On Syriza as a Party: Tragic Flaws, or Tragic Errors?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The YouTube below, titled “The Battle Against Austerity: Lessons From Greece,” was recorded at a two-person panel discussion sponsored by Canada’s Socialist Project. The speakers are Leo Panitch, Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy at York University and editor of the Socialist Register, and Richard Fidler, a life long socialist, activist, and writer.

The whole video is worth a listen — perhaps while you’re reading this post! — and it’s an hour-and-a-half long, so I’m going to select a few points I regard as salient. First, I want to raise highlight the issue of Greece’s organizational capacity for self-sufficiency in food, since that’s a key issue in terms of negotiating leverage with the troika. Next, I’ll look at some features of Syriza as a party of the European left. Finally, I’ll contextualize the Greek Question and introduce some comparisons between the Greek’s situation and our own. (I should say that I’m going to rely mostly on Panitch, and not on Fidler, first because Panitch, as a speaker, is easier to transcribe, but more importantly because Panitch speaks from some knowledge gathered on the ground, and that’s the sort of data I respond to.[1])

Greek Organizational Capacity in Food Production

In the question and answer period following the two speakers, the issue of “food security” was raised. (Weirdly, the questions were all asked at once, and only answered afterwards.)

[PANITCH, ~1:07:] The question on food security is the key question, and here’s my major critique:… The solidarity networks have set up direct distribution of food and pharma, taking out the middleman. They still have to pay, so solidarity networks have people pay if they can afford it, if not, they find means of keeping people who can. So they went to the Department of Agriculture, over the last five months, and said “Give us a mapping of what products are produced over Greece, we will then go to the farmers to get a broad distribution.” The Department of Agriculture said “We don’t have that data.” Now maybe they didn’t. But hell, there are enough unemployed agricultural economists who are now leaving the country that they could have employed them for a week to produce it. Now that would have been useful. That’s the kind of they should have done, the kind of thing they still can do, nothing  prevents them in this memorandum from doing it, and it would be building those capacities.

Readers will recall past discussions of Greek organizational capacities in case of Grexit; to simplify, advocates assumed — as in “assume a can opener” — that at least two preconditions were true: (1) Greece could easily create or recreate a national currency, and (2) Greece could revert (or advance) to a form of autarky, or economic independence from the Eurozone. The first has been dealth with decisively by subject matter experts and implementors in the field (see here, here, and here); but the second precondition has hung in the balance. Until now.

Clearly, even leaving oil and pharmaceuticals aside, a basic precondition for Greek autarky is that the country be able to feed itself (“food security”). Readers will recall that I kept pestering for examples of how strong the “solidarity networks” in Greece really were, because there was a great deal of handwaving about them, but nobody could point to anything concrete (and that the co-op community finally came up with some links). But Panitch is, so far as I know, the first to give us a reading on whether Greece can feed itself based on those networks. And reluctantly, my answer is no. It doesn’t matter whether the Greek Agriculture doesn’t have the data, or whether it refused to disgorge it,  but if, without that data, the solidarity networks cannot achieve “a broad distribution,” then Greece cannot feed itself, based on their efforts. It’s the difference between relying on the kindness of strangers for food donations, and being able to do planning based on known production levels.

Thanks to Panitch, we also now have a litmus test for how serious Syriza is about building up a capacity for resistance to the Troika: As he points out, developing this agricultural data would be very easy (in fact, it might even be purchasable, although probably only state-t-state, via satellite data). So if it’s not done, that… Well, that would be bad.

The bottom line: The twin pillars for “Grexit now, it’s gonna be easy!” are (1) a national currency, and (2) food security. Both pillars have collapsed; there is no material basis for either. Yves has often written of the difference between financial time and political time, and how the speed with which the lords of finance can act will checkmate the slower — because or even if — democratic political process. We have also spoken of the difference between political time, financial time, and technical time; Greece lacks the organizational capacity to deliver a national currency before lethal forms of hysterisis set in (not to mention the worsening of the lives of ordinary Greeks). And here we have the difference between financial time, political time, and harvest time. Do we really want to go into a Grexit simply not knowing what’s growing in the fields, and where those fields are?

