Popular Struggle and Resistance in Greece

Interview with journalist run paper EFSYN in Greece, December 2015 (Questions in italics)

The “Greek paradox” consists in the fact that a left government (SYRIZA) is forced by its foreign creditors to implement a barbarous package of austerity measures. What does it mean for today’s democracy?

The recent Greek experience reminds us that the rule of the market—which means, of course, the rule of those who dominate the market—is the guiding principle of neoliberal capitalism. Austerity, in other words, requires the ultimate hollowing out of democracy, which in its classical definition means rule of the people. No longer do the ruling institutions, such as the troika, even pretend that the people are sovereign. Without any shame or embarrassment, they are happy to pronounce that global financial institutions can override the democratic will of peoples. That is why any real campaign to restore democracy must centrally challenge the relations of neoliberal capitalism.

The defeat of the Greek government in the negotiations of last July was a decisive blow to people’s faith and hope that things are going to change and that a progressive alternative is possible. How can we reverse this paralyzing feeling?

The challenge is to recover the spirit and the sense of purpose of the Oxi campaign last July. This is not easy in the face of the massive capitulation by the Syriza government, a capitulation that undermined the Oxi moment. But within the struggles against austerity—whether it is demonstrations by pensioners, strikes by unions, or campaigns for migrant justice—a crucial challenge will be to rebuild the networks of solidarity and resistance that can rekindle hope in the face of despair.

The terms imposed on Greece by the international debt-holders have in essence transformed the country into some kind of neo-colony, with the members of a “task-force” to have an “enhanced and permanent” presence in Athens, in order to monitor all financial and social policy of the government. Are we faced with a neocolonialism in the heart of Europe?

This is definitely a kind of internal neocolonialism within the Eurozone. It signifies a declaration that elected governments will be dictated to by the representatives of global banks and finance. There is no longer even a pretense that the people of a nation are sovereign. But nationalist responses are not adequate to this reality. Instead, the task is to fight to reclaim democracy while also promoting international solidarity with all those seeking to democratize society and reclaim control for all those suffering from global austerity. The Greek people need allies around the world in their struggles for democracy.

Do you think that an exit from the eurozone would be a realistic and viable option for a Greek government?

Too often answers to this question are put in purely technical economic terms, with opponents and supporters of “grexit” debating its possible effects on investment, prices, employment and so on. But the question of the viability of exiting the Eurozone is fundamentally a political one. Of course there would be economic disruptions associated with leaving the euro. But Greece has already experienced years of economic trauma imposed by the rules of the Eurozone. So, it becomes a question of preparing politically to make a “grexit” part of a struggle to reclaim democracy. Can poor and working class people in Greece be mobilized for the struggles against the banks and multinational corporations who will try to sabotage an exit? Can they organize to support socialization of the banking system? Can people build the popular organizations in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools that will assist the distribution of food and other supplies if distribution problems emerge? If so, notwithstanding inevitable difficulties, an exit from the Eurozone could be part of an inspiring movement to rebuild grassroots democracy and popular power in Greece. And that is massively better than years upon years of crushing austerity and social decay.

Liberal-capitalist democracy has shown its incompatibility with any kind of genuine democracy. You suggest the return to an assembly-style direct democracy. How easy is to achieve such a purpose under the present state of mind of the majority of the people?

Returning to assembly-style democracy presupposes the kind of struggles I have mentioned above. New forms of popular democracy will not emerge because someone suggests they are a good idea. They will emerge if people self-organize at the base of society to create new institutions of solidarity and resistance that are open and democratic. This happens when communities organize soup kitchens, when workers start directing the production of goods and services, when people in neighborhoods organize grassroots groups to support migrants and resist racism. Assemblies in the neighborhoods, in the workplaces, and in the schools are the basis for a radical, participatory democracy. Then such popular assemblies would need to elect delegates, who would be immediately accountable to their assemblies, to participate in larger-scale coordinating bodies—at municipal, regional and national levels. If the level of social-mobilization is rising, people can experience participatory democracy as an inspiring and transformative moment in their lives. And this can be the basis for dismantling many of the bureaucratic and authoritarian forms of governance in our lives.

