External Affairs

What’s Left After the Creditors’ Coup

The dialogue between the old socialist movements – with their politics of class struggle – and new social movements has to resume

Double Trouble. Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos, CC 2.0

Double Trouble. Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos, CC 2.0

The Greek crisis has put an end to the belief which had held the European Left in its grip for long – that there was a distinct European variety of capitalism which could be positively contrasted with its more “free market” American variant as well as its undeveloped “stagnant”, crisis-ridden post-colonial cousin.

European labour movements were considered the decisive force behind greater state economic involvement and social welfare measures. However, the construction of the European Union and the development of a currency union added a new dimension, whence it was considered regressive to even think of exiting neo-liberal Europe and its institutions. The European Left did not question the principles of free trade and free capital flows across Europe underwritten in the neo-liberal character of the Treaty of Rome such as the European Stability pact, European Common Market and European Central bank.

To get out of that illusion, what was required was to look to the experiences of the post-colonial world or even, as one commentator has reminded us, the forgotten history of another radical tradition in Europe. Recall the time when in the mid-1970s, Tony Benn and others on the British Left had opposed the referendum on entry to the Common Market because they recognised the limits joining Europe would impose on their Alternative Economic Strategy. The opposition to joining Europe on the Left of the Swedish labour movement, which advanced the radical wage-earner funds proposal, was rooted in the same recognition. Likewise, those who subsequently looked to the emplacement of a Social Charter at the core of the process of Economic and Monetary Union were consistently disappointed by the quick march to the establishment of the common currency regime.

This recent history was forgotten even when it became clear that the core of Syriza’s leadership in Greece would not cross the boundaries the EU had set for them, and that the party had never believed that in the course of developing their struggle they may have to get out of the neo-liberal institutions of Europe. To think along that line was not ‘narrow nationalism’ as the Europeanists would have us believe.

‘Courage of hopelessness’ 

File photo of Alexis Tsipras, Oliver Stone, Slavoj Zizek in Zagreb. Credit: Robert Crc, CC 2.0

File photo of Alexis Tsipras, Oliver Stone, Slavoj Žižek in Zagreb. Credit: Robert Crc, CC 2.0

Having pushed itself to a corner where you are damned if you talk of Grexit and damned if you don’t, Left populism in Greece could now only flip-flop along its route to discover radical democracy. The search for the weakest link was over as soon as Wolfgang Schauble threatened Greece with Grexpulsion. The focus was thus cleverly shifted from the proposed harsh measures to the desirability or danger of Greece being expelled from the Eurozone. Everyone sighed in relief when expulsion was stayed. Nobody said small mercy! No one said that steps like nationalising the banks, reorganising them around a new currency, and taking into account the large grey economy were now required.

What is astounding is that since Syriza failed in negotiating the critical moment, European Leftist thinkers like the metropolitan Left intellectual Slavo Žižek are saying that the current situation suggests no possibility of an alternative. Žižek, in a typical intellectual gloss, has described the situation as “pessimistic”, and has asked us to take hope from the notion that “thought is the courage of hopelessness”.

In his world, true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative. He also reminds us that the Syriza government was not fighting just for greater debt relief and for more new money within the same overall coordinates, but for the awakening of Europe from its dogmatic slumber. And then he says that the general rule is that when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans which one cannot but characterise as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, etc. But then when the revolt has succeeded in its immediate goal and gradually approaches more difficult choices, the movement realises that what really bothered people – their un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life – will continue in a new guise.

Once again we find the elite intellectual refusing to examine the phenomenon of populism, to examine the predicament. Therefore the intellectual thinks the way ahead cannot be thought through on the basis of the experiences of struggles, and that the Left must reconcile to the defeat which it has actually brought upon itself to large measure. Even a liberal economist like Paul Krugman said that exit from the Eurozone was an uncharted path and that there was no scientific basis to think it will necessarily be worse than agreeing to the diktats of the troika. He could have strengthened his arguments with references to the vast post-colonial experiences of China, India, Argentina, pre-devastation Iraq, and several other countries.

Make no mistake: Syriza has acted as “the unconscious locomotive of history”, as Marx said in a different context. By capturing government power on the slogan of fighting the austerity of neo-liberal Europe, calling and winning the referendum, building up an organisation on the basis of a network of about 400 solidarity associations and platforms, sticking to negotiations to the point of exasperation, rousing pride among the people and the nation against imperialist onslaught, and upholding street democracy, it has broken new grounds in democratising and advancing struggle. It has also shown ways to build unity between working people and the middle classes, and a way out of  the bind in which the old Left movement had been locked. Yet, by rejecting the popular verdict, marginalising the advanced Left elements in the organisation, capitulating to the neo-liberal diktats of Europe and refusing to think of alternatives, Syriza has done immense harm to the cause of global socialism, and popular democracy.

