Against rationalisation: Richard Seymour on Syriza's defeat


The following two posts, by Richard Seymour, were originally published on Lenin's Tomb.

Syriza. Defeat. Victory. Defeat.

10 July, 2015

It is gut-wrenching, watching Syriza beg and plead with the creditors not to crush Greece. Too late did they realise that they weren't negotiating. They had nothing to negotiate with, no cards to play. They went looking for the 'good euro', and found only ruthless, mercenary capitalist enforcers. They sought compromise and were given fiscal strangulation. Even after their big deal with the creditors in February, wherein they gave up most of their emergency programme, none of the money they expected was forthcoming. Their means of raising money were cut off. For months, and months, they made concessions; the troika made none. Finally, they were all set to sign up to a deal considerably worse than any imposed on previous governments. The troika demanded more, on pain of destroying the banking system.

Now, it seems, Syriza has caved and proposed a deal which is even worse than the worst. Cuts. Privatisations. Pension 'reforms'. VAT increases. Recessionary measures. Barely a trace of a progressive agenda left here, notwithstanding the strenuous and heartbreaking efforts of euro-leftists to give it a gloss. In some respects, they have delivered, after months of fighting, a more complete victory to the neoliberal managers of Europe than the latter could have won on their own account. The social catastrophe that has befallen Greece is now going to be prolonged—the suicides, the premature deaths, the medicine shortages, the starvation, the wage losses, unemployment—but without any possible conviction that, say, a new radical left government might be elected and put an end to the misery. What sort of political forces might stand to gain in that terrain is obviously undecided; but we have seen what the worst of it could be.

In a way, none of this is surprising. The only possible coherent basis for any alternative to austerity was a Grexit prepared for early on, both in terms of public opinion and effective war-readiness. There was nothing else coming down the pipeline. The dominant forces in the Syriza leadership wouldn't have it. Not for a second would Tsipras, Dragasakis, or the recently appointed negotiator Tsakalotos, allow this outcome.  For them, Grexit was worse than austerity. Of course, even if they thought that was true, the failure to even plan for such a contingency, to wargame the possible outcomes and get people in the state apparatuses ready to act, was a huge mistake.  

I am not forgetting that they are a left government trying to operate within the confines of a capitalist state penetrated by imperialism. I am not oblivious of the fact that the permanent state apparatuses may have sabotaged and undermined them at every turn—certainly, the constant leaks undermining the previous commitments against privatisation suggest civil service lobbying. So it's quite possible that a Syriza government trying to prepare for a situation tantamount to war—Grexit being a huge national effort, not something a few technocrats can manage—would have been subverted and sabotaged quickly.  But from what I can see, all efforts have been obsessively focused on negotiations, and those have delivered precisely worse than nothing.

So what was the meaning of last week's referendum? Why did they call it, and what happened to 'Oxi'? It is fair to say that the Syriza leadership never expected 61% of Greeks to actually support them.  Neither did I. The 'Oxi' rallies were enormous, but the fact of this translating into such a tremendous surge at the ballots, mostly coming from the working class and from younger voters—but actually spread across all the districts of Greece, the rural as much as the urban—bespeaks a revolt on the scale of the 'national-popular'. No one could have anticipated it. So what did they anticipate? We could infer the answer from their behaviour. On the day after the referendum, Varoufakis was relieved of his negotiating duties (leaving aside his generally right-cleaving positions, the creditors evidently hate him), and instead a new team including delegates from To Potami and Pasok was sent to discuss the terms of surrender. Tsakalotos sent a letter pleading for a new bailout, with a promise of a new memorandum.  This move would have made much more sense had there been a narrow vote for 'Yes', or even a narrow 'No'. It makes no sense at all now. It is at least plausible that Syriza leaders would have preferred to lose and be forced to resign, rather than take responsibility for this deal. It is also plausible, lest we overlook the option, that the Syriza leadership is utterly at sea, pulled hither and thither by tides and winds it knows nothing of.

Whatever the reason, the referendum did happen and the result was astonishing. The majority of Greeks did come out to clearly reject austerity. The public protests and rallies building to it, against the ferocious pressure of the reactionary media and the threats of the Eurogroup, almost had the character of a social movement. If we're fortunate, they were the beginning of one. This introduces a significant cleavage between the government and its base. Objectively, that is the basis of a political split. Whether anyone in Syriza will recognise that remains to be seen.

As I write, we're waiting to see what the parliamentary votes will look like. There is immense pressure on Syriza MPs to give Tsipras the authority to negotiate and finalise a deal on this basis. There are all sorts of lures being dangled. Maybe the Eurogroup will sink it. Maybe if the final deal is terrible you can oppose it then. Hold tight for now, and things will look better in a few days. And rods being wielded. Don't make Tsipras look bad. Don't bring the government down. Don't let the European masters have that victory.  

