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Why Syriza Failed

31 Jul

Recent events in Greece have baffled many observers. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked out of talks with Greece’s creditors, calling a snap referendum on their proposals. It appeared to be crunch time. Tspiras denounced the EU’s ‘blackmail-ultimatum’, urging ‘the Hellenic people’ to defend their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’, while EU figures warned a ‘no’ vote would mean Greece leaving the Euro. Yet, even during the referendum campaign, while ostensibly pushing for a ‘no’ vote, Tsipras offered to accept the EU’s terms with but a few minor tweaks. And no sooner had the Greek people apparently rejected EU-enforced austerity than their government swiftly agreed to pursue harsher austerity measures than they had just rejected, merely in exchange for more negotiations on debt relief. This bizarre sequence of events can only be understood as a colossal political failure by Syriza. Elected in January to end austerity, they will now preside over more privatisation, welfare cuts and tax hikes.

How can we explain this failure? I argue three factors were key. First, the terrible ‘good Euro’ strategy pursued by Syriza, the weakness of which should have been apparent from the outset. The second factor, which shaped the first, is the overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment among Greek citizens and elites, which created a strong barrier to ‘Grexit’ in the absence of political leadership towards independence. Third, the failure of the pro-Grexit left, including within Syriza, to win Syriza and the public over to a pro-Grexit position.

The ‘good Euro’ fantasy

The strategy pursued by Tspiras and his former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has been dubbed the ‘good Euro’ approach. Essentially, they argued that a resolution to Greece’s economic depression could be found within the confines of the single European currency. The failure of previous governments to do this was simplistically assigned to the fact that they ‘never negotiated’ with the Troika but merely implemented its demands. Instead, Syriza would make common cause with other anti-austerity groups and sympathetic governments across Europe, pushing for more favourable bailout terms. This involved an attempt to ‘delegitimise’ the creditors by appealing – as Tsipras did even when denouncing the creditors – to the ‘founding principles and values of Europe’, supposedly norms of social justice like ‘rights to work, equality and… dignity’. From this perspective, the referendum was never intended to be a decisive moment for the restoration of Greek democracy and autonomy. It was merely called to strengthen the Greek government’s position when bargaining with the creditors, which is why Tsipras never stopped seeking another ‘bailout’ even as campaigning was underway.

But to any clear-eyed observer, this strategy was disastrous from the outset, because it rested on two flawed premises.

The first was that the allies Syriza sought were either too weak, or simply did not exist. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the European response to the global financial crisis has been the near-total absence of any effective resistance to the conversion of a banking crisis into a fiscal crisis of the state and from there to the imposition of austerity. With the exception of Greece and Spain, elections across Europe have tended to shift goverments to the right, even – as in Britain – after five years of cuts to state spending. The lack of effective anti-austerity resistance itself reflects the wider collapse of left-wing political forces from the 1980s. The disarray of the rump parties of social democracy, clearly unable to offer any alternative to austerity, is merely the prolonged death rattle of this epochal defeat. This was never promising terrain for a ‘good Euro’ strategy.

One hope of Syriza was the rise of Podemos in Spain – like Syriza, a loose alliance emerging from street-level, anti-austerity protests. But, as Varoufakis rapidly realised, ‘there was nothing they could do – their voice could never penetrate the Eurogroup’. Similarly, while Syriza notionally classified EU governments as pro-austerity, anti-austerity and neutral, with pro-austerity governments ostensibly in the minority, it was unable to leverage any international support. The French – perhaps the main hope – promised support in private, but criticised Greece in public. Nor were the governments of other countries suffering from EU-imposed austerity sympathetic. In fact, Varoufakis recalls, ‘from the very beginning… [they] made it abundantly clear that they were the most energetic enemies of our government… their greatest nightmare was our success: were we to succeed in negotiating a better deal for Greece, that would of course obliterate them politically, they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.’ It should therefore have been immediately clear to Syriza that the building materials for the progressive bloc it hoped to construct simply did not exist.

The second flawed premise was ‘leftist Europeanism’, the idea that the European Union is primarily about values of ‘social justice’, such that appeals to these values could overcome demands for austerity. Again, this notion was ludicrous from the outset. By the time Syriza was elected, the EU had already subjected the Greek people to grotesque abuses. These include: 25 percent unemployment (57 percent among youths) by 2012; the mass collapse of small businesses; a 25 percent rise in homelessness from 2009-11; a 75 percent rise in suicides from 2009-11; mass emigration; and a massive health crisis, with spikes in epidemic diseases and a drop in life expectancy of three years (a phenomenon generally only seen in war-torn countries), nonetheless followed by a further 94% cut in health funding from 2014-15. Even pro-EU liberals outside Greece are now reconsidering their naïve faith in ‘social Europe’ after what has happened there. To any Greek, the real values being pursued through the EU ought to have been crystal clear. As one Varoufakis advisor notes, ‘the only weapons… [Syriza brought] to the negotiating table were reason, logic and European solidarity. But apparently we live in a Europe where none of those things mean anything.’

Eurobarom 1


Eurobarometer: percentage of EU citizens expressing trust in EU institutions. Source.

 Eurobarom 2

Eurobarometer: what does the EU mean to you personally? Source.

As Varoufakis and Tspiras discovered almost immediately, EU institutions have little to do with democracy, either. The informal Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, Varoufakis notes, makes ‘decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody’. ‘From the very beginning’ (i.e. from their first meeting in February), Varoufakis encountered a ‘complete lack of any democratic scruples, on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy’. Germany’s finance minister told him: ‘Elections cannot change anything’. Some ministers agreed with Syriza’s critique of austerity, but essentially said, ‘we’re going to crunch you anyway.’ What further demonstration did Syriza need that EU leaders are not interested in social justice, only containing the Euro-crisis – and thereby protecting their own shoddy financial institutions from debt default and contagion – by making Greece the whipping boy of Europe?

