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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2015 > October 2015 > The Politics of Indebtedness and Government

The Politics of Indebtedness and Government

Thursday 1 October 2015, by Ranabir Samaddar

The tragic capitulation and decline of the Greek government is directly linked to the postures of the radical left, and hence is the cause for greater alarm. A government that was elected to overturn austerity agreed within five months of coming to power on the same or worse terms for austerity measures. It was a government that had promised to return to the Greeks their dignity and lost popular sovereignty, then accepted the ultimate humiliation, such as the dismissal of the Minister of Finance and the international humiliation of the Prime Minister at the summit of the Euro zone and then EU countries. The most humiliating part for the Greek people was the return of a more severe and punitive version of the euro group proposals rejected in the referendum of 5 July – only a week before. Of course political activists, commentators, and analysts all over the world know that militant Greek people did not take this lying down. The Left in Greece has split. The Communists are also rethinking their sectarian strategies. The debate over the Euro has if only sharpened. The question of alternative, at times in a programmatic sense called Plan B, has become equally sharper.

Yet at one level, these sound like hollow and pious observations and hopes, if we do not acknowledge the massive nature of the defeat, the causes of the Left’s weaknesses, and the intractable nature of the government under neo-liberal conditions and its relation with indebtedness. Socialists and communists have to face the fact of government: the realities of the way power functions. After all, as suggested above, if we closely examine the details of the ten point reform plan which the deal is to facilitate, we must ask, what are they collectively if not the roadmap to a new style of governing, a new government, or the bluebook for setting up a neo-liberal state through establishing in painstaking details the cogs and wheels of neo-liberal governance? What does austerity mean in the grammar of rule? What does indebtedness signify in terms of restructuring the state, the new process and agenda of legislations, establishing new protocols for public administration, new standards of productivity, and new forms of relations with private capital, techniques of measurement, and finally the dynamics of harmonization with a global model of rule? If this is the new logistics of setting up a government, at the same time it is no less a Utopia of our time. Hence we must look into some of the uncomfortable aspects of the Left politics, which was probably never more than a version of Left Keynesianism, and not surprisingly collapsed in front of the neo-liberal realities of our time.

Future historians may say that debt was the instrument through which the state was restructured, and the socialists and the European Left with their ideology of pan-Europeanism facilitated this, because this ideology closed their eyes to any alternative. The underlying deficit of this government was in the illusion about its ability to win popular sovereignty and abolish austerity through memoranda with the EU and especially the euro zone. The illusion led to the destructive logic of the Left that failed to understand that the fight against the EU was a crucial aspect of the struggle for the emancipation and progress of the peoples of Europe, and that therefore it was crucial in each country, at least in each debt ridden and peripheral country, to strengthen the fight against the EU. To build a popular, democratic and Left front and movement to exit the euro zone was a decisive step in the struggle to secede from the European Union if necessary, precisely because the euro had become the “super neo-liberal weapon of anti-democratic European Union”.

Some of the voices on the Left are now calling for an orderly exit, an “orderly disintegration of the euro zone”. In the words of Stefano Fassina a former Italian deputy minister:

We need to acknowledge that the euro was a mistake of political perspective. We need to admit that in the neo-liberal cage of the euro, the left loses its historical function and is dead as a force committed to the dignity and political relevance of labour and to social citizenship as a vehicle of effective democracy. The irrelevance or the connivance of the parties of the European socialist family is manifest. Continuing to invoke, as they do, the United States of Europe or a pro-labour rewrite of the Treaties is a virtual exercise leading to a continuing loss of political credibility… The choice is a dramatic one. The road of continuity is the explicit option of the grand conservative-led coalitions and “socialist” executives (in France and Italy for instance). The road of discontinuity may be the only one for attempting to save the European Union, revitalize the middle-class democracies and reverse the trend of the devaluation of labour. For a managed dis-integration of the single currency, we must build a broad alliance of the National Liberation Fronts, starting from the euro zone’s Mediterranean periphery, made up of progressive forces open to the cooperation of the democratic right wing sovereignty-ist parties. The time available is increasingly short.

Here too we see the same illusion, namely that the conflict is between Left wing Keynesianism and monetarism, and that the goal is not a political and social revolution but attainment of social citizenship through a return to ole post-war national labour welfare regimes.

Meanwhile, the Greek protests have thrown up from the bottom solidarity of militant Left in Europe that harbours no illusion of a continental social citizenship. This is best exemplified by the spirit of solidarity extended to the Greek proletarian masses by the German Anti-capitalist Left platform within Die Linke in these words, “No to austerity even if it means break with euro”. We must also remember that at the same time making his visit to Israel on July 19, 2015 the Greek defence minister Kammenos signed a mutual “status of forces” agreement. Although particular details are still not known, such agreements usually regulate the conditions under which foreign military forces can operate on the sovereign territory of a given state. Israel has had such a treaty in place only with its closest ally and long-time protector, the US. The Syriza government has thus complied to two inviolable dogmas – supporting euro and shoring up relations with Israel. As has been pointed out, there is a whole series of striking examples like Gysi, the former head of the German Left opposition party Die Linke. In order to become a partner for government formation he accepted German support for Israel as necessary “reason of state”. Though strongly attacking austerity measures imposed by Schröder he opposed any questioning of the EU and the Euro regime. The same held for the Italian Rifondazione Comunista before its demise. The fallacy was crisply explained by Alekos Alavanos, a Syriza leader and the first to advocate the exit from the euro zone, “The whole policy of Syriza from 2012 onwards, when they abandoned their position ‘the euro is not taboo’ is based on a cynical lie: We can abolish austerity and the same time stay in the euro zone. This led to a policy agreeable for large sections of people because it did not involve ruptures, but it was a policy totally unrealistic. This policy, for which the party of Syriza bears full responsibility, would necessarily lead to "cloudy Sunday" of 12 July.” (Italics mine)

