If elections are not a vehicle for radical change, what is? Tad Tietze’s new article, The Failed Strategy argues the problem SYRIZA ran into was a strategy that had to fail.
“Those who continue to portray the government as a victim forget that the Greek political class has not only willingly signed up to the euro project, but that even the “radical left” Syriza variant of that political class treats the eurozone as (in Varoufakis’s words) “just like the Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ — you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
It’s a familiar pattern of weak politicians and governments hiding behind EU technocrats, matching their own detachment from real social interests with claims that they are in no position to deliver on those interests because of the very institutions they desperately cling to. The only new thing here is that the radical left has been able to provide a fresh face for a discredited political system, more honest about its inability to make a difference beyond the political sphere.”
But suppose it was not just SYRIZA’s strategy that was bad, but the very idea you can introduce radical change through elections? If this is not possible what other path is there beyond capitalism? Quite simply, there seems to be no way to get past capitalism without some sort of mass political action at the ballot box or the barricades. Assuming that anyone who thinks radicals can challenge the existing state through force of arms are living in a dream world, I think the past 7-8 months in Greece shows the absolute futility of trying to produce radical change through the ballot box.
I agree with Tietze that SYRIZA had the wrong strategy — only, I ask what was that strategy? SYRIZA’s strategy was the same old strategy as the radical Left in all its manifestations has ever had: the conquest of political power by the Left. Every radical change ever undertaken by the radical Left since 1848 has depended on, somehow, seizing political power. This could be through force of arms, elections, or mass strikes; but the strategy is always the same.
- First we get the power; then,
- Something …
- Finally, Communism!
Whatever it was we were supposed to accomplish required us to first get our hands on the levers of power in society. This grand strategy has been mostly unchanged since the 19th century — although there have been major and minor variations on it. But here is a big problem: Most of the very best theory out there on the Left suggests capitalism is a highly abstract mode of subordination without a subject. Understood properly, there is no capitalist class or really even a capitalist state to be overthrown in the sense we normally think of this. As capitalism evolves, it loses its patriarchal character with an identifiable enemy who imposes his will through an identifiable structure
To give an example: Today the chief defenders of the state are Sanders supporters who do not want to discuss the issue of police killings. They don’t want anything to take place that might upset their candidate’s prospects against Clinton. For some reason they have decided this even extends to discussion of cops killing citizens in the streets with impunity. There is no evil capitalist class directing their response — they even suggest the protestors themselves are directed by the capitalists. There are no Koch Brothers behind the scene funding #BlackLivesMatter; but these people react to it as if there was.
The indifference of the state to human life is thus expressed in Symone Sanders leading Sanders’ supporters in chants to drown out the protests of #BlackLivesMatter. Just how fucked up is that? That is the state, that is its complete indifference to all human life on full display. It does not take many brain cells to extrapolate that shit to all of society. This is the true nature of capitalism, to which the grand strategy of the Left has been devoted to upending since 1848. How do you “overthrow” that shit? What good are your guns against it? How many votes against it do you think you can muster?
It would be nice if this could be reduced to the “phony Leftism” of SYRIZA or another party, but this is a problem the entire Left faces. In fact, that is just how the problem manifests itself: The failure of the Left in general always appears as the failure of one or another Left party; just as the inhumanity of the state in general always appears as the inhumanity of one or another politician. We always think we can fix this shit by replacing one Left party with a better one or one politician with a better politician.
Capitalism is bizarre in that it frustrates any real radical change, but always makes it appear as though this failure to achieve real radical change is the fault of some particular party. It is almost as though radicals are being deliberately seduced to keep playing a game they can never win. If you really want to drive someone crazy, you just keep them thinking they can win a game they can never win.
It is how the lottery works, right? Everyone knows you can’t win the lottery, but this never stops people from playing it. My chance of winning Mega Millions is about 1 in 175 million. But my chance of winning if I don’t pony up the cash for a ticket is infinitely less at 0 in 175 million. I am thus seduced into playing the game at least to the extent of buying a single ticket that has infinitely better chance of winning than no ticket. Similarly, radical change may not be likely, but the chances of realizing it is better when you play the political game.
At least, this is the theory — which is seldom challenged in the discourse. One thing we know is that my chances of winning the lottery may be negligible but better than not playing — but the state always wins. Yes, eventually, someone inevitably win the jackpot, but the state wins every time you buy the ticket. And even when you win — in Massachusetts at least — the state steps in and takes another 60%. Your jackpot is now income and the state demands its additional increment.
This is the game the Left has been playing for the last 170 years in various forms. It is no surprise then that every single social revolution — without exception — has failed. Failure was woven into the very fabric of the grand strategy. We are trying to abolish the state but the first step in our grand strategy involves taking over the state. Then we hope (at least in Marxian variants) to get rid of the material conditions of society that make the state necessary. Once these material conditions have been abolished, we assume, the state itself will disappear — wither away.
Only it never seems to wither away — it actually grows in importance. Once we seize the state, we use it to direct production and the employment of labor. The state becomes critical to how production is organized and managed and how the product of labor is distributed. Of course, there are also other states who are hostile to our state and so we must be on guard with a large standing army. And there are those inside the commune who work with these outsiders, so we need police and intelligence agents — spies. Thus, in the end, rather than society getting rid of the state, the state has abolished civil society.
I want to be clear that I am not quibbling with the grand strategy here. If you work backwards from the goal, it makes perfect sense. We want to abolish the state — something everyone agrees on. But the state doesn’t just hang over society on wires descending from heaven; it is a manifestation of actual material relations. To rid society of the state, you have to abolish the material conditions that give rise to it. To abolish the material conditions of society, you have to complete the bourgeois social revolution — develop big industry and vastly increase the production of material wealth. The state power can serve a critical role as the means for effecting this sort of social transformation.
All of this makes complete sense, except it has never worked out in practice — never, anywhere. At best, all it has ever accomplished is to turn the state into an absolute power over society. Radicals can critique anything except their grand strategy. Once they turn the weapon of critique on themselves they run into a brick wall. Thus they continue to wander around in this political netherworld where nothing seems to work and nothing they do has any lasting value.
The radical dilemma is that the very means the working class employs to realize its emancipation becomes the further means to subjugate it. The working class in Greece elects a radical 3rd International party to put an end to austerity, only to find this party becomes the new instrument of austerity. While across the pond a movement of activists tries to end the epidemic of state violence against its own citizens, only to find the citizens themselves rebuff them, call them provocateurs, and drive the activists from their ranks.
How are we to explain this? Is it that SYRIZA was never really radical and Sanders supporters were never really committed to radical change? I would suggest this is not so. Have we descended to such a savage state that it is now radical to simply demand you not be beaten, starved and murdered by your own fucking state? In truth, there is nothing really radical about simply demanding the state stop trying to starve and murder its own citizens?
The most bizarre thing about the Sanders supporters reaction to #BlackLivesMatter is that the demand advanced by the movement has no radical content at all. All people are asking for is to not be killed by their own government. Yet, even this essentially pedestrian, banal, demand threatens existing political relations such that it cannot be tolerate even among those who are held to be the most radical elements of mainstream politics.
Some people might want to write this off to “white skin privilege” or racism or what have you, but hundreds of white folks have also died this year at the hands of the police. The epidemic of state violence directed at US citizens might have the usual racial overtones, but is not itself a racial problem. It is a state problem.
And that is the problem the Left faces: Once all social contradictions become state problems, the Left has no answers.