over the same period employment in the state sector fell from 417,000 to 381,000, a fall of 8.6 per cent.  The pitting of private sector workers against those in the public sector was a clear strategy of the Government, the employers and the media and it was quite successful.

But this has not been the only divisive effect of the crisis.  Rates of unemployment among young people in Ireland, just like other countries, have been much higher than the general rate.  In the Irish state the rate of unemployment among those less than 25 years old was 26.6 per cent in April this year while it was 42.5 per cent in Portugal, 56.4 per cent in Spain and 62.5 per cent in Greece.  These are truly staggering figures.  The rate of long term unemployment has increased from 29.2 per cent of total unemployment at the start of 2007 to 45.5 per cent at the end of 2012.  What this should remind us, is that unemployment is a divisive imposition of the effects of capitalist crisis that impacts not only on those without a job but also those in employment.  Emigration has returned and is continuing to increase, up from 87,100 in the year to April 2012 to 89,000 in the year to April 2013.

None of these figures illustrates the hardship caused by tax increases and public expenditure cuts that can affect the most vulnerable the most.  They do not include the effects on people’s experience of negative equity, the full effects of which have yet to hit home.  Here again it is younger people who are more likely to be in negative equity and to be in arrears in their mortgage payments.  And of course the figures do not tell us that the results of the crisis and austerity are to be here for a long time.

Over 32 people were unemployed for each job vacancy in 2012, while the figures for Spain and Portugal were 72.6 and 90.4 respectively.  The General Government Debt as a percentage of GDP was 117.6 per cent in 2012 while the 2012 EU Fiscal Compact stipulates that where this is above 60 per cent it must reduce by 1/20th per year.  In 2012 the in-year Government deficit was 7.5 per cent which means the debt was not getting smaller but getting bigger.  Normally optimistic forecasters are predicting that unemployment, as measured by the International Labour Organisation methodology, was only to reduce from 14.7 per cent in 2012 to 13.9 per cent in 2014.

So what are we to make of all these figures?

The fall in living standards has been significant even if not so sudden or large for some sectors of society as others and not on the same scale as some other countries such as Greece.  Certainly the disproportionate effects on young people and rise in emigration have blunted resistance but these factors exist on the same or greater scale in some other countries in Southern Europe where resistance has been greater.

It is not therefore the effects of the crisis themselves that explain the response even if these act to weaken certain social and political reactions.  The left wing economist Michael Taft has claimed that the ‘squeezed middle’, the 4th to 8th deciles of income earners, suffered declines in direct income in the five years leading up to the crash, gaining only as a result of social transfers.

During the boom the level of trade union organisation fell relatively as union density dropped from 46 per cent of the workforce in 1994 to less than a third in 2007, and only 16 per cent in the private sector.

Thus even during the most favourable circumstances, when workers are best placed to protect and advance their living standards, they were unable to do so with their own strength.  During recession such weakness is exposed.

Now they are subject to the vicious laws of the capitalist market and, as we said in the first post, short of overturning the system there is a limited amount workers can do about this without challenging the system itself.

During this post I have said that workers have not resisted austerity but in truth the great mass of unemployment, insecurity caused by mortgage arrears and negative equity, and the drop in personal consumption are not so much the result of the austerity policies of the Government, which of course have made things worse, but of the capitalist crisis.  This crisis can in certain circumstances be postponed or ameliorated by the State but it cannot be suppressed and certainly not by a State in bankruptcy.

When even during the boom large number of workers dependency on this state increased rather reduced and rather than their developing their own independent power, it can be little surprise that when the state turns round and kicks them in the teeth they are unprepared.

Some socialists argued again and again during the boom that social partnership, the vehicle by which the Irish trade unions hitched themselves to the State, was to be opposed not mainly because it prevented workers making gains in their living standards that they should but because it rotted away their independent organisation.  This has not just organisational consequences but political and ideological ones and it is to these that I need to look at next.

Why have the Irish not revolted?

Public-service-workers-st-006The defeat of the opposition to the property tax and the ability of the Government to impose a second Croke Park austerity deal might lead many to conclude that resistance to austerity has been defeated.  Even before this many have commented that while Greece has witnessed violent protests and numerous general strikes the absence of such events from Ireland is notable and remarkable.  General strikes have also taken place in Spain and Portugal but not in the Irish State.