Of course, none of this is easy. All the daily habits of life in a capitalist society encourage people to defer to “experts” and bureaucrats. That is why new forms of democracy will require new cultures of self-governance. It is in the course of changing the world and taking control of their lives that people come to imagine and experience new possibilities. In such ways they become empowered. And this is what it means to say that the struggle against austerity is principally a political question. It cannot succeed without new kinds of radical, popular and democratic political practices. And it is these which are the key to any real rupture with austerity, neoliberalism and capitalism.

Zombie Capitalism and the Building of a New Left

Interview with the Turkish Left newspaper, “Ozgur Gundem” (June 2015)

David McNally

1-) You describe the economic crisis which started in 2007 as the fourth biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. For a broader picture, could you explain the main characters of this crisis? What can we expect in the near future?

This crisis has exhibited all the features of a classic capitalist slump. A twenty-five year period of investment and accumulation from 1982 to 2007 produced an over-accumulation of capital – more factories, mines, shopping malls, producing and marketing goods, and more apartment buildings and houses appearing on the market than could profitably be sold. Related to this, rates of return on new investment (the profit rate) had declined. In addition, the long period of expansion had seen a financial explosion and a proliferation of new kinds of esoteric financial instruments, such as mortgage-backed securities. So, when the economy began to slow, the most over-extended banks and lenders found themselves in a severe crisis.

While the banking crisis was largely resolved in 2009—by the injection of of trillions of dollars in public funds into private banks—the underlying economic problems have largely persisted. That is why, seven years after the global slump began, we still have not seen a boom in investment and growth. The likelihood is that stagnation and low growth will continue for some time, with a number of economies falling back into recession. There is no new trajectory for sustained growth on the horizon.


2-) In your works you compare this crisis with 1930’s crisis and point out that for example unemployment rates. But we haven’t witnessed a massive militant working class reaction yet like in the 1930’s or 1960’s. Struggles are mostly short-lasting and quite defensive when we compare them with the struggles of last decades. What are the main reasons of this difference?

It is important to remember that the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s were a terrible time for working class movements and the Left. Fascism was on the rise and workers’ organizations were suffering large defeats. The real upsurge in working class struggle came after many years of crisis, beginning around 1936-37 with big upheavals in Spain, France and the United States in particular. Of course, not all these struggles were victorious. But they did signify a new capacity for mass resistance and self-organization.

The first seven years of this crisis have seen a similar pattern. So far, there have been few significant victories for the Left. But one big difference today from the 1930s is that the militant organizations of the working class—communist, socialist and anarchist—were considerably stronger in the 1930s than they are now, and this reflected a stronger radical culture within the working class. Today, we are confronted with a compelling need both to build real movements of resistance to austerity and neoliberalism and to rebuild a political culture of working class opposition to capitalism.


3-) You point out that neoliberal offensive on labor and social rights but you also highlight the ideological and cultural transformation of neoliberal offensiveness. In your last book you explain this late-capitalist aggression with interesting metaphors like zombie capitalism, monsters and vampires. Could you tell us about this?

One of the victories of neoliberalism is the way it has dampened peoples’ sense of what is possible in their lives. It has created the expectation that we can be little more than mindless labourers for giant corporations and banks. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find images of zombies everywhere in mass culture. For, neoliberal capitalism effectively tells us that we are all the walking dead, to take the name of a major US television show. It tells us that we will live a life of “dead time,” working in demoralizing jobs while we struggle to pay our bills. At the same time, subversive images of zombie uprisings are a reminder that we also secretly hope to escape these dull, dreary lives and turn the tables on the vampires who control our lives. In other words, the zombie is both a figure of our domination by capitalism—and an expression of our desires to turn the world upside down and live as real human beings.


