Friday, 31 July 2015

Deterrence Can't Work And Is Grossly Unjust: Stand by the Calais Migrants

The language David Cameron uses to describe migrants is certainly dodgy - but it's his logic that is truly vicious and knuckleheaded. 

The migrants attempting the dangerous passage into Britain from Calais are, in the odd world of David Cameron's head, yet further confirmation of how fab our economy is. Why has the "swarm" descended on Calais? "Because Britain has got jobs, it's got a growing economy, it's an incredible place to live," were Cameron's exact words. No need for geopolitics: Britain's just a bloody nice place to be.

The unedifying spectacle of a European politician exploiting human misery in order to pat himself on the back will come as no surprise. The strange thing is the underlying intellectual principle on which this back-slapping appears to be based.

Cameron pledges to do all it takes to save British domestic bliss from the "swarm" - short, that is, of not bombing war-ravaged countries or providing safe haven for fleeing African capital. Direct colonial exploitation may be a thing of the past. Today, Britain's power in the world is military (Cameron would dearly love to bomb Syria, after already helping collapse the Libyan state) and financial (rarely is capital flight from African states like Congo into British controlled tax havens noted as a cause of retarded capital formation and chronic under-development in those countries, but it happens). Both invariably amount to bad news for African nations. Even when we are not there militarily, we are there economically.

Cameron believes he can deter migrants by firing off warning shots in the vein of a startled military commander or a skunk. The belief is as nasty as it is dangerous. Deterrence and deportation cannot work unless they are very extensive, extremely brutal, and permanent. More challengingly for Cameron, they will also be expensive. It is likely the latter that will make the difference. 

It is also rather bold to think one can read off the 'rational' motives of people desperately fleeing for their lives. I can't vouch for how migrants think of the UK, but I don't imagine those leaky, fatally overburdened ships crossing the Mediterranean are full of articulate theories about which European state is softest on in-work benefits.

The point here is staring us in the face. These people need help and we can give it to them. Doing so should not be understood from the position of a cynical economist wary about giving the "swarm" positive ideas about a pile in. That perspective is depressing evidence of the infiltration by rational-self-interest theory of the realm of "humanitarian" policy, to characteristically destructive effect. 

Immanuel Kant once wrote, "Act only so that the maxim of your will can at the same time be made a universal law." When we exploit migrant deaths for political ends, or read the arrival of some as a positive signal to others, we are not only using dehumanising language. We are substantially robbing people of their humanity - that is, of their right to be treated as an absolute end-in-themselves and not as a mere means.

Cameron's argument about deterrence implies partially militarising Britain's borders in order to keep out those people whose countries we are engaged - both actively and passively - in destroying. In such circumstances migration becomes a form not only of self-defence but also of resistance. Stand by the people whose lives are on the line.  

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Corbynites Are Right: There's More to Politics Than Getting Elected

Labour's renegade membership - a majority of whom support the left-wing leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn - has certainly peeved the parliamentary party. To paraphrase Brecht, the party deems it increasingly urgent to dissolve the membership and elect another.

Those in parliament - and some of those recently booted out - are acting with an electoral machine logic which means nothing to most newer and many older members. The parliamentary party insists politics is all about winning elections. This is what political theorists call a "party logic." However, many members of the party and many members of Labour-affiliated trade unions, working with a much more "movementist logic," are quietly asking another question: What's the point of taking power if you don't know what to do with it?

Winning power is not, after all, the principal political goal of the mass of people. It is rather securing representation. Parliamentary representation acts as a means to foster political consciousness, build confidence, and fight battles against those in power. For a great many Labour simply does not represent them. The need for representation thus takes precedence over any question of power. So often marginalised by the concentrated state and media weaponry of the ruling class, the old left is well acquainted with opposition. The new left - young; un- or under-employed; without unions; without mortgages; increasingly cut out of state welfare - operates politically from a position of social marginalisation anyway. They are quite comfortable with the idea of not taking power immediately.

Only certain Labour supporters - mostly those who end up parliamentary candidates - feel affronted at the idea of losing. The expectation of victory by the left cleaves all to closely to the barren land of genteel sports metaphors - as if the two "sides" are, in principle, evenly "matched", with just performance variables dictating a "win" or a "loss." The point is the rules of the game are stacked. Time and again, the left loses. Try, fail. Try again, fail better, as Samuel Beckett said. Victories are shortlived and never final. When you pit yourself against powers that are overwhelmingly dominant (in cash terms, in access to the media, in legal and property terms, and so on), losses are the norm. 

The phrase "take power" is quite deceptive: as Greece's Syriza understood (but did little to counter), election victories do not amount to "power." The latter takes ideological hegemony - a thing built in real institutions through the slow build up of material force. 

The membership of the Labour Party appears to understand this. Labour's grasping desperation to be elected is proof that it is the leadership and the MPs who are clinging onto a bygone era of easy Blairite majorities wrung from a quiescent public. It is the Corbynites who are aware that many voters feel they can go elsewhere or not turn out at all (as over thirty percent of voters did in 2015). They understand that public opinion is not fixed - a point to which all political forces must move - but in a constant process of formation. Consensus breaks down. People change their minds. Events and ideas combine to create sudden changes in direction. Politics is about articulating ideas and capitalising on the events that drive those changes. 

This is the problem with those who say Labour needs to simply modify the Tory line to get elected. They will either be outpaced by events and lose or win and achieve nothing.

Better would be to lose - but have a party with a mass membership, steadily rebuilding itself, incorporating new ideas. The Corbynites understand Labour's loss better than the innumerable sages of the centre-left press and the prime-time parliamentary hand-wringers. The latter believe victory is just a triangulation away. It is not. 