The relative electoral success of the United Left Alliance appeared to blind some to this but the collapse of the ULA has simply confirmed what is more generally understood to be the case.  More and more it is acknowledged on the Left that we have to face the reality as opposed to perennial false claims that an upsurge is taking place or is just around the corner.

Realistic assessments of the state of workers’ action have often been drowned out by childish claims that this shows one is insufficiently revolutionary, underestimates the workers , their ability to change their ideas quickly or that such views will not encourage workers to take action.  Not in front of the children appears to be the motto.  Workers are always ‘angry’ and all it needs is the right campaign, so long as it is active enough, to stir them into action.

Reality is imposing itself and no sound bites along the lines of ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ can hide the fact that the economic crisis has resulted in the imposition of austerity on workers without effective resistance.  Why is this?

First we must qualify the judgement that Irish workers are peculiarly useless.  Commentators have remarked in similar terms about the countries in southern Europe.  We have noted before that more or less spontaneous social explosions have not resulted in great advances by the working class.  Greek workers have been by far the most combative in terms of general strike action but in hardly anywhere has living standards plummeted so much.  I have also noted in one of my first posts that economic crises spurs growth in extreme reactionary forces and we have seen this is in Greece with the rise of the Golden Dawn movement.  So Greece is no model to seek to copy.

Secondly Irish workers have fought back albeit within very strict limits.  I can still remember the very large demonstration in November 2009 in Dublin, which had many working class people from outside the ranks of the trade unions taking part.  The following year public sector trade unions organised a successful strike.  At a local level in certain places and at certain times strong campaigns have developed against tax increases or hospital closures.  All this and more was reflected in the vote for ULA.

There is however an over-estimation about what workers can achieve within the limits of the capitalist system – a general misconception that workers’ struggles can overturn the laws of capitalism.    For example, if a company goes bust and attempts to close down, making all its workers redundant, it is pretty obvious that strike action will not achieve very much.

At this point many on the left propose that the capitalist state protect workers even though these same people have a part of their brain that tells them that the state is a weapon of the capitalist class that cannot be reformed and must be smashed.  They also believe that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by workers themselves but usually object to the idea that, instead of the state, the workers should take over and own and run these workplaces as workers cooperatives.

It is a similar situation at the level of society as a whole and at an international level.  The Irish state was and still is bankrupt.  It needed a massive injection of money to save the banks and put itself in a position to start reducing its mushrooming debt.  Austerity is a means of doing this.  Again the Left argues that the state can adopt policies of taxing the rich and spending money on investment that will restore the capitalist economy to economic growth, which will then deal with the problem of the debt.

This is not however the view of socialists.  The socialist view, confirmed once again by recent events, is that capitalism inescapably produces economic crises which are dealt with and resolved by the laws by which the system works, including through unemployment and destruction of unsuccessful capital whose markets and sometimes businesses are picked up on the cheap by those remaining.  It is not possible for the capitalist system to prevent such crises by adopting policies of more investment, as for example argued by left followers of Keynes.

It is not therefore possible for workers no matter how well organised to prevent the laws of capitalism from working.  This at least was the view of Marx and the evidence of history would again confirm this.  So workers resistance against austerity may be able to ameliorate austerity but, in so far as they are necessary to lay the foundations of a new upturn, it is not possible for workers to prevent unemployment or wage cuts or tax increases in their entirety or even to a significant degree.  In other words it is not possible within the system to prevent capitalism periodically disrupting workers’ lives.  That’s why we oppose the system and why we propose a different one called socialism.  If we thought capitalism could work better without its nasty effects we wouldn’t be socialists would we?

Yet the left presents austerity as simply one policy option of the Government which it could choose to reject and replace with their own proposals.  But even the Keynesian alternative requires ‘counter cyclical’ state action.  In other words the austerity measures are simply postponed.  All the left’s proposals involve actions by the capitalist state in one way or another – tax changes, public investment, nationalisation etc.

The point in terms of the current argument is not that the Left is misleading workers into accepting reformist solutions that won’t work and this is a reason why resistance to austerity has been such a failure in Ireland.  These ideas are more widespread in southern Europe than they are here.  No, the issue is that, absent a socialist alternative being created, as long as capitalism exists the laws of capitalism will continue to work and impose themselves.  Resistance to austerity will therefore fail and this failure is bound in turn to lead to weakening of the resistance.