4-) Your another metaphor is about Frankenstein. When I first heard the real story of Frankenstein from you I am quite impressed. Could you explain us the roots of this book and importance on your work?

The Frankenstein story, as it was originally told by Mary Shelley in 1818, is an incredibly interesting analysis of capitalism. Shelley asks us to imagine a gigantic creature, assembled from the body parts of humans and animals. Then she tells us that this creature is brought to life by means of electricity, which was emerging as a driving force in industrial production. So, we have a powerful new being, like the modern proletariat, created from the bodies of poor people and animals—one that the elite find threatening. And Shelley warns the British ruling class that, if they are not careful, this potentially dangerous creature might rebel against them and seek revenge. Of course, this is exactly what happens in her story. The brilliance of Frankenstein as a novel is that it sees the creation of the modern working class as a sort of horror story, not only for the workers but also, if the creature should revolt, for the ruling class that brought it into being.

Shelley also gives us a revolutionary image of the creature’s education in literacy and politics. He learns to read by listening to an Arab feminist read one of the greatest anti-slavery tracts of the age, C. F. Volney’s The Ruins. In this way, Shelley also informs Britain’s rulers that the adversary they have awakened is a proletariat committed to internationalism, women’s right and the struggle against slavery. It is an image of anti-racist and feminist working class politics that can still inspire the Left today.


5-) Inequality, rising of fascism from Europe to India, the intensive militarization of police, barbaric organisations like ISIL, global warming, food crisis etc… Is this going to be the background of zombie capitalism?

Yes, I think this will be the background—unless or until radical socialist movements create a new direction for humanity. Capitalism today increasingly breeds inequality, war, environmental disasters, and sectarian resistances that mimic imperialist practices. I think this is the “new normal” in an age of austerity and crisis. And that is why building mass movements and organizations of a new left is so urgent and important.


6-) We have seen quite strong protests against neoliberalism in recent years like Seattle, Arab Spring, OWS, South America etc. But these movements mostly failed. What do you think about this? What were the main reasons of this failure?

The existence of these movements is important, as they remind us that there is a strong desire for alternatives to the current system. But they have all emerged after nearly forty years of retreats and defeats for working class and socialist movements. As a result, these movements have had a very difficult time sustaining themselves and growing once the first serious challenges and difficulties emerge. One of the political successes of neoliberalism is to have dramatically reduced the core of experienced radical organizers who see the need for long-term movement building to change the world. One of the tasks of the Left in this period is to create political spaces in which a new generation of radical organizers can develop. This means building new institutions of a radical left—enduring organizations and movements, spaces for popular education, assemblies for democratic self-organization, cultural institutions, and so on. Without this network of radical institutions that can nourish a new and growing wave of organizers on the left, it will be very difficult for sustained anti-capitalist organizing to expand and develop.


7-) Against neoliberalism you suggest a strong radical democracy program but for you a radical democratic program should based on strong economic roots. Could you explain this a little more?

I believe that radical democracy is essential to any “socialism for the twenty-first century.” We need to develop new forms of grassroots popular power in neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools, based on mass assemblies, all of which are capable of linking together into accountable systems of democratic self-government. But you cannot have real self-government if people do not have control over the economic relations in their society, especially over production, distribution and finance. We can see this problem in Greece at the moment, where the SYRIZA government has a popular mandate to end austerity, but they do not have the economic means, particularly the control over finance, that would make this possible. More than this, a new society must mean that democracy penetrates all important aspects of life, such as our work relations. And this is only possible if people have power over the economic resources and relations of their society.


😎 Last of all I would like to get your opinions on organisation. You are a strong advocate of unity on the left and (if I am wrong please correct me) once you even suggested a united organisation for anarchists and marxists. We talk a lot about unity too and Kurdish and Turkish revolutionary forces trying to build a united party as well. But what should be done for a wide but also strong anticapitalist party? Also of course I would like to learn your opinions on SYRIZA and Podemos on this matter.