Rebuilding a Labour Party worthy of the name will take a generation, not an election victory. Ultimately it will take a purge - not of the young radicals now signing up, but of the neoliberals and Blairites who want nothing but the "eternal return" of the same 1997-2005 coalition. Well, that means of victory is dead. Can a Labour Party which has systematically avoided a movementist strategy for most of its existence get there? It is doubtful; but it would be churlish not to support them.

Monday, 20 July 2015

"Islamic Radicalism" Has Political, Not Psychological Roots - Policing Muslims Won't Help

David Cameron will announce today that "extremism is the struggle of our generation." Calling on British people to reject rationalisations about poverty or historical injustice, he will declare "the root cause" of Islamic extremism's allure is, well, the ideology of Islamic extremism. With this tautological circuit, the buck apparently stops.

Attacking "grievance justifications" offered to explain radicalism and terrorism is really a highly euphemistic way for Cameron to voice what much of Middle Britain is already thinking: "It's just THEM! Muslims just prefer violence!" 

Now whether you agree with the whole idea of combatting Islamic radicalism, or that this should be a "generational struggle" (this from a Prime Minister apparently intent on bombing Syria, I should add), you have to question a strategy that expressly forbids political explanations of that radicalism. After all Islamic radicalisms are expressly political ideologies. 

In his book The Muslims are Coming (2014), the NYU professor Arun Kundnani takes apart the belief that we will locate the causes of political violence in either the collective consciousness of a community or in the damaged psychology of the individual. Focusing on the domestic War on Terror, Kundnani observes how British and American politicians have used the supposed threat of extremism to build a veritable surveillance state. Moreover, to obfuscate the role of western governments in creating terrorism, they repeatedly discount political causes, preferring to blame either a widespread or minority Muslim fascination with violence. Kundnani argues that, in most surveyed cases, the advocates of terror become politically radical before religious radicalism enters the equation. The causes themselves are expressly political: instability in the Middle East; alienation or racism at home in Britain or the US; the crushing of more secular political forces. As one ISIS fighter tells Patrick Cockburn in the LRB (02/07/15), Jihad becomes a substitute for revolution. 

Against the logic of counter-radicalisation, Kundnani insists that radicalism is built on a political ideology, with no necessary connection to terrorism. In order to understand the appeal of Islamic State or other extremely violent groups for British citizens, we need to look precisely at the political context at home and the historical context more broadly. Simple psychology does not explain anything. And nobody is going to stop terrorism by going after any and every Muslim who might harbour "dark thoughts."

Cameron's four key reasons for radicalism all either explicitly or implicitly place the blame for Islamic radicalism on Muslim communities. He argues that Muslim kids may be psychologically drawn to the "excitement" of Jihad, as opposed to crediting them with articulate political convictions. Moderate Muslim voices are weak compared with extremism (a perennial complaint, with an extremely narrow definition of moderation). There is a connection between non-violent radicalism and violent radicalism (which means, if the limits of moderation are narrowly drawn, the net of dangerous radicalism can be extremely broad). The failure to integrate leads to isolation (with young Muslims failing to properly love their homeland).

Put together, this stuff is toxic. Why? Because it allows British politicians to blame a group in British society for their own sense of alienation from the state; to censor as extremist or radical any criticism of that alienation and racism; and to say that Muslims in general are not trying hard enough to be British enough. Terror is all their fault. This is the sort of thing that leads to Terror Lists compiled by the British state with over eight thousand names on them; it becomes a reason to censor and control all specifically political Muslim voices. When Christians speak politically as Christians, we may object to what they say. We don't generally question their right to say it. But we do, increasingly, with Muslims, because Muslims, we're told, harbour dangerous extremists in their ranks and are psychologically predisposed to violence.

Kundnani catalogues a vast field of convictions for terror on highly dubious grounds. What purpose do widespread surveillance, extraditions, infringement of rights and spurious, trumped up charges serve the US and UK governments? Why are these extremely powerful states so obsessed with harassing Muslims who have radical political views (white supremacism gets less attention even if, as Kundnani contends, it is responsible for a comparable number of murders). The answer is possibly twofold: to regulate the expression of domestic political opinion in the War on Terror; and to drum up domestic fear that will feed into support for further attacks. As David Cameron declares his intent to go after Islamic State, which shows few signs of exhausting itself in the current phase of the war in Syria and Iraq, we should be extremely sceptical of these moral crusades.

The prime minister will today ask us to confront the fact that many Muslims "don't really identify with Britain." They are, by implication, not patriotic enough to be allowed a public voice. In fact, they should be criminalised if they step out of line. He will ask British people to endorse the harassment of a minority by the state on the grounds that their ideas are "dangerous." We need to ask ourselves in turn if we approve of the criminalisation of ideas that, while not necessarily advocating violence, are disagreeable to the state? Meanwhile, the mission to ostracise and stigmatise all instances of Muslim participation in political life that are not overtly obedient to the state, goes on. 

Muslims deserve a public political voice uncontrolled and undistorted by the state. Efforts to take that away, and to criminalise Muslims, are not going to prevent radicalisation. More likely, they will spur it on.

Monday, 13 July 2015

A Shared Guilt: The Defeat of Syriza

The defeat of Greece in Brussels has turned out even worse than anticipated. Europe has not seen a government more convincingly denuded of its ambitions since the early days of the Mitterand administration in France. The most radical political project in Europe for at least a generation has been utterly beaten.

The Syriza government of Alexis Tsipras was of course grossly naive. It hardly took the collective punditry of the international left to point this out. Europe told them so repeatedly. There could be no democracy when it came to the European treaties, Juncker told them.

