SYRIZA’s capitulation and the art of class war
According to Panitch and Gindin, it turns out that Syriza’s room for maneuver was less than we hoped:
“Of course, the room for manoeuvre was much narrower than the leadership hoped, not least because of the incapacity of the left in Northern and Central Europe to shift the balance of forces in their own countries in even a minimal way. On the other hand, Syriza would never have been elected on the basis of a call for leaving the eurozone, nor would it have won the recent referendum. Those in and out of the party who have always called for an immediate Grexit never were persuasive on the necessary political conditions for this. Given the limits imposed by the unfavourable international balance of forces, those of us who argued that the room for manoeuvre inside the EU was a lot narrower than the Syriza leadership hoped, and therefore favoured connecting a socialist strategy to Grexit – and always made this view clear to our Syriza comrades – could not, however, help but be sympathetic to the dilemmas they faced. Not to have been would have been churlish beyond measure, especially given the socialist left’s own political weakness in our own countries.”
Which begs the question: Who is we? Most Leftists I follow were highly skeptical of SYRIZA’s prospects, and even its commitment to radical change, from the first.
Unlike Panitch and Gindin, most of us knew already from the very first that SYRIZA’s space for maneuver was critically compromised and it did not take five months of frustrating negotiations to arrive at this conclusion. In the United States, all you had to do is look at the history of recent labor negotiations at Boeing and GM, where labor was forced to concede terrible losses simply so workers could keep their jobs. Was this not enough to conclude labor’s bargaining position had been critically undermined by four decades of neoliberalism? If not, could we not extend this to the abandonment of the working class by the labor and social democratic parties of the world market? Finally, when even the Soviet Union and China together went all in for capitalism wasn’t this clue enough?
Seriously, who was dumb enough to believe that a single radical party could reverse this catastrophe simply by winning an election in a small country on the periphery of Europe? This does not even include the most obvious indicator: SYRIZA only won after the collapse of mainstream parties after the Greece working class had already endured five years of the most devastating economic collapse witnessed in Europe since the Great Depression. Which is to say, the working class only turned to the radical Left after it had already lost all hope anything could change.
How was SYRIZA supposed to change the balance of forces in even a minimal way when its very election implied no change was possible?
SYRIZA was meant to be the ‘bagholder’, that naive imbecile that the big stock speculators load with shares just before they short them. The job of the bagholder is to take all the losses on shares the insiders already know are worthless. After the stocks are shorted and the bagholders’ capital depleted to virtually nothing, the insiders turn to the Federal Reserve to drive them back up again with quantitative easing. The big speculators have a name for the point when the bagholders, despairing of their terrible losses, finally exit the market:
When the last bagholder has sold his last share at a fraction of its original price, this is the signal for the insiders to move. You have seen this played out twice in the American stock market in the last fifteen years — and we just saw the same game applied to politics, to SYRIZA. All this game requires is some gullible asshole to show up thinking he can get rich quick — or, in SYRIZA’s case, end austerity.
The art of class war
Given the history of the last forty years, and the relentless blows suffered by the working class over that period, one or two points stand out:
First, you do not ever come at your stronger, more experienced, enemy with a frontal assault on the very ground he controls. This is not class struggle, it is suicide. The currency is the terrain of the enemy and if we try to fight him on this terrain he will always crush us.
It is true, the enemy uses currency to manage the fascist economy, but this does not in any way imply you can use his currency to defeat him. It is only common sense that even if we could issue a national currency of our own, our enemy would still control its exchange rate and thus determine what this currency can buy in the world market. Just to show you what we are dealing with, recently even the Swiss National Bank, with centuries of money management experience under its belt, were forced to abandon the peg of the Swiss franc to the euro when the European Central Bank moved to quantitative easing.
The argument of the big speculators, “Don’t fight the Fed”, is a fundamental rule the radical Left must take to heart. These fuckers can create money out of nothing solely to reduce your “sovereign” currency to so much worthless paper. Frankly, why currency would figure in any Left strategy is incomprehensible to me. In a world market where foreign trade now plays such a critical role, the idea you can have a ‘sovereign’ currency is laughable.
