By Kamran Nayeri, July 24, 2015
This essay critically examines policy proposals for dealing with the Greek crisis by the troika, the SYRIZA-led coalition government, and the Greek left from the perspective of addressing the root-causes of the crisis in such a way that empowers and improves the lives of the Greek working people and help to resolve the planetary crisis.
In the interest of brevity, I assume readers’ familiar with the basic facts about the Greek economy and its financial and economic crisis. The working people of Greece are in the fifth year of a depression that is deeper and will last longer than the Great Depression in the United States. They require immediate assistance to address the humanitarian crisis caused largely by austerity policies of troika. However, in what follows I am concerned with necessary radical social changes for the long term.
In section 1, I draw attention the basic differences between mainstream economists and Marxian explanations of the crisis, hence their policy proposals. Section 2 outlines three different responses to the crisis by Greek socialists that roughly amount to accommodations to the troika, a Keynesian response, and break with capitalism. In section 3 I will argue that even the anti-capitalist perspective is insufficient because the world capitalist crisis in general and the Greek crisis in particular unfold in the context of the existential threat to humanity by the planetary crisis. I briefly touch upon some elements of a proper response to the Greek crisis as if the planet and people matter.
1. Two paradigms on the Greek crisis
The discord between troika—European Commission (EC), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF)— and SYRIZA-led coalition government in the five months of “negotiations” that ended with the July 5 referendum was centered on the clash between the German-led neoliberal austerity policy and SYRIZA’s Keynesian critique of it and its aspiration for “another Europe.” Despite their sharp differences, these policy prescriptions both assumed that the crisis is rooted in policy errors (“bad economics” of Greek governments or of troika) and structural problems either in the Greek economy or in the Eurozone or both but not in their capitalist nature. In fact, much of the mainstream debate is centered on similar neoliberal vs. Keynesian framework that disregard deeper causes of capitalist crises.
Mavroudeas (2015) who considers various crisis theories in his discussion of Greek crisis focuses attention on empirical studies of the Marxian tendency of rate of profit to fall (TRPF). All three studies he discusses find that profitability crisis underlies the current depression. These include a classical TRPF explanation driven by the rising organic composition of capital and a focus on productive and unproductive labor. (Maniatis and Passas, 2013, 2014) A second TRPF approach he considers concludes that deteriorating competitiveness was a major contributing factor to the crisis and that once the crisis broke out underconsumption served as feedback mechanism deepening it. (Economakis, Androulakis & Markaki, 2014) The third TRPF explanation adds “imperialist exploitation” as contributing to the profitability crisis also using distinction between productive and unproductive labor. (Mavroudeas, 2013; Mavroudeas and Paitaridis, 2014)
From the policy perspective neoliberal and Keynesian explanations of the Greek crisis focus attention on specific features of the economy and wrong-headed policies in order to sustain and improve the capitalist system. As such, they primarily serve the interest of the capitalist class in Greece, in Europe and in the world. The Marxian theory focuses on capital accumulation crisis hence crisis of capitalist social relations of production which fuels working class economic and eventually class struggle. Class struggle are those labor actions that aim for universal goals and values of the class and of humanity. It is through this process that working people’s self-activity and self-organization take shape creating dual power in workplaces and in society that may undermine the power of the capitalist class and dismantle the capitalist state and institute a workers state opening the road to transition to socialism.
The Greek financial and economic crisis has created a pre-revolutionary situation by initiating the process of self-activity and self-organization of the working people. How has the Greek left responded to this?
2. Response from the Greek left: Stalinism, Centrism and Trotskyism
The Greek left is highly differentiated consisting of many small groups born out of many splits and some fusions. Below I provide a rather simplified classification useful for the purpose of this essay.
The Greek Communist Party (KKE)
Greek left is largely influenced by the Stalinist tradition. The Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has historical roots in the labor movement and traditional middle class. (for a discussion see, “The KKE and the Greek Revolution”) All Stalinist parties with a long history, including the present day KKE, originated in the purges of the Left Opposition and other revolutionary currents from parties of the Communist International in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Stalinist parties also combine anti-capitalist rhetoric with class collaborationist policies, and sectarianism towards other leftist parties. Today’s KKE combines calls for exit from the European Union and rejection of the debt repayments with the vague slogan of “people's power” while refusing unity in action with other socialist currents in a typical Third Period Stalinist manner.