Still, we leftists are all in a way a little guilty. We were all complicit in the Tsipras fantasy. Even those of us who have spent many hours, in a range of contexts, wrapping our heads around the destructiveness of the single currency; even those of us who denounced at length the anti-democratic structures of European integration, are also guilty. Because when it came to a government of the radical left, within the very context we had so sharply and lengthily critiqued, we decided it was possible an opening had been made. We sacrificed our critical intelligence at the exact moment when we needed it most.

Syriza's platform called idealistically for international support from European peoples. They knew the structural depth of the EU's restriction of popular sovereignty. They had not counted on the brute erosion of solidarity between societies caused by the constant crisis of the past eight years. The people of Europe are as far apart as ever. In such a poisonous environment of suspicion and recrimination, large scale support from the people of different countries was always unlikely. The notion of a vibrant popular solidarity bristling beneath the dead forms of official integration was just a twist on typical neo-functionalist delusions.

We in the rest of Europe should have been honest enough to tell Syriza: we can't help you. We lack the institutional levers and, more crucially, the necessary level of popular political consciousness. The larger part of Europe has been supine during this crisis, with only rare and trifling exceptions. This is especially true on the international front. We should have known that Greece's only chance was a course of national-popular rupture with the creditors.

The thought of a return to national sovereignty is hard for an internationalist left to stomach. But there is no internationalism of substance, of real popular weight, in Europe today. So we held our noses and said, "Maybe, just maybe..."

Our behaviour followed exactly the pattern Slavoj Zizek, after Jacques Lacan, calls "fetishistic disavowal", wherein we know full well that the EU is a vast apparatus built to neutralise manifestations of the popular will, but decided that nevertheless it could be critically engaged with, even reasoned with, from a democratic perspective and using pro-democratic arguments. 

We have read and unconsciously bought into too much Tony Judt, too much Habermas, and too much steaming social-democratic horseshit about the cosmopolitan reason of the postwar "European project". We could not follow our own arguments to their logical conclusions, but rather hid behind the shield of our critique in order never fully to make the decisive break. In this we were dancing to the exact same tune as the Syriza leadership.

For the people of Greece it may be too late now for the lessons learned to make any difference. It is quite clear that, however fetishistic the attachment of Syriza to the euro, it is also existential. They did not confront the dead end of their own strategy because they intellectually could not. It turns out ex- finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was at least prepared to initiate aggressive manoeuvres against the creditors when the ECB capped liquidity and forced the closure of the banks, a position which appears to have cost him his job,

The result of this ideological dead end - both of Syriza and of the European left - is that, despite Tsipras betraying Greece's historic referendum and practically selling off the people's full fiscal sovereignty, the vast majority of Greeks will still say, "Better any deal than leaving the euro." This is patently untrue - but we have all failed miserably to construct a basis from which the enunciation of an alternative - the truth - might be possible.

Once agin then: welcome back, austerity. Welcome back, the full "fiscal water boarding" of the people of Greece in service to European responsibility.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Give Revolutionary Socialism a Chance!

Workers of all lands, unite... Marx's grave in Highgate


From Plato to Rousseau few ideas provoked greater contempt or even horror than the simple proposal of democratic government. For Plato it forced the naturally unequal in to a false form of equality. Its decadence, he said, made the popular imposition of tyranny inevitable.1 In early modern Europe, the birthplace of bourgeois 'commercial society', Ellen Meiksins Wood writes, democracy was likely to be "a word of condemnation, conjuring up the spectre of mob rule and, among the propertied classes, a threat to their very existence."2 Theories of natural rights and the power invested in the corporate bodies of society were used to justify worldly power more often than they were used to question it. Either aristocracy or a legitimately grounded monarchy were widely preferred. "If there were a nation of gods it would be governed democratically," the radical modern Rousseau later argued. "So perfect a government is not suitable for men."3 

The contempt was not wholly unanimous, however. There were subaltern resources, often excavated by slaves, peasant radicals or proletarianised craftsmen from the very texts that ostensibly sought their submission to secular or holy power. Many of those who struggled to articulate these alternatives have been condemned by what the historian E.P. Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity." There is little point in attempting to attribute to this oppositional tradition a coherent thread, since it has emerged in a thousand different contexts and is invariably the condensate of particular social and political struggles. To take just the English example of the nineteenth century, radical Jacobinism, apocalyptic chiliasm, and Methodist strictures sat awkwardly alongside nascent, mass working-class consciousness in various combinations and extents as struggles ebbed and flowed. The radical movement combined ancient loyalties to the monarchy, concepts of "natural rights" and the notion of the "free-born Englishman" with new concepts of the right to political representation, individual citizenship, and, as a consequence of the enormous levelling effect of the Industrial Revolution, a new commitment to popular equality. As the parliamentary system sought to protect itself both from revolutionary France and the radicalisation of its own, newly industrialised society, the masses were given a peculiar leading role in the democratic movement. "The twenty-five years after 1795 may be seen as the years of the counter-revolution, and in consequence the Radical movement remained largely working-class in character, with an advanced democratic populism as its theory."4

Democracy leads to either social breakdown or a centralised tyranny. Substitute the word democracy with socialism and you have in nuce the powerful conservative argument for a market society articulated in the twentieth century by the likes of Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom, Hayek's hugely influential war-time political tract, directed against central planning and the then prevalent notion of the command economy, embraces the same traditional scepticism about human nature as the classical economists and many of the early modern philosophers. The move from the spontaneous order of commercial society to one consciously constructed by state functionaries would come at the cost of individual liberty.5 However, Hayek had to ground his objection to socialism in that conception of individual liberty won in the history of social and political struggle by popular classes. Hayek's means of objection to socialism were grounded in a conception of popular participation in the political - as opposed to simply commercial, 'civil' - sphere that had been wrested from the dominant classes in the course of profound struggles. By this point, and despite his scepticism regarding democracy,6 even conservatives like Hayek could not fully dispense with the notion of democracy as an indispensable foundation of a legitimate state.

