Notes on the non election of Syriza and the retreat from anti-capitalism by the left

Notes on the non election of Syriza and the retreat from anti-capitalism by the left

Andrew Flood on the left's fascination with SYRIZA and what their politics actually amount to.

The Greek election which saw the 'bailout with even more austerity' parties win out over the 'austerity without bailout' parties had a fairly minimal impact on the world's stock markets in the end. That somewhat cruel way of describing SYRIZA is a polemical poke at the international left which had put such enormous expectations in SYRIZA ahead of the elections - many seemed to truly believe their election represented a potential turning point in the struggle against the imposition of austerity across Europe. From my point of view this attitude is symptomatic of the disastrous turn to electoralism that the far left has taken - the hostile terrain it has retreated to after failing to build any meaningful popular resistance across Europe to the cuts being imposed in the worst crisis since World War II.

The initial jump in the value of the euro certainly suggests that the markets were not indifferent to the election but I don't see the fact that the markets (as a measure of 'ruling class opinion') have a preferred horse in any given electoral race as proving anything fundamental about the nature of SYRIZA. That said I'm more interested in the movements of the markets as a crude barometer of how 'capital' views the results then the publically stated views of the political figureheads that happen to be in power at this moment in time. The small and short lived impact of the results on the markets would tend to confirm that from the point of view of capital the problem of SYRIZA was a problem of Euro stability and not the perception of a fundamental threat to the system. Everyone is watching Spain at the moment and on Monday mixed signals came from there as on the one hand as borrowing costs surged above the disastrous 7% level on the one hand but on the other that Spain's IBEX 35 added 1.5% to its value by late on Tuesday.

Those who saw great significance in the Greek election tend to refer to the statements by the current neo-liberal political leadership of Europe in advance of the elections that were clearly designed to encourage an anti SYRIZA fear vote. Yet there is a dangerous simplification here as the leadership of European capitalism is not reducible to Merkel and her government, Draghi, Cameron and Osborne etc. These are some of the political leadership, the more neo-liberal wing but there is also the 'neoliberal with a human face' political leadership of Hollande etc and beyond this the neo-Keynesianist SYRIZA type parties.

The balance of election (and in Ireland referendum) results at this moment favours the neoliberals but it would not be hard to imagine it shifting to the 'neo liberalism with a human face' parties. And perhaps even in some places coalitions which would include the neo-Keynesianists (this almost happened in Greece and if the new coalition fails to last may happen yet). Reducing the 'political leadership of capital' to the neo liberals is dangerous from because historically EU stability in the post war period has involved a complex dance between all three of those groups and of course the Communist Parties when they were significant.

Taking a longer view then the last decade such parties and one's to the left of them have been in power repeatedly in Europe without the rule of capital being threatened. Its broadly understood that the post war settlement in Western Europe included an acceptance that the CP could form part of coalition governments in return for the CP putting revolution off the agenda. This was most clearly stated by the Italian CP as the idea of the 'historical compromise'. Today the CP's are not the force they once were but a similar compromise by the trade union leaderships has a disastrous effect on the potential for resistance. This is the trade off by almost all the European unions whereby the political general strike is ruled out as an anti-democratic weapon in favor of union support for one or another party of the electoralist left.

In the post war period there were huge numbers of workers in western Europe who looked for an end to capitalism. In Italy, Greece and France in particular in the immediate aftermath of the war many of these were trained in military techniques and had access to arms. Even in countries like Britain that lacked large scale revolutionary consciousness in the working class the post war situation of a working class that had been armed and trained through mass conscription resulted in the historic compromise of the welfare state under the Labour government.

When looked at through this lens it become clear that SYRIZA are but a not terribly radical point on the left - right electoralist scale that typified European stability over the last 60 years. Yes the current political leadership in Europe were not keen on SYRIZA but really only because of the significant difference about how European capital should be managed in this period. They wouldn't be keen on the Greek fascists of Golden Dawn either but that doesn't demonstrate that Golden Dawn is therefore anti-capitalist or indeed beyond being promoted if the turn events take demand it. Golden Dawn are the potential stick to SYRIZA's potential carrot in the spectrum of available tools to ensure stability if neoliberal fear loses its current hold.

None of what I say here is controversial to anyone with an honest awareness of the realities of the post war European left. It's just not something many say out loud at the moment in the hype around the possibility of minor electoral success. When a deeper conversation arises its almost certain to be acknowledged that the program of SYRIZA is by no means anti-capitalist but the claim is made that the logic of SYRIZA in power would have pushed things in an anti-capitalist direction. By this argument Greeks would in effect have thought they were voting for a different path to stability within capitalism but would have discovered they had in reality voted for a road leading to revolution.