Syriza as a Party

I find what Panitch has to say about Syriza as a reformist party of the left very interesting — especially because of some of the assumptions he makes (which to an American seem other-worldly (and I agree that’s a problem)). And those of us who think about parties a lot — even Democrats and Republicans — may find the comparative data useful.

Left Reformist Parties: Here’s Panitch comparing Syriza, as a left reformist party, to other parties in Europe.

[PANITCH, ~12:03] “What struck me as especially important about [Syriza] at that time was the contrast I saw between it and other left parties in Europe of this type. I had been in Berlin a few weeks earlier … and spent most of my time talking about what was going on at the branch level in the new left party [Die Linke]. Were they mobilizing people at the local level? Was the party branch become again the center of working class life, without which they would not be able to do what they hoped to do.?And uniformly the answer I got was no. That they are places where activists come to discuss the party program, but there’s no life in the community in the party. And what struck me about Syriza is that wasn’t the case.

As an American, I find the idea that a political party might become “the center of working class life” almost Martian in its oddity. Am I really going to go hang out at my local version of Tammany Hall? (Nevertheless, faithful weekly participation at hour-long organizing and informational meetings was critical to the successes we did have fighting landfills and the East-West Corridor in Maine, so it’s not as if politics can’t become “the [a] center of life.”)

The Solidarity Networks, and Syriza’s relation to them:

[PANITCH, ~13:04] “[Under] its young leader, Tsipras, the party … embedded itself in the indignados, the occuptions that took place, in 2011 primarily, against the enormous, appalling austerity that had been imposed, first under PASOK and then under New Democracy. The party had involved itself very heavily, and had also been involved in helping to develop the solidarity networks, which were established at local levels, fairly spontaneously, often anarchists involved, but not only, where pharmaceuticals were shared, where food was shared, where links with farmers were made, where clinics were set up, for people who were having severe depression from losing their jobs, etc. etc.”

Here again, as an American, I find this astonishing; I can’t imagine any party “embedding itself” in any social movement in this country while managing to avoid, in the best case, a whiff, and in most cases, the stench of corruption and, well, clientelism (see under “Black Misleadership Class”). Note, however, that the embedding seems to have had limits; had it been operative today, the solidarity networks would have gotten their data from the Ministry of Agriculture.

The Organizational Capacity of Syriza itself. Here we have a classic case of “What happens when the dog catches the car?”

[PANITCH, ~18:43] [W]hat struck me as even more problematic when [Syriza] won in 2012, and it didn’t change much when they won in 2014, was if they took their very best cadres out the party, and brought them into this corrupt and clientelist state, who would be left in the party to do organizing and mobilizing at the base? To build the kind of interest and capacity at the base to try to think through and develop alternative modes of production and consumption which would be necessary in order to get out of this neoliberal capitalist system which Europe so much represents, despite the illusions of so much of the social-democratic left, which thinks that Europe is a more humane form of capitalism. …

This reminds me so forcibly of the many young people — so many of them voting for the first time — who Obama enticed into Obama for America with his “hope and change” rhetoric, and then promptly betrayed, first by shuttering OFA, and second with his policies. I’m not saying that Tsipras is following a similar course; I’m pointing to the organizational capacity that the Democrats deliberately squandered and betrayed.

Speaking, however, to the Greek case: It’s not clear that once Syriza entered the State, that it would be able to maintain its organizational capacity — which is not at all the same as electoral support — at the grass roots.

Tsipras as a Politician. Give credit, Tsipras is very good! He’s survived an amazing series of twists and turns. Ekathimerini:

However, Tsipras is untainted by the corruption scandals that have touched Greece’s older parties and remains popular, although no opinion polls have been published since the capital controls were imposed at the end of June.