Democracy was tried many times before it took root in the intellectual imaginary of modernity, even then being subjected to major restrictions related to wealth, gender, age, place of birth, and multiple other arbitrary determinants. Indeed democracy continues to be a largely unrealised ideal. It is also deeply contested; a signifier that is often mobilised in defence of existing conditions of vast inequality and against more radical notions of popular sovereignty. Likewise, socialism has been tried in the past and has radically failed. Like democracy the name socialism is also often used to defend or to help construct and legitimise regimes of exploitation and domination. Indeed precisely because of its power to represent alternative ways of organising and distributing wealth in modern societies, along with its relative openness to political interpretation, the name socialism can mask the most egregious attacks on popular sovereignty and individual liberty. Moreover, individual liberty and social equality exist in a relation of profound political tension, though both concepts depend historically on each other. Though modern history sets this pair of ideals up in opposition to each other, it is deeply unlikely that either could have developed independently of the other. Indeed, contemporary political philosophy, from John Rawls to Jurgen Habermas, can dispense with neither fully. Modern political philosophy is often characterised by an attempt to conceptually balance these two terms.

The political liberty established by liberal democracy, and the formal equality which it guarantees, are not merely legitimising masks worn by bourgeois rule. Rather, what we find in all modern societies is a struggle between social groups over the legal and institutional means to create liberty and equality. However, do we find that either ideal is realised in a world dominated by wars of escalating technological intensity; extreme environmental devastation; and the daily exploitation of billions? Of course, we do not. But what grants us the right to imagine, indeed even to pursue, a world where these political and social ideals become more readily attainable for all?

To understand the radical commitment to socialism it is essential first to understand the socialist critique of capitalism. Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment philosophers and economists made great strides in interpreting the 'commercial society' that was coming to prominence around them. For the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, merchants were "one of the most useful races of men, who serve as agents between... parts of the state."7 The economist Adam Smith believed that commercial society was dictated by the supply of investment from parsimonious individuals. "Parsimony, not industry, is the immediate cause of the increase of capital... whatever industry might acquire, if parsimony did not save and store it up, the capital would never be the greater."8 This conception of the self-sacrificing commercial entrepreneur, saving in order to invest, allowed economists like Smith to conceive of capitalism as the social expression of the increasing role played by commercial psychology in the modern world. Free of tributary demands and artificial protections, capitalism was just an inherent part of human nature finally unbound from state domination.

In The Communist Manifesto and in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts Marx and Engels also largely identified capitalism with 'bourgeois' or 'commercial society.' "All that is solid," they famously wrote, "melts into air." It was only later that, as Gopal Balakrishnan puts it, Marx "put forth the previously unarticulated concept of a capitalist mode of production." Before this Marx had tended to conceive "of bourgeois society as the dissolution phase of the old regime, and not as a self standing form of society with a long history of development before it."9 A dissolution phase, not a self standing form: perhaps the epistemological limit of the social sciences lies in the inability to call the difference, since social reality is always fluid and yet at least potentially conceptually coherent. This ambiguity is likewise present in the social actors vomited up by capitalism itself: of course, on the one hand, the bourgeois is an abolisher melting solids into liquid (and liquidity). Yet the highest stages of capitalist development were also characterised by a rigid middle class conservatism, in which women were subjected to extreme subjugation. This poisonous moralism was the necessary flipside of an earlier form of capitalist adventurer which broke with traditional patriarchy, an ambiguity still present today. While contemporary Germany officially preaches a stern moral abstinence, its banks accumulate vast, destabilising surpluses which are ploughed into the riskiest of investments. The destabilising dynamics of capital come with their own, internal forces of stabilisation.  

Marx's mature economics, the economics of the Grundrisse and of Capital, lays forth a unique innovation in the study of political economy. Capitalism, Marx suggested, was not about the quantitative growth of global trade but the struggle to qualitatively develop the social division of labour and the means of production for competition on the market. True, Smith had talked about the technical division of labour, but Marx put unprecedented emphasis on the social division of labour. In the Grundrisse, the notebooks where Marx first systematises his concept of the capitalist mode of production, he says, "Thus all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the power of social production... in the productive powers of labour itself - such as results from science, inventions, divisions and combinations of labour, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery, etc. - enriches not the worker, but rather capital... Since capital is the antithesis of the worker, this merely increases the objective power standing over labour."10 Marx goes through a great many levels of abstraction to develop his theory of how, by entering into the production process, the labourer alienates their productive capacity - the power to create and produce - for the benefit of capital. Through this alienation, capital is free to deploy for profit the human potential expressed abstractly as "the labour power commodity." Crucial here is the conception of labour and capital not as fluctuating quantities but as the expression of a relation between, ultimately, two socially opposed groups.