I certainly favour unity on the Left. I believe we need to find ways of establishing more credible radical left organizations that can begin to play a meaningful role in everyday political life. This means overcoming differences on small and secondary matters. It means trying to establish a basis on which thousands of people on the left, notwithstanding real differences that will need to be clarified over time, can work together against neoliberalism, to build working class resistance, to raise anti-capitalist analysis. Of course, there will be “purists” who refuse to associate with other forces of the left. But we need to determine who is prepared to come together around a basic program of building a mass anti-capitalist working class movement, and to agree upon some basic political and organizational principles that will make this possible.

Will there be sharp debates along the way to creating such organizations, and again after they have been created? Yes, absolutely. But developing a political culture of democratic debate, discussion and self-education is an indispensable part of building a new left. And that is much more challenging and exciting than squabbling among small revolutionary groups.

The Greek project of building SYRIZA is one approach to what I am discussing. I believe that forces on the radical left, many of them grouped today in the Left Platform of SYRIZA, were correct to become part of that project. It allowed them to break out of the world of small-circle politics and test their ideas in a much more important arena, one involving masses of people. That does not magically eliminate difficulties. The recent economic agreements between the SYRIZA government and the “troika” are a huge problem, and there is a danger that the SYRIZA government could end up promoting a “soft” form of austerity. But at least the left in SYRIZA, having developed some credibility within working class circles, might be able to get a real hearing as it tries to push things in a radical direction.

Of course, if you are simply satisfied with having a “correct line,” even if no one listens to you, then you can remain content with “I told you so” politics. Then you can say, “I told you SYRIZA would sell out,” or “I told you we need a revolution.” But that approach will never create a mass socialist left. That is why, after forty years of defeats, we need to gamble on new approaches, new political experiments that have at least a small possibility of reconnecting revolutionary socialism with sections of the working class.

The same attitude should apply, I think, to the emergence of Podemos in Spain. It is much better for radical leftists to try to work inside that movement in order to influence its development, than to stand on the outside. This does not mean that we should not fully and clearly express our concerns about particular developments in such parties. We should be clear and forceful in our anti-capitalism, and in our belief that we will need a real rupture from capitalist social relations if we are build a more democratic and just society.

But wherever the Left has the opportunity today to start emerging from the margins, we must seize those opportunities. We need to learn how to be a part of real mass movements and mass organizations, with all the contradictions that involves. As the global economic slump drags on year after year, along with the suffering it brings, we will need creativity and audacity if the socialist left is to have any chance of influencing political events in the years ahead.



The Left and the Election of Syriza

It was always going to be messy—and it has gotten so remarkably quickly. The decision by the Syriza leadership to form a coalition government with the anti-immigrant ANEL party has rightly shaken progressives who hoped that the Greek elections would rapidly transform politics to the left. Instead, we have been harshly reminded that the logic of electoral politics can be dangerously compromising for the left.

For anyone who thought the election itself would transform the landscape, this can only be a bitter disappointment. But Sunday’s stunning electoral defeat for Greek’s governing parties of austerity was not the product of the great minds of the Syriza leadership. It came about primarily due to six years of grassroots struggle—two dozen general strikes, anti-racist mobilizations against the fascist Golden Dawn, solidarity work in neighbourhoods to feed the hungry, protests by migrant workers, student rebellions, campaigns by healthcare workers, and much more. These struggles built the culture of solidarity and resistance upon which Syriza has drawn. And only if there is a deepening of all these forms of struggle in the months ahead will we be able to say that the electoral victory opened a road to real social and political conquests for the left.

There is little doubt that the Syriza leadership desperately wants to compromise with the dominant institutions, particularly the EU. This was to be expected. Moreover, the institutional power of capital is enormous. But, Syriza’s leaders are also under pressure from their party’s largely working-class base, which wants an end to austerity and a real campaign against poverty and social inequality.