We must be careful however not to qualify the problem out of existence when it contains more than a grain of truth.  When Greek workers chanted “we are not Irish” on their May Day demonstration in Athens in 2010 they weren’t imagining the relative weakness of resistance in Ireland.

Nor can the question be dismissed by saying Irish workers did fight back – they did, but nowhere near to the extent required for success.

Nor is it credible to blame the poor politics or organisation of the Irish Left.

It is also not adequate to simply say that capitalism wins unless we create socialism. This is obviously true, although its logical implications for reformist strategies and policies are often ignored.  But it doesn’t come near explaining why the reformist strategies for resistance have elicited such weak workers’ action.  It’s hardly that Irish workers can see through such strategies and are ready for something more radical.

Socialism is not an event or a situation but a movement. Workers will only become capable of building a socialist movement and carrying out revolutionary change if they are also capable of mounting strong resistance to the ravages of capitalism.  In Ireland this hasn’t happened and there has been a retrogression of the small socialist movement, although this in itself is not particularly new.

So in Ireland the state has been able to pursue austerity policies that increase unemployment and wage restraint in order to restore its solvency in very much the same way capitalist crises work to   restore profitability in the private sector.  It has been able to do so without much of the resistance shown in other countries in a very similar situation.  This remains to be explained.

To be continued.

Thoughts on the class struggle in Greece (part 2) – Towards a Revolution?

As I remarked in the first post, the views of both sides in the debate over the way forward for socialists in Greece share the view that there exists in the country the potential for a workers’ revolution.  This is not one that I share and the Greek Marxists provide the evidence that this is so.

First, Andreas Kloke notes the temporary defeat of the movement resisting austerity.  The slogan “Elections Now” by the two biggest left parties Syriza and the KKE “represents a strategic failure.” No big change took place in these elections between the right and the left and the electoral majority for austerity “reflects the real balance of power between the main classes in Greek society.”  Austerity continues to intensify and the fascists of Golden Dawn have grown to represent a real force.  The Greek Marxists are keen to emphasise that no one voting for the fascists can be under any illusion any more about what they represent.  On the other hand the vote for the coalition of which these writers are a part collapsed.  In presenting the fascists and revolutionary socialists as being in a race, he says “the fascists clearly have a considerable head start.”

Syriza does not represent a growth in the collective strength of the working class movement but rather “a collective mood” of opposition to the two traditional parties.  The memorandum imposing austerity is opposed by two thirds of society but only about one third support the left.  There is thus plainly a crisis of a left alternative.  This is a simple reflection of the low level of class consciousness and weak organisation of the working class in no respect fundamentally different from that in many other countries including Ireland.

Manos Skoufoglou notes that the organisations of the Greek working class are not prepared for a radical alternative to the various options that the Greek capitalist class and the EU may choose from.  In the most significant observation he says that “the working class is not questioning directly its (capital’s) economic power.  Workers don’t yet see the left as the political branch of their own class struggle, but as a body on which they “invest” their hopes.”  The fundamental problem is therefore the consciousness of the working class but this also exposes the utter bankruptcy of those on the left who argue that the basic problem is one of working class “representation” and needing to build an electoral vehicle to solve this problem. In the later view the problem is creating a means to represent working class consciousness not in recognising the weakness of this consciousness in the first place.

The real problem is that we are not facing a possible Greek workers’ revolution because, as the Greek Marxists say, “the working class is not questioning directly capital’s economic power”.  Until it does this all talk of revolution is empty rhetoric, not to mention the basis for seriously wrong perspectives.  This is illustrated by a big majority not actually wanting new elections.  So while many wanted to vote for Syriza many didn’t want the only means to achieve this.   A class breaking its chains to achieve political power would never row in behind such anti-political conceptions.

Yet other commentators on the revolutionary left in the Fourth International make the mistake of believing that the basic problem is the need for the left to take the lead in the struggles of the working class with a political programme of breaking with capitalism, one that becomes credible in the eyes of the working class.  But as I pointed out in two earlier posts here and here, political struggles against austerity including general strikes have not led in the past to revolutions.  In fact the Greeks have a record of such strikes that dwarfs the experience of others.  In this post I reported on an academic study that looked at 16 countries including Ireland, which recorded 72 general strikes of which 33 occurred in Greece alone!  Clearly this is not enough to build the material foundations for a revolutionary working class.