It would take Marxist historian-economists like Robert Brenner to properly embed this theory in a social history, but the rudiments are there in Marx. Capitalism is a system characterised by a conflictual social relation between those who need to work to survive and those who need to engage in commodity exchange for profit, established in agrarian England after the collapse of feudalism. With the social struggle on the land resolved in favour of landowning lords, who managed to return ex-peasants to work but now as freeholders, a mutual dependence on the market for survival was created. The outcome was a constant struggle to improve the technical and social division of labour, as the coercive power of the market dictated that landowners now had to compete for survival. What was known historically as agrarian "improvement" in economic activity is the root of modern capitalist processes of productivity growth. Capitalism was, then, distinctive in crucial social respects. It created new market-based dependencies; new social impulses for exploitation and domination throughout and across whole societies; totally new class forces and forms of solidarity; and eventually new, organised political powers and new state forms to represent them.

Capitalism is not simply the human tendency to 'truck and barter' freed from feudal fetters. It is a distinctive way of organising economic activity and, by extension, of administering social order. It generates novel, dynamic social forces, each carefully balanced through the power relations of the capitalist state, smoothed into what the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called society's "unstable equilibrium of compromises." Socialism is based on the promise that, because capitalism is a temporal phenomenon, it must also be a temporary one. There is no guarantee that what replaces it must be any better (many Marxists were mistaken about the development of the means of production leading by definition to a fairer society). But in the conviction that the present forms of exploitation and domination must end, socialists believe that it is worth organising to hasten that end and to secure its replacement by something better. Capitalism is the outcome of social struggle; it is reproduced by social domination and compromise; it can be undone by social cooperation and ultimately by conflict. We are revolutionary not in the simple sense that we believe the capitalist state must be overthrown by a violent "war of manoeuvre." Rather, we believe that capitalism can only be transformed in the long-run by a strategic "war of position." To be more specific, as the French-Greek theorist Nicos Poulantzas argued, we must enter into a struggle to take power over the capitalist state and to break it from within, whilst the social struggle is mobilised outside of the state. This is the sense in which we are revolutionary: we believe in a far-reaching transformation in the balance of class forces; in the dominant relations of society; in the nature of the state; and in the end a re-shaping of the fundamental class relations of society.

For as long as the concept of democracy has existed, it has been denigrated. Yet today it has achieved near universal acceptance, at least as an ideal. Socialism has suffered in much the same way. In the struggles ahead, it may be redeemed in equal measure too.


1Plato, Republic, Book VIII, 558c: "Democracy passes into despotism."
2Meiksins-Wood, Liberty & Property, Kindle loc. 2898-2901
3Rousseau, The Social Contract, 108
4Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Kindle loc 15210-12
5Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, p.24: "We have in effect undertaken to dispense with the forces which produced unforeseen results and to replace the impersonal and anonymous mechanism of the market by collective and 'conscious' direction of all social forces to deliberately chosen goals."
6Hayek famously wrote to the Times that, in the case of Chile, he preferred "transitional dictatorship", which might later become a "limited democracy".
7Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, 'Of Public Credit'
8Smith, An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, p.73
9Balakrishnan, 'Marx the Abolisher, in New Left Review 90, p.102
10Marx, Grundrisse, p.307-8

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Conservatism Strangling Europe



Angela Merkel could save Greece, Yanis Varoufakis has argued. As her mentor Helmut Kohl foisted the euro on an unwilling German public, so she could follow him up with an even more widely loathed fiscal union. Superficially, Varoufakis has a point. Greece may be deeply unpopular among Germans, but Merkel is not. In fact, she is their favourite politician. And European economic policy often works as a substitute for German foreign policy: the place where big, if waning, leaders fatten up their legacies. Saving Greece might cost her some popularity at home in the short term, but it would propel her to hero status abroad. That halo would soon rebound and dazzle her countrymen.

But Merkel will not save Greece. Some mistake Merkel for a moderate eurosceptic, forever putting the brakes on any signs of accelerating integration. I don't think that's entirely true. Merkel is the authentic conservative the Bonn Republic never had, interestingly born in the East. 

What is the present moment, a conservative asks, but the merely visible culmination of all that glorious past? Franco Moretti describes the conservative-bourgeois novel as a form in which "the present becomes a sediment of history." For a conservative the present is "just the latest stage reached by the past," according to Mannheim. Even a conservative like Hayek, with his attraction to the vicious rationality of capitalism, failed to conceive of a just legal order which was not, in a sense, a blind inheritance from the past (undirected by anything as tyrannical as a centralised authority). In essence, for the conservative, law is a contingent accumulation of cultural artefacts. We do the work of aeons, applying just the tiniest daub of ink to a vast pile of letters. As banks totter and Greeks run out of food, the true conservative asks herself, "Why rush?"

Put differently, Merkel will not come to the Greeks' rescue because she is a blinkered Protestant moraliser. A new word was coined in the nineteenth century to describe the uncompromising conservative position towards politics, wherein the past always fully determines present possibilities and everything else is idealism: realpolitik. 

In the midst of a fortnight of uncertainty, something like realpolitikal resolve has started to eke its way out of Europe. Germany's present hero of hard-nosed realpolitik (there have been many) is Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. True, he has charms better suited to battlefields, but Germany is no longer allowed to initiate real wars. It has to fight proxy fiscal wars instead, and could for such a job have chosen no better general. 

Schauble let it be known last week that Greece may be ejected from the euro, as feared, but only temporarily. This thought is not new for Schauble or for the conservative wing of the German intellectual establishment. The history of the Federal Republic of Germany "is mainly its economic policy," wrote Werner Abelshauser. If that sounds tedious, it was perhaps deliberately so. Germany is characterised above all else by consensus - but not of the agonistic or dialectical kind. The German consensus is always-already existent, a necessary background against which decisions are made. The notion of consensus as a dynamic, self-transforming process is quite alien to many of it intellectuals (Jurgen Habermas is an exception).

