Can Europe Make It?

The left will be international or it won’t be at all: lesson from Greece

Today, one of the major historical roles of a progressive left is to explicate the need and pursue the end of supranationalising the current political infrastructure.

Ervin Kondakciu
29 July 2019
Angela Merkel shakes hands with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the conservative Greek opposition, soon to be Greek prime minister, January 2019.
Angela Merkel shakes hands with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the conservative Greek opposition, soon to be Greek prime minister, January 2019.
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Angelos Tzortzinis/PA. All right reserved.

Nicos Poulantzas argues on the last page of State, Power, Socialism that “History has not yet given us a successful experience of the democratic road to socialism: what it has provided – and that is not insignificant – is some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes upon which to reflect. […] But one thing is certain: socialism will be democratic or it will not be at all.”

It is a historical irony that Poulantzas, the Marxist theorist who tirelessly argued that the political strategy of the left should not be exhausted at the level of the state apparatus, is arguably the official intellectual of Syriza. The Nicos Poulantzas Institute (NPI) was founded in 1997 in Athens and yet the party seems more trapped than ever in a strategy that invests the total of its political energy in the goal of winning governmental power. Even on the eve of the electoral defeat of Syriza on July 7, 2019, Alexis Tsipras described the party’s strategic goal as that of the preparation for regaining governmental power, when the time comes, through a transformation of the party in the direction of European social democracy.

The raison d'être of such left parties today can be claimed to orbit around recognition and redistribution. Recognition is the normative term used to describe social struggles protesting against exclusion and discrimination on the basis of difference in terms of gender, culture, sexuality or other identities, and fighting for the recognition of the subjects in question as free and equal members of a politically organised society. Redistribution is its counterpart when it comes to the distribution of the economic resources necessary for the actualisation of one’s status as free and equal. In the ‘real world’, though, recognition and redistribution are intertwined. Cultural disrespectand economic injustices are like smoke and fire; whenever you see one, you can expect to find the other.

Viewed from the perspective of recognition and redistribution, the Syriza government did a commendable job regarding the goal of creating an institutional framework that would advance the struggles for recognition by oppressed social groups, such as homosexuals, migrants etc. Law 4356/2015, for the first time permitted same sex couples to sign civil partnerships, while the legal equalisation of marriage to civil partnership followed in 2016. These legal steps seem to illustrate that Syriza’s acquisition of governmental power within the context of a nation state apparatus fulfilled the conditions for the implementation of a political programme based on such identity recognition. Syriza’s electoral defeat in the general elections of 7 July 2019, however, suggest that doing a commendable job in the dimension of recognition is insufficient for a left political party wishing to build winning political majorities.

To read the results of the elections of July 7, we need to focus on the dialectic between the political programme Syriza put forward when it was elected in 2015 and the political programme that it has implemented since. Syriza was elected in a crisis-ridden Greek society by capitalising on the frustration of the Greek citizens with the so-called Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) which aimed to sustain the confidence of the financial markets by cutting public spending and increasing taxation (the so-called ‘confidence fairy’). Briefly put, given the degree to which inequalities increased in Greece during the ‘austerity programmes era’ 2010 – 2015, Syriza rejected the recessionary policy of internal devaluation, in favour of an alternative programme informed by redistributive policies.

To summarise, one of the most significant factors – not to say the most significant – that led to SYRIZA’s electoral victory in 2015 was the fact that its political programme was a redistributive one. However, it soon became apparent that holding governmental power was an insufficient condition for the implementation of such a programme. In this context, Syriza attempted to compensate to its political constituency for the lack of redistributive policies by prioritising recognitive policies.

I maintain that both categories should be treated as equally weighty ends by any left. What I would like to go on to argue isthat both Syriza’s political programme before 2015 and the political direction implied by Alexis Tsipras’s speech on the eve of the elections of July 7 were informed by a dated theory of the state and legitimacy.

The Greek left – the same could be argued for the majority of the European left in general – still thinks in terms of concepts and categories from the early postwar decades, the ‘Trente Glorieuses’. The background presuppositions of such political proposals conceive of the legitimacy of political power as being exclusively a function of the attitudes of a state’s citizens. To describe the same coin from the other side, crises of legitimacy of the state are expected to emerge only as a result of its citizens’ dissatisfaction, and therefore they are said to embody a transcending potential. As Wolfgang Streeck argues in Buying Time, this is a dated perspective that fails to take into account the consecutive transformation of wealthy western states and their economies since the hegemonic times of social democracy and welfare state economics.