Tsipras saw power in lying in the street, and picked it up. We like that in a poltician (at least if the politician is the sort of politician we like):

[PANITCH, ~14:03] “And Tsipras suddenly, I don’t think he discussed this with the Central Committee, he simply came out and said “We are ready to form a government in the upcoming elections, with anybody who will join with us. Anybody. To stop the torture, the economic torture. He was hoping, of course, that it would be the Communist Party, which gets about 5% of the vote….. And this transformed the electoral situation. They moved from having at that point something like 10% of the vote quickly to having 18%. … And in two elections by the end of June, they had 27%.”

And here’s a revealing anecdote:

[PANITCH, ~1:03:] I heard one account from one PASOK activist going up to a woman in the market, who had supported Syriza, and said “You see? They know have taken a memorandum!” And she said: “From them I take a memorandum, from you I don’t.” … It shows the enormous trust that 70% of the people still have in Tsipras in particular … I think a leader comes back and says this is shit, a gun was held to our heads, we’re going to do everything in our power to make the oligarchs pay, and that story is not over. People say it won’t work. Well, if it won’t work, how is it going to be implemented?”

So it ain’t over ’til its over; see below on battles and campaigns.

The Greek Question and TINA

Simplifying ruthlessly, Greek voters have always wanted two contradictory things: (1) To stay in the Eurozone, and (2) to repudiate the debt. To their credit, many “Grexit is easy” advocates see this contradiction, and see Grexit as the only possible resolution to it. Greek voters, however, are more cautious, and quite possibly for very good reason:

[PANITCH, ~16:16:] It certainly became clear to me at that time, that there were a number of great problems Syriza would have if it entered the state. One was that it didn’t have a Plan B [I regard Varoufakis’s effort as an exercise in academic hubris, one that Tsipras was quite right to reject], that it was emotionally — the leadership, and the vast majority of the membership, reflecting I think the majority of their supporters, wanted to stay in Europe, and were frightened of leaving the Euro. Now certainly there is a high degree of almost a psychological attachment, after the junta, not wanting to be seen as part of the Balkans, which has always been a Greek problem, wanting to be seen as part of Europe. That was a factor. But it wasn’t the only factor in terms of wanting to stay within the European Union. There was also the awareness, which was very realistic, that it was very much the case given the experience with the junta, that were you to try a revolutionary break, that the European Court of Justice would be a brake upon another military coup. There was awareness moreover that a good deal of each department’s funds, each ministry’s funds, now came from the European Development Fund. So there were practical, material reasons for being cautious.

To the caution of the Greek people, Fidler, with others, poses this question: “Greece: Was, and Is There, an Alternative?” (I’ll quote from the post itself, rather than Fidler’s reading of it.)

Critics on the left, in Greece and elsewhere, argue that the government might well have achieved a more favourable outcome, but only if its negotiating stance had been backed from the beginning by a bold strategy based on combining citizen mobilization with unilateral action that would have limited the options available to the Troika. This would have comprised (among other things) suspension of debt payments immediately upon taking office, socialization of the banks, creation of an electronic currency for internal Greek use, and reform of taxation.

I think there is, but not perhaps the alternative posed. Again, the organizational capacity for the immediate “bold” Grexit is not there;  “creation of an electronic currency for internal Greek use ” is handwaving; and Greece does not have “food security.” From my armchair at 30,000 feet, I think the idea that the Greek state (and Syriza) need to go on a war footing is correct; that they should go to war immediately is, well, not correct. Build the Spitfires first, like England in the 30s! And if anything, I would would put food security first, ahead of a national currency, no matter the ideological and technical predelictions of the drachma’s advocates. “Food will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no food.”