No field of the social sciences is better equipped for such de facto relegation of politics to a pre-forged consensus than modern economics. And within that few national cohorts are as myopically fiscal as the Germans. The most respected in their number, like Hans Werner Sinn, have in fact long acknowledged the failures of the single currency. In his book The Euro Trap Sinn argues, as Schauble did recently, that Greece should be temporarily exiled, to return once the riches of devaluation have taken effect. As long as the carrot of readmittance dangles just out of reach the Greeks can be relied on to implement their own reforms. Greece will, in short, become a bit more like Germany - which is all Germany has ever asked. What of the eurozone itself? Sinn believes the Maastricht criteria and the Growth and Stability Pact were never rigidly enough enforced. A return to founding principles and strict implementation of that inheritance is what is needed. In other words, even stricter enforcement of the currency union's resemblance to Germany.

"Germany managed it," is the mantra of those who believe that Greece can possibly become the same as Germany. But there can only be one Germany in a currency union. Within a currency union, one country's current account surplus is necessarily another's deficit. As Germany exports more than it imports, the less competitive (who rely on trade within the eurozone) must necessarily import more. As Germany benefits from the internal devaluation of wage repression, Greek prices must necessarily remain high, no matter the level of cuts the Germans demand. 

If Greece is to become more like Germany, Germany must become... more like Greece. It must become less competitive and pay higher wages (at least in line with productivity). It must tolerate a little inflation (which follows from wage increases). It must let its trade surpluses decline (as other countries gain competitiveness over it). Fat chance, I suppose.

Sinn's - and perhaps Schauble's - hope is that, by forcing Greece out, Germany can dodge any rebalancing of the ugly, lopsided European economy the old fashioned way: through the competitive devaluation and neo-mercantilism currently ruled out by the single currency. This is a fantasy as naive in its way as Alexis Tsipras's belief that he can cancel austerity and keep the euro. Both share at least the delusion that the single currency has any future of benefit to offer most of Europe.

Greece's exit is, if it happens (and who knows if, when or how it will happen - truly, this is unprecedented), might be a messy disaster. It need not have been. An honest, managed exit might have worked far better. Moreover, it may not benefit progressive forces in Greece. Now, the most reactionary forces in Greek society are lining to feast on the carcass. The very idea that Greece will be only briefly submerged - as in a rechristening - to return later Rheinischized and ready to work, betrays a very Lutheran prejudice. The Greeks are much more likely to be consumed by the grizzly little experiment Germany's secular saints are cooking up for them.

What does Europe boil down to for its leading conservatives? Nothing but the accumulated mass of its treaties, and caked on top of that, the highly esoteric back-and-forth of its expert procedures.

Greece's no vote in its recent referendum  - sneered at across the continent - was a glimmer of another Europe. This was a Europe of ideals, a Europe with a future that amounts to more than an accumulation of paperwork, a Europe that eludes their control. They hate that Europe and they want to destroy it. 

Greece must say no yet again - no to Schauble's scheme and no to Merkel's priggish moralism. They are branches from the same tree: a fiscal conservative utopia that is strangling the continent.

Nobody can guarantee where Greece is heading after exit. But we can guarantee the slow death that awaits if it remains.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

A History of the Greek Crisis in 15 Points





If the apparently never ending story of the Greek crisis demonstrates anything, it is that repeated attempts to implement austerity in a crisis stricken, depressed country simply cannot work. The argument for voting Yes in today's referendum is staked on the belief that lying down and accepting more of the same will yield different results. As these fifteen points show, Greece has already said Yes repeatedly and it has got the country nowhere. These fifteen points explain the mood of defiance and the possibility of rupture in Greece today. 

1. In 2007-09 the heavily financialised and over leveraged European banking sector is mired in the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. Credit and debt have become an integral part of funding consumption in modern economies. Financial speculation is an integral part of the daily operations of banks.
2. The European Central Bank primes terrified financial institutions with liquidity (which they promptly use for deleveraging not investment) and low interest rates (to encourage lending).
3. With banks newly risk averse and states experiencing growing public debt as a result of bank bailouts and the recession, gaps start to open between sovereign bond yields within the European Monetary Union (meaning the debt of, say, Germany remained cheap while that of Italy and Greece shot up).
4. Greece's budget deficit (eventually revealed to have reached 15.4% in 2009) and public debt of over €300 billion is increasingly felt to be unsustainable.
5. It is revealed in 2009 that Greece has, with the help of Goldman Sachs, "cooked the books", concealing deficits much higher than European Growth and Stability Pact allows.
6. Speculative attacks by a renascent and unapologetic financial sector on Greek sovereign debt sharpen.
7. The ECB stands back and allows speculation to take off . It is not permitted to buy the bonds of member states, instead preferring policies that continue to supply banks with liquidity.
8. In 2010 Greece formally requests a bailout from the European Union, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund, and implements successive austerity packages which will supposedly help pay the debt and encourage a dynamic private sector to fill the gap vacated by the state.
9. German export competitiveness and wage repression prevents any deflationary gains by Greece and other "uncompetitive" economies; euro membership, meanwhile, prevents a sharp devaluation which might spur exports. The political economy of the eurozone, in short, creates a surplus rich core and a crisis-prone, uncompetitive, import-dependent and debt-saddled periphery. Little to no mention is made of the moral responsibility of banks in fuelling peripheral states' consumption via easy credit.
10. Private investors receive a "haircut" on Greek debt of 50% in 2011, so debt becomes official and harder to default on. The few losses for private investors tend to be imposed on Greek pension funds; banks are once again protected.
11. The Greek state spends more than 90% of all bailout funds paying back banks, which then hoard the cash (preferring liquidity to growth-inducing investment). A lack of public and private sector new investment further depresses the Greek economy. Northern Europeans taxpayers are forced to publicly finance a black hole of debt which pays off banks and spawns no new investment.
12. By 2015 Greece has shed a quarter of its economic output, has over 25% unemployment and 60% youth unemployment. Despite the debt burden, the total collapse of imports registers as a current account surplus for the first time since 1948. This is celebrated as a perverse kind of achievement. Huge interest repayments are made. Homelessness, poverty, suicide, all continue to rise.
13. After half a decade of often violent social opposition in Greece the radical left party Syriza is elected on a promise to end austerity. Almost immediately the ECB cuts funding to the Greek banking sector. After months of uneven negotiations with the radical left government, the troika of lenders (the ECB, European Commission and the IMF) force the imposition of capital controls.
14. Despite untold human misery and the failure to produce either growth or a reduction in Greek debt, European leaders queue up to demand further austerity. Greece experiences shortages of basic food and medicine.
15. Throughout all this Greece's public debt has risen in absolute terms from 300 billion to 323 billion euros. The alternative to austerity remains anathema to the entirety of European officialdom.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Let's Be Partisan: Support for the People of Greece!