The Greek fetish of European membership

Unsurprisingly, critics had declared the ‘good Euro’ strategy a failure as early as February, while Varoufakis’s post-resignation interviews reveal that its chief executors also swiftly recognised its flaws. So why did it ever appear a good idea in the first place? Ultimately, Syriza was elected on a platform both of ending austerity and remaining in the Euro – the latter position being shared by all of its main political rivals and by 80 percent of the public. This contradictory position reflects the attachment of Greek citizens and elites to ‘Europe’ as a refuge from their domestic political difficulties, and thus a reluctance to confront and resolve these difficulties alone.

As The Current Moment’s co-editor, Chris Bickerton, has shown, this is part of a general trend across the EU. From the 1970s, faced with crises of rising expectations and increasing social unrest, European elites have – through varying national trajectories – tried to create a new social, political and economic settlement by entrenching themselves within international elite networks. The EU’s structures are generally not supranational authorities but rather elite solidarity clubs, where ministers pursuing unpopular ‘reform’ agendas can draw upon each other’s support against their respective populations, thereby basing the content and legitimacy of their actions not on democratic mandates but on the legalistic European processes of policy coordination and harmonisation. By linking virtually every state apparatus across European borders, elites have thereby transformed once-sovereign nation-states into EU ‘member-states’, heavily constrained, with popular sovereignty deliberately negated. European elites can no longer imagine life outside of these structures, because it would represent a vast step-change: a need to re-engage with their own populations as the sole source of their authority, and the need to articulate clear political visions for their nations instead of relying on the latest EU action plan to guide their polities.

Each member-state has followed its own particular trajectory into this dismal arrangement. In Portugal, Spain and Greece, the process was strongly marked by their 1970s transition from authoritarian rule. In much the same way as the recent Scottish referendum proposed to make Scotland independent of the United Kingdom but immediately constrain its autonomy by retaining EU membership, these southern European nations emerged from authoritarian rule only to constrain democratic choice by swiftly joining the then European Economic Community. For the Greeks, joining ‘Europe’ was apparently a way to help draw a line under the past. It signalled their rejection of military rule, their ‘identity’ ‘as Europeans’, their distinction from authoritarian neighbours like Albania and Turkey. And it precluded the return of authoritarianism by locking Greece into various intergovernmental agreements and processes that entrenched liberal rights. The same motive and process had guided the formation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the early post-war years, and the later flight of Eastern European states from ‘Brezhnev to Brussels’, as Bickerton puts it.

Thus, for wide swathes of the Greek public, and especially the liberal and left elite, membership of the EU is valued precisely for its constraints. The fear, as Varoufakis himself clearly articulated, is that the beneficiaries of Grexit would not be the ‘progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions’, but rather ‘the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs’. His successor, Euclid Tsakalotos, issued similar warnings from the foreign ministry. Their fear was essentially of what the Greek people would do, left to their own devices.

This concern is hardly unique to Syriza. Across Europe, the dominant – perhaps only – elite justification for European integration is that its only alternative is a return to nationalism (or worse) and war. The Greek version of this politics of fear is simply mediated through the recent historical experience of military rule. Syriza’s embrace of this pessimistic narrative clearly signified a profound lack of faith in its own capacity to lead Greeks towards a more progressive future as an independent nation.

This quite widespread ideological attachment to Europe was undoubtedly reinforced by the apparent economic benefits of EU membership before the Euro crisis. In 1974, when the Colonels’ regime fell, Greek GDP per capita was just $2,839. When Greece joined the EEC in 1981, it was $5,400. By 2001, when Greece joined the Euro, per capita income had more than doubled to $12,418. Under the Euro, average incomes then nearly tripled to $31,701 by 2008. Greece literally appeared to go from third world to first in the space of two generations. In real terms, of course, the increase was always smaller – from $12,829 to $24,148 from 1974-2008 – but this was still a significant ‘catching up’ with other European states. As is now widely recognised, much of the post-2001 boom was fuelled by reckless borrowing and its benefits were always maldistributed, with a narrow oligarchy dominating a state-led patronage system. This is undoubtedly why the Greek oligarchy, while evading the consequences of austerity itself, has waged a strong pro-EU campaign, including through the media organisations it dominates, and is implacably opposed to Syriza, which had pledged to ‘destroy’ the ‘oligarchy system’. However, economic benefits also flowed to a wider coalition, with handouts like early pensions for professional groups and public sector unions supportive of the status quo.

graphic 3

Greek GDP Per Capita, current US$. Source.


graphic 4


Greek GDP Per Capita (Purchasing Power Parity) 1990=100. Source.

Combined, these factors seem to have made many Greeks leery of Grexit, even as the economy shrivelled. For some, when the crisis struck, there was apparently a guilty sense of the chickens coming home to roost – that ‘the party was over’ – with two-thirds of Greeks actually supporting austerity in 2010. Although this support collapsed over the next four years, fuelling the rise of Syriza, fear of the unknown remained very strong. Even in the most favourable scenarios, restoring the drachma would be hugely destabilising in the short to medium term and risk undoing the residual benefits of Euro membership. This motivation seems particularly strong among those with most to lose.

All of this helps explain the structural constraints facing Syriza leaders upon their election. The Greeks were both tired of austerity and yet fearful of exiting the Euro. Consequently, they demanded an end to austerity within the Euro. Squaring this circle was an impossible task.