In these circumstances, the Syriza leadership can be expected to tack and turn, cozying up to the forces of capital on the one hand, making concessions to the demands and expectations of its working class electorate on the other. So, it does a deal with ANEL at the same time that Syriza’s new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, announces that his government will end its military cooperation with Israel and cancel its membership in the EU Free Trade Agreement if the blockade of Gaza is not lifted.

These contradictions will not be wished away. They will not vanish because leftist critics declare that they should. They will be resolved—one way or the other—through sustained social struggle. It will not be easy—and we were hopelessly naïve if we expected it to be so.

But Syriza’s victory and the defeat of the parties of austerity has galvanized the forces of resistance, filled them with energy and hope, and created a more favourable terrain for social struggles. And it is there, in struggles from below, not the arena of parliament, that the decisive battles will be fought.

In this context the March 21 international day of action against racism and fascism and for migrant and Muslim rights—a campaign which originated in Greece—now becomes an urgent rallying point for “Street Syriza, ” as it has been called, to set the tone and the direction of events.

January 26, 2015

Unforgotten Wounds: Remembering Ali Mustafa

Toward the end of his review of the moving film, 5 Broken Cameras, came words that stayed with me. Celebrating this documentary of one Palestinian village’s resistance to colonization, Ali Mustafa quotes its cameraman and co-director, Emad Burnat: “Forgotten wounds cannot be healed. So I film to heal.”[1]

So it was with Ali himself. To be sure, he was one of the great photojournalists and videographers of the Egyptian Revolution. But, equally, Ali was a warrior against the forgetting of wounds. And that, at least in part, is what drew him back earlier this year to Syria. Camera in hand, he would show the world why it could never – should never – forget both the suffering and the courage of the Syrian people.

To continue reading, click here: http://newsocialist.org/748-unforgotten-wounds-remembering-ali-mustafa


Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Canadian State

The following article is part of a four-person symposium hosted by New Socialist webzine. You can find the full forum here: http://www.newsocialist.org/692-up-against-the-neoliberal-parties-what-should-the-left-do-four-views

Anyone looking for easy answers to the challenges of radical politics today is sure to be disappointed. The terrain on which the left operates at the moment is messy, complicated and full of contradictions. On the one hand, the traditional institutions of the left are in severe decline. On the other hand, new left movements with genuine social weight have yet to emerge.

We confront circumstances of the sort described by Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s when he observed, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” In such situations, he continued, “there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”

We can see those morbid symptoms all around us. Trade unions are faltering, particularly in the private sector, and are less and less able to protect the wages, benefits and job security of their members. Just as troubling, the union movement is aging, growing increasingly disconnected from young workers. Meanwhile, the traditional electoral party of the left, the NDP, continues its gallop to the right, abandoning even the timid politics of reform it preached in the past. The recent decision by delegates to the federal NDP’s convention to remove a commitment to “social ownership” from the party’s constitution is yet one more symptom of the NDP’s transition from a social-democratic labour party into a social liberal party.

What complicates the story, however, is that the transformation of the NDP is only partial and incomplete. There are still places – mining and industrial communities, long-standing union towns – where local NDP organizations retain something of their working class roots. In addition, one still finds handfuls of NDP candidates at municipal, provincial and federal levels who are prepared to align themselves with progressive social movements. So, while it is no longer true that a vote for the NDP represents a vote for a party based on the labour movement, a case can be made for offering support to certain NDP campaigns and candidates.

At the same time, it is obvious that anti-capitalists desperately need to build new social institutions –coalitions, unions, associations, and party-type formations. While there are many dedicated activists doing vital work organizing movements against poverty, racism and much more, the capacity of the left to project socialist politics beyond small circles remains quite limited. Without enhancing that capacity, the number of people committed to systemic change will shrink, weakening all struggles for social justice, as well as the influence of anti-capitalist politics more generally.

