Since I last wrote about the situation in Greece the debate I mentioned at the end of my post — about whether all tendencies on the radical Left should get behind the election of a Left government led by SYRIZA — has been hotly debated by various Marxists on the internet. This should not be surprising: The question of which party wins the 17 June election is not an insignificant one. It would be much better if parties committed to breaking with the terms of the socially destructive “bailout” memoranda won out over the old political elites in New Democracy, PASOK and various smaller formations who are committed to maintaining Greece’s position in the Eurozone by acceding to the Troika’s demands for catastrophic austerity measures.
Not only would this be a massive blow to the state and business elites who want the costs of economic crisis to be borne by ordinary people in the Eurozone “periphery”, it would be a clear political signal that Greeks refuse to support parties that want to implement austerity.
As I pointed out last time the implementation of the “memoranda” provoked a number of developments within Greek society. Most important among these is a process of what Marx called the “absolute immiseration” of the working class through measures such as deep wage cuts, massive job losses and wholesale destruction of government funded social provision. This is a scale of suffering in the same league as that experienced in the darkest days of Weimar Germany.
But Greeks have not just been passive victims of this process. There has been social resistance on a mass scale, easily the highest level of any advanced capitalist country in recent years. Despite the initial dead hand of the trade union leaders in the early days of the PASOK-led 2009-11 government, they eventually felt pressured to call 17 general strikes. This has given confidence to many workers to organise locally and in many places with some level of independence from the trade union bureaucracy. There have also been inspiring occupations of workplaces, including at least one hospital and a major newspaper.
In addition there have been all kinds of other creative protest movements — radical community-based “don’t pay” groups, for example. Then the square protests in Egypt and Spain were echoed in Athens’ Syntagma Square and elsewhere in June and July 2011. The latter captured not just the spirit of resistance but were hotbeds of discussion about what kind of society needed to be constructed as an alternative to austerity.
Politics below and above
Most accounts situate the highpoint of the movement in the workplaces and streets in October 2011. In this period three parties to the Left of PASOK benefited the most from the collapse in its polling. Most prominent was the Stalinist KKE (from 7.5 percent in 2009 to around 12 percent in October 2011), but SYRIZA (4.6 to 9 percent) and the right-wing SYRIZA split DIMAR (formed in 2010, up to 4.5 percent) also benefited.
But these numbers hide a different story in terms of consciousness, one much more fluid and contradictory. Reading mass consciousness off polling or electoral results for particular parties creates more confusion than it resolves. This is even more so when events move as rapidly as in Greece.
For example, in May 2011 Public Issue’s poll of voting intentions showed PASOK at 32, ND at 29, KKE at 12, LAOS at 8, SYRIZA at 6.5 and DIMAR at 3.5. At the same time the company ran a detailed survey of social attitudes to the crisis, which also covered participation in and attitudes to the cycle of protests. It found that some 28 percent of the population had participated in at least one significant protest activity in the previous 12 months, more concentrated among younger people, and heavily concentrated among KKE and SYRIZA supporters. These numbers would have increased dramatically in the months after, with the squares protests and ever-bigger mass strikes.
There were high levels of hostility to the European Central Bank and the Euro was overwhelmingly experienced as “simply a common currency” rather than a sign of any “Europeaness”. Blame for the crisis was mostly directed against the Greek political class, with the major parties and politicians in general being deeply mistrusted and accounting for most of the blame for the public debt. Some 33 percent believed that “our society must change radically through revolution”, although this may not mean left-wing revolution as 34 percent of people who voted for ND in 2009 agreed! Interestingly the numbers for KKE voters (50 percent) was higher than for SYRIZA voters (33 percent).
In November Prime Minister George Papandreou announced and then (under pressure from the Troika) withdrew a referendum intended to give him a mandate for austerity. This was quickly followed by the centre-Right New Democracy party (and some harder neoliberal groups like LAOS) agreeing to enter a government of national unity, which then immediately ceded its powers to “technocratic” rule under Lucas Papademos, a former head of the Central Bank of Greece.
These moves were precipitated by the collapse of even passive popular consent for austerity. By pressuring ND — which had formerly argued against signing the bailouts on largely opportunistic grounds — to join the government, the hope among elites was for a breathing space under Papademos before a big victory for ND in the May elections. ND’s vote had at this stage waned to the low 30s but would still have put it clearly in front.
