The historical context of Greece’s election

by Jehu

No matter the outcome of Greece’s election circus, the capitalists are losing the war. Can the Left take advantage of this?


Kevin Ovenden has a very interesting post to Counterfire, Dispatches from hope: a primer on the Greek election, in which he places the SYRIZA election campaign in the historical context of a long struggle against the neoliberalist political forces that emerged out of the 1970s depression. The present developments in Greece echo the struggles of the 1980s, says, Ovenden, but while the tune is familiar, the words have changed:

Ovenden argues,

“So, while there are fruitful comparisons to be made between the prospects of a Syriza-led government following the election on 25 January and the experiences – good and bad – of the reforming governments of Andreas Papandreou in Greece or of Francois Mitterrand in France in 1981, something else is in the air.

Any government of the Left now comes not out of the containment of popular radicalism which we saw in the late 1970s, but out of its resilience and re-emergence in response to today’s long crisis.

What seemed like a crescendo in 1981 turned out to be a dying prelude to a neoliberal offensive which mustered its forces internationally through the swift reversal of popular reform and progressive hopes in Athens and Paris.

That is not our predestined fate today. A different tune is in the air, competing with the drumbeat of austerity, war and xenophobic, anti-Muslim racism resounding from Berlin, Paris and London.

This might be true and he is far better positioned to assess events on the ground than I am, but there is a wider context to the Greece elections that should not be lost to the analysis: the popular radicalism of the early 1980s was itself a response to the neoliberalist push that emerged out of the economic crisis of the 1970s. But the crisis of the 1970s was a crisis of Keynesian fascism and Keynesian fascism was itself a response to the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value that began in 1914 and culminated in the collapse of Bretton Woods and the depression of the 1970s.

The breakdown in production on the basis of exchange value had been predicted by Marx and Engels as early as the 1850s and its political implications were graphically described by then in the 1880s. Writing in the Grundrisse Marx predicted the mode of production would eventually suffer a breakdown in production on the basis of exchange value. Engels, writing in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific predicted this breakdown would force the state to assume the function of national capitalist. According to Engels, this latter event would set the stage for the collapse of the nation state itself. All of the contradictions of capitalism would come to a head in that crisis and the state itself would topple over.

To fully situate what is taking place in Greece today, it is necessary to realize the “toppling over” of the state that Engels referred to is what Ovenden and others today refer to as the emergence of neoliberalism.

Thus, on the one hand, the so-called historic clash between exploiters and exploited is only the superficial political expression of a rather long movement of society. While, on the other, although this movement has seen an apparently unbroken string of capitalist political victories over the working class, in reality the capitalists have been on the defensive, reacting to events that are driven by the development of the forces of production.

While the capitalists are winning every battle between the two classes, they are nonetheless losing the war.

To give an example, while the emergence of fascism settled the question of which class would hold power in favor of capital, the question of state power itself came to the fore because without this state power capitalism would have collapsed. Had the various state not assumed management of their respective national capitals, the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value would have led to a breakdown in production for profit. Fascism emerged because capital could not continue without state intervention.

In this same sense, the role of the state as manager of the national capital has over time proved to be economically insufficient. To survive today, capital has had to increasingly shed its national shell and step forward as a directly global power. This implies an extreme historic vulnerability of the capitalist mode of production on par with (and likely even exceeding) that of the emergence of fascism.

Today, the vulnerability of capital is far more critical, because the further development of the productive forces bound up with capital have become incompatible with state managed economies. Throughout the world market — in Greece, Spain, Mexico, China etc. — the capitalists are literally dismantling their own capitalist states in order to survive. The process the Left has labelled “neoliberalism” — the European Union, free trade agreements, etc. — is an expression of the material forces behind globalized production processes.

This should not be a surprise to us. We already knew that, from its inception, capitalism was an inherently global mode of production and always really aimed at the formation of a single world market. But what is often overlooked in practice by many Marxists is that this is also true in first place for the working class itself, the special product of the bourgeois epoch. Thus the more capital sheds its national state, the more material economic conditions within the world market reflect the actual constitution of the proletarians.


Placed in a larger historical context, therefore, SYRIZA is a political reaction to a more profound material reaction of the capitalists to the economic insufficiency of their own political power. Just as Keynes recognized production for profit could no longer be organized on the basis of exchange value, i.e., on the basis of commodity money, in the 1970s, the capitalists realized production for profit could no longer be carried out within the confines of a single capitalist state.

SYRIZA is in large part a long overdue Left political reaction to what is essentially a general social recognition that national politics is obsolete. There is, of course, an faction in SYRIZA that rejects this conclusion, i.e., which rejects Thatcher’s declaration, “There is no alternative.” And, there is an element within SYRIZA, now dominant in the form of the Tsipras faction, that accepts Thatcher’s declaration.

There is nothing in this that is particular to SYRIZA: everyone on the Left knows (or at least suspects) the nation state is finished. The only people who today think the nation state has a future are those on the far-right who pine for a return to the past — with its colonialism, apartheid, segregation, lack of worker rights, women’s subordination and no brown immigrants. The past is the only future these reactionaries want; but you can also hear the faint echo of the UKIP, FN and Tea Party in the demand by some on the Left for a return to the golden age of fascism — a return, in other words, to the very period where there were no social movements and the mass of humanity silently suffered in their chains.

Insofar as Thatcher spoke for the capitalist class, there is indeed no alternative: capitalism today cannot survive in the cramped confines of the nation state. However, there is an aspect of her declaration that also applies to the modern social forces of production created by capitalism. These social forces have never been national and have always compelled capital to take increasingly global forms.

How much SYRIZA simply reflects the truth as it appears within the logic of the bourgeois simpleton remains to be seen. But even accepting this still does not escape the fact that the social forces of production have today become entirely incompatible with the nation state and national politics. Which is to say, SYRIZA’s politics may ultimately turn out to be merely a progressive variant of neoliberalism — and this may just be a final expression of bourgeois politics, rather than a true anti-politics — but in any case politics is dead.

Since the 1980s the Left has pursued a strategy that not only rejects Thatcher’s declaration, but refuses to recognize the global character of production. In one effort after another the Left has sought to overthrow neoliberalism but always in favor of a return to national state management of the economy. The reason for this is quite understandable: neoliberalism has resulted in globalization of production at the expense of the working class. But this reasoning is not defensible, since globalization of the production process has continued to develop despite numerous efforts to prevent it by the Left.

Globalization is not a policy of the capitalists, it is a process of formation of a single world market that is imposed on both worker and capitalist alike by development of the productive forces bound up with capital. Properly understood, neoliberalism is a policy where by the costs of this irresistable globalization is imposed on the working class by the capitalists.

While nothing can prevent globalization of production, there is nothing that states this globalization need take a neoliberal form. Globalization takes a neoliberal form because, even as globalization undercuts the nation state, the Left insists on relying on the nation state to counter neoliberalism. The very institution the Left relies on to fight the neoliberal impact of globalization is the one most fatally compromised by globalization itself.

It is not that Left parties have to water down their radicalism as they move closer to power; they have to devise a radicalism that is not dependent on the old state machinery. This task still lies in front of them.