This is one reason why it is important for radicals to engage the terrain of electoral politics. True, elections alone cannot change the world. But election campaigns represent a moment in which, as millions of people consider politics, parties and the debates among them, socialists need to be part of the public conversation about the direction of society and the need for radical change.

If we look at the severe crisis sweeping Greece at the moment, we can see why this matters. As unemployment mounts – now over 25 per cent and more than twice that level for young people – the traditional parties of the center-right are disintegrating. Voters are searching for more radical alternatives. Unfortunately, one of those is on the far right, in the shape of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which now has elected members in both municipal government and the national parliament. Golden Dawn is also stepping up its activities in neighbourhoods, schools and on the streets, including violent attacks on migrants, queers and people of colour.

Fortunately, significant forces of the left have rallied to contest the sphere of electoral politics that Golden Dawn is trying to exploit. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), an alliance of left-wing groups and parties, is a credible and growing force, having most recently taken 27 per cent of the national vote. In so doing, SYRIZA has been able to reach millions of people with a left-wing program for resolving the social and economic crisis in Greece. Their work is crucial to building an anti-capitalist project.

Throughout the Canadian state, with the partial exception Québec, where Québec solidaire has established a small (and insufficiently radical) presence, the left has nothing similar. Yet if a new left is to be born, anti-capitalists urgently need to begin digging a meaningful foothold in political life. That will require years of work to build active solidarities and new forms of organization. But it needs to be a central part of our political strategy today. Without that, we will fail to build the wider socialist presence that is a prerequisite to any and all radical change.

Addressing Inequality by Rebuilding the Labour Movement

My contribution to the “inequality debate” hosted by the Broadbent Institute. Written December 2012; posted January 23, 2013:

While growing social inequality is the product of a multi-pronged economic, political and cultural offensive by corporate power across the neoliberal era, the systematic weakening of trade unions looms especially large in the story.

To continue reading, click here:http://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/en/blog/david-mcnally-addressing-inequality-rebuilding-labour-movement


Toronto Launch and Celebration for Monsters of the Market

On December 3, 2012, nearly 200 people crammed the Ballroom at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto to celebrate the launch (in paperback) of Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, and the book’s receipt of the 2012 Deutscher Memorial Award. MCed by Faria Kamal and Alan Sears, the event heard brief remarks from Himani Bannerji as well as remarks and a brief reading by author David McNally.



The Continuing Global Slump

By David McNally

This article will be the afterword to the forthcoming Danish translation of the author’s book Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance — NSW.

Since the outbreak of the global slump in 2008 we have been treated to an incessant stream of predictions that “the crisis is over,” that we have “turned a corner,” and that “the recovery is now underway.” Each time the cheerleaders have been proved wrong. To the dismay of apologists for the system, the slump has now stretched on for more than five years. And there is no obvious end in sight.

World-wide, there has been no recovery in employment. There are now 50 million fewer people in paid work than when the crisis started. Not only is the Eurozone now officially back in recession, but a number of its economies are in outright depressions. Spain and Greece are each struggling with unemployment rates above 25 percent – and over 50 percent for youth. Even the U.S. economy, notwithstanding a big rebound in corporate profits, is plagued by a jobs deficit of ten million (5.2 million that have not been recovered since 2008 and another 4.8 million required just to keep pace with population growth). The real rate of unemployment in the U.S. – including discouraged workers who have stopped looking for a job and those working part-time who seek full-time employment – hovers around 15 per cent. For racially oppressed groups, jobless rates are at depression levels, well above 20 percent for both African-Americans and Latinos.[1]

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Greek Lessons: Democracy versus Debt-Bondage

It is a truism to say that democracy began with the Greeks – less so to say that it originated in popular rebellion against debt and debt-bondage. Yet, with the Greek people ensnared once more in the vice-grip of rich debt-holders, it may be useful to recall that fact. For the only hope today of reclaiming democracy in Greece (and elsewhere) resides in the prospect of a mass uprising against modern debt-bondage that extends the rule of the people into the economic sphere.