But this should not let Syriza off the hook. Insofar as Syriza leaders understood that these popular demands were incompatible, they ought to have exercised political leadership by trying to lead the Greek citizenry towards a more rational position. The most crucial step was to outline a compelling vision for a Greek economy independent of the Euro, where life might be tough for a few years (but probably no tougher than under perpetual EU-imposed austerity), and recovery was eventually possible via the currency devaluation that every sane economist argues is both essential for Greece’s recovery and impossible within the Euro. This Syriza comprehensively failed to do.

Despite their leftist élan, its leaders seem just as incapable as their European counterparts of imagining a future for themselves and their country outside the strictures of European integration. Syriza’s failure remains one of leadership and strategy, irreducible simply to popular attitudes. The Syriza leadership has now embraced a deal that it openly admits is rotten, claiming ‘there is no alternative’. This merely signals a refusal to accept political responsibility for articulating an alternative. Ultimately, they – like the leaders of Europe’s other ‘member-states’ – are too afraid of the consequences of genuinely restoring autonomous, democratic decision-making to their nation. As Stathis Kouvelakis comments, this reflects their ‘entrapment in the ideology of left-Europeanism’. When Greek officials denounce the ‘almost neo-fascist euro dictatorship’, they are heaping the blame entirely on German sadomonetarism while evading their own failure to rebel against it, however difficult that rebellion would undoubtedly be.

As a consequence of this hesitancy, Syriza leaders spurned the growing social basis for a pro-Grexit line, which emerged despite, not because of, them. While in January 2015, 80 percent of Greeks favoured remaining in the Euro, by the time of the referendum this figure had fallen to 45 percent, with 42 percent favouring the serious consideration of Grexit.

The left’s failure to produce Grexit

This leaves one remaining question: why were those on the left, able to see all of the foregoing problems, unable to change Syriza’s course? After all, much of the above criticism of the ‘good Euro’ strategy was initially articulated by figures within Syriza, most notably Costas Lapavitsas, Stathis Kouvelakis and others members of its ‘Left Platform’. The Greek far left has also long demanded Grexit. Left Platform figures had adopted a position of ‘no more sacrifices for the Euro’ in 2012/13 and have long argued for default and Grexit, with apparently growing support. 44 percent of Syriza’s Central Committee backed the Left Platform’s call to break from negotiations and pursue a radical ‘plan B’ in late May. Tsipras was reportedly being constrained by their resistance in parliament in June. After the referendum, the Left apparently won over a (bare) majority of Syriza’s Central Committee to oppose capitulation, backed by many grassroots activists. Yet, only 38 Syriza legislators (out of 149) rebelled against the government (six of whom merely abstained). Although this left

Tsipras dependent on opposition legislators to survive, in subsequent votes that number has shrunk to 36 (with Varoufakis among the defectors), while Left Platform ministers have been sacked or resigned. Amazingly, the ‘good Euro’ strategy persists.

Part of the explanation for this is the nature of Syriza itself as a loose coalition rather than a traditional leftist party. Initially merely an electoral coalition, formed to contest the 2004 elections, Syriza became a party only in 2012, merging 13 political groups ranging from social democrats to hard-line Marxists. Syriza’s dominant parliamentary faction has always been Synaspismós, itself a democratic socialist coalition, led by Tsipras. Syriza’s ‘Left Platform’ – comprising the ‘Left Current’ and ‘Red Network’ – are relative newcomers and, even when joined by the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), also a Syriza member – simply lack the numbers required to impose their preferences.

Moreover, despite the 2012 merger, Syriza did not develop party structures capable of discussing, determining and imposing a collective ‘party line’. This looseness permitted a high degree of open internal dissent and had a ‘horizontalist’ flavour much celebrated by contemporary critics of traditional leftist parties. But the downside is that this organisational form effectively permitted the central leadership to determine policy, while more critical elements simply became a sort of internal ‘loyal opposition’.

Syriza’s leftist elements were not unaware of this, but were compelled to join the party having failed in their initial quest to form a broad, anti-EU alliance with the anti-capitalist left. As Kouvelathis describes it, the Left Platform crowd joined Syriza in 2012 only after these proposals left were rejected by the main component of Antarsya (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow), a far-left coalition formed in 2009. The KKE, the Communist Party of Greece, also remained aloof. The sticking point was apparently the ultra-leftists’ insistence on a programme of immediate rupture from the Eurozone as the bulwark of ‘neoliberalism’. However, as noted earlier, in 2011/12 this position had virtually no popular support. Nor, reflecting the long-standing decline of Greece’s far left, did these far-left parties have any electoral standing.

Essentially, while Syriza had the wrong line but at least the capacity to get elected, the radical left arguably had the correct political line but lacked any capacity to translate it into policy. Following a crisis common to all European states in the 1980s, the Greek far-left has been extremely fragmented, remaining, despite the formation of horizontalist alliances, unable ‘to actually articulate an alternative project’, and producing ‘catastrophic electoral results’, according to Antarsya’s Panagiotis Sotiris. This strategic ineptitude led them, unlike Syriza, to fail to translate their mobilisation of Greeks in the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ into party organisation and electoral success. This was arguably a serious failure of the horizontalist model with its renunciation of forming parties capable of seizing the state. As Sotiris laments: ‘we never realized that the question was about power… reclaiming governmental power. At that point, we did not have this position, but Syriza had it’.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Left Platform group threw in its lot with Syriza. But in so doing, it inevitably became somewhat marginalised and constrained: outnumbered within Syriza by centre-leftists and balanced within government by Syriza’s coalition partners, the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL). Through this Caesarist balancing act, as Kouvelakis recounts, ‘the government, the leadership, became totally autonomous of the party’. The lack of democratic structures within the loosely constituted party has permitted Tsipras to dominate: the Central Committee has not convened for months. But nor, it seems, has the Left Platform been willing to precipitate a full-on confrontation. Even when voting against the post-referendum ‘bailout’, it carefully manipulated its vote to try to avoid removing Tsipras’s majority support from within his party, the loss of which has traditionally triggered elections in Greece. (Ultimately, so many non-Left Platform Syriza MPs rebelled that this majority was lost anyway, although no election has been called.)