I’ve been turning over in my mind how to assess “the left” on this continent, a subject that the 2016 campaign brings to the fore. This made me stop and think:

[PANITCH, ~21:55] Susan tells me I’ve got two minutes left. I must say, this is exactly why we’ll never do what Syriza’s done in Canada, even those of us who are left reformers [?]. I spoke at a meeting that started at midnight in Athens two weeks go, 250 people. … Most meetings don’t begin until 9:00 and they go  ’til 1:00 and people don’t want to leave then. They don’t think they get enough [inaudible] especially in terms of a coherent analysis of the situation, and a chance to respond to it.

No, no, no, no, no. Assuming that by now you have listened to the discussion in its entirety, put yourself in the place of a person coming off their shift at Canadian Tire, having arranged for childcare in order to attend the meeting. That person needs to have their time respected. Panitch, as an academic and traveler, has the privilege to spend hours at an open-ended meeting. The Greeks have the same “privilege” because so many of them have been thrown out of work. The scale is not the case on this continent, and working people should be respected where found. I’m reminded forcibly of my experience going down to New York to volunteer to do some data work for Occupy Sandy. I showed up at the publicized room, and so did perhaps three or four older ladies who reminded me of the gardening group next door to me. Well, the room was wrong. There was no note. We wandered about. Finally we randomly discovered where the in-group that organized the meeting was. I stayed; the ladies left. So Occupy Sandy lost three or four volunteers that day, because it did not respect their time. I think these “micro-passive-aggressions,” if I may so call them, are more frequent on the left than we imagine, and we might think about that in the context of organizational capacity. If you’re going to re-organize the relations of production and consumption you’ve got to be able to organize a meeting!

Now to answer the question posed in the headline: We cannot place a general “in the dock” for losing a battle where there was no victory to be had. (We can indict and convict him, as Yves has, for conducting the battle in a way that made for a worse outcome than the bad one on offer, but that’s not the same as saying victory was there to be had.) Yes, the outcome of this campaign was a tragedy, but I believe primarily based on flaws in Syriza’s position, and Greece’s, and not an errors. It’s not an error to recognize a failure of organizational capacity, and Tsipras was right to avoid Varoufakis’s hare-brained scheme.

 That said, if Syriza, and Tripras, do have culpability — the Christian sense of hamartia is sin, not flaw or error — it’s in not “leveling with the Greek people” on the realities of their situation. They never resolved the incommensurate objectives sought by the Greek people. Like so many Democrats, they seemed to assume that public opinion was a reality to be accepted, rather than changed.

Finally, in the TPP context, I’ve argued for a three-level architecture for evaluating political projects, whether on the left or the right (supposing the alternatives to be binary. They are:

1) Battle

2) Campaign, and

3) War

To these three I would like to add a fourth: 

4) Grand Strategy (for Britain, the advantages of insularity; for Bismarck, preventing an alliance between France and Russia).

Everything tells me that the events of this spring and summer have constituted a campaign, which Syriza lost. However, wars are comprised of multiple campaigns, so there is more to come. 

More importantly for the left, is there a grand strategy that “the left” can articulate?  If so, what is it? The title of the panel discussion is “The Battle Against Austerity: Lessons From Greece.” Very well. But what is the battle for? I would argue that a grand strategy is what “the left” needs to articulate and share, if they want to do more than win a few campaigns. After all, in war you ask people to die for a cause, so it would be helpful to be sure what that cause is. Can you put the cause on a postcard? Can you read it at each meeting? If not, why not?


[1] Time codes are marked “~” because they are at best approximate, since YouTube has decided to “help” me by making its player controls, on which the time appears, spontaneously disappear.)

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Gaylord

    Varoufakis’s ideas and plans were not “hair-brained” but rather rational, practical, and humane. IMO had they been implemented, even in the face of Troika intransigence, Syriza could have averted the disaster that is unfolding which will envelope Europe.

    1. Yves Smith

      His plans most assuredly WERE hair-brained. What has been called “Plan B” but his close ally Jamie Galbraith has substantially walked back, was at best a plan to develop a plan. There was nothing remotely operational about it. As many discussed, not only was the idea of hacking the tax authority nuts, but the idea of distributing PINs electronically was insane.

