Syriza, the EU and negative integration

Ein Gastbeitrag von Will Denayer

Forty-two years ago, Dieter Groh, a German political scientist, wrote a seminal book, Negative Integration und revolutionärer Attentismus: Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie am Vorabend des Ersten Weltkrieges (Negative Integration and Revolutionary Rethorics: German Social Democracy on the Eve of World War One). Negative integration puts the rhetoric of liberal democracy into question. Democratic theory postulates that it is possible for citizens to form parties, for parties to participate in elections, for representatives to get into parliament and government and to accomplish through political means what citizens set out to do, in other words, it postulates democracy, from the bottom up. While there are ‚obstructions‘ – elites, class conflicts, policy failures, lobbies, bribery, bureaucracies that sabotage implementation, voting impediments, gerrymandering, propaganda, political apathy or pressures or dictates from abroad etc. – there is no question about how liberal democratic theory portrays the political process. Free elections guarantee that governments come into power so that their policies embody ‘the will of the nation.’ This is the cornerstone of democratic theory and it is the litmus test of democratic practice.

Unlike many political scientists, Groh had little interest in these ‚obstructions‘. Neither is his work an attack on the ideology of liberal democratic theory. Instead, Groh asked a simple and empirically verifiable question: is the progression that democratic theory postulates real? His minute case study dealt with the SPD party in 19th-century Germany. In short, in the early years, during the era of legal repression, the SPD stood completely outside the political realm. The establishment’s original plan, to keep the party small by keeping it illegal, backfired completely. The party grew into a massive organisation. But then Bismarck came. The first social laws were voted. The living conditions of the working class started to improve. The unions began to integrate into the system. The revisionist strategy – to work for a parliamentary majority and make Germany socialist (it is to say social-democratic) – gained near total acceptance within the party and the organisations. This is, of course, nothing else than the strategy of social democracy everywhere. But here is what happened. By 1890, the SPD had become a party of people who had much more to lose than their proverbial chains. Strategic choices had to be made between the interests of the social base and the interests of the organisations, first and foremost the unions. It would be wrong to assume that these interests would remain congruent over time. The revisionism emanating from the unions became overwhelming. The party redefined itself as a force against morally corrupt capitalism. If the enemy is morally corrupt capitalism, what is the goal then? Is it moral capitalism? The fundamental problem was that, since detailed discussion of a future society did no longer exist, there remained, at the end of the process of negative integration, no longer any image, any well-defined ideal for the SPD than to copy by what it was surrounded, however belligerent the tone of its rhetoric remained. Once the SPD lost the idea of fighting for another world, there was nothing left than to copy the beliefs, the attitudes, the vices, the life forms and the organisational principles of mainstream society. Organisational fetichism redefined everything. Groh is not arguing anything. His point is not that the SPD should have remained Marxist – it only was that for a very short time. He is simply stating facts. The evolution led, for example, to the propagation of the abject doctrine by some of the unions that anti-Semitism should be accepted for electoral reasons for the time being until social democracy, after the final victory, would erase it forever. We know how it ended. Internationalism and sanity lost to god and fatherland. According to Groh, the system had swallowed social democracy. By letting the party integrate, by making concessions – that were functional to capitalism anyway, as it transformed the proletariat into consumers – the system managed to fragment the labour movement into a myriad of institutions and organisations, each with their own concrete interests, their own social base, their own oligarchies, with people pursuing their own careers, eager to accumulate their own power, their own influences and their own status – the rest, something like a socialist society, a finality that no one understood anyway and was therefore nothing but a pipe dream, be damned. Groh’s lesson is a pertinent one: democracy does not work the way liberal theory says it does. Not only are there all sorts of obstructions. The fight for entrance into the political sphere leads to negative integration.

Let’s now deal with Syriza and its nemesis, the EU. Last January, Syriza won the elections on the basis of the Thessaloniki program. It was Syriza’s ambition – and its promise – to end austerity, work for social justice and inclusiveness, cut the Greek debt and put the Greek economy on a path towards economic and socially responsible growth. On January 26th, Tsipras told Greece that the party’s victory marked an end to the ‚vicious circle of austerity.‘ The game of the troika was up. ‚The verdict of the Greek people renders the troika a thing of the past for our common European framework,‘ he said. Many were elated and not only in Greece.

Six months into power, the Syriza government organised a referendum. A large majority of the Greek people, almost 62 per cent, told the political class that it was tired of austerity. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, disaster struck. One week later, on July 13th Tsipras accepted the conditions of the third memorandum. This memorandum is a death sentence. The memorandum brings more – and harsher – austerity to a country in which unemployment increased by nearly 200 per cent in six years. Wages decreased already by 40 percent, pensions by 45 percent. Poverty increased by 98 percent. Forty percent of children in Greece live in poverty. Greek GPD contracted by more than 25 percent. In 2014, almost four million Greeks lived below the poverty line.