The notion that a SYRIZA victory would lead to Greece being pushed out of the Euro and the Greeks thus having voted for a revolution that wasn't in their program is a curious one as its very hard to see any positive outcome through that set of events. In particular in the context of the recent history of military dictatorship and the rise of Golden Dawn. BBC Newsnight Economics editor Paul Mason had a very useful blog post on the morning of the elections that perhaps inadvertently highlighted how little difference the choice between SYRIZA and New Democracy would make.

Mason addressed the idea of a SYRIZA election inadvertently triggering an anti-capitalist crisis. "One of their (SYRIZA) spokespeople was shocked when I suggested they risked creating a Chilean-style clash with the state. They have no intention of doing so. Nevertheless I know for a fact some Syriza activists fear getting dragged into the low-level conflict between the fascists, migrants and anarchists that is simmering in the city slums."

The Chilean 'clash' of 1973 saw a very much more organized and coherent Chilean left, which included a radical Socialist Party in government, being crushed in a brutal anti-democratic military coup. After the left government of Allende was overthrown considerable repression was unleashed against the organised working class that saw over 10,000 being executed or disappeared and over 100,000 being driven into exile. Chile then became the testing ground for the theorists of neo liberalism.

Wishing for a confrontation similar to that in Chile when there is no widespread preparation for it because it would move the struggle onto a new level is nuts. Per head of population Greece has one of the biggest militaries in Europe with conscription of all adult males and the largest per capita spend on the military. A military dictatorship ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. The years before the coup in Chile were characterized by mass militant workers organization and preparation for armed struggle by many.

SYRIZA is hardly approaching the program or level of organisation of the Chilean left of 1972 - a left that proved capable of organising some protracted resistance to the armed imposition of neo liberalism but which was defeated all the same. But in any case the SYRIZA program is much less radical, a potential SYRIZA victory would perhaps have been more akin to the Mitterrand election in France and the first period of power 1981-83.

SYRIZA was less organised and less popular as well as operating with a much more sectarian electoralist left then the French left of 1981. The CP in France had four cabinet members whereas the KKE spent much of its election campaign attacking SYRIZA. The point though is that Mitterrand was forced to abandon his radical program after two years of capital flight and an investment strike by the wealthy. The limitations of capitalism with a human face exposed by the power of the market to impose its will over the democratic wishes of the electorate.

These are the technical details specific to Greece but the bigger question is why at a time of deep crisis the left has retreated from anti-capitalism to neo-Keynesianism. If the left can't talk of anti-capitalism five years into a crisis of this magnitude when can you talk of it. When this crisis is part of the environmental crisis is it not insanity to join the chorus calling for unqualified growth as the 'alternative'? Can we really afford a growth led recovery to capitalism (and Climate Change) as normal until the next major crisis hits 30-40 years down the road.

The only strategy the electoralist left seems to have is to hope that their blend of anger and fear can be more convincing then the stability v fear argument of the neoliberals. The limitation of such a strategy are shown in the breakdown of the vote by age in Greece, where the elderly whose reliance on state pensions makes them more subject to fear voted overwhelmingly for neo liberal stability.

It's perhaps an odd thing for an anarchist to suggest but when fighting the politics of fear I think we need a lot more of the politics of hope rather than that of anger/fear as the left has failed to articulate an alternative that is worth fighting for. All that is on offer is the same as what the neoliberals offer, stability and a return to capitalism as normal but via neo-Keynesian economics rather than neoliberalist ones. What is needed instead is a convincing vision of an entirely new way or organizing society, one that does not rely on unqualified growth on the one had for a health economy and which does not present 'jobs' as the key factor to determine whether you have a reasonable standard of living.

If all that is 'defeatism' well then I'll be a defeatist. I think the real defeatism here is the retreat from actual anti-capitalism to the advocacy of a national neo-Keynesianism in contexts where it is impossible (Ireland as much as Greece). But that program is an almost inevitable byproduct of resistance being channelled onto the electoralist terrain. When your trying to play within the electoralist rules neo-Keynesianism is the only alternative you can offer.

To state things the other way around. If there is the development of a strong organised anti-capitalist movement in Greece I would expect it to include the development of a significant electoralist wing able to ride to power on the back of that movement. That is a pretty universal pattern. What isn't is the reverse where electoral success generates such a movement. The last elections in Ireland saw several formally trotskyist TD's returned as part of the ULA yet their has been little or no growth of either their parties or the ULA as a result of this.

