Look not to the peripheries

5 Aug

In recent weeks, Yannis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister, has been under fire because of a secret group he ran, from February to June, whose purpose was to plan for a possible Grexit. Some have charged him with treason – primarily because his group hacked into the Greek Finance Ministry to acquire information they needed for the planning. Others defended him.

Whatever the stakes of this minor power struggle, it is a sideshow. In fact, Greece itself is not even the story. In this post-agreement moment, as the Tsipras government capitulates to the Eurogroup’s diktats, we need to grasp the dramatic failure of Syriza’s strategy in its proper context: the wider exhaustion of Left politics. The primary lesson is not (only) that Syriza failed but that the Left, across Europe, is politically exhausted. It is important to identify this weakness not only to acknowledge the limits of what Syriza could ever have done, but also to counter the emergent left-populist view that this is all about Germany.

To be sure, Tsipras deserves some blame. If the only planning for Grexit was happening in secret, on condition it never be made public and therefore never part of the bargaining strategy, then it was not just a pointless activity but a sign of Tsipras’ opportunistic willingness to use the Greeks as a stage army. They were there to vote, but never to have a real option granted. After all, for an exit to be a democratic act aimed at something like self-determination outside the Eurozone, it could not be a mere technocratic process of figuring out how to print and distribute notes, denominate payments, and sort out IOUs. It might have required seizing banks to prevent capital flight, nationalizing industries to prevent them being bought up by oligarchs who were hoarding euros outside Greece, rationing of certain basic supplies, even subsistence level economic production for a time. That is something the Greeks would have had to have been prepared for, something asked of them, and something which would have needed explicit popular backing. Tsipras made no effort in this direction and one has to think that he did not ultimately believe in his own people enough even to put the question to them.

Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the extraordinary constraints that Tsipras and the Syriza government generally were under. They took power after Greece had already been through multiple rounds of austerity and seen roughly a quarter of its GDP evaporate. The financial thuggery by the European Central Bank, which engineered a quasi-bank failure in the last days of the negotiations by drastically reducing emergency funding, was illegal and extremely coercive. President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Djisselbloem, doubled down on the threat, saying “we are going to collapse your banks.” It was clear that Schäuble wanted to turn Greece into something like debtor’s colony and was willing to take only that or let Greece go altogether. Even if Tsipras had, from the very beginning, made more effort to plan for the exit, looked for alternate sources of financing, pre-emptively printed drachmas, readied to seize the banks, moved to nationalize key assets, prepared capital controls, and taken the 50 other steps necessary to minimize the costs of exit, the democratic act would not have been a revolutionary step into a heroic, post-austerian future. It would have been a necessary, high-cost, step away from the clutches of the Eurozone.

The reason Greece was so limited in options is that Syriza had no meaningful support from the rest of the European Left. It had no support because the mainstream left parties, from the German SPD to the French Socialists, on through other Western European parties, have so fully committed themselves to the Eurozone and to some version of austerity that they were in no position to open the space within which a proper resistance to the Eurogroup’s divide-and-conquer sadomonetarism could be challenged. Syriza ran up against some world-historic limits that allowed someone other than the Left to dictate not just the basic terms but also the governing ideas of public discourse.

The best way to appreciate this is to note what could have been said but wasn’t. For one, it is striking how quickly the sovereign debt crisis of 2010 became pitched in nationalist terms, as a competition between creditor and debtor nations. In fact, the sovereign debt crisis had its origins in reckless lending by major French and German banks, which mirrored some of the profligacy and corruption of the Mediterranean spenders, and the majority of the money of the early bailouts was channeled into making those banks whole. This was true across the board but especially true in Greece. As Mark Blyth notes:

Greece was thus a mere conduit for a bailout. It was not a recipient in any significant way, despite what is constantly repeated in the media. Of the roughly 230 billion euro disbursed to Greece, it is estimated that only 27 billion went toward keeping the Greek state running. Indeed, by 2013 Greece was running a surplus and did not need such financing. Accordingly, 65 percent of the loans to Greece went straight through Greece to core banks for interest payments, maturing debt, and for domestic bank recapitalization demanded by the lenders. By another accounting, 90 percent of the “loans to Greece” bypassed Greece entirely.

The European people funded the bank bailouts, preserving their irrational financial system, and effectively nationalizing the debt through the Troika institutions. This could have been the start of more democratic control over the economy. Instead, the price of the bailouts was austerity for the southern countries, even less democracy (remember two elected governments, in Italy and Greece, were replaced by unelected technocrats), and worst of all the transformation of a conflict between the people and their economic system into a conflict between creditor and debtor nations. After all, once the majority of the debt was nationalized through the bailouts, the French, Dutch, other Northern Europeans, but above all the Germans, became creditors for the Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks. The parties of the Left in these Northern countries could have tried to resist the nationalist impulse that coursed through the financial circuits of the European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism, Emergency Liquidity Assistance, and other conduits of the bailout programs. They were, however, so thoroughly compromised by their commitment to the EU and the euro, not to mention their cooperation with what we now know as austerity, that there was no way out.

