Dispatch from Athens #10: Everyone has their rationality

by · January 20, 2015

Tsipras hands in air

Everyone has their rationality — that’s the problem

What is Syriza?

For the champions of free market economic liberalism at the Economist the answer is simple.

It is one of the mad, bad and dangerously “extremist” forces which have failed to grasp the universal benefits which are to be found in capitalist “globalisation”. It is “irrational”.

The British magazine of international business still uses the rather quaint G-word popularised at the end of the last century to describe the then apparently inexorable trend of international trade, financial flows and cross-border mergers to outpace growth of the world economy in the golden years, pre-2008. Remember them?

The resurgence of a global critique of free market capitalism in fact came before the long depression in which Greece, above all others, remains gripped.

There were large and militant Greek mobilisations for the great gatherings in conflict with globalised capital and its institutions in Prague, Genoa, Florence and so on. Athens hosted the 2006 European Social Forum.

The ESF was the rubric under which all manner of forces, new and old, in opposition to globalised capitalism, or to its deleterious effects at any rate, met each other and issued some important coordinated calls for action. (I anticipate an Athens ESF #2 very soon.)

The same period nearly a decade and a half ago also saw the resurgence of national chauvinist or far Right forces in parts of Europe which articulated their own, very different opposition to the institutions of the European Union. Chief among them, then as now, was the Front National in France.

For the still influential strand of thinking for which the Economist is the house journal, the Front National and the Greek Left and social movements which gathered with their European counterparts in Athens on the eve of the crash of 2008 are simply of a piece.

The great dividing line is between free market liberalism and old school state interventionists and protectionists. It is tempting — so tempting — to dismiss the hangover from that time when the world had supposedly moved “beyond Left and Right” as a crazy anachronism, in the way we on the Left were dismissed in the 1990s and the turn of the century.

But such thinking persists (and sometimes in unlikely quarters). Its continued appeal is not down to nostalgia. It is because the purpose and intent of the people (in their overwhelming majority) running Europe’s institutions — and mainstream parties — is in essence to return to that supposed golden age. That is the guiding thread of the policies which have come to be termed neoliberal austerity.

So when the European Left points out that austerity is “not working” we kind of miss the point. It’s true that in its stated terms — which must for any governing force lay claim to the interests of society as a whole — austerity has not worked.

If the problem was Greek indebtedness, the troika’s memorandums have taken the level from 113 percent of the national economy to 175 percent, in large measure by shrinking the economy by a quarter. Pointing that out is certainly of some propaganda value. It lays bare the illegitimacy of the old parties of government.

But the stated aim was never the real one. The founding American Communist, who went on to side with the Trotsky in the great schism of the 1920s within the Communist movement, James Cannon once quipped that there are two reasons for everything: the good reason and the real reason.

The real aim of Greek and European capital had little to do with supposedly sacrosanct macro-economic ratios. It was to return to, maintain and extend the entire apparatus which had served to suck wealth into the hands of what, since the Occupy movement which brought the Arab tactic of Tahrir Square to Athens, Madrid and North America, we know as “the 1 percent”.

US capital could cope with a huge national debt burden to secure its global position through prosecuting the Second World War. And West German debt could be written off at the London conference of 1953 to the same end during the Cold War which followed seamlessly after.

I’m led to this somewhat philosophical digression by a couple of the growing number of serious articles and commentaries about the imminent Syriza victory. I hope this serves as a filter when it comes to considering the large amount of contemporary and historical material about the Syriza party, the Left and the popular movements in Greece which I’ll deluge you with from tomorrow.

The Financial Times’ Tony Barber today signalled the shift in focus, which other mainstream commentators are bound to follow, from consideration of who will come first on Sunday (a known) to the internal political differentiation within Syriza (a known unknown).

Wisely, and speaking to European elites exasperated with the Greek Right, he offered a more nuanced view of what they must accept as Sunday’s victor. And accept it they must. We are not in the territory of military coup and assassination of the kind inflicted on Mossadegh, Arbenz, Lumumba, Allende, Bhutto…

That’s not because the people who brought us Guantanamo Bay and the Egyptian monster General Sisi are not morally capable of such. They are. But within Greece and without they are lacking (for now) the political wherewithal. And an array of intermediate cudgels has yet to be applied.

Invoking Plato, Barber said that good judgments are made when man’s rational side gets the better of his irrational, baser instinct. (Is every comment on modern Greece destined to crowbar in a reference to the ancients, as if the Athens of Samaras had anything to do with that of Solon?)

The Left of Syriza, and by extension those to the party’s Left, represents the irrational. Indeed, their political positions and economic arguments are reduced to the basest of motives: revenge for the anti-communist civil war and policy of Washington and Brussels towards the country.

Tsipras represents the rational Syriza, which knows it must sign up to an extension of the austerity memorandum (perhaps under another name, essentially the position blundered out today by Syriza candidate Nandia Valavani — who comes from the Left).