But these questionable tactics, an inevitable part of the difficulties of party politics, are probably secondary to the larger strategic failure, which was to neglect to present the citizenry with an alternative plan for Greece’s future outside the Euro until early July. Kouvelakis now admits this was a serious mistake.

It is not that the plan took forever to draft: it was already in hand long ago, but there was ‘internal hesitation about the appropriate moment to release it.’ This apparently stemmed partly from fears that Greece was ‘ready’ for Grexit. Lapavitsas has long argued for a managed and ‘orderly’ Grexit, but as late as 10 July he openly doubted whether any preparations had been made. Varoufakis’s subsequent revelation that only five officials had been tasked with this suggests that he was correct (as well as signifying his utter disinterest in alternatives to striking deals with the creditors). Essentially, reflecting its marginal position in the ruling coalition, the Left Platform was dependent on the governing part of Syriza to lay the technical ground for their Grexit strategy, which they clearly had no interest in doing. Its members had also become swept up in day-to-day events, Kouvelakis recalls, being ‘neutralized and overtaken by the endless sequence of negotiations and dramatic moments and so on… it was only when it was already too late… that [our] proposal was finally made public… This is clearly something we should have done before.’ The Left Platform thus failed to provide the leadership that their Syriza colleagues refused to provide and that their compatriots so badly needed.


What lessons can we draw from this sorry tale?

The main one is that the European left must shed its illusions about European solidarity. First, the EU is not, and has never been, a font of democracy and social justice. The left, broadly defeated at home through the 1980s, has increasingly put its faith in supranational institutions to protect human rights and social protections, including the EU’s ‘social chapter’. That this only ever expressed the left’s domestic weakness was starkly revealed when European elites combined after 2008 to inflict austerity on their own peoples, and domestic resistance was utterly ineffective. Appealing to EU leaders to uphold norms of democracy and social justice, as Syriza did, is clearly futile. Syriza should be credited with one achievement. It has finally pulled away the veil, forcing everyone to recognise the EU’s true character.

But, secondly, it is equally illusory to put one’s faith in European parties, peoples and social movements, in the hope of a transnational alliance capable of generating more progressive outcomes. This hope for a ‘counter-hegemonic bloc’, long expressed by Gramscian scholars of the EU, has been peddled for 20 years without success, expressed in forms like the European Social Forum, which ultimately go nowhere. Sadly, Syriza found little to no effective support beyond their own borders. Again, this reflects the collapse of progressive political organisations capable of turning humanitarian sympathy into meaningful political action.

This experience strongly suggests that the prevailing European order cannot be effectively contested by progressive forces at the European level. They are simply too weak and isolated. After all, part of the elites’ purpose in rescaling governance to the European level is precisely to outmanoeuvre opposition, which is rightly assumed to be less able to organise regionally than nationally. This suggests that progressive forces must operate primarily on the more hospitable terrain of the nation-state. They need to lead a movement among their own people, even if it means arguing with them, rather than relying on those abroad who already agree with them. This implies a need to recover space for this activism by reasserting the autonomy of domestic politics from European regulation – i.e., by reclaiming popular sovereignty.

Despite growing left-wing Euroscepticism, this step seems to remain anathema to most. Syriza’s leadership were openly leery of popular sovereignty, warning of a fascist revival. This fear is widespread among European elites, suggesting a strong suspicion of the masses, perhaps especially among supposed progressives. But even Syriza’s Left Platform seemed wary of articulating the necessary steps for the restoration of Greek autonomy, despite their clear premonitions of disaster. This is a sign of how deeply the ‘member-state’ mode of politics has been entrenched over several decades. It will be a hard habit to kick.

Another lesson concerns the organisational form and content of anti-EU resistance. Broad coalitions, rooted in societal mobilisations, are crucial, but insufficient without strong party organisation. Syriza’s formation as a party helped create the structures and programme necessary to help turn popular mobilisation into political power. It thereby achieved what every fashionable, ‘rhizomatic, horizontalist network’ – from Occupy to the Greek far left – has failed to: to exert some grip over state power and thus potentially leverage over social change. Yet, its absence of strong internal democracy also allowed its leaders to pursue an unworkable strategy and even betray the expressed wishes of the electorate. Against the Eurocrats for whom ‘elections cannot change anything’, the task is to rebuild truly democratic parties capable of articulating an alternative and attractive vision for the future of European societies.

Lee Jones



Mass Incarceration follow up

1 Jun

A number of our readers felt the previous post on mass incarceration was incomplete or didn’t have enough facts to support the claim that mass incarceration is fundamentally about policing the underclass. They were not convinced that mass incarceration is therefore not analogous to Jim Crow, which was not only explicitly racial, but about creating a docile agricultural proletariat, not policed underclass. In a quest for more facts we scoured the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Department of Justice websites, as well as independent websites, and discovered that statistics on incarceration based on race, and to a lesser degree gender, are a dime a dozen. BJS is drowning in them. But class-based statistics, or even weak proxies for class, like income and/or education, are much more difficult to come by. That alone tells us something about how our consciousness is shaped and continues to shape the gathering of information about this social problem.

Nevertheless, after a few emails to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we turned up the following information, based on survey data from 2004 (raw data is available here). In 2004:

– 28% of state and federal prisoners were unemployed in the month before their arrest. The national unemployment rate at the time was 5.5%. So the inmate rate was six times the national average.