However, the entry of the Right into this arrangement only served to detonate an electoral explosion of the most dramatic kind. All the parties of the government took massive hits as the political order that had dominated Greece since the end of military rule in 1974 simply fell apart. DIMAR initially surged to 15 percent in early 2012 but its vacillation about austerity led its support to atrophy. SYRIZA not only jumped to over 12 percent in January but continued to rise while DIMAR’s support fell away and the KKE was squeezed. I relay this story because it is important to grasp how quickly the balance of electoral forces changed and point to its essential fragility.
To add to this, the social attitudes data has been consistent in eliciting disdain for the entire political class. This is not so different to many other rich capitalist nations (Australia included). The novelty in Greece is how spectacularly the old political order has cracked up in a very short period of time under the pressure of austerity. It is therefore dangerous to presume that SYRIZA, now rising even higher in the polls as the electorate polarises around it and ND, has been able to magically repair these high levels of cynicism. Just because a muscular Left reformism can electorally position itself in a major crisis it does not mean that all those who vote for it see it as an accurate reflection of their consciousness or aspirations.
Furthermore, any hope that there is any stability to this electoral rearrangement is likely to be dashed by the material realities of the crisis. Excitement for SYRIZA’s rise needs to be tempered by its roots in a negative process — of political collapse and the exhaustion of “democracy as usual”.
Limits to the recomposition around SYRIZA
Yet despite this (very recent) history, some Marxists seem to have decided that the key task for Greek revolutionaries is to not stand outside SYRIZA in the elections because that would split the potential vote for a Left government. Some go further and argue that the KKE and Antarsya should join an electoral united front with SYRIZA or even join SYRIZA itself, because it allows multiple currents to co-exist with its Eurocommunist majority. Those advocating variations of these strategies seem to have decided that calling Antarsya’s constituents “sectarian”, “abstentionist”, “lunatic”, “irrelevant” and various other far Left epithets is a useful way to convince comrades of the error of their ways.
I’d like to leave that overheated rhetoric aside to focus on the minimalist position put by Richard Seymour, who blogs very well indeed at Lenin’s Tomb. I think there are three key problems with Richard’s presentation of his case.
Firstly, he has altogether too much respect for the power of official politics in a crisis. Richard writes that the final result on 6 May indicates that, “Syriza haven’t just won people on their main programmatic points; they’ve won the trust of millions of workers and, at that, the most radicalised workers.” Yet, as I have tried to show above, such a conclusion is very hard to sustain in such a volatile situation where a key trend has been the absolute mistrust of politicians and government. Oddly, he follows this by arguing that the mass struggles were not the direct basis for the SYRIZA vote. I can agree with this — SYRIZA has benefitted electorally from the collapse in support for parties soft on austerity — but without the 17 general strikes it is hard to imagine the bulk of anti-austerity votes going to the Left of PASOK. But it would seem from this line of argument that Richard is suggesting that “the most radicalised workers” can be won to a Left anti-austerity government independent of the mass struggles they have been involved in.
The problem with all this is that political radicalisation doesn’t occur in a separate space — the sphere of electoral politics — independent of other social processes. Rather, such radicalisation can often occur while people remain wedded to old electoral allegiances or look to “the best of a bad bunch” of parliamentary parties. And history — not just the present moment — weighs on electoral choices. Thus Richard doesn’t give enough weight to SYRIZA’s long history of plugging away electorally, making it a more electorally credible alternative than Antarsya, which is just three years old. He also fails to see how Antarsya is trying to bridge the gap between the radicalisation on the streets and workplaces and the politics of the electoral sphere. Thus, he worries too much about the logic of votes and not enough about what an electoral united front around a genuinely anti-capitalist program means for the militants Antarsya influences on the ground. Dropping that for an apparently all-important election so as to critically support SYRIZA strikes me as the surest way for Antarsya to prove its lack of seriousness in pursuing its electoral strategy. Either Antarsya’s analysis that the crisis requires an anti-capitalist transitional program to be put in the electoral sphere is right or it’s not, but half-heartedly implementing it would be far more destructive than possibly taking an expected hit in a very polarised (and quite unusual) election.