Across virtually all the ancient world, to fall into irretrievable debt was to enter into bondage to the rich. For millennia, the poor typically had no collateral for loans beyond their bodies and their labour. The result in ancient Greece, as Aristotle acknowledged, was that “the poor . . . were enslaved by the rich.”[1]

Beginning more than 2,600 years ago, a succession of upheavals by the Athenian poor – or the demos – broke the power of the aristocracy and began a drawn out democratic revolution. Squeezed by debts and the spread of debt-bondage the common people rendered their aristocratic society effectively ungovernable. In 594 BC, in an effort to restore stability, huge concessions were made to the demos: all debts were cancelled and debt-bondage abolished. For the first time, poor men acquired meaningful rights to political participation. And they used those rights to systematically curtail the unaccountable power of aristocrats, accomplished by elevating the popular Assembly and its direct democracy above all other institutions.[2] So interconnected were the principles of democracy and economic justice for the demos that Aristotle identified “the rule of the poor” as the essence of a democratic state. “In democracies,” he explained, “the poor have more sovereign power than the rich.”[3] For this reason, struggles by the rich to increase their social and economic power invariably took the form of struggles against democracy.

Notwithstanding enormous differences in social and historical context, a similar battle is wracking Greece today. To be sure, the ancient landed aristocracy has been replaced by a capitalist “financial aristocracy.”[4] Yet, war between the modern aristocracy of debt-holders and the forces of democracy once again grips Greek society.

From the earliest days of the recent “debt crisis” – caused, let us recall, by the global bank bailouts and the recessions that followed the financial crash of 2008 – international financial institutions have been on a collision course with democracy. Time and time again, the interests of global banks have over-ridden the will of the people. Consider just the following events of early November:

  • On November 3rd of last year European Union leaders browbeat and humiliated Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou for having pledged to hold a popular referendum on a proposed austerity deal. The confidence of financial markets being unable to abide consultation of the Greek people, Papandreou was quickly forced from office.[5]
  • One week later, the former head of the Bank of Greece and former vice-president of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papedemos, never having been elected to any public office, was installed as Greek PM.
  • Two days after that, a non-elected prime minister was appointed in Italy, in the form of  former Goldman Sachs executive, Mario Monti. Defending this end-run around basic liberal-democratic procedure, the country’s president explained that “Italy could not afford elections at a time of market crisis.”[6]

Speaking of elections, the people of Spain found themselves in the midst of one at the very time Greece and Italy were receiving non-elected prime ministers. Yet, as one perceptive journalist reported, the public displayed a distinct lack of interest. “If scarcely anyone is taking any interest in the election,” he noted, “it’s because the result is seen as largely irrelevant: it’s the markets that rule.”[7]

Since then, the recognition that “it’s the markets that rule” has grown, and with it the decline of even the most elementary forms of democracy. Nowhere has the assault on democracy been more brazen than in the negotiations leading to the most recent “bailout” of Greece – which, of course, is really just another bailout of Europe’s banks.[8] As the price of paying back the banks while impoverishing its people, the Greek government has been forced to accept nothing less than outright colonization by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the “bailout” agreement states that:

  • Greece is required to rewrite its constitution to give priority to debt repayment. A political document meant to enshrine the rights of the people will now be amended to give priority to the rights of banks.
  • The “loans” bestowed on Greece will be placed in a special escrow account which can release funds only for the purpose of payments to banks. Spending these funds on pensions or healthcare is explicitly forbidden.
  • Foreign lenders will have the right to seize the gold reserves of the national Bank of Greece.
  • A task force created by the European Union will be given an “enhanced and permanent” presence in Athens, where it will monitor all financial and social policy activity of the Greek government.

Whatever semblance of democracy is possible in a capitalist society has now been shunted aside in Greece. The country’s elected institutions now function as little more than fig leafs for the power of global capital. And its people are being subjected to modern forms of debt-bondage in which the bodies of poor and working class people are sacrificed to debt payment.