None of this is a reason for the EU to not push Greece into an even deeper hole. Because of the new memorandum, purchasing power and domestic demand will plummet further, as taxes on consumer goods and businesses will rise. There will be more foreclosures. € 800 million per year will be saved on pensions, although pensioners are among the poorest and most vulnerable. Child benefits and unemployment benefits will be slashed, social housing policies will be defunded and the cost of health care is set to at least double. There will be no collective bargaining, no increase of the minimum wage. Nothing of this has anything to do with managing the Greek debt. The Greek debt is not manageable. It can only be cut. Costas Lapavitsas estimates that the national debt will increase by €20 bn to €25 bn. The IMF expects the Greek GDP/debt ratio to increase from 180 per cent to 200 per cent in 2016. Nothing in the memorandum deals with development, with, for example, giving small family businesses – the backbone of the Greek economy – breathing space. On the contrary, income tax for farmers will double. The third memorandum is an even harsher continuation of policies that, together with the mismanagement and the corruption of the old political elite, caused the downfall of the Greek economy to begin with. It is an inhumane, toxic and, of course, counterproductive mix of budget cuts, privatisations and market labour liberalisation. Public infrastructure will be sold off for up to €50 bn. €25 bn will go to the recapitalisation of the banks. The remainder, if there is one, which is highly doubtful, will have to be used to service the debt. As Lapavitsas explains, the stimulus package of € 35 bn exists nowhere (see here). Not one cent of it will be injected into the domestic economy. It is money that the government borrows to service debt on loans. What is more, the Greek government will make no law in any strategic area that has not been approved beforehand by European officials. The EU administrators have the power to demand the retraction of laws voted in the Hellenic parliament before the last memorandum was agreed upon. In return, the Greek government asked for an immediate injection of liquidity, for a serious commitment to reduce the Greek debt and for long-term investment. Apart from an end to Draghi’s blackmail (there is money in the ATMs in Greece), they got nothing.

Why would anyone sign up to such an ‚agreement‘? According to Costas Lapavitsas, Syriza’s strategy was good enough to win the elections, but it was insufficient for anything else (see here and here). Lapavitsas disagrees with the popular proposition that ‚there were no other options left‘. This is simply not true, it is just that the government refused to consider them.

There was, for example, the option of a well planned, orderly Grexit. Lapavitsas has been arguing in favour of it since 2010. There was the option to default on the national debt. True, this is very radical. No one really knows if it could work or not. Lapavitsas admits that the consequences cannot be accurately foreseen. He estimates that Greece would enter a recession for three to six months and that the economy would start growing after 12 to 18 months. The better the planning, the better the results. It is all water under the bridge. Syriza never considered a Grexit. ‚There was no real debate whatsoever,‘ says Lapavitsas, ‚there was no planning, everything was done at the speed of light, the sole purpose was to get a new bailout. (…) These people (Syriza’s economic commission) refuse to understand that (…) (this) makes growth impossible – no rising incomes, no expansion, nothing.‘ There was never any serious debate and it is also clear that messages emanating from the top of the party have not always been truthful (see here at 18:20).

What purpose did the referendum of July 5th serve? Tad Tietze mentions that when Stathis Kouvelakis was campaigning for a No, he found himself embarrassed that he had no answer to questions about what Syriza would do if the ’no‘-side would prevail. Would austerity finally end? Would Syriza play it hard? Would there be a rupture with the institutions? Would Tsipras go for a Grexit? That seemed out of the question. How was austerity then going to end? Well, it wasn’t. Tsipras spoke about the ‘European house’ that is common to us: ‘(O)n Sunday, we are not deciding about staying in Europe. We are deciding about living with dignity in Europe, working and prospering in Europe. For all of us to be equal in Europe.’

No one is prospering in Europe these days except the rich and millions live in conditions that are too undignified to be called human. A full seven years after the eruption of the financial crisis, unemployment is at record levels in Europe, there is overall lack of demand, lack of productive investment, loss of competitiveness, there is abysmal productivity growth, deflation, huge public debt, government deficits are spiralling out of control in many countries and inequality reaches levels that were considered unimaginable to most researchers and policy-makers even ten years ago. According to the OESO, no one should expect much improvement, if any, before 2050. None of this bothers the European leadership. They won’t change course. The memorandum is colonialism. Private business can plunder Greece’s infrastructure and global banks – that were bailed out by the population years ago – continue to enrich themselves, using methods that, according to the late Nobel prize winner Maurice Allais, would have brought those that are responsible for the ransacking to the gallows in the old days and to prison in modern times, before the era of financialisation. But the European elite does not care about that at all. Their genius idea is to make labour so cheap that there is no purchasing power left anywhere. Nothing speaks for austerity. It simply cannot lead to economic recovery.