– 88% of state prisoners and 80% of federal prisoners had a high school education or less. The national average for adults (over 18 years of age) was half that – 48%. Inmates are twice the national average.

– 70% of state and 58% of federal prisoners had an income of less than $2000 in the month prior to arrest. That means they had an annual income of less than $24000. Median personal income in 2004 was about $34,000. So about 2/3 of prisoners had incomes that were at least 1/3 below the median. By any reasonable measure (though not by unreasonable official measures) that is real poverty for households, and just scraping by for an individual.

In other words, the poor, uneducated, and un/deremployed are the targets of mass incarceration. The surplus population. Racial factors undoubtedly play a role, especially in likelihood of conviction and length of sentencing, but far less than the ‘New Jim Crow’ thesis implies. Moreover, there is at least one way in which the present mass incarceration is importantly not a system of racial control. The data suggests that middle and upper class Blacks – like the rest of the middle and upper class – are much more immune to incarceration. One likely reason is that, like the rest of the upper and middle class, they can do their drugs in the privacy and much less heavily policed environs of their middle class homes and suburbs. This class cleavage, moreover, is one strong reason why, despite the much greater social and political influence of Black voters and leaders than in the Jim Crow era, mass incarceration gets little play in mainstream politics, and much less attention than other (middle class) ‘racial justice’ concerns like affirmative action.

What Middle Class?

11 May

Is the middle class doing worse or better since the 1970s? Depends, but if so, just barely. Is this the right question to ask? No. Let us explain.

Recently, a number of commentators have begun pushing back against the claim that the past thirty years have seen stagnating fortunes for the middle class. The claim comes from a variety of sources, perhaps most prominently from Piketty and Saez’s work on inequality. They have argued that median incomes have stagnated and that, from 1979-2007, the median income is up just 3% in real terms. But other mainstream economists think the data answers a poorly framed question. Meyer and Sullivan, two mainstream economsits, argue that “material well-being” for poor and middle income households has increased. Burkhauser et al. claim that if we look at post-tax and transfer household income, rather than pre-tax and transfer individual tax unit income, then the median household had seen a gain of 36.7% in their overall income.

Can everyone be right? Oddly, yes. The reason is that the difference here is not about the data – which we for the moment assume is more or less accurate – but the interpretation of the data. It is true that, as P-S say, the median, pre-tax and transfer individual median income is up just 3%. It is also true that, as Burkhauser et al. say, the median household post-tax and transfer income is up 37%, and that it is also true, as Meyer and Sullivan argue, that the material well-being of the poor is better than it was thirty years ago. That everyone can be right is only the beginning of the story.

Let’s take Meyer and Sullivan first. Note that material well-being or ‘standard of living’ can improve even as the poor take home a decreasing share of the overall social product. It is perfectly reasonable for Meyer and Sullivan to point out that economic growth over the past thirty years has made more high quality goods and certain amenities (like air conditioning) cheaper, and thus available to those who couldn’t afford them. It would be hard to imagine capitalism surviving if it did not improve material conditions. But this improvement in the standard of living is perfectly compatible with increasing exploitation of workers. At least since Marx we have known that immiseration is not an absolute but relative process. We can have increasing living standards for many, while those same many control less of their time than before. If $100 used to buy a black and white TV and now it buys an HDTV, then that qualitative improvement in material human well-being is perfectly consistent with stagnating compensation, declining bargaining power and more injustice. It might take only three hours for society to produce all the things I can buy with $100 rather than the four hours it used to. And so, if all I have is $100, my overall claims on society have been reduced, even if the quality of my goods have improved. Put another way, if originally I had $100 and GDP was $10000, and now I have $100 but GDP is $20000, then just because I have higher quality goods doesn’t mean that my fortunes are increasing.

It would of course be wonderful if we organized production for the sake of human needs, not profits. But it is pretty clear that is not Meyer and Sullivan’s interest in offering material human well-being rather than income and wealth as the measure of growth. Terry Eagleton once said that ideology works by being true in what it affirms but false in what it denies. It is true that standards of living have improved since 1970s, but it is false to think that refutes the concerns people have regarding inequality and growth.

Burkhauser et al. are taking a different tack. They argue that, if we want to know how the poor and middle class (whatever exactly the ‘middle class’ is) are doing, then we need to look at “real compensation.” We have to factor in not just pre-tax and transfer ‘market income’ but all the sources of compensation. After all, why should we care about what people take home before they pay taxes and claim benefits? Surely we care what households take home all things considered. And the real compensation by household has grown over the past 30 years, by about 37%. In fact, even in the worse period, from 2000-2007, while individual market income (pre-tax and transfer) declined by 5.5%, real compensation still grew by 4.8% because of elements of the tax code and public benefits, like welfare, earned income tax credit, unemployment benefits, and so on. Burkhauser supplies the following graph to illustrate his point:

Again, his own terms, Burkhauser is right. Real compensation has grown. Though note, two things. First, real compensation has grown very slowly: 1% per year, and has slowed to a near stop in the past decade. Further, “real compensation” has grown mainly because redistributive state measures have been large enough to cancel out declining individual wages and stagnating household wages. In other words, the market has been unable to produce jobs at the median level that compensate any better than they did thirty years ago (and below the median, real wages are decidedly worse.) Without progressive taxation and redistribution, real compensation would be down. In fact, the implication of Burkhauser’s data is that, for most people, the market has not created better jobs than thirty years ago. The bottom end is hanging on through transfers, not bargaining power and quality work. So when Burkhauser says “the notion that we as a society are not doing as well as we were 30 years ago, I think by virtually any reasonable measure, is just false,” this is not even true by his own measures. It’s certainly not true by the conventional conservative standard that people not be dependent on the state.