Similarly, Richard poses SYRIZA’s verbal commitment to saving the Eurozone as a clever strategy to avoid taking blame for a forced Grexit. This may be so, but determining whether it is clever or dangerous rests on whether the key issue is maintaining electoral popularity in the future or preparing the workers’ movement politically for such an eventuality. My own view is that the SYRIZA leadership are deeply committed to the single currency project, but Richard may be right and they may be telling big fat lies. In that case, I fail to see how those lies are anything but detrimental to the political clarity of militants on the ground. It’s not just that SYRIZA say this because they are not Marxists; it’s that their strategy is on this point antithetical to building the strongest resistance to austerity on the ground. SYRIZA may be acknowledging that for most voters the EU is not the main point of division in the way that the KKE poses it, but it is also actively disarming them from recognising that Euro membership is the key cleavage in terms of the imperialist structures that are driving austerity.
Secondly, Richard makes the claim that SYRIZA “aren’t classical reformists”. It is true SYRIZA is quite unlike mainstream social democratic parties of the last 30 years, but that blurs the more important issue which is these parties’ strategic orientation towards the capitalist state. In this SYRIZA’s approach overlaps much more with that of mainstream social democracy than that of the more radical anti-capitalist Antarsya. That is, Antarsya posits its program as one around which workers can organise themselves politically to take Greek society forward. SYRIZA, despite its support for social movements and the belief by some in its ranks that popular struggles will be needed to help a Left government stay true to its promise, treats government as the agent of change.
To point this out is not to predict “betrayal”, but to grasp the nature of the state as that subset of capitalist social relations especially dedicated to governing over the subaltern classes. The state is “hegemony armoured by coercion” in Gramsci’s famous phrase. Participation in government, effectively taking responsibility for running the capitalist state, has severe costs. Once parties take on this responsibility (one that is usually rewarded with very little actual control over most of the state machine except where it coincides with what the unelected state elites will tolerate) they are not just pulled by mass movements on the one side and capitalists on the other. Rather, they become part of the mechanism of capitalist rule. Overcoming this is many orders of magnitude harder than the more straightforward role reformist organisations play in mediating class antagonisms in opposition. Thus there is a long tradition of revolutionaries arguing that their role is to always be “in opposition” to governments of the capitalist state, and the question of “workers’ governments” has always been contentious. There is little sense of this dimension in Richard’s account of possibilities for a Left government. It is even less apparent among SYRIZA’s other boosters on the revolutionary Left, for example the DEA (one of the Marxist currents within SYRIZA), which argues: “Only through a government of the left can the Memorandum can be overthrown in a manner that is in the interests of workers. Such a government would … [cue long list of radical reforms]”.
Thirdly, Richard has a tendency to attack those he disagrees with for a particular method of argument and then do the same thing in defence of his position. In particular he argues, “it is very well to criticise what Syriza has actually said and done, but it isn’t necessary to second guess what Syriza will do.” Yet just above he attacks those who engage in “tutting, sighing, and fanning of armpits over Tsipras chatting up the G20” — when pointing to this is about underlining the continuity in what SYRIZA has said and done, i.e. explicitly looking for partner states for its shift from austerity to growth politics. It becomes increasingly less clear which bit of empirical evidence about SYRIZA’s limits one is allowed to point to in debating with Richard. Further, he himself engages in massive speculation about what SYRIZA “will do” — not just whether it will stick to its two core promises, but the effects this will have on the struggle. His speculation that an ND win will cause “demoralising splits and recriminations” on the Left strikes me as the worst kind of crystal ball gazing, not to mention a case of hinging a complex process of social conflict on the outcome of a single election.
Finally, Richard has in various places made much of the newness of the current situation, reflected in part in his characterisation of SYRIZA’s atypical reformism. There is much that is historically unprecedented for us to think about. But there are also many parallels with past situations. These are not “sterile debates” but an attempt to marshal theory based in careful examination of history to the current set of circumstances. The experiences of Weimar Germany and the Popular Front government in France in the mid-1930s seem particularly apposite. They teach us not only the excitement that the victory of a Left government can bring but the very tricky realpolitik that is necessary to both relate to the excitement and to pose a clear anti-capitalist alternative to it as the solution to the crisis. I fear Richard has collapsed too many variables into an electoral outcome to be able to provide useful guidance on that score.
[EDIT: I confusingly called LAOS a harder neoliberal formation. They are, rather, a far Right, Euro-fascist party which keenly supported neoliberal austerity measures. Thanks to Luke Stobart for pulling me up on that.]