Consider the Germans. Any left-wing politician worth his salt could have pointed out that the way Schäuble talked about Greeks in public was likely how he talks about German workers in private. And, further, that Schäuble represented the interests of a fraction of German capital, not the German people as whole. Indeed, a German politician could have further pointed out that keeping Greece in but forcing it into deeper internal devaluation – namely, benefits reduction and wage repression – simply threatens to lower the wage floor for all of Europe, especially since the latest agreement also involved a direct assault on labor rights. However, the German SDP has been imposing wage stagnation on its own working class for the last two decades, most notably with the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s, imposed more or less in tandem with the rise of the euro. These reforms, pushed through when the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder was Chancellor, reduced benefits and contributed to wage stagnation. Even when the SDP lost to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, they agreed to be the junior partner in a governing coalition, in exchange for a few concessions, some lousy portfolios, and fealty to Merkel’s vision of Germany in Europe.

This has left the only significant party with any capacity for opposition utterly compromised. How do you tell workers whom you have been telling to accept wage stagnation and benefits reductions that they should now turn around and spend more money bailing out Greeks? Why save Greek benefits when your own are being chipped away? The SPD has no answers, no capacity even to generate answers, and even if it had generated answers, it could have never presented itself as a credible opposition, able to support the Greeks. That is why the whole affair looked like a unified, German hegemonic operation. Not because Germany really does have a national interest in dominating Europe – no working class has a stake in intensified nationalistic conflict – but because the expression of class divisions has been suppressed by the mainstream Left party itself.

A similar story could be told about the French Socialist Party. As already argued on The Current Moment, the French Parti Socialiste (PS) is not a working class party. Indeed, the abandonment of the working class by the French Left goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Front National amongst the young working class French. They rightly judge that the PS no longer represents them. Hollande’s tepid support for Tsipras soon after the latter’s election quickly turned into hostility. Hollande’s intervention at the last minute to stop Schäuble’s push for Grexit was a matter of French national interests, not of ideological or class solidarity. Hollande calculated that a German-provoked Grexit would make life in the Eurozone quite a bit more difficult, with rules ever more rigid. A similar calculation was made by Italy’s Matteo Renzi.

The PS’s commitment to European integration and monetary union stems from Mitterrand’s u-turn on membership of the European Monetary System (and the Exchange Rate Mechanism within it) in 1984. Whilst Mitterrand justified his decision to remain in the EMS in the language of Europe and peace, it fitted with his wider goals. He had become convinced of the need to reform the French economy through domestic adaptation rather than to use devaluations of the French franc as a basis for economic competiveness. The EMS was a rules-based framework that would help Mitterrand to pursue this strategy. De Gaulle’s attempt at internal reform failed with the general strike of 1968 and a devaluation in 1969. The Barre Plan of 1976 had also failed, which was why Mitterrand’s alternative of ‘Keynesianism in one country’ had been so popular in 1981. When he abandoned it a few years later, he brought the PS in line with the now established view about the need for an external monetary anchor to encourage reform internally. Mitterrand’s conversion to the power of external rules has become a core belief within the PS and there was no chance that Hollande, Valls, Fabius or Macron would challenge this by supporting Syriza. For them, as for the rest of the European Left, there is no alternative to this way of conducting economic policy.

The failure we see is, therefore, not just one of parties taking the wrong stance, or being compromised by their past commitments. It is also the dearth of alternative, left-wing ideas. Being anti-austerity is no longer enough, and it hasn’t been for a long time. It is one thing to say that turning Greece into a debtor’s colony, or undermining the European welfare state, is immoral. It is another to have some conception of and belief in the alternative. No doubt one reason that Tsipras and Syriza were afraid of what Grexit would take is because few found it credible even to consider nationalizing the banks. They only got as far as capital controls, very likely an example of how halfway can be worse than none or all. But the point is that, beyond outrage, there isn’t much in the way of a credible Left alternative to what gets shoved down the people’s throats each time the dollars or Euros run out. In such a political and ideological climate, there is little the Greeks could have done.

In fact, the degree of hope invested in Syriza by the wider European Left, especially around the time of the referendum, was the product of political displacement – not so dissimilar from left-wing support for the ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum last year. Unable to lead directly, the Left will project its needs and desires onto anything that looks vaguely oppositional, and Syriza had the added advantage of having some actual left-wing elements in it. If Syriza failed to lead, their failure only reflected the wider Left’s failure to imagine itself leading a popular movement that is willing to take responsibility for running society out of the hands of a bankrupt elite.

This is a failure not only of Syriza, but of the only other significant movements that have emerged out of the European status quo. Consider Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s Podemos Party. In July Iglesias took pains to distance himself from Greece and to commit himself, if elected, to staying in the euro. He then openly professed that there is nothing he can do to resist the anti-democratic character of the EU – despite claiming the right to lead 45 million people. What better sign that it is not only the technocrats of Europe that are queasy about democracy. The peripheries and the core are constrained by the weakness of the Left everywhere.

Alex Gourevitch

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