End times for democracy? How the 1% staged a coup & why worse is yet to come
|‘Don’t forget who runs your economy now.’|
For the 1 percent who rule society, democracy seems more than ever a hindrance to ensuring that the most calamitous economic crisis since the 1930s is paid for by the 99 percent below them. The most obvious expression of this is the installation of unelected technocrats as prime minister in Greece and Italy, in order to keep the countries’ governments firmly on the path of ever-deeper austerity programs designed to keep those ubiquitous “markets” happy.
It is here that we can see Lenin’s statement that “politics is a concentrated expression of economics” playing itself out concretely as a crisis of production and debt has mutated into a crisis of the political class, the state, and national sovereignty.
Democracy: Going, going, gone?
Behind all the platitudes being mouthed about the potential for economic mandarins to seriously address these interlocked emergencies, there remains the stubborn fact that in each country the problem was a political elite unable to maintain a social consensus for the brutality being inflicted to keep the Eurozone together. In neither country was there an election and nor in each case did the leader even lose a vote of confidence on the floor of Parliament. Indeed, in Greece George Papandreou won such a vote only to immediately step down in favour of a “government of national unity” headed by a little-known neoliberal bureaucrat.
The only legitimacy accessed by Papademos and Monti has been a negative one, based in the deep unpopularity and lack of authority of all sections of the political class across Europe. It is a situation where the factions of the Greek far Left together hold better poll results than either of the two main parties, and where Berlusconi was so deeply discredited that his premiership may have collapsed even without the pressure coming from Berlin, Paris and bond holders.
Left Flank has argued before that 2011 has been a year of global resistance from below on a scale not seen since 1968, but one key feature of any such conjuncture will be manoeuvres by ruling elites to head off and break rebellion through a mixture of coercion and consent.
The imposition of technocratic rule is just one of the mechanisms available in a period of sharp crisis, and it is neither new nor a sign that the ruling class can necessarily impose its will. As Marx argued in 1853 in relation to a period of “technical” rule in Britain, “The best thing perhaps that can be said in favour of the Coalition [technical] Ministry is that it represents impotency in [political] power at a moment of transition.” However, the experience of Weimar Germany suggests that such subversion of liberal democracy can also lead to the imposition of ever more authoritarian forms of government, ever further from the niceties of popular consent. We are not there yet, and it would be wrong to overplay rumours that the Greek generals are thinking of staging a military coup, for which there is little evidence at present. It’s not that such moves may not be attempted if things get worse, but to raise excessive fears about their prospect can easily feed an argument that the Left should accede to a very real technocratic coup so as to try to dodge authoritarianism down the track.
These events have occurred concurrently with new attacks on the Occupy movement across the United States, where it has emerged that Mayors involved in the coordinated crackdown colluded not just with each other but the US Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
Conservative forces have also played their hand in relation to the Arab Spring. Western Powers gained new legitimacy thanks to the NATO intervention in Libya, with sections of the Syrian democracy movement looking to a similar deal with the devil. Yet while direct Western intervention looks less likely, the key players in the region — brought together in the Gulf Cooperation Council, throwing its weight around via influence within the Arab League — are seeking to divert movements from below and to drive a wedge against a key opponent, Iran. Nobody should shed a tear if Bashar al-Assad falls, but to see foreign meddling in his downfall as innocent of such dynamics would be naïve.
Imperialism is not just something that happens in the developing world. You can see it in the imposition of ECB/IMF rule on Greece and Italy and in other machinations at the top of the Eurozone hierarchy. Angela Merkel told her CDU party’s conference that the monetary union needed new rules to impose even tougher fiscal discipline on member states, under the banner of “closer integration”. And Finland’s Europe Minister has called for the six Triple-A rated economies in the Eurozone to be given extra powers to dictate what happens in the 11 non-core economies and new entrants, over the heads of locally elected governments.
The far Right on a new terrain
The current crisis is so serious that such manoeuvres may well come to nothing. There is a real prospect of Greece (and/or some other country) defaulting on its debt and exiting the Euro. If the existing elite structures cannot provide a clear path out of the crisis, there are darker forces hoping to win support for more authoritarian solutions. For example, Dutch hard Right populist Geert Wilders has started to publicly talk about taking his country out of the Euro, and French presidential candidate Marine LePen — of the fascist National Front — has been gaining mainstream traction through her party’s objection to the single currency. In Greece the far Right LAOS party has joined the government of national unity.