Streeck puts forward a legitimation crisis theory that includes three players: ‘the state, capital and wage-earners’. Contemporary states’ legitimacy is a function of their ability to address and satisfy the expectations of both the ‘Staatsvolk‘ (i.e., its general citizenry) and the ‘Marktvolk’ (i.e., the people of the market). The Marktvolk or capital is conceived as an internationally integrated actor with the ability to act as a collective agent and the increasing capacity to shape the success of a government, in so far as the latter’s success depends on its ability to deliver goods and services to the Staatsvolk, which in turn depends on the willingness of the Marktvolk to finance or not finance governmental political programmes. Streek goes so far as to speak of the emergence of a ‘second constituency’. The premise of this argument is that in the current historical moment, the internationalisation of markets and production systems has gradually led to the relative inability of individual states to finance themselves through taxation. The result is their increasing reliance on the auctioning of public debt. So the failure of Syriza to deliver the redistributive policies that facilitated its electoral victory in the first place is, in the final analysis, a manifestation at the political level of the asymmetry between internationally integrated capital and nationally structured political systems.

In the light of this, two alternative strategies seem to suggest themselves for a left political party whose normative compass revolves around recognition and redistribution. The first strategy would be to attempt to ‘undo’ globalisation. The second strategy would be to attempt to build supranational alliances with the potential of transforming the existing supranational institutions and establishing new, democratic ones, with the aim of bringing internationalised capital under democratic control. To be sure, political action at the domestic and the supranational level are not mutually exclusive alternatives. And in the world of real politics it is more than likely that any left will need to rely strategically on both.

One might try to evaluate the viability of these alternatives through the empirical insights of economics or sociology. But scholarly debate in this field is far from resolved, as the Habermas-Streeck debate over the European Union amply demonstrates.

György Lukács with Anna Seghers in Berlin, July, 1952.
György Lukács with Anna Seghers in Berlin, July, 1952. | Wikicommons/Bundesarchiv. Some rights reserved.

Transforming the supranational

I would like to propose a conception of progressive politics inspired by one of Poulantzas’ main influences, György Lukács, which illustrates why the strategic goal of the left today should be the constitution of democratic supranational institutions.

Lukács bases his essay ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’ (1923) on Karl Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ and defines the resulting phenomenon of reification as “a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people”. A reified social relation, then, is a relation which appears to be a given, a-historical, ‘thing-like’, unchangeable and independent from the human will.

Lukács adds that the naturalisation of concrete social relations and the concealment of their historical character has both a subjective and an objective dimension. Reification is not merely false consciousness. Rather the organisation of a capitalist society gives rise to a system of social laws that confronts individuals in the form of ‘quasi-natural necessities’ – this is the objective dimension of the phenomenon. Subjectively, this process of reification obscures the fact that these social laws arise from a nexus of social practices and institutional arrangements, and are therefore, by their nature, alterable.

What I would like to propose is a conception of progressive politics as the striving towards the actualisation of the historical possibilities for de-reification; and a conception of regression as the undoing of social practices and institutional arrangements that leads to a re-reification of definite social relations. Today, regression is observable in the retreat to conceptions of the globalised economy as a quasi-natural system, as a system beyond human control.

To explain, think of the leverage of internationalised financial capital on the success of a governmental programme as described above. The financial markets control the very preconditions for the truth-value of the statement “redistributive social policies lead to recessions”. In so far as recessions can occur as a result of the financial markets’ unwillingness to ‘refinance’ a government’s debt, a real system of social laws is at play, confronting individuals in the form of quasi-natural necessities.

To elaborate, think of the negotiations between the first Syriza government (January to September 2015) and the so-called Troika. During the negotiations between the Greek Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, and the Troika, the reaction of the financial markets and their political representatives to every redistributive proposal of the Greek government was that ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity. What is important is that the neoliberal power block possessed sufficient means of illustrating that indeed there was no alternative to austerity, when only one country questions its predominance within the current institutional infrastructure.

It should suffice to mention the European Central Bank’s decision to end the provision of liquidity to the Greek banking system that eventually led to the implementation of capital controls in Greece. These developments confronted the Greek citizens in the form of quasi-natural social laws. The complexity of the institutional nexus and the inability to bring under democratic control the social agents and the mechanisms behind these developments, elevated them to the form of given and unalterable truths in the collective consciousness.

To conclude, I began with Nicos Poulantzas' famous thesis that the left will be democratic or it will not be at all. Poulantzas’ position came as a reflection on the history of the left in the twentieth century. My first aim was to show that if we employ the theoretical insights of contemporary crisis theories and the categories of recognition and redistribution to reflect upon the example of the first European party of the radical left to win governmental power, we reach the conclusion that the left finds itself at a crossroads – either to renationalise the economy or to supranationalise the political infrastructure.

My second aim was to show that, if we conceptualise progress as de-reification, then what is characteristic about the unfolding of the Greek debt crisis is its regressive, because reificatory, nature. Therefore, today, one of the major historical roles of a progressive left whose normative compass revolves around recognition and redistribution is to explicate the need and pursue the end of supranationalising the current political infrastructure. In other words, ‘the left will be international, or it won’t be at all’.

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