Syntagma: where European democracy starts



The strategy of the Syriza leadership - if it can be called that - has been muddle-headed, inconsistent and at times utterly bemusing. But this is not because of the Greek government's amateurism. Indeed, if professionalism is the characteristic of most European politicians, Syriza's amateurism is infinitely preferable. It is time, I think, to be unashamedly pro-Greece, against the "blackmail" of Europe.

Let's be partisan: the Greek government, bearing the unmistakable imprint of the radical Left, promises the only future of any worth for Greece and for Europe as a whole. There is no need for measure on this point. Absolutely no need for balance. What justifies such a sweeping statement is precisely the ruin brought upon Europe by decades of post-democratic marketisation and liberalisation. The sole governmental call for democracy and dignity emanates from this small nation in Europe's south.

If the Syriza leadership has made desperate moves, it is because the situation is objectively desperate. More than any other force in Greek politics, Syriza expresses the contradictory relations of Greek society. It is the political condensate of profound social struggle. By the very nature of the situation, it can hardly be expected to speak with one voice. That simply isn't how the real world works.

This does not absolve the Syriza leadership, however, since the strategic presupposition of Syriza (an end to austerity and a continuation of the single currency in its present form) has always been a delusion. Syriza could have told the Greek people after their first electoral successes in 2012 that an anti-austerity government of the radical left might have to contemplate unilateral moves to defy the creditors - and that one risk was an exit from the eurozone (this, admittedly, would have been difficult given the broad and diffuse nature of the party at the time). There is a lot of talk about democracy in Europe today, but little substantive comment on what it involves. As the renowned German philosopher Jurgen Habermas says, democracy is a process of "opinion and will formation." The great supporter of European integration has a rare lesson for the radical Left here (and also for others): democracy is a dialogue through which beliefs, positions, and eventually policies are developed and built. Opinion is not a static force towards which politics reaches, either in vain or with some proximate success. Opinion is a back and forth process of formation. The Greek people overwhelmingly support euro membership precisely because nobody has ever talked to them about a convincing alternative. Sunday's fraught referendum, replete with confusing phraseology, is the outcome of the Syriza leadership's flawed long-term strategy.

To attack the Syriza government over the present economic catastrophe, as many in the euro hierarchy and in the increasingly hysterical right-wing press seek to do, borders on the grotesque. The entire basis of Syriza's platform was, from the outset, that economic sovereignty had been taken from the Greek people. Robbed of any control over their own fiscal state, their monetary and central bank policy, and their own labour and capital markets, Syriza's victory was a striking rebuttal on the part of the Greek people of control of whole economies by the enforced legality, and brazenly anti-democratic core, of the European treaty system. Those who have robbed the Greek people of their right to decide their own economic and national fate, now blame the Greek government for the calamity enforced upon them by Europe itself. The ECB's brutal drip-feeding of the Greek banking sector since February has, moreover, underscored the callous disdain in which Europe's leaders hold the Greeks. This has been a further imposed, and entirely political, form of aggression against Greece, resulting in enormous social suffering. "Things have got worse and worse since Tsipras arrived," EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sighed. Juncker is known for his lies, but this was especially egregious and brazenly self-serving. Such, then, is the European sense of imperviousness to truth.

So, let's be partisan then. The Greek people have earned themselves a little bias. After all, they have had years of scorn heaped upon them whilst swallowing a blatant poison that was only ever unconvincingly masked as medicine. The Greek government may have its flaws, but its heroism is beyond doubt. It is, to be sure, the same heroism as that of the Greek people. Greece must be supported in its decision on Sunday, be it Yes or No. And we must hope that, either way, the vote is not the end of Greek defiance.

If I were Greek, I would vote a resounding No this Sunday. But unlike those European leaders who, infuriated by any whiff of popular opposition, have noisily and melodramatically pleaded for a Yes vote, I do not think that either choice offers an immediate solution.

The path chosen by Syriza - and the Greek people - has been resoundingly to support euro membership. This is totally understandable. Currencies are more than pieces of paper or the mere form of endlessly flashing electronic digits. They are expressions of a social relation, a means by which society itself is represented in the world. Leaving the euro is objectively ominous. And with nobody prominent willing to champion the alternative, not even the Syriza leadership, the people of Greece are hesitant to jump further into a mostly untheorised unknown. That hesitation, even fear, is eminently reasonable for a people who have already taken several leaps into uncharted territory since they were crippled by the banking crisis and Europe's fiscal straitjacket.