Splits from the KKE
The offshoots of KKE include the split in 1968 which was later represented by the Eurocommunist Communist Party of the Interior, then by the Greek Left (EAR), and finally by the Coalition of the Left (SYNASPISMOS). The latter “represented a ‘softy’ Left based mainly in upper middle-class and mental labour strata. It was notoriously political [sic] unstable and prone to co-operation with the political and economic establishment.” (Mavroudeas, 2013) In 2004, when its more conservative members left for the Socialist Party (PASOK) and SYNASPISMOS turned to social movement like the anti-globalization movement and entered into coalition with extra-parliamentary groups, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) was born. As the name implies SYRIZA has been mostly a coalition and an electoral bloc. Unlike the classical Marxist tactic of forming electoral blocs based on a clear program that pose an alternative to capitalism, including a call for a workers or workers and peasants government with the idea of educating and organizing working people SYRIZA was essentially an electoral bloc defined by what it rejected (e.g., austerity) and primarily aimed at getting socialists elected. When the PASOK and New Democracy, the parties of the Greek capitalist class, were discredited for imposing troika’s austerity programs and the KKE was isolated because of its sectarianism, voters gave SYRIZA a large electoral victory last January 26. SYRIZA formed a coalition government with the rightwing capitalist Independent Greeks as its junior partner.
It is true that in July 2013 SYRIZA held a congress that decided to dissolve participating parties in the coalition to form a single party. However, this decision which was not reached on the basis of agreement on any specific socialist program and strategy democratically decided by the rank-and-file after a period of discussion. Instead the SYRIZA leadership adopted the Thessaloniki Program which was first presented by Alexis Tsipras at the International Trade Fair. Its “four pillars” are:
- Confronting the humanitarian crisis
- Restarting the economy and promoting tax justice
- National plan to regain employment
- Transforming the political system to deepen democracy
The general spirit of this platform is at best Social Democratic and its policy prescriptions have been roughly Keynesian.
Hungry for a socialist breakthrough many radical minded youth and socialists misidentified an electoral victory of a politically heterogenous (unprincipled) bloc with taking power by a revolutionary socialist party. Thus, the policy of focusing attention on “negotiation” with troika on the basis of roughly a Keynesian perspective on the crisis and trying to convince capitalist governments of Europe of it instead of focusing on developing self-activity and self-organization of working people in Greece was taken as good policy. By the same token the post-July 5 referendum acceptance of the austerity demands of the troika by the Tsipras-led SYRIZA has been characterized as betrayal.
As of this writing, SYRIZA is politically split. A majority of its members of parliament support Alexis Tsipras’ adaptation to the neoliberal austerity, albeit with pleas for better terms. A minority identified with the Left Platform has opposed it. Yet, they have proposed no policy alternative to Tsipras' course. While 109 Central Committee members of SYRIZA (out of 201) signed a letter opposing the memorandum of understanding between Tsipras-led SYRIZA coalition government and troika, they also failed to propose a policy alternative. This is well reflected in a recent interview with John Milios, a prominent oppositionist member of CC. (“Ending the Humanitarian Crisis,” July 21, 2015)
Much of the rest of the Greek left is made up of Stalinist and centrist currents that split from the KKE during its long history. An important exception is the Greek Trotskyism that originates in the Left Opposition in the revolutionary KKE in the 1920s. The Greek Left Opposition was centered in the industrial zone of Piraeus and headed by Pantelis Pouliopoulos, the KKE’s First Secretary who still is considered the most able Greek Marxist theoretician. There is also a strong anarchist tradition in Greece.
Broadly speaking, there has been three perspectives on how to address the Greek crisis: (1) The Alexis Tsipras-led SYRIZA insists on remaining in the Eurozone by accepting harsher neoliberal austerity that further erode Greek sovereignty; (2) those that urge default on the debt and exit from the Eurozone and jump start the economy by adopt Keynesian policies; and, (3) those who urge default on the debt, exit from the European Union and break with capitalism to initiate transition to socialism.
While the Greek Keynesian option has been not been as clearly voiced (Yanis Varoufakis has most clearly voiced this but he voted for austerity in the second bailout vote) , Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have argued against Germany-led neoliberal austerity, supported a “No” vote in the referendum, and have argued that a Greek default and exit from the Eurozone would be preferable to accepting more austerity to remain in it. However, Keynesians generally lay the blame for the Greek crisis in the formation of the Eurozone because it took away the ability to devaluate the national currency (drachma) to protect less efficient and less productive firms and economy from external competition. The Keynesian solution for Greece requires re-adoption of a national currency (e.g., drachma) and its devaluation to make Greek exports cheaper and more competitive but it will also lowers the purchasing power of the Greek working people as the economy is heavily dependent of imports. Although to promote growth the Keynesian alternative includes deficit spending and public works to reduce unemployment it also envisions austerity measures once the crisis becomes manageable. To make Greek capitalist economy stable and more competitive in the framework of the capitalist Europe it must lower labor, capital and raw materials costs. In the short term, it has to cut back labor costs as it is much more challenging to reduce costs and improve efficiency for capital and raw materials needs in production. As with the neoliberal policies the Keynesian option is ultimately aimed at saving Greek capitalism and neither address root-cause of the crisis which lies in the capitalist social relations of production.