      His “Plan B” was some early research into how parallel currencies had been deployed elsewhere. A parallel currency would have been useful ONLY for Greek government to make payments to domestic parties, like pay pensions and salaries. It would not be useful for the problem that Greece confronted in July: that of a shuttered banking system. A parallel currency would not be accepted by foreign suppliers to Greece, nor could it be issued in sufficient volume to allow Greece to recapitalize its banks (assuming charitably that it had the manpower and expertise to resolve them, which it did not).

      The fact that Varoufakis had a sound economic critique does not mean that what he planned to do was either practical or sound. Your unwarranted praise of Varoufakis is a classic example of the cognitive bias called halo effect.

      1. FedUpPleb

        Varoufakis’ “plan” was probably the first attempt by anyone to even look into the possibility and technicalities of leaving the Eurozone. Like the first person who looked at cells in a microscope.

        Honestly Yves, the impression I get from yours and indeed the vast majority of commentary on this is that Grexit or any exit is totally impossible. That technological complexity, political strongarming, and the power of the financial sector has totally and definitively ended this as a possible outcome. I’m skeptical, and I think this kind of fatalism is a form of computerised-convienience induced leanred helplessness.

        We see the vast “complex” internetworked global financial system and the monumental task of changing its function, but we forget that just a shade more than 30 years ago a lot of banks were still doing most of their accounts on paper! Some clever young employees in the 1980s were starting to use Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets, but the idea of globally networked banking was a decade off at least.

        So I ask this: Suppose I as Minister of a eurozone country, mandate that my national banks begin to “de-network” and indeed “de-computerize” their operations — and hang the “inconvenience” to customers — returning to a stituation where individual bank branches and clerks have much more localised control over transactions. SEPA will be a problem (it is designed to prevent escape attempts), but the central payments can delayed until branches are good and ready. Clerks may need to be hired, but christ knows there are people who need the work.

        In such a re-manualised system, now how difficult does a currency switch-over become. I think the real problem here isn’t the operation itself, just the amount of computer code the banks have tangled themselves up in.

        1. Yves Smith

          Please go read the Galbraith post to which I linked. It was NOT a plan to leave the Eurozone, and not even a plan to develop a plan to leave the Eurozone. It was a napkin doodle about the possibility of introducing a parallel currency, which was not and could never be a substitute for a real currency used in international commerce. A parallel currency would have gotten around the stranglehold the creditors had put on the Greek government regarding its spending for domestic purposes.

          And quite honestly, your attitude is tantamount to telling a government to abandon its responsibilities to its citizens. The whole point of leaving the Eurozone would be to improve the economic welfare of its citizens. Varoufakis has consistently rejected that idea for years even before getting to the operational issue we’ve raised. And when in office, Varoufakis continues to reject a Grexit, pointing out that it took the US a full year to get currency into Iraq, even using three printing presses and having logistical capabilities far in excess of those of the Greek government. And as we’ve pointed out, the “distributing cash” part of the equation is the easiest part.

          You want to created a failed state in Greece? A Grexit would be the way to do it. You can’t wish away issues like the complete loss of the tourist sector or the destruction of the imports sector, of which Greece was getting a taste during a mere protracted bank holiday. Had you been paying attention, it was massively destructive.

          Sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling “nyah nyah nyah” does not make real world problem and their implications go away.

      1. Link

        I will agree with you, to my understanding Varoufakis simply made a sort of university thesis. Regardless of that, Tsipras’ close consultants excluding Varoufakis were vehemently against any Grexit solution and in favour of euro at all costs.

        According to serious journalistic sources in Greece, Lapavitsas from the Left Platform of SYRIZA had planned with the input of international economists a theoretical framework for Grexit numbering in the hundreds of pages. This could have very well at least been examined by the government. Unfortunately, Tsipras did not even examine it, let alone have any semblance of political will to try implementing it.

        That Tsipras had no choice as he often exclaims, was his responsibility and the lack of choices or plan as a worse case scenario is criminal.