Our Marxist academics have let us all down on this point. They think currency has some mysterious power to overturn existing relations. The problem thus is not just, as Panitch and Gindin put it, that the Left has very little room to maneuver, but that it deliberately chooses to place its own forces directly in the cross-hairs of the most powerful weapons the enemy has.
Fight on your own terrain
Second, SYRIZA went into this battle, not simply intending to meet the enemy on his own terrain, but by abandoning our terrain, labor. Throughout the entire capitalist epoch, labor has been the most potent weapon at the disposal of the working class, yet radicals, the moment they enter politics, set this weapon aside as if control of one’s labor is of no consequence when compared to control of the capitalist state.
To show you how insane this habit is, let us revisit the IMF’s initial internal devaluation program:
“In Europe, for instance, several countries are currently faced with the challenge of having to regain competitiveness to boost growth. Because eurozone membership implies that the nominal exchange rate cannot be devalued and interest rates cannot be adjusted in an individual country, and because productivity increases only take hold over time, improving competitiveness may require a reduction in costs, including labor costs.”
As you will see, this entire program is almost exclusively concerned with labor — the single most effective weapon in our hands. Since conventional Keynesian currency devaluation of real wages was not possible within the eurozone, this meant the IMF and the neoliberals were forced to come onto our terrain and actually engage in battle on our terms. And what is their aim? Do their actions have any logic at all or are they only intended to make us miserable and impoverished?
Of course, their aim is simple and easy to understand: to reduce necessary labor so as to increase surplus labor. We have known this is their aim for 150 years, so it is (or should be) no surprise to us at all. Surplus labor is the source of profit; so, clearly, the capitalist would like to see it increased as much as possible. But labor is the expenditure of our individual capacities and cannot be detached from us. Since this is true, the IMF suggested that Greece initially not aim to reduce labor in production, but aim to reduce wages, i.e., our subsistence paid in some currency. As is always true, the capitalists main weapon is money and they intended to use this weapon to bludgeon the working class into submission.
Only labor produces profits
From the beginning, in other words, everybody — from the IMF to the radical Left — knew the capitalists really wanted to reduce necessary labor. But to get at necessary labor, they employed their most powerful weapon, money. Why did they do this? Simple: Because labor is in our hands alone, while the currency is in their hands. Yet, only our labor can turn that valueless piece of colored scrip, the euro, into capital.
Thus, we not only knew the enemy’s objective, but their weapons and their line of attack. We knew the enemy’s whole plan of battle, but our generals are idiots. Our generals, who clearly knew the enemy’s plan in advance, learned how to fight from the enemy and thus believe they can fight the way the enemy fights using the enemy’s own weapons against them.
However, while the enemy has honed his weapons for two hundred years, in that time our own weapons are still being used as they were in the 19th century: mainly as a weapon to be used in local contract disputes with no thought of how it applies to the neoliberal era. This is incredibly bizarre because we know the aim of capital is the same as it ever was: to reduce necessary labor time so as to increase surplus labor time.
And this is the critical vulnerability of capital: it cannot increase profits without reducing necessary labor time; while we can forcibly reduce necessary labor time without increasing profits.
SYRIZA has no control over the euro and trade within the European Union, but it can reduce Greece’s hours of labor in a way that prevents the capitalists from employing surplus labor time to increase its profits. Greece thus can deny its surplus labor time to capital in the very same way the ECB is even now denying liquidity to its banks simply by reducing hours of labor to that prevailing in Germany and the Netherlands.
Control of our own labor time is thus an immensely powerful weapon in our hands; the first step in gaining control of all the forces of production of society. If socialism today has any meaning at all for us, it cannot but mean bringing the control of the forces of production under the control of all society. This goal begins with control of our own labor time for our benefit — free disposable time away from labor — and not for production of capitalist profit.