Meanwhile, Germany has been partly distracted from the Eurozone crisis by revelations that a Nazi terrorist group operated for a decade under the nose of state security agencies, while carrying out a series of brutal anti-immigrant murders. And Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik has appeared in open court and been granted media access while he awaits his trial. Despite at times ludicrous media attempts to situate his act of mass murder in crude psychological terms, he continues to state he is a “resistance fighter” against Islam’s destruction of Europe via the encouragement of multiculturalism by the “cultural Marxists” of the centre-Left.
It was issues like these that Guy Rundle and I discussed with Phillip Adams on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live the other night (the interview can be podcasted here), in line with the argument developed in our e-book, On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe (available here). One key point I raised was the fact that in extreme socioeconomic crises, when large sections of the middle class are — in Trotsky’s term — driven to despair by the destruction of their aspirations and livelihoods, fascist ideas can gain a mass hearing and apparently isolated individuals like Breivik can act as a beacon to growing networks of extremists as they prosecute the argument that only an extreme nationalist solution will resolve the crisis.
The point is not to see the accession of the far Right to power as imminent (it is not) but to understand that it is not inevitable that liberal democracy can reassert control in a situation where the social basis for it has been so dramatically undermined. There is no guarantee that existing political classes and state elites can restore stability in such a precarious situation, and certainly not without resort to extreme measures that open the way for more sinister actors to play a role.
Resistance and politics
The coming period raises decisive questions not just about the ability of ordinary people to resist the effects of the crisis but about what sort of politics are needed to give them the best chance of pointing a way out. Any such approach must start from a position of refusal to surrender to “the dictatorship of the markets”, to stand with every social struggle against the austerity measures being demanded and to argue that the 99 percent have the right to reject any practical culpability for the crisis.
Already there have been mass anti-government protests in Greece, on the anniversary of the 1973 student uprising against military rule, as well as in Italy, against a “bankers’ government”. Occupy London has to date defied an eviction notice and even expanded the protest into a nearby empty building owned by financial giant UBS. Any thought that the SCAF had strangled the key movement of the Arab Spring was also upset as one of the biggest protests since February filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities. This doesn’t come out of nowhere, as workers’ strikes have spread and grown dramatically in recent months, underlining the growing social dynamic to the revolution.
But beyond this there is no formula for how this plays out politically. Lenin also famously said that Marxists should engage in “concrete analysis of the concrete situation”, and that “politics must take precedence over economics”. The Left is very weak internationally despite the re-energising influence of the last 12 months. For example, notwithstanding the brilliant Indignados movement in Spain, the Left remains relatively marginal when it comes to the forthcoming elections, in which the conservative pro-austerity PP is expected to win a massive majority. In part this reflects the way that electoral politics tend to lag social movement activity, but it is also a legacy of the fragmentation of opposition to austerity, with the trade unions having surrendered to PSOE’s attacks and the 15M movement (understandably but mistakenly) reacting to this with an outright rejection of political parties and unions, thereby partly abandoning the field to existing political actors.
Yet Greece shows that something different is possible. Not only has the radical Left grown in influence, the argument of a section of that Left for debt default, exit from the single currency and a radical program of nationalisation, capital controls and other progressive measures has been widely discussed. In this way, there has been a serious Left response to the most unavoidable concrete fact of the crisis: The fragile position of the key European neoliberal project of the last two decades — monetary union. It is around this axis that all other questions pivot as ruling classes around the Eurozone scramble to save the project, at the cost of social devastation.
As Costas Lapavitsas and his team at SOAS have cogently argued in their latest report on the Eurozone crisis (and as Lapavitsas argued in a major debate at the Historical Materialism conference in London last week), such an action program would not be a solution in and of itself, but could act as a bridge to rebuilding a confident and politically-focused struggle for socialism based inside the working class. The idea remains controversial, particularly because for some on the Left it is mistakenly seen as caving in to nationalism, but it targets the glaring weak point of European capitalism and its austerity-focused politicians and technocrats.
This is exactly the kind of revitalised, concrete, strategic Left politics that needs to be fused with mass resistance already emerging in response to the current crisis. Otherwise we risk being dragged ever closer to the social hell our rulers seem to have no clear alternative to demanding of us. This is the challenge we face.