In conclusion there are two problems with the general approach of the left beyond the electoralism I have talked about here.

1. A failure to recognize that there is no Greek or Irish solution based on a local return to some neo-Keynesianist 'growth + jobs' version of capitalism. Ireland's economy in particular is far too dependent on globalization for any idea of a switch to import substitutionism to make any sense at all.

2. Austerity is being rolled out across Europe but the focus on national solutions and national elections has meant there is no real attempt to build a European resistance. The leader of the Hungarian Communist Party Mátyás Rákosi is said to have explained its path to power through the use of 'Salami Tactics'.

It would be impossible to eat an entire Salami by simply cramming it into your mouth. Instead you eat it thin slice by thin slice. Faced with a massive European working class that has a common interest in resisting austerity the left has allowed the numerically tiny European ruling class to defeat us, without a struggle, by allowing it to focus in on tiny slices taken on and beaten one at a time.

The capitalist class have been moving around Europe biting chunks out of the living standards of the working class. Chomp and we have the public sector pay cut of the pensions levy in Ireland, chomp and we see the attacks of pensions across the UK, chomp and we see pay slashed in Greece, chomp and its the second public sector pay cut in Ireland. And so on for Spain and Portugal and Italy but also lets be clear the knife is being sharpened to slice off the pension rights of French workers too.

European capitalism intends to return to prosperity by a thousand such cuts. The only puzzle is the complete lack of resistance to such an obvious program on a level that refuses to accept the isolation of one sector after another behind national borders. Our resistance must be as global as capital and so far it really isn't.

Originally posted: June 19, 2012 at Anarchist Writers


Jun 21 2012 00:59
But that program is an almost inevitable byproduct of resistance being channelled onto the electoralist terrain. When your trying to play within the electoralist rules neo-Keynesianism is the only alternative you can offer.

A propos de rien, for some reason this randomly reminded me of the framing criteria that Alfred Sloan's institution of the annual model change discovered*. In order to sell the new model you need to show that it has additional extra features that the previous model didn't have. But, you couldn't stretch the envelope too far, the new model needed to be different, but not too different, otherwise the buyer (trading in last years model for this years model, with the aid of GMAC) would worry about the resale value of the new model, when s/he wants to trade it in for the future new model + 1.

The resonance would be that people might want difference but only within certain limits of variance due to fear of chaos, if you go beyond a certain amount of change in one go. That element of the stifling effect of electoralism is interesting to pursue in itself. But my interest is more in the parallel between the electoral process and the market process. Between the passivity of the elector and that of the consumer and how that reflexively narrows the range of the choices available to both.

* In the US automobile industry of the 1920s. Alfred P Sloan was the head of General Motors in the era of its struggle for supremacy with Ford. Google also - Sloans ranges.

Jun 22 2012 16:52

Andrew's text makes some good points but the language seems to reflect a certain identification with, and dissapointment with, 'the left'.

I don't think 'the lefts' support or flirtation with neo-Keynesianism is only tied to it's electoralism but is rather more deeply embedded in it's more general support for 'state capitalism'. Some anarchists have also flirted with neo-Keynesianism in their analysis of the current crisis and strategies of opposition to government austerity measures.

Dec 31 2014 16:07

So now (come the new Greek elections later this month) SYRIZA is in with an even better chance of some real governmental power - will they manage a compronis deal with the EU or is this the beginning of a larger break up of the Euro area and a fresh global financial crisis. My Greek anarchist friend, involved in a smaller more radical Left alliance than SYRIZA, thinks an exit from the Euro is likely with all that follows in terms of the dangerously polorised political scene in Greece bringing both hopes and fears.

Jan 8 2015 18:31

Another skeptical assessment of the threat supposedly posed by SYRIZA despite it's unpopularity with the established policy makers of the EU:

Jan 8 2015 20:29

I agree on the topic of these assessments, but I'm very interested to know what greek comrades think about the next elections. Anyone available?

Jan 12 2015 16:51

I've just read a news in an italian neswpaper saying Chomsky supports Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, in the next elections. Actually he signed a statement along with other people like Toni Negri, Tariq Ali, ecc.. This statement, entitled "Change in Greece, change in Europe", asks people loving democracy, social cohesion and justice to support the Greek people's right to decide about their own future. There isn't anything else in the news, but I'd like very much to know the reasons Chomsky took that position. Did the left's fascination with Syriza hit him too?

Juan Conatz
Jan 12 2015 17:48

Chomsky usually seems to sign onto statements when asked. However, he has long supported electoral solutions, as well.