How, then, to break this impasse? Syriza offers the only hope for Greek people. Defiance of the troika remains their only route away from further social catastrophe. Much ink has been spilled over the fallout from a victorious No vote. But consider the alternative. There is no force within Greece capable of leading a democratically legitimate government except Syriza, yet that party will be deemed illegitimate by the European powers. The frustration and sense of de facto divorce of Greece from the Europeans will only be reinforced should Tsipras sign whatever deal the EC and the ECB can cook up after Sunday. Even worse, Syriza's replacement by a technocratic coalition of the right and centre will make politically tangible that widening fissure.

What hope does a no vote promise? The former right-wing Polish president and now president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has declared today that the vote will not determine Greece's membership of the euro. Even the treaties could, after all, be tweaked, he suggested. It is also clear, perhaps too late, that the IMF will resist a deal that does not promise some form of debt relief, not in the future but now. Syriza followers - and the fifty percent of Greek society that leans left - will take some heart from both of these. But now is the time for Syriza to promise it will do whatever it takes - including unilateral moves to relieve the intolerable suffering of working and unemployed people - to end austerity. The no vote can mobilise the venerable history of Greek opposition and guarantee the Greek people will stand firm with their government should negotiations resume. But this will only happen if Syriza argues the case now for a transformation of a relationship that has become untenable. The leadership should be firm and candid: they will not, under their leadership, see any return to austerity. If the government is forced to issue scrip or a parallel currency it should say it is willing to do so. Moreover, across Europe, we should oppose the argument that such a move will be apocalyptic. It will not. The pain will be sharp, but nothing compared to the slow death of austerity. In accordance with the present will of the Greek people, the government should promise to do all it can to enforce Greece's legal right to remain a member of the single currency. But the government should also maintain the simple democratic fact that no means no. Should Europe attempt to strangle the Greek people, it must seek exit. It must insist this is the only way to avoid perpetual misery.

Should Greece vote no, a rupture will have taken place, at least within Greek society, with the present form of European integration. It is not expected now, but such an outcome could also spell the end of Angela Merkel's career. Rocked by waves of strikes from a German workforce that has suffered decades of wage repression in order to retain a shaky competitive lead over its supposed partners, Merkel's seemingly impervious government could be brought down if Greece somehow escapes her punishment. We should take solace from the fact that the suffering cannot last; that even in the technocratic and deluded rules-based system of Europe, time does not stand still.

For Greece to stand a chance, however, the call must go up once more across Europe, confident in our democratic inheritance: end the barbarism of austerity; support the popular will against the tyranny of the creditors; support the people of Greece now!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Vote Corbyn?

If this were five years ago, I would basically be agreeing with the Labour left about Jeremy Corbyn. The party has some good people; they have got the infrastructure; and the public largely identifies the party with social justice. Plus, the Left that exists outside of Labour shows few signs of life, so why not start a fight within the Labour Party?

What's changed? We now live at a time when the breaking of the Left's subalternity or, in other cases, the end of its subordination to social democracy becomes imaginable. Or rather there is the possibility of imagining such a break if, collectively, the left puts its heads together. 

In cases where a regime crisis combines with a social crisis; where a crisis of confidence in the traditional parties and commitment to strong social movements appear together - that is, as two sides of the same coin - we have seen the Left rise to historic prominence (in both Greece and in Spain). This has not happened in the form of a revival of social democracy, but in the form of a national-specific left-populism. In Greece this is informed by the Left's historical association with opposition to invasion and colonisation and the readiness of a new party of the radical Left (Syriza) to oppose the social crisis in the name of the people. In Spain this has happened through a very modern, media-savvy organisation of the social movements under a populist banner (Podemos). 

In both cases, political groups have seized the social and popular initiative and opened a new kind of possibility for European politics, uniting popular-national struggles with social ones.

To be unashamedly idealistic about it, I believe the Left in Britain could - possibly - challenge social democracy by uniting a left-populism against the corruption of the state parties with the social movements' defence of social justice. The fight against corruption and decay in the state unites with the fight for social equality and the welfare state.

This would of course require unity from everyone to the Left of Labour and close contact with the sources of social unrest (namely, the widespread if diffuse anti-austerity movement). What makes such a strategy feasible is the historic electoral weakness of both the two main parties (now unable to score over 40% at elections respectively) and the slow fragmentation of the British state. In Greece, at the time of the crisis, social democracy was still highly politically successful, securing over 45% of the popular vote. Now it polls under 5%. The traditional parties were extremely strong. Not so in the UK today. 

Of course, you can argue that Greece and Spain are "special cases." Indeed, but what national situation isn't? However, some elements of their national situations are far from special. The rot of social democracy is by no means unique to any one European country. It is everywhere, and nowhere more advanced than in the country most committed to Third Wayism, Britain. The fragmentation of national power, the erosion of postwar welfare, and the dire conditions of society are not special to Greece or Spain either. 

The crisis of confidence in the regime of the British state, its geographical and constitutional borders, its worn-out, rusty modes of political representation, its decimated means of commanding social cohesion, its hysterical and elitist media are all powerful symptoms: if not quite "morbid" symptoms then certainly "sclerotic" ones.

The momentum for challenge cannot come from within the Labour, which still operates with a vicious "state" and "party logic" to neutralise its challengers in its quest for power. 


I propose two slogans for the Left: Socially, we should argue, "Not one sacrifice for the debt" and politically, "Defend democracy from state corruption!" These, I think, could get us further than support for Labour leftism ever could. They will, however, require a psychological break with the present form of the British state and its hollowed out parties.