And this is the problem.  It is not the weakness of the Marxist Left that is the issue, for this itself can only be explained by the political weakness of the working class but the commentators from the Fourth International have nothing to say about this.  The transformation of capitalism into a new society becomes a question of political struggle only and becomes narrowly focused on one event which acts as a magic wand.  This magic wand is called revolution.  The comrades have no real understanding of revolution as the culmination of a long struggle by the working class to build itself up as a countervailing force in society, in utter opposition to its current class rulers and their state, in which revolution is the final decisive act of rupture inexisting society and birth of the new.  Everything involved in this extended process becomes invested in a single event that is expected to achieve what only decades of struggle, organisation and advances in consciousness can achieve.

Thus for these organisations revolutionary politics becomes believing in the immediacy of revolution, even when it is not immediately on the cards.  Everything else is reformism, to be supported of course, but only in so far as it quickly can become exhausted.  Because socialist revolutions are only possible given a prior development of the working class, and the political situation more widely, their politics become sterile and redundant.  They either collapse into pitiful reformism while talking revolution to their new recruits or they become dogmatists insisting on the necessity of revolution, which isn’t untrue, but which in the form expressed only confirms that it must be 12 midnight before we can move into the new day.  Not much use the rest of the time.

This is the choice presented in this debate and as we saw in the first part it leads to the raising of political demands which are predicated on their being a revolutionary situation when there isn’t.  The demands raised, such as who shall form a government, are thereby either wrong ,by claiming certain political forces like Syriza are more politically advanced than they really are, or are too abstract because they reflect an unacknowledged recognition that the perspectives offered have little traction in reality.

Many on the Marxist left put forward demands such as general strikes as if these on their own will raise workers consciousness and lay the basis for revolution, but they fail in Greece to learn a very obvious lessons that these strikes teach us.   For example Marxists see general strikes as posing the question of who rules society, the workers or the capitalists.  Through stopping society by laying down their tools they challenge the power of the bosses and question their right to decide what happens. Since general strikes cannot stop everything from working they involve workers in deciding just what is allowed to continue to work and what doesn’t and on what terms things like hospitals, power, water, emergency and other services continue to operate.

Yet Greece has seen dozens of general strikes.  If these posed the question of power the question has been answered repeatedly in favour of the capitalists.  The strikes therefore on their own teach this lesson and become very large protests, and protests are not an alternative but merely an objection to what already exists.  The idea that a frontal assault on capitalism today in Greece could be successful seems to fly in the face of this experience but that does not mean revolutionary politics have no role to play.

The alternative perspective of building up the independent economic, social and political power of the working class while recognising that this power does not yet exists is today what revolutionary politics is about because it relies solely on the workers themselves and does not lapse into the short cuts demanded by the perspective of those who see revolution as the only immediate answer to everything.  This need for immediate global answers leads many who call themselves Marxists to demand that the capitalist state do what these Marxists know in their bones the workers are not yet ready to do.  So we have calls for nationalisation as if this were socialist instead of workers ownership and control because the former is seen as more practical and realistic.

This failure to build a real workers’ alternative bursts open when capitalist crises erupt and it is clear that the Marxist movement has no real material, as opposed to theoretical, alternative.  This is why we get incredible admissions of political and general programmatic nakedness such as the following from one of the Greek contributors to the debate.

“The transitional program we describe is a quite sufficient counterweight to reformist projects of the virtually and possibly actually “governing” parliamentary left. However, it is not yet concrete enough. In order to convince against “realistic” arguments, which SYRIZA seems already to succumb to, if not actively spreading itself – that a unilateral termination of the memorandum would lead to international isolation, that expropriation of banks would provoke partners in the government to withdraw their support – we have to prove that a revolutionary counterproposal could also be applicable in practice. We have to study further examples and historical experiences of revolutionary struggles of the oppressed and the exploited: revolutionary measures in Russia, Cuba or China, autogestion in Algeria and in Latin America etc, even progressive measures applied by Chavez.  If anything, so as to depict in our own conscience the real potential of utopia. How can international solidarity practically eliminate pressures inflicted by the international vindictiveness of bourgeois classes? How can we achieve expropriations with no compensation without the universe to collapse? What exactly is workers control and how does it work? Particularly this last question is a key in order to conceive which is the essential difference between a radical left government and a revolutionary workers’ government.”