So far, we have just been considering the arguments on their own terms. In both cases, the authors do not prove that the economic situation over the past thirty years has been desirable or improving, which was their central intent. But that does not mean that the mainstream, default focus on median market income is still the right way to evaluate economic development. The median unit, whether it is an individual or household, is a narrow concern. It says nothing about class structure, how the worst off are doing, nor about economic possibilities and alternatives. For one, changes in wealth, not just compensation, are better indicators of class structure and advantage. In our society, it is wealth, especially financial wealth, more than income that confers security, greater bargaining power, and overall social power. And by that measure, our society is more unjust and exploitative. Recall this graph, showing decline in wealth for the lowest 60% of the population:

When we combine this graph, with some data on the actual distribution of financial (non-real estate) wealth, we are reminded why ‘median’ and ‘middle class’ are more ideological than they are analytical concepts.

Those who have no reasonable alternative but to sell their labor, as diverse a group as they are, still constitute roughly 80% of the population. These statistics suggest that behind ‘median’ income and compensation there is a much different distribution of wealth, and thus a different class structure than concepts like ‘middle class’ can make sense of.

We can ask even further questions – what kinds of jobs are being created, or could be created? Who controls job creation? Who has the freedom to ‘innovate’ and ‘create,’ and who serves the creators? An economy, after all, is never just about making new things, it is always about making new things under specific social conditions. Those social relationships always have to be reproduced, along with the goods and services that get produced. These are concerns about class structure and social power that mainstream economists are rarely interested in, but which cannot be dismissed by gesturing at living standards and compensation.

Economists, stop talking like that for God’s sake!

10 Apr

Today, we publish a guest post by Ivan Manokha. Lecturer of international political economy at Sciences Po, Paris, and Vice Dean of the graduate school at Sciences Po, Manokha’s post unpicks the rarefied language with which economists speak of daily life and takes issue with the presumption of choice that is made in mainstream economic theory to explain people’s behaviour.

By Ivan Manokha

How is it that the unemployed are still able to consume? The answer is found on page 45 of Olivier Blanchard’s famous textbook on Macroeconomics. Their ‘consumption cycle’, argues Blanchard, carries on simply because in order to subsist they opt to ‘dissave’, i.e. spend the money that they have on their savings account. Saving in the good times thus nicely offsets dissaving in the bad times.

This kind of statement is symptomatic of a number of problems that characterize the science of Economics and which, I would argue, account in part for its failure to understand the current crisis and to come up with solutions to deal with it.

First, the statement of Blanchard is symptomatic of a total disconnect between the assumptions and models of economists and social reality. Indeed, in their world, rational individuals, even when they fall into the category of ‘liquidity constrained households’ (read:  the poor) always enjoy the liberty of arbitrating between employment and leisure. Unemployment is voluntary and those who do not have a job find themselves unemployed because they have arbitrated in favour of leisure (because, the argument of the Real Business Cycle theory goes, wages are currently not high enough and these rational individuals wait for the job market to become ‘tighter’ when they will accept to work). Well, I suggest they go and speak to all the existing jobless, whose number has increased dramatically since 2008, in order to find out why is it that they still choose leisure over employment.

Second, and even more importantly, there are no social antagonisms or conflicts in the dream world of Economics. Indeed, all Economics textbooks will tell you that there are people who have capital, there are those who have land, and there are those who do not have either of the two, but, don’t worry, they have … ‘human capital’. The inequality of possessions is thus rationalized away by the very categories used to describe social reality and is never itself explained. To be fair, the classical economists who came up with these assumptions felt that this state of affairs could not be left unexplained and tried to offer some justification. Adam Smith, for instance, stated that “more industrious and prudent persons, rather than spending the full produce of their labour, ‘saved’ part of it and gradually accumulated capital.” Out of these individual choices the social fabric of inequality was made. This was more fiction than fact but at least Smith was compelled to say something, an urge that is completely foreign to modern day Economics. Now, all these proprietors of different ‘factors of production’ – capital, land and ‘human capital’ – meet in the place of ‘freedom and opportunity’ and enter into an exchange relation from which they all benefit (they all ‘maximize their utility’). In other words, for lucky owners of ‘human capital’ there is no compulsion to look for employment in order to survive. They do so willingly because they will obtain a net gain from it.

There is one major obstacle to the functioning of the ‘invisible hand’ – the State. This structure does not act as economists might predict. Instead of simply providing for the security of private possessions of capital and land and concentrating on national defense,  it intervenes in the economy in order to ‘de-commodify’ certain things (e.g. health and education) and to establish certain rules for labour markets (minimum wage, conditions for making people redundant, etc.). There are also these damn unions because of which wages exceed ‘the market clearing wage’… As a result, we are told there is inefficiency and waste; state spending, given the fact that there is a limited amount of money in the economy, necessarily ‘crowds out’ private investment. We can guess that it is because of such ‘crowding out’ that big corporations like Apple are sitting on so much cash and are not investing it back into the economy… Fortunately for us, there is the current crisis which has exposed the fact that certain accounting identities are not in fact accounting identities at all. State spending in Greece went down 20% but did private investment go up by 20%?

It is time for Economists to realize that the absolute majority of the world’s population does not have a choice between leisure and work but is compelled to look for a job; that not all of those who do not find a job will be able to ‘dissave’; that when those lucky ones who are employed are told that they have to accept cuts in wages and benefits and that their contracts have to be changed to make their firing easier (that the labour market has to be made more ‘flexible’) there is a chance that they will go to the streets and rebel. The real world is not characterized by a harmony of interests but it is a world of inequality of possessions, of inequality of opportunity, of inequality of power. So long as our thinking continues to be dominated by the fiction of Economics, we will not be able to deal with the crisis.