Rupture: this is the most important word; and the most important point is that the way the Greek and the European Left approached the question was one of continuity and not rupture and normalcy and not crisis. This explains the astonishing flip flop, the absence of an alternative plan, the hesitation to revolutionise the masses, and the inexorable governmentalisation of the party, politics, and strategy. Theoretical gloss over this fundamental inadequacy of the European Left and the Syriza has not been lacking. Almost as if nothing has happened, one commentator puts the problem as one of how to find ways of radicalisation of democracy and not rupture and revolution. In this commentator’s words:

The biggest wound in this process of tactical retreat – which was experienced as defeat, indeed self-defeat – was surely suffered in the ranks of the movement. The experience has been traumatic, and the condition of response to this trauma is at this point an aporia. It is understandable as to why, if we return to what I pointed out at the outset. The movement lives in the now. It is not made for, nor concerned with, tactical manoeuvres of retreat. The immediacy of its social base, relative to the mediation of the exigencies of governance, keeps the movement free of responsibility to sovereignty, to the entirety of the polity within which after all the movement fights agonistically, where time is in constant flux and parameters can change at any minute and in directions that may run counter to plans and wishes, even principles. Here, democracy is severely tested.

… Developing a left governmentality entails precisely that internal dissent would register its critical force as part of the governmental capacity. I repeat: Syriza is a heterogeneous coalition, not a party, strictly speaking. Hence, the notion that ‘voting No in Parliament against the measures is a vote of support to the government,’ as was voiced by various dissenting Syriza MPs, utterly bamboozled the media technocrats and the liberal parties, who can only understand a hierarchical, mono-vocal, and ideologically sutured party politics.

… Nothing is more radical, more troubling, and more trouble-making than a government that proclaims that it disagrees with the policies it has agreed to implement, a government that refuses to identify with these policies because it recognizes them as abhorrent and unfeasible.

… Radical democracy and left governmentality are not about the politics of unreality – so-called alternatives that belong to fantasies of the past, like the nationalist self-enclosure of Grexit scenarios. They are about crashing with realities head on, from the precarious position of groundlessness on matters of principle and the sheer incalculability of decision in the midst of struggle exactly at the point where all options have been removed from the table….

The main problem in this sort of analysis is that it reifies the governmental capacity of a non-revolutionary administration, and assumes that radical democracy can emerge by itself from a void, which means a condition of being without direction, living in the present – a present incapable for charting out a path of the future. This is what Marxists call the worship of spontaneity – the complete abdication of responsibility.

It also means a refusal to think of the political economy of the crisis seriously, because it assumes that with continuous injection of money into the market the lives of the workers can be maintained. Therefore one may ask: What does this “Left governmentality” have to say with regard to, say for instance, the neo-liberal mechanism, QE (quantitative easing)? Described by one commentator as “the most important thing on the planet”, QE was originally deployed by the US Federal Reserve to enable markets to recover from the 2008 recession, but has since spread worldwide. Officially, it involves the central bank of a country pumping capital into key financial institutions so as to boost liquidity and spending. Money is thus digitally created - disconnected from actual economic activity. And in that sense it is a substitute of the latter. QE thus frees money from its real world moorings and turns it into a good that can be freely produced whenever a central bank chooses. It is not that governments in the past had not printed money to cope with emergencies. However QE takes this practice to a different level, assets created as a result accounting for more than 20 per cent of the GDP of many developed countries now. There is no doubt that with the injection of the money that Greece sought and will get will come from QE, which will perpetuate the crisis Greece and several other countries in Europe faces. Equally there is no doubt that from this crisis a few business barons will emerge richer.

In other words, only a deeper appreciation of the dialectics of the reality of crisis in capitalist economy and society can tell us of the significance of the discontinuities from the politics of the earlier Keynesian period. To be sure then, the crisis emerges as a nodal point in class struggle ready for a revolutionary resolution in the form of a rupture in politics. Crisis in this way involves the discontinuous within the continuous. As Lenin saw, the revolutionary situation engendered by the contradictions of society accentuates crisis – precisely because it has introduced discontinuity within continuity. A theory of radical democracy without revolution fails because it cannot integrate the temporal dimensions in its approach to the crisis of a structure - in other words, the dichotomy of diachrony and synchrony, the two complementary aspects of temporality, known otherwise as continuity and discontinuity. The dual determination of history in this way functions, only the Left in Europe forgot this classic lesson.

Why? This is where the next argument in this critique takes off. We have to speak here now, though inadequately, of the ideology of Europeanism that led the European Left into the blind alley of a social democratic version of Keynesianism. Europeanism implied that the Left had to forget the political significance of rupture, which is a substitute of a more dangerous word, revolution.

Excerpted by Sophia Reuss from Europeanism: The Repressed Anxiety of a Trans-National Intellectual Class