So it is important to be clear: if Syriza supports and implements this deal, it is over. It will not recover. It may exist as a party, but as a force of the radical left it will be all but redundant. It may as well be a centrist, austerian coalition. A left that goes along with this will be committing suicide. And finally, don't put your faith in the idea that maybe if Syriza hangs in there, does what it's told, eventually, after a while, Podemos will come, maybe some other radical left formations will come, and the balance of power will tilt. Even if that was how the European institutions work—and they have proven they aren't susceptible to that kind of pressure—this outcome will seriously undercut the chances for the European radical left.  

Be clear that we are looking a world-historic defeat in the eye. And act accordingly.

Against rationalisation

12 July, 2015

This piece by Leo Panitch probably isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already share the predicates of the Tsipras-Tsakalotos euro-realist line. Indeed, the piece evinces a certain frustration with that fact, evident in the misfiring blunderbuss sarcasm. That's a pity: if you are going to shoot the messenger, you should at least choose a precise weapon.

The problem, and the source of Panitch's frustration, is that underlying the disagreement as to how to parse the last memorandum offer from Greece are quite radically opposed precepts. The problem is not that leftist critics of the Syriza leadership haven't noticed that its position is one arrived at incrementally, and consistent with its overall strategic perspective. It is that they have, from the very beginning, said that this perspective was incoherent: that one could not oppose austerity, keep out the overseers, or even implement the mild Thessaloniki Programme—which, lest we forget, was supposed to be an emergency programme implemented irrespective of the negotiations—and still remain loyal to the European institutions. And they were swiftly proven correct.

Syriza's negotiating stance crumbled by late February. Without any of the allies or interlocutors they expected, they accepted the position of the creditors, and claimed victory. Between opposing austerity, and demonstrating their euro commitment, they opted for the latter.  Henceforth, with the fiscal stranglehold still in place, the government had nothing to negotiate with, no threat to make. The creditors kept shifting the goalposts; the government kept moving to meet their terms. At no point has the movement been in the opposite direction.  The government has now reached the point at which it is not only committed to a new memorandum, with the overseers back in place, but it is committed to privatization, pension 'reforms', VAT increases, and budgetary surpluses (meaning spending cuts)—all the things which it had been elected to oppose.

So what will the government now be able to claim as a success in these negotiations? Leo Panitch raises the possibility of 'significant debt restructuring and investment funds' which could 'offset many times over' the austerian surplus commitment. This is only a small cut above the increasingly desperate 'Syriza only submits these terrible proposals in order to provoke rejection and make the creditors look bad'. 'Pragmatism', it turns out, has its own utopian streak.

Rather than explain the sheer illogicality of expecting anything like this outcome in these circumstance, I merely point to what the Eurogroup is in fact demanding now. They demand, in addition to what the government has already offered, 'a significantly scaled-up privatisation programme', including the privatisation of energy and the transfer of 'valuable assets' belonging to the Greek state to an independent third party for future privatisation. They demand further 'reform' of the pensions system, and of the labour market. They demand that the 'Institutions' have veto power over any future legislation, before it is even seen by the Greek parliament. These are listed as 'minimum requirements to start the negotiations'.

What do the Eurogroup offer in return for all of this? They make no specific commitment, but they say that the financing of a bailout programme could cost as much as €86bn. Most of that money would go straight to the banks, although the document mentions that up to €25bn may have to be set aside as a 'buffer' for the banking industry. Debt restructuring is specifically excluded within the eurozone. Finally, and evidently reflecting the official position of the German government, there is a suggestion in the documentnot approved by all heads of statethat if there is no deal reached, then Greece could be permitted to exit for a period of five years. It is also mentioned that under these circumstances, there might be some debt restructuring permitted. In word and effect, the eurozone states have been telling Tsipras that that either Greece will become a 'ward' of the eurozone, or it can get out.

So, here we have an absurd situation, in that the Greek government has been so committed to negotiations in which nothing is actually negotiated, in which the other side makes no concessions, that it has never prepared a Plan B. The exit scenario that Panitch scoffs at has never been seriously contemplated, even as an emergency. And now, rather than Syriza being able to threaten to leave, the eurozone are the ones threatening them with Grexit, knowing that Tsipras will bend over backward to avoid it. At best, Tsipras could possibly get some sort of deal that isn't too much worse than that which a previous, pro-austerity, centrist government might have obtained—but that scenario looks vanishingly unlikely.

This is what defeat looks like. And that, not any great tactical brilliance on the part of Tsipras, is the reason why the pro-austerity parties that were defeated in the election and the referendum, ended up in the negotiating team. Because the Syriza leadership has moved to their position; when it came down to it, Europe came first.

And even if you think that there is no alternative to negotiations, and even if you're as dismissive of the argument for exit as Panitch is, that is still a defeat. Syriza set out to achieve a certain set of objectives within the institutions of the eurozone, and on the vast majority of those objectives it has accepted failure. It may be an understandable failure. It may be compelled by the relation of forces, and arrived at logically and consistently with a rigorous analysis of the situation. But it is a failure. And so is Panitch's argument.