The Unholy Alliance of Monetary Expansion and Fiscal Austerity: More for those who have, less for those who don’t

16 Jan

Anyone observing the course of macro-economic policy in industrial countries over the past few years cannot help but notice an over-riding pattern: monetary expansion, fiscal austerity. This is an unholly alliance, in which the most regressive form of stimulus tacitly underwrites a fiscal contraction that punishes the least well off for the financial crisis and subsequent economic stagnation. (Skip the next two paragraphs if you already know the basic facts.)

Consider first some well-known facts. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has pushed interest rates about as low as they will go, and says it will keep them at the lower bound until 2013. It has also engaged in two rounds of quantitative easing, first buying in 2008-2009 over $1 trillion worth of MBS (Mortgage Backed Securities) and agency securities, then in 2010 it bought $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds, as well as the less significant Operation Twist. These measures have, in a narrow sense, been somewhat successful, with the Fed making profits on its original asset purchases, recently returning $77 billion to the Fed. The easing of the 2008-2009 credit constraints has acted as a kind of stimulus to the US economy by increasing the money supply, though strong doubts persist as to any further marginal improvements the Fed can make (e.g. Here and here). Meanwhile, while the Fed has pumped like crazy, state spending has come under serious attack. To be sure, there was the initial roughly $800 billion stimulus in late 2008, but this was almost entirely offset by contractions at the state and local level. The contractionary trend continued in 2011 such that government employment was “down by 280,000 over the year. Job losses in 2011 occurred in local government; state government, excluding education; and the U.S. Postal Service.” And then there is the whole super-committee, trillions of dollars in savings issue waiting in the wings.

We find a similar story in Europe. There have been in some cases multiple rounds of austerity in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and so on, despite record level Eurozone unemployment and economic economic stagnation, verging on recession. Meanwhile, despite initial recalcitrance, the ECB not only has pushed interest rates low, it has begun quietly expanding its balance sheet, offering nearly $500 billion in cheap 3-year loans, and after the recent success of Italian and Spanish bond auctions, has suggested it will loan more money in February. Fiscal austerity, monetary expansion.

Now one perfectly reasonable response to this relationship between central banks expanding the money supply and central governments contracting demand is to say “thank God for the Fed/ECB! At least there is one sane institution left intervening in the economy.” And as a response to those banging the drums of austerity, who believe in ‘expansionary austerity’, or to those who think the Fed is the root of all evil, this is a perfectly reasonable response. Austerity makes things worse, and displaces the costs of the crisis onto the worst off; the Fed, though it is not a progressive institution, is not the root of all evil. However, there is more going on here than that.

For one, in the European case, the tradeoff has been explicit. Draghi held out for as long as he could, on the grounds that Europe had to get its fiscal house in order before the ECB would become more adventurous. Moreover, as Henry Farrell has pointed out, while the raison d’etre of central banks to be insulated from political pressure, what this really means is that they are insulated from the kinds of political pressure felt by elected representatives, i.e. democratic political pressure. They are not from political pressure tout court. Instead, they are influenced by those like them, who speak their language of expertise and money. This makes it much easier for them to propose ‘solutions’ that hurt the majority – who do not so easily understand financial matters, nor tend to produce expert knowledge about it. Which is why it is easy for them to be so nonchalant about fiscal austerity, and why one hears very little about how regressive stimulus through loose monetary policy is relative to fiscal policy.

Just a refresher on that last point because it is relevant. Those best able to take advantage of low interest rates are those with positive net worth, not to mention financial savvy, which is for the most part the wealthy. And it does so without forcing them to invest in any particular way (one of the reasons why it can be of limited use as stimulus – borrowers can just park their money in T-bills, Swiss francs, or some other safe asset, rather than invest in job-creating enterprises). Additionally, it indirectly helps the wealthies by boosting the stock market, and thus those who gain most from increases in stock values (regardless of the underlying employment situation.) Moreover, as Doug Henwood has pointed out, monetary stimulus does the least to disrupt the existing class structure. It increases the ability of private borrowers to spend without actually altering the ability of average workers to earn or increasing their bargaining power with employers. Fiscal policy, on the other hand, especially something like jobs programs, puts a floor under wages, increases demand for labor, and thus changes labor-capital relations. On top of which, it challenges employers’ claims that they should possess exclusive control over investment.

The unholy alliance between monetary expansion and fiscal austerity is more intricate yet. A further response to those who want to present central banks right now as the only sane actors is that their expansionary activity deadens the impact of the insanity. That is to say, even when central bankers argue there should be more fiscal expansion, as Bernanke is reputed to want, their expansionary monetary policy conceals the full damage of the fiscal policy. It gives even greater room for fiscal irrationality. In all, the unholy alliance amounts in practice to a kind of policy combination that serves to redistribute upwards: fewer social services and public benefits for majority, alongside a monetary policy that directly or indirectly benefits the wealthy. And this combination does little to address the underlying sources of the crisis and continued lack of employment/stagnating wages.

Finally, and this is the most difficult part of the unholy alliance to tease out, there is a deep-seated, tacit ideological dimension here. The willingness of central banks to engage in massive pump-priming seems to us to be conditional in certain ways on a certain balance of class forces. The balance is one in which working class demands are weak, expressed not just in more passive unions with lower membership, but in the wider ideological defeat of the idea that public power could be used to meet the basic needs of all and even to socialize investment. Central bankers, once called in to lower the American standard of living by raising interest rates, have been freely keeping interest rates low now that weak labor bargaining power practically eliminates fears about inflation (a reality to which German bankers have yet fully to adjust.) It is harder to imagine an expansionary monetary policy, at least of the magnitude that we have seen, in the midst of a more robust fiscal response by the state to protect the bargaining power and living standards of workers, not to mention in the midst of significant labor militancy. Insofar as the absence of strong political support for expansionary fiscal policy registers the wider political weakness of the Left, the unholy alliance speaks to the ideological hegemony of conservative economic views (despite the hand-wringing of certain Austrians and ‘end-the-Fed’ Randians.) While the credit crunch was supposed to have discredited economic orthodoxy, in fact it seems to have created the conditions for its consolidation. The result: easier money for those who have, less for those who don’t.