If the Marxist left cannot prove that its revolutionary politics can be concrete and will work in practice then no wonder it does not have the confidence of the working class.  For the latter to exist the working class would have to prove it in practice to itself through successful example of workers ownership and workers control in the here and now, not promises of utopias tomorrow after the revolution.  Yet the idea of workers ownership and control prior to the revolution is routinely dismissed by many of the Marxist groups.

Manos Skoufoglou states that “The maturation of objective and, what’s more, subjective preconditions for a revolution is not accumulative.”  While the class struggle can rise and fall in favour of the working class which may have to retreat or advance as changing circumstances dictate this statement is surely wrong.  Marx believed that social systems are born, grow, mature and decline.  That this is accumulative proves that the germs of the alternative society must develop and mature within capitalism and appear more and more in its life.

The increasing socialisation of production within capitalism, the increasing specialisation of production forcing greater planning within and cooperation between enterprises, comes into contradiction with the private appropriation of this production.  This is an accumulative process pointing in the direction of the end of capitalism.  The increasing division of labour and the increasing need and actuality of its coordination is constantly upset and destroyed by the pursuit of private profit which leads to periodic economic crises.  The new society of planned production appears more and more in the life of the old capitalism.

But planning is not the essence of the new society but merely a description of the mechanism by which it must work.  The essence of the new society is its rule by the majority of that society and not by a minority ownership class.  In the new society the working class as the vast majority becomes the owners of the means of production and becomes the rulers of the new society.  Socialism is not a state of affairs defined by complete planning but is the movement of the vast majority of society in determining how the society works and achieves its collective goals.  For the new society to grow out of the old and not just be a utopian project this aspect of the new must be increasingly found in the old.  This is the importance of the growth of workers ownership and control in existing capitalism.

If this really were more and more the reality of capitalism then questions above, like how workers control would operate, whether Marxists had a real concrete alternative etc would not exist.  Instead revolution would be sought by the working class itself as the only means of securing and developing across the whole of society the advances in workers ownership and control already achieved.

It is clear therefore that the key to revolutionary politics today is building up this independent power of the workers and not in millennial pursuit of revolution for which the objective and subjective prerequisites are not present.  How this is done in Greece is primarily but not exclusively for Greek workers and Marxists to determine.

Thoughts on the Class Struggle in Greece (Part 1)

For many in Ireland the situation in Greece is one from which we can learn many lessons.  The United Left Alliance has just advertised a public meeting in Dublin with a speaker from the Greek left organisation Syriza.  A couple of months ago a debate on the Greek class struggle, on Syriza and the attitude of Marxists to this organisation was published here and here.  In this post I want to address some of the questions that have been raised on these issues.  I am not by any means an expert on Greece and the judgements I am making can only be tentative but I believe that the debate has illuminated the situation sufficiently to make some remarks.

Syriza is not a Marxist Party and is not committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.  It is not even a working class party with deep roots in the class or its organisations.  In fact the Greek participants in this debate have noted its mediocre rise in membership and its being mainly a reflection of a collective mood of opposition to the two traditional parties, the social democratic PASOK and conservative New Democracy.   The writers also observe its rightward trajectory.  Its economic policy is essentially Keynesian (a capitalist system but reduced austerity at least initially) and its main plank is debt reduction from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – the Troika.  It supports fiscal consolidation (cuts and tax increases), as it must if the debt is not to grow larger again after some debt forgiveness, but says this must be “socially just and viable.”

It has grown rapidly in support and increased its vote in the most recent election to 26.9% from 16.8%.  In a situation of extreme hardship it is not unreasonable for workers to look for some respite and this is what Syriza offers.  The Greek Marxists also argue that the capitalist class in Greece and the Troika might at some point see Syriza as a mechanism to impose a new austerity in place of the current one, widely considered illegitimate.  In this situation, the leadership of the opposition to austerity, having no fundamental antagonism to the system, would agree to impose reduced austerity in return for support for the legitimacy of this austerity, putting the brakes on opposition and support for the continuation of Greek membership of the Euro.

The articles by the Greek Marxists are written by participants in Antarsya, which scored only 0.33% in the most recent elections, down 0.9%. They correctly emphasise the need to work with supporters of Syriza in order to win them to their politics and to defend the working class as a whole from the danger of fascism.  The difference between them and the supporter of Socialist Resistance in the debate is the insistence by the latter that their united front approach falls significantly short of what is required.  It is criticised for not being applied to the demand for governmental power, which crown the demands of Marxists and which frame the critical task of political power without which the crisis cannot be decisively solved in favour of workers.

