The Real Movement

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SYRIZA, the Left and the long, slow, painful death of the nation state

I have been reading this post-mortem on the collapse of the first SYRIZA government, Greece and the “SYRIZA Experience”: Lessons and Adaptations. My purpose was to see if I could gain some fresh insight into SYRIZA’s failure and some fresh idea of how to recover from that failure.

The writer begins on a good enough footing:

“SYRIZA failed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation in Greece.”

Okay, how did it fail? According to the writer, SYRIZA failed because it chose to remain in power, thereby becoming the new, Left, face of austerity and accepting limitations of national power in the European Union and euro common currency.

TitanicIn perhaps less diplomatic terms, SYRIZA accepted the domination of the ECB and EC over the Greece nation state and the corresponding lack of any effective Keynesian economic policy in the middle of what can only be called a full blown depression. By accepting these real limits on its room to maneuver, rather than resigning office, SYRIZA threw away the opportunity to retreat gracefully once it realized it was completely outmatched by the EC and ECB. Thus, a defeat was turned into a rout and utter disaster for the Left in Europe.

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Can SYRIZA be fixed? Can Greece?

If this Jacobin article, Becoming Syriza Again, is any indication, even the remaining radicals within SYRIZA have no idea why it is failing.

The writer acknowledges that the debate over Greece leaving the euro, which raged within SYRIZA for a period of time before the split, was an oversimplification. However, even now he proposes no alternative economic program that would allow SYRIZA to achieve its stated aim of bringing austerity to an end while avoiding Grexit.

He proposes a 5 step solution in which SYRIZA must:

  • Hold onto power;
  • Stop fighting with KKE and other Leftists;
  • Eliminate opportunism in its ranks;
  • Reconsider staying in the eurozone; and,
  • Put forward a new vision that inspire the country.

Here is my problem with this essay.

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This post has no answers

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.”

AP976590909234-1280x960But 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.

Does communism have to be boring — Even in Canada?

The election programme of the Communist Party of Canada (CPoC) is, unfortunately mostly mediocre and incoherent because of the way it is organized. It is a collection of nice ideas with no apparent internal logic.

By “nice ideas’ I mean who can argue with a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, eliminating taxes on income under $40,000, and getting out of NATO. As a Left (radical) party platform of attractive reforms it is not bad overall, but hardly anything that screams “Vote Communist!”

Convention_yclIn a phrase, the election programme of the Communist Party of Canada is boring as fuck!

It is necessary to ask whether this platform offers any real reason for people to stop voting for whichever party they vote for now and take a chance on communists? Given that communism as a political idea and as a model for society has huge negatives in polling among voters, what is offered in this platform? The answer to that question is literally nothing at all that probably could not be found in any other vaguely radical party platform.

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The Left is trying to distance itself from the SYRIZA debacle

This statement passed my twitter TL the other day:

“I’ve fallen into the opinion that Tsipras and Syriza were fake plants all along. “

The epithet, “fake Left” is all the rage among many of the folks I follow on twitter and for good reason: no one wants to be associated with the disaster in Greece right now.

In my thinking, however, it is very convenient for the Left to disown its failures by claiming “X wasn’t really Left after all.” Convenient, but a terrible mistake. The way you explain a defeat is important, because it is evidence that you have learned from experience. If the only thing the Left has to learn from SYRIZA is that it was a ‘fake plant’, I think this is nothing more than the Left dissembling.

Essentially, the Left is saying the fault lies not with SYRIZA’s strategy but with its personalities.

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First we get the power, then we get … Oops!

Okay, now what?

scarface_17Citizen CoKane always has relevant comments to my blog that put me on the spot:

His question this time is what are workers in Greece supposed to do when their counterparts in Germany appear to be complacent, even indifferent to their plight? The workers of Greece clearly can’t overthrow capitalism worldwide all by themselves and the rest of Europe seems paralyzed at best. I reproduce his comment in its entirety:

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Debt Colony? Why communists must stop playing the nationalism card in Greece

I received this comment to my last post:

Jehu you only go halfway with your workers’ solution and end up with a peaceful parliamentary transition to socialism. German imperialism is recolonising and virtually occupying Greece to extract more surplus labour to raise its profits. It is using the Greek state to impose austerity backed by the police, the fascists, army and if necessary NATO. Workers cannot defend their power to control their labour time without taking state power and expropriating capital. To do this they must organise, occupy and arm themselves to defeat the fascists, the state forces and NATO. They need to be supported by the workers in the other PIIGS and in France, Britain and Germany. Greece can either capitulate to German colonisation or launch the workers revolution in Europe. There is no half-way house.

Several good points were raised by Dave Brown that require a full response:

First, I want to say I strenuously object to the “colonization” framing of this issue. This argument resonates both in Greece and elsewhere on the Left, but it is a fundamentally and openly fascistic framing of the problem. Greece was not forced to enter the euro common currency. It literally lied to get in the door. It voluntarily entered the European Union and the euro common currency on its own volition and with no credible evidence of force.

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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.

suntzuUnlike 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?

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What do you call it when history does a three-peat?

A brief post-mortem for post-Keynesianism and the Left

Is it too early for a post-mortem on the radical Keynesian model of politics? After all the patient is still breathing on the operating table, albeit with great difficulty. With its last dying breath, the Greece nation state, the sacred idol of all Left politics, begged for a few more months of life support.

Is this a too brutal and rude retelling of outcome of months of negotiations? After all, the patient is not dead yet, right? Well, pardon me, but I felt it best to state clearly, while SYRIZA still breathes, that this catastrophe is not all its fault alone. I would hate to see SYRIZA carried to its grave, while the charlatans who first gave life to it, place all the blame for its failure on Tsipras and the SYRIZA majority.

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James Petras and the dying Cult of the Three Saints

James Petras has an article in which he tries to describe what he calls the rise of the non-leftist Left, The Rise of the Non Leftist Left
The Radical Reconfiguration of Southern European Politics.

By the non-leftist Left, Petras means the new players in Europeans politics, like SYRIZA and Podemos, who defy “traditional” Left politics. According to Petras, these new elements, “no longer are qi52893be9based on class conscious workers nor are they embedded in the class struggle. With the decline of unions in the advanced countries, he argues we are witnessing the emergence of a “middle class radicalism”. This middle class radicalism is accompanied on the Right, by escalating state repression instead of state economic intervention. The repressive intervention of the state aims to completely dismantle the social welfare programs that emerged immediately after World War II. The non-leftist Left that has emerged to resist this sort of state intervention advocates a horizontal-style but practices top down politics aimed at securing state power. On the Right, the fascists no longer pursue national autarky, but willingly strip their countries of national sovereignty.

I think Petras missed the opportunity to coin a useful term here. In place of “non-leftist Left”, I would have called it the neoliberal Left. Same letters could be used “NLL”, but “neoliberal Left” like its predecessor “social-fascism” more accurately describes what is taking place. The term, social-fascist, was self-explanatory: fascist economic policies advocated by the socialist parties of the Second International. In the same way, “neoliberal Left” describes the neoliberal policies of a rump collection of Third International political formations.

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