Who are they?

9 Sep

After Obama’s speech last night, Corey Robin pointed us to this article by Katha Pollit, which argues that, for the most part, liberals have given up talking about the poor. Pollit has a point. Relative to almost no discussion of poverty and unemployment, Obama’s speech said something. But it took the minimal approach of addressing the fate of the unemployed, rather than the overall structure of options available in the economy. And it is indeed noticeable that the old, diseased welfare-state liberalism has been feeble, especially relative to the politically ascendant progessive-neoliberalism of the Democratic leadership.

However, we’re not so sure ‘the poor’ is a better way talking about the relevant constituency. For one, ‘the poor’ are still a minority – a somewhat different one from the unemployed, it is true – but they are 14%. (Well, according to the official measure, which considerably undermeasures poverty). As such, it is not clear to us that talking about ‘the poor’ escapes any of the political problems we discussed in our post Tuesday. It creates a separate minority, with distinct interests from the many who might not be poor, but who ultimately would also benefit from a different economic order than this one. Why carve up an already fragmented electorate that ought to be organized on the basis of shared, majority interests? Why isolate the interests of the poor from those of the middle?

The other problem is that ‘the poor’ is a fairly passive category. To be sure, there are ‘poor people’s movements’ – though they seem pretty weak in the US. And there are those who use the category poor not because they seem as the objects of charity, but as groups that should or could act to help themselves. But for the most part, it is still a category connected to liberal charity and philanthropy. ‘They need our help.’

Why not say working class instead? It covers the unemployed, the poor, and many of those in the ‘middle’ who have a decent, if fragile and often debt-financed, standard of living. The working class is potentially a majority, not one amongst a number of minorities struggling for recognition of its interests. It is, moreover, an active political and social agent, at least in theory.

Of course, the background problem is that, no matter the category pundits use, the relevant group is more talked about – ‘the unemployed’ ‘the poor’ ‘the working class’ – than making its own claims. ‘They’ have only sporadically (i.e. Wisconsin) made their own claims – and for the most part seem to lose when they do. That real political problem is reflected in the way ‘they’ get talked about – fluid categories, specious identification of interests, and political half-measures as bribes for votes.

Productivity, Inequality and Poverty Revisited

23 Aug

We would like to respond to some criticisms of last week’s post on productivity, inequality and poverty. One reader felt that the post confused two issues because “the dynamics that keep wages down seem different to those responsible for hunger.” The causes of hunger can be addressed “without the ruling class having to make any direct sacrifice. That’s not the case with wages vs. profits.” While we agree with this reader’s comments, at least up to a point, there was a broader purpose to the previous week’s post. Perhaps we were unclear, so let us try to do better.

The broadest claim of last week’s point was to attack the argument that simply increasing productivity wall that is necessary to address either the problem of stagnating wages in rich countries (‘inequality’) or the problem of absolute poverty (basic malnutrition) in poor countries.  The persistence of malnutrition, despite the world being awash in food, suggests hunger is no mere technical problem of the ability to produce food. As we noted, there is enough wheat to give 1 1/3 loaves of bread to every person on the planet. That is just one staple. The reader feels that our claim is misleading because “undernourishment has fallen from 24% in 1970 to 15% in 2009.” That is an important achievement, though quite paltry relative to potentiality. Even in 1970 there was no technical world food shortage. Nor does it prove that this decline in hunger had anything to do with improved food production as opposed to distribution.

In fact, as the reader notes, the reasons for continuing undernourishment do not have to do with factors related to the production but the distribution of food: “the leading cause of hunger is conflict and lack of roads.” We would like to see the data behind this claim, but let us accept it for the sake of argument. In the reader’s view, ‘roads and conflict’ are distinct variables from the claim we made in the previous point that the problem had to do with ‘power.’ However, we are not persuaded. For one, the question would be why is there a lack of roads in certain areas and not others? Roads are produced by public investment, and public investment tends to follow lines of power. Poor, rural peasants, especially when identified as minority groups, are often least able to persuade governments to take their claims as seriously as other citizens, and thus resort to living on the margins of subsistence.

As the reader notes, the food question is complex – a complexity we cannot fully address in a single post. We simply wish to stress that a) our first point was about how productivity alone is not the problem, and not even the major problem, when it comes to absolute poverty nor stagnating wages – it is a matter of the ability to claim to what is produced. And b) while the reader is correct that the increasing wages requires the sacrifice of profits in a way that is not necessarily the case regarding absolute poverty, that does not mean that the explanation of malnutrition is not a question of power.

Two final points. One, by arguing that lack of productivity is not the reason behind stagnating wages or absolute poverty, we do not mean to suggest in any way that productivity is a bad thing. It is on the whole a good thing – we ought to seek not just subsistence but abundance. However in some circles of public debate, productivity becomes a kind of fetish, distracting from the lines power running through the economy. Second, an important reason for the increasing gap between compensation and productivity is declining unionization rates (see this report by the Atlanta Fed) but, as that report makes clear, unionization is only a part of an overall weakening of the average worker’s bargaining power. The limited empirical effect of unionization rates alone suggests that what is going on is something broader and deeper – the absence of a commitment to social and political equality, and the absence of movements able to make those commitments real.


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