The illusion of the social

Indeed, future historians may say this was the moment that passive revolution began in Greece. This was the tipping point. Institutionalized democracy from now on will be more and more the route through which restoration of capitalist rule will begin. Yannis Varoufakis, ousted as Greek finance minister after the referendum verdict, speaks of the coup against Greece and Europe. Who will speak of the coup that happened on July 7, 2015 in Athens – against the Left, against the people, and Syriza itself by the Europeanized and globalized intellectual class of Greece that had no faith on the capacity of the people of Greece, or any alternative vision? This was also the denouement of the fashionable idea of some thinkers on the Left that from now on architects, software mechanics, composers, etc. – called “immaterial labour” – would lead Europe to radical change.

There is no doubt that the tactics followed by the Left parties in different countries before the Second World War and then in the Keynesian period (roughly from the 1950s to the 1980s) cannot be copied or even followed totally today. The era of monetarism and neo-liberalism has given birth to new realities , and consequently to new strategies and tactics of the Left and the working people. The focus on the social, the networks, the habitus, street democracy, autonomy, finance, debt, institutions – these and several others features have given rise to new social movements that partly look forward to a new non-capitalist form of society, but also secretly harbour a dream of return to the good old liberal age of social protection of the poor by the capitalist order.

Thus Syriza never understood why poorer European nations within the EU currency zone never supported Greece, which was seen as demanding from Europe privileges that these poorer countries lacked – like decent pensions for senior citizens, or facilities for children. The social was thus found limited in building coalitions. It failed to go beyond what the old political had succeeded in building, even though building coalitions had been held up as the raison d’être of the social.

Hope of courageousness

It is possible the world will henceforth see different ways of combining the old and new strategies and tactics of struggle. It will be as wrong to write off the communists as it would be to belittle the experiences of Syriza. It is precisely for this reason that the dialogue between the old Left movements – with their politics of class struggle – and new social movements has to resume. Together they must pay attention to the vast anti-colonial and post-colonial experiences, which always had this dialogue and understood the creative deployment of populism as a strategy. In the post-colonial world, persistent efforts have been made to combine the political and the social, which is to say, to combine classes, masses and the nation.

This also means recognising that the new internationalism of which the social movements are justifiably proud—typically demonstrated in World Social Forums, Seattle-type demonstrations and occupy movements—has its limits. The legacy of the three Internationals has not died. That legacy can still show us how to value the national-popular, the peoples of various nations, and their spirit of cooperation.

There should also be no doubt that what has happened in Greece is not the last chapter in the current epoch of Left movements.

The unsustainable debt servicing and loan repayment programme that Europe has forced upon Greece will produce even more struggles against austerity, debt, and the precarious conditions of life. It will not only bring with greater clarity the old question of the role of nations, but will also harden the determination of similar movements elsewhere. And the search for answers to the question of how to combine the old tactics and the new will become worldwide. There is no doubt that the answer will be found in different combinations but one thing has to be clear: We are not going to pursue the dream of a cyclical return to Keynesianism from the hard monetarism of the current neo-liberal period.

One of the saddest moments in a socialist’s life is when she or he has to see that workers think that they are equal to the capitalist, that peasants think they are like a landlord, that weaker nations placate the mighty to get a seat around the same table, and the periphery has the illusion that it is the centre, and forgets the cruel reality of domination, the harsh realities of power. Greece was always less about economics, and more about politics, the congealed form of economics. The mumbo-jumbo of social vision, social mobilisation, social solidarities, social summits—all that had proliferated in this world following the breakdown of the global Keynesian order and the triumph of neo-liberalism—has shown its weakness in face of the ruthless reality of the domination of capital.

We must not forget that Europe through this crisis has shown that it too has peripheries. It too has the South. It too has its neo-colonies, and it too depends on neo-colonial domination. What we require then is not the provincialisation of European experiences, but globalization of the post-colonial predicament.

Ranabir Samaddar is Director, Calcutta Research Group. Hs email address is: ranabir@mcrg.ac.in

  • Subir Bhaumik

    a great piece — and one our Indian Leftists must read — Subir Bhaumik