        1. Dimitri Lascaris

          At the Democracy Rising conference held in Athens in July, Lapavitsas participated in a panel with Panitch and others. During his presentation, Lapavitsas discussed this Grexit plan, starting at around 17:10 of this video: http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=14278. To date, NC has focused its analysis on the Varoufakis Grexit plan (if one can call it a ‘plan’ at all), and that is understandable, because after all Varoufakis was the Minister of Finance. Nonetheless, Lapavitsas is a professor of economics who has devoted a great deal of study and analysis to the issue of Grexit, and who (unlike Varoufakis) has advocated Grexit for some time. I therefore hope that NC devotes more attention in future to the views of Lapavitsas on the subject of Grexir.

  2. Oguk

    Hurray! I LOVE you calling out Panitch on respecting people’s time. [Aside: When I was a 20-something would-be activist in the 80’s, I ended up in a “committee” for quite a while with several 40-ish activists who regularly admonished us “kids” to keep the meetings (and events) short so attendees could go home at a reasonable time. (And then there were the late-food-and-drink-meetings after the official meetings to hash out what the “real” agenda was/should be.) I sure do respect their perspective now.]

    Also right on again, Lambert, about Battles/Campaigns/Wars/Grand Strategy. We need perspective and staying power more than good/bad, thumbs-up-thumbs-down character assessments.

  3. unorthodoxmarxist

    Lambert, the idea of a party meeting becoming a center of working class life, of a party embedding itself in social movements is language that comes specifically out of a Marxist and very left-wing labor current that might understandably seem alien in the US context, especially since the 1940s (or maybe the 1960s). The idea (and sometimes reality) is that as parties and movements grow in strength, they can become hubs of organizing daily life. People show up to meetings because they legitimately see the party/group as a way that power can be achieved and their life transformed, or a response to a government/business action or policy planned. Occupy represented this to a certain extent but I think strike committees of yore, or the student union meetings in Quebec a few years ago, are a good example of this. As class struggle heats up and the spectacle of everyday life fades away, this can become a reality.

    The concept of embedding in a social movement is less about clientelism than it is about helping direct a struggle physically and ideologically. Again, there is a long tradition of this in Marxist and leftist thought. Show up, do the work, contribute ideas, and win people over without trying to dominate the proceedings.

    As for a grand strategy, I think it must be said that the real problem is, as you mentioned, that Syriza’s bluster early on created the largest problem for the party. Honesty in the face of extreme reaction is key when you are trying to mobilize; many of us have brought up the example of the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk in 1917-18 as an example of a radical, revolutionary party that did not shy from hard truths when faced with superior force. Any strategy at this point has to acknowledge the utter impossibility of “third way” and reformist solutions to the issue of austerity, ie the old Social Democrat model (except in cases where a country can tap into a raw-materials commodity export boom like Venezuela did for two decades). Austerity is capitalist strategy at the end of a long wave, and that end typically includes a vast amount of financialization-as-superprofit. Overaccumulation of capital coupled with lack of wage growth (underconsumption) means superprofits are to be had by asset-stripping, not industry-building. Social Democratic solutions – and I place Syriza here too as their Thessaloniki program fits squarely into the old SD model – only work when the ruling class is willing to and needs a representative of labor to make a compromise to keep the export sector humming. The long term solutions will indeed either anti-capitalist, and in the short-to-medium term groups like Syriza will either be defeated by institutions and laws that hem them in or they will move very rapidly towards radical social and economic policies (which could carry extreme costs if unsuccessful), meaning at least wholesale nationalization of industries and economic planning.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      On paragraph one, I’m not unfamiliar with the concept — from my reading (E.P. Thompson, Gramsci, etc.)

      On paragraph two, I don’t think embedding is necessarily clientelism; but here in the US it certainly tends that way.