Both sides appear to agree that there exists real revolutionary potential in the existing situation, although the Greek writers provide evidence that this is not in fact the case and we will look at this in a second post. The question of a governmental slogan in such a pre-revolutionary situation, if it exists, is therefore crucial.  If the left does not provide for such a political solution the right will. Socialist Resistance is right in my view if, and it’s a big if, there really is a pre-revolutionary situation but even if there is not the question still needs an answer. Do the Greek Marxists have one?

The argument of Socialist Resistance is that the partial solutions of Syriza, where they elected into government, would profoundly challenge the logic of capitalism and create a pre-revolutionary crisis.  Their electoral victory “would be a massive advance for the Greek working class” upon which Marxists would build with a revolutionary strategy, eventually to a “revolutionary outcome favourable to the working class.” It is acknowledged that Syriza may betray its programme but if this is so it may be that the working class has to go through this experience.

This is a formula with an alibi for when it doesn’t work. The Greek Marxists’ writings demonstrate a more concrete understanding of the problem. The first is that a government of Syriza may include nominally ‘left’ parties which drag the whole arrangement to the right. But worse, while the Greek working class invest their hopes in Syriza the latter and its electoral successes are not seen as a branch of its own struggle. If it is not a branch of the workers struggle, an organic part of it and not just an electoral reflection of it, then the tactic of the united front employed by Marxists in terms of supporting a Syriza Government will be much less productive.

Above all the Greek Marxists point to the real possibility that Syriza will actually keep to its programme and not actually betray it, which would mean continuing with austerity, betraying the Left in the eyes of the population and preparing the way for the fascists of Golden Dawn who may unfortunately not betray their programme.  In fact of course the programme of Syriza, negotiated debt reduction, is not within its gift, but requires the agreement and actions of the Troika.

The Greek Marxists point out that revolutionaries can delude themselves on the influence they can have on larger reformist bodies by supporting them in elections. Of course the point of such support is not so much to sway the organisation as to influence its members. Through supporting its campaign one can win the respect of Syriza’s supporters, showing your agreement that the debt burden should be reduced and austerity resisted, while explaining that Syriza does not go far enough and will not go far enough.  If or when this is proved to be the caes these supporters might acknowledge the correctness of Antarsya and be won to their perspectives.  Of course supporting an organisation in an election means taking a certain responsibility for that organisation and what it is standing for and this definitely should not be done by pretending its programme is more than it actually is.

There may also be the issue that this writer has come across often. Small organisations say they are adopting a united front approach and declare support for a much larger reformist party in an election but don’t actually support it in any way that anyone could recognise. The support is often a purely verbal statement of position but does not involve actual campaigning. It must also be recognised that the latter activity can take a long time to have an effect through establishing the seriousness and credibility of the support that is given. The applicability of these latter remarks to the Greek situation is one for Greek Marxist to determine.

On the other hand the Socialist Resistance article admits ignorance of the most recent developments in Syriza’s political practice and programme including setting to the side the unity of Greek workers with immigrant workers, which is understandable given that Socialist Resistance is British, but the article goes on to blithely assert that “Syriza has withstood the bourgeois onslaught without bending.”

Both are grappling with the simple fact that the balance of forces does not yet admit of a working class solution and that this becomes evident when it comes to framing a governmental slogan. The writer from Socialist Resistance covers this up by prettifying Syriza as in some way representing an (impaired) working class programme when this is not the case. The Greeks on the other hand, perfectly aware of the severe limits of Syriza as an alternative and the real role they play in the workers movement and struggle are forced into downplaying the importance of the governmental slogan and present the question in a way that allows the Socialist Resistance article to describe it as abstract, which it appears to me to be the case.

Being in the midst of the action it is my view that the Greek Marxists more accurately describe the real class struggle in their country and the political character of Syriza. If their proposals for a governmental solution to the crisis, which acts as the proxy for the question of which class will impose a solution, is abstract this simply reflects the fact that the working class is not unfortunately currently in a position to put forward its own solution. This is primarily because the Greek working class does not support a solution in which it rules as a class and capitalism and its state are removed in the process. If a significant section of the Greek working class did believe this organisations like Antarsya would not be getting less than half of one per cent of the vote. It is to this fundamental problem that we will turn to in the next post.