Some Greek socialist groups have advocated an entirely different option. For example, OKDE-Spartacos, the Greek section of the Fourth International, has called for the following measures (“Class Struggle Has No Intervals,” June 23, 2015,):
• No new austerity measures, no new agreement, no negotiations
• Reduction of working hours, along with raises in wages and pensions
• Stop paying off debt and fully cancel it
• Expropriation of banks and big enterprises, with no compensation for capitalists, and operation under workers control
• Self-management of closing factories and enterprises
• Disengagement from the euro and the EU, for an anticapitalist internationalist perspective
• For the self-organization, the government and power of the working people
A key difference with the capitalist prescriptions is that these measures require a corresponding rise in working class self-activity and self-organization. Thus, revolutionary socialists—unlike electoral leftist parties and coalitions—view elections not primarily to get elected to an office but to help develop working class self-activity and self-organization. Further, once elected they will not shoulder the task of managing the capitalist economy, state and society for the capitalist class. They would use their offices to promote their socialist agenda instead.
However, this perspective and similar calls for a break with capitalism in Greece and elsewhere in the world are unclear about the dominant socialist paradigm of growthism (also called productivism). The OKDE-Spartacos perspective above is based on the founding program of the Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (1938), in which Trotsky incorporates programmatic and strategic lessons learned from the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik experience. However, Trotsky and much of the socialist tradition after Marx adhered to the notion of “development of forces of production” and identified higher socialist culture with material abundance for everyone. (for a discussion of Trotsky’s view see, Sandy Irvine, “Trotsky, Ecology, and Sustainability,” 2011).
3. For an ecological socialist Greece
This view of socialism is clearly indefensible today. In recent years it has become increasing apparent that we live in the age of the Anthropocene (New Man); a new geological epoch in which one species, Homo sapiens, has come to shape the Earth’s geology in ways that undermine life sustaining environment and ecology, setting off planetary crises. Paul Curtzen and Eugene F. Stoerme who first proposed this hypothesis suggested that the onset of the Anthropocene coincided with the invention of the steam engine, a technological pillar of the English Industrial Revolution. I have argued that the Anthropocene originated with the Agricultural Revolution when the idea of domination of nature took roots and became institutionalized. (see, Kamran Nayeri, “Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outline, Part 2,” 2013)
There is scientific agreement that humanity has already pushed beyond some of the planetary boundaries which include climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidity, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution 250 years since the English Industrial Revolution. And yet, close to 60% of the world population still live on $10 or less a day while 80% of the world resources are consumed by the top 20% of the world’s income group who mostly live in the Global North. Clearly, there is no way to bring up the consumption basket of every woman, man and child in the world to the per capita consumption in the Global North. Attempting to do so will surely risk annihilation of the human race and much besides. The converse is necessary if humanity is to survive. It is necessary and desirable to reduce and transform production and consumption in the Global North and increase and transform production and consumption in the Global South. The transformation in production and consumption must be in the direction of reducing the ecological foot print until human society will not pose a danger to the planetary, regional and local ecosystems and, in fact, reinforce their vitality.
Thus, in contrast to neoliberal “austerity now, prosperity later” and Keynesian “growth now, austerity later” policy prescriptions to save capitalism for the capitalist class, ecological socialists should call for degrowth in Greece and elsewhere in the Global North. This would be a consciously and democratically planned transition by the grassroots that will eliminate entire industries that are hazardous to society and nature such as the war machine, advertising, fossil fuels, chemicals, insurance, etc., transform others such as housing, food, health care, education, transportation, etc., and build new ones such as clean renewable energy. At the same time, technologies must be re-examined and discarded in favor of those that are people and ecology friendly. Production will become largely local both to make it ecologically friendly but also to ensure local control or what is produced and how. In tandem, consumption and life habits must be transformed to allow for the transformation of the productive apparatus and bring the new society into being. The process leading to the new ecological socialist society will include population planning led by empowered women because population pressure is a key factor contributing to the ecological crisis. There will be a need for production as well as consumption councils where grassroots make all these decisions.
The net effect of these transformations will significantly shrink the size of the economy and enhance the quality of life of working people. Imagine an economy that meets every person’s comforts (but no luxury) and promotes human development by focusing on culture and arts through local control.
Of course, such a radical vision of an ecological socialist society will require much more than a social revolution—it will require a massive cultural revolution. A major part of it would be to transition from an anthropocentric worldview to an ecocentric one—to see our species as just one among millions of others who make up the web of life on earth and to adopt an ecocentric ethics that begins from the intrinsic value of all that exist.
There is no doubt that many will consider this ecological socialist alternative utopian. Indeed, it is in the sense that it does not exist anywhere in the world on a large-scale. However, to accept neoliberal or Keynesian views are not realistic because as the Greek example show capitalism is not workable for the working people and for billions of others elsewhere in the world and it has brought humanity fact to face with existential planetary threats such as catastrophic climate change. Capitalism in all its forms is a system to benefits the capitalist class and its servants. It is high time to be utopian and work for ecological socialism, in Greece, in Europe and all over the world.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Robin Koren Chang for providing me with a number of sources about the Greek crisis and reading an earlier version of this essay providing feedback.
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