Under the bailout package, for instance, the Greek minimum wage will be slashed by 22 per cent (and more for young workers); 150,000 public services jobs will be eliminated; pensions will be savaged. Living standards, which had already contracted on average by 30 per cent, will be pushed down a further 15 per cent. An economy that has been in recession for five years (and has shrunk by more than one-fifth) will be pushed into a further downward spiral. More than 60,000 small and medium-sized businesses will collapse, and a quarter of a million private sector jobs will evaporate. Youth unemployment will soar above 50 percent.[9] Homelessness and street begging, already rising alarmingly, will worsen.

How long this can continue is anyone’s guess. Since the economic crisis emerged in 2008-9, Greece has seen waves of general strikes, mass demonstrations, and fighting with riot police. Anger and frustration may well boil over. In the view of one trade unionist, “People are literally hungry and the number of homeless is growing every day . . . soon they won’t take anymore. There’ll be a popular revolt.” [10]

If it is to have any chance of success, such a revolt will have to reclaim the ancient connection between democracy and economic justice. It will have to revive the meaning of democracy as “the rule of the poor” – all of the poor exercising real sovereign power in popular assemblies. And such a project of radical democracy will have to break decisively with liberalism through the deepening and extension of popular power and control into the economic sphere.

Liberal-capitalist democracy, observes Ellen Meiksins Wood, “leaves untouched vast areas of our daily lives – in the workplace, in the distribution of labour and resources – which are not subject to democratic accountability but are governed by the powers of property and the laws of the market.”[11] Those powers of property and the market have now shown their utter incompatibility with any kind of genuine democracy.

It thus falls to the radical Left to reclaim the project of democracy and to once again link it to popular struggles against new forms of debt-bondage. Not only does this mean learning from the ancient example of “the great democracy of Athens,” as C.L.R. James urged.[12] It also requires attending to the new practices of assembly-style democracy that have emerged at the highest moments of recent struggles from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street.[13] All of this means building a radical Left uncompromisingly committed to deepening the project of direct democracy as an indispensable part of all popular movements against austerity and injustice.

[1] Aristotle, The Constitution of Athens, Ch. 2. Scholars are uncertain as to whether this text was written by Aristotle or by one of his students.

[2] See W. G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, Ch. 6, and the monumental study by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. It is true, of course, that the participatory democracy they created was profoundly limited by the exclusion of women and slaves. Yet, as C.L.R. James, one of the great advocates of ancient democracy, declared, typically “those who are prone to attack Greek Democracy on behalf of slavery are not so much interested in defending the slaves as they are in attacking the democracy.” See James, Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece (section, “Slavery and Women”) available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm

[3] Aristotle, The Politics, Book VI, Ch. 2.

[4] For the idea of a “financial aristocracy” in a capitalist society, see Karl Marx, “The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850” in Marx, Surveys from Exile, pp. 36-38.

[5] Not that Papandreou was any friend of Greek workers. He was utterly committed to the austerity agenda, but concerned to preserve some public legitimacy.

[6] “Italy races to install Monti,” Financial Times, November 14, 2011.

[7] Stephen Burgen, “Protests pointed to new way forward,” Guardian, November 12, 2011.

[8] See my blog, “Follow the Money: Behind the European Debt Crisis Lie More Bank Bailouts,” available at: http://davidmcnally.org/?p=403

[9] Eric Reguly, “Second bailout hasn’t stopped the Greek time bomb,” Globe and Mail, February 25, 2012.

[10] Ilias Iliopoulis, quoted by Helena Smith, “Greece lies bankrupt, humiliated and ablaze: is cradle of democracy finished?” Guardian, February 13, 2012.

[11] Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, p. 234.

[12] C.L.R. James, as in note 2 above.

[13] See my lecture, “Radical Democracy and Popular Power: Thinking About New Socialisms for the 21st Century,” available at: http://vimeo.com/24952896