To ensure the triumph of rationality, euro-business must hope that Syriza lacks a majority and must rely on the supremely rational Blairite, centre-centre party and media confection, To Potami (The River).

The three immodest conditions which Potami has placed on joining such a coalition are 1) that it is given control of whole ministries (i.e. is not reduced to some junior minister positions), 2) that no one from the Left of Syriza is allowed any ministerial position at all and 3) that the incoming government declares it will never leave the euro.

Five days before the polls close and everybody is negotiating. Syriza’s opponents are negotiating openly and very hard indeed.

Syriza’s leadership is naturally staking out its positions too. Tsipras was interviewed by the New York Times at the weekend.

He drew a perfectly rational homespun analogy in response to the question of what he would do if the troika refused to renegotiate the terms of the memorandum (or whatever, for face saving reasons, the programme of renewing neoliberal capitalism in Greece is called).

“Let’s assume I owe you a million dollars,” he said. “You know you have two options: a) to give me the chance to have some income so I can pay you back, even 50 percent of it, or, b) let me lose everything, go bankrupt, and you get nothing back. What would you choose?”

Utterly compelling. It’s exactly what private sector creditors do with private sector debtors in difficulty all the time. Indeed, in Britain one reason there have been relatively few individual bankruptcies is that so many have chosen an agreed “default” path known as an Insolvency Voluntary Agreement, under which creditors get some money back but are not allowed to pursue the whole.

And it is, therefore, exactly what the troika has refused to do for Greece. The supremely “rational” argument from Tsipras and his party for renegotiation runs up against the ratio, the reasoning, of the European Central Bank, European Commission and (with mild qualification) the International Monetary Fund.

Syriza is said to have the highest proportion of PhDs (granted and pursued) of any political party. That may be apocryphal. One thing is for sure — its economic team is far from illiterate.

Whether it is renowned Marxist economist Costas Lapavitsas (with a minority position on the Left of the party) or the heavyweights said to be running policy, Iannis Varoufakis, Iannis Dragasakis or Euclid Tsakalotos, all point to the way the ECB and EU Commission have been forced to belatedly adopt policies which they once abjured.

The latest, on Thursday of this week, will be the much anticipated and priced in announcement by the ECB of a form of quantitative easing — printing money (through buying up debt) as the US and British central banks did to stave off banking collapse following 2008.

Following Tsipras’s vivid analogy, the “rational” lenders already know that Greece’s debt is unpayable and so will be forced to accept a renegotiation in the interests of all.

Iannis Varoufakis (right) with the General Secretary of the OECD in 2013

Some on Syriza’s economics team point to the small rift that exists between the attitude of the US banking authorities and Treasury (and with them the IMF) and the ECB and Berlin when it comes to these matters. The German government opposed Obama’s bank rescue plan — it was a publicly funded rescue for the banks, remember, it was foreclosure and the street for working people.

But Washington is Washington. Athens is not in the same position. And Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras is not the same as a Democratic President who is locked in to the heart of the US establishment in a way that only the demented birthers of the Republican Right doubt.

Varoufakis is US-educated and has the kind of personal relations to Democrat policy makers which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair’s inner-circle boasted of through their holidays at Martha’s Vineyard. He’s also, apparently, close to Christine Lagarde of the IMF. Lagarde has been prepared to fire the occasional shell at the tax-evading Greek Oligarchs (amid the bombardment she’s maintained at the Greek pensioner and unionised worker).

But in a reassertion of the collective madness — known as rational economic policy — Lagarde made a choreographed intervention in yesterday’s Irish Times in response to Syriza’s call for a 1953-style debt renegotiation conference, “Collective endeavours are welcome but at the same time a debt is a debt and it is a contract.” IMF economists may marginally disagree with the ECB’s. The global capitalist institutions, however, link arms against the Left.

The Korean War (following the victorious Chinese Revolution of 1949), the Berlin uprising in the east of the city, the height of the Cold War and the radicalization of Third World liberation movements from Indonesia to Egypt formed the background to the 1953 special provision to help Washington’s ally in Bonn.

Nothing like those conditions obtains today. The “rational” choices of the global capitalist institutions are made accordingly.

Shifting them will mean introducing something else into the calculus. Sure, it’s a good Left jab to point out the flat contradictions in what the other side is saying — at least in relation to the “good reason” they invoke, the well being of people and the economy.

But that can only be a rhetorical device for the Left to expound our real reasoning. That comes with delivering a hook, cross and uppercut combination from which our opponents cannot easily recover.

As Iannis Kafasis, a 23-year-old Syriza activist who joined between the May and June general elections of 2012, told me at the party’s kiosk in St Andrew’s square in Galatsi today:

“We want a big victory on Sunday. That will make everyone who is suffering in Europe feel better.

“Feelings aren’t enough, though. We want change. Any improvement is good. But did the Left wait for generations and did we go through all that shit just for it to be not as bad? Change is just starting.”

And it is to the party’s of the Left, their activists and the movement for change that we now turn.

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