Why does Syriza, which is after all a left-wing party, not address any of this? It is, says Lapavitsas, because the top of Syriza is more interested in staying within the eurozone than in ending austerity for its own people, although this is exactly what it promised to do (see here). We misread Syriza (see here). Syriza was much more the beneficiary of the collapse of the old political order than a social force against austerity. The elevation of Syriza into power was not the expression of a broad and determined social front against austerity, otherwise Tsipras’s  coup de théatre – austerity no, eurozone yes, therefore austerity – would have never worked. Neither is Syriza a conventional political party. It is an amalgam of several groups, fractions and movements. Last January, this proved to be an electoral strength. Once in government, however, the top used the peculiar composition of the party to fragment the Central Committee, to silence the internal opposition. Those from the extreme left, who had never been overly enthusiastic about co-operation, were effectively sidelined (read several contributions by Kouvelakis from the Left Platform here and here).

All that remains is Groh’s ‚revolutionary rhetoric.‘ These are the salesmen of defeatism in power. This is how Pablo Iglesias is warning the Spanish against expectations of real change, after noting that Podemos is not more radical than Christian Democracy in Spain was thirty years ago: “We can’t do more than that (…) (I)n this chess game, in which we have got almost nothing, there’s not much more we can do. (…) Spain can do a little more than Greece … but the limits are massive.“ This is how Varoufakis summarised Syriza’s position towards the euro zone: “It’s just like the Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.“ As I understand it, this boils down to ‚You elected us into power on the basis of the most radical party program in Europe since 1945. In the referendum, you voted overwhelmingly against austerity. But there is nothing that we can do because leaving the euro is not a step that we are willing to take‘ (see here for the quotes).

It is possible to leave Hotel California (it suffices to do it) and it is not true that only very little can be achieved. In Spain, people got tired of hearing that nothing much can ever change. The mayors of Madrid and Barcelona and many other cities united in a new social movement, Ahora En Común (see here). Ahora fights evictions and repossessions, it tries to find solutions for the homeless and it promotes the social economy – with Podemos if possible, without Podemos if necessary. According to Tietze, Greece was characterised by the highest level of social resistance of any advanced capitalist country in recent years. The PASOK and the union bureaucracies gradually lost control over the unions. Workers and unemployed people organise locally and set up social economies. There have been occupations of work places, the introduction of IOU’s, there are protest groups, don’t-pay groups and a lot of discussion is going on. Nikolas Theodorakis of PAME told Truthout that ‘(…) over the last five years, since the crisis began in Greece, PAME has been the vanguard of the organization of the workers resistance in Greece against the memoranda, against layoffs, against anti-worker attacks.’ That included ‘(…) more than 30 general strikes, nationally, hundreds, maybe thousands of industrial actions, regional and sectoral actions (and) strikes’ (see here). The Syriza government does not support these social forces. As Lapavitsas wrote in The Guardian, ‘Syriza will manage the social and national sepsis for as long as (…) (the people) allows the dismantling of new democracy and the insatiable thirst of his own leadership group for power. The political system will move even further away from the grassroots.’

And what about the EU? A couple of weeks ago, Arturo Desimone wrote a tremendously good article in Counterpunch. He compares the Dutch discourse on the old colonies with how the EU institutions and much of the press portrays Greece. Desimone shows how Dutch newspapers openly discussed how Dijsselbloem could break Greece the best. Columnists illustrated the risks of ‚doing business‘ with Syriza with allusions to ‚mistakes‘ (sic) the Dutch made in New Guinea in the 1950s, when the Dutch military misread the intentions of Papuan chieftains. Luckily, in their opinion, this time the situation was different. Dijsselbloem is not a beginner. Dijsselbloem earned political stripes with his crackdown on the ‚Antillean welfare mothers‘ who breed fatherless children –supposedly with the intention of profiting from child benefits. Desimone argues that the Dutch stance on toughening up police presence on its overseas tropical islands goes hand-in-hand with the Dutch right barking in favour of a tougher stance on Greece. The lamentation about corruption in Greece is the number one topic in the right-wing hit-parade. It is useless to give money to the Greeks because they are incapable of handling it, while, on the other hand, all too predictably, of course, no word is ever said about the corruption in the north (look at Volkswagen). According to De Grauwe from the London School of Economics, there is indeed a difference. There is corruption in the south and in the north, but we in the north are better in it, ours is better organised and more efficient. Hence, ours is more morally reprehensible. Nothing like this ever enters the colonial mindset. We always do everything better than everyone else. Is this because we make everything worse everywhere to begin with?

The European institutions and the European and global banks bankrupted Greece. Austerity will continue to disenfrancise public institutions. Typical third-world problems are cropping up everywhere. Greek hospitals deal with scarcities of clean needles and of adequate medicine. Wages continue to decline all over Europe. Capital flight, the outstanding financial problem of the third world, has become one of the defining characteristics of our societies. Profits disappear into the pockets of global banks and oligarchs. The impossibility to work for one’s own society and to create increasing returns is the hallmark of underdevelopment. The message from the collapse of Syriza cannot be misunderstood. The social welfare system in Europe will be dismantled. Greek islands, ports, water companies, airports, the entire national patrimony will be sold off. The population is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The European and the global elites un-develop the country while the government insulated itself from its social base and lacks the will and the courage to break with the oligarchs. The story of Syriza is one of negative integration.