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.

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.

 

 

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