    2. hemeantwell

      Re grounding a movement in a community, my familiarity with this idea came out of knowing faculty and grad students at the Center for Research on Social Organization at the U of Michigan, sociologists and historians who were working with Chuck Tilly. Their dissertation work would usually involve spending a number of months in a locale poring over newspapers, police records, party publications, anything that would give you a feel for the interlocking components of community life. Party organizations often overlapped or merged with social aka drinking clubs, language societies, fraternal organizations. This is all in Thompson, but in these terms the findings for the US was much the same. Orientation to party wasn’t simply driven by simple class interests, but was part of class experience and community.

      I’ve said this before here, but as Mair discusses this form of mass/community party was gradually superseded, particularly in the Anglo world, by what Kircheimer called the “catch-all” party, a party without a claimed orientation to the interests of a particular class. In part this reflects how after WW2 we had a something of a Keynesian consensus tolerated by a relatively cowed ruling class and so had less need (sorta) for a class-oriented party, hence the catch-all party’s unmooring from class coordinates and trying to appeal to whoever has some money to fund it. I think that’s what creates the “Martian” quality of Panitch’s formulation.

      I like the use of clientelism as a critical concept but it is a bit slippery. It is consistent with a catch-all framework, since you have a blend of accommodations to wealth/capital in the party program + a leadership increasingly on the make and selling influence to capital + a mass base participating less and less in party life. And so we have the hackery of much of the political class as we know it. But this tends to miss clientelist arrangements between party leadership and mass, e.g. getting hired into the party organization or getting a government job because of connections. After a successful mobilization and during the consolidation of power all parties engage in this to some degree. The Bolsheviks were already concerned about opportunism in 1920.

      1. hemeantwell

        Re Greek state clientelism, this Jacobin interview — Panitch talking with the Syriza minister of education and culture — is excellent.


      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        Thanks for this comment on the scholarship of Chuck Tilley and that school. I’m wondering if the Bowling Alone book and associated commentary signaled the as it were “desertification” of these insitutions, and my feeling that such rich experience is “Martian” (my feeling, not Panitch’s).

        I’m not sure why you find clientelism slippery, as a concept?

  4. Cugel

    Yves was right from the beginning that Greece could not defeat the Troika unless outside powers came to their support, such as rallying massive leftist support across Europe around anti-austerity measures, including German working class solidarity for the Greek people. That never happened. They were left to twist slowly in the wind by everybody.

    By this point talking about voluntary Grexit is really delving into the realm of fantasy. It has been rejected by Syriza and by the Greek people. This leaves Greece to suffer endless waves of austerity and ultimately become a failed state – because Schäuble is not going to stop until he gets what he wants, which is the destruction of the Eurozone and rebuilding the EU with a few northern European countries that Germany can dominate, and with a centralized integrated political and economic control with a real EU finance minister who will administer the EU like a nation-state.

    He can’t do that with Greece or Italy or Spain within the EU, so it must be destroyed. I see nothing to indicate this isn’t going to happen.

    Now you can argue that Tsipras and Varoufakis were fools for not planning for Grexit, but it really seems like arguing that Evel Knievil should have planned better for a jump across the Grand Canyon. Yes, but he was never going to be able to make that jump anyway, no matter what the plan.

    I’ve never yet seen any realistic plan for voluntary Grexit that wasn’t immensely vulnerable to creditor counter-attack. And they would have been utterly vicious and gone all out to inflict the maximum destruction on Greece, because Greek defiance is a direct challenge to their power.

    Greek surrender basically means that they have control over a vast refugee center. And the news is simply, “are donor countries providing enough food for the starving refugees”, not “defiant communist/socialist/anarchist mobs march through Athens in defiance of the Troika.”

    So, they are going to have to deal with the humanitarian consequences within Greece, which will be catastrophic.

    1. different clue

      Greece can at least get revenge on Europe by sending all the refugees over the border deeper into Europe with whatever maps and advice can be given on how to get around fast deeper within Europe.
      And Greece can keep doing that until Europe forgives and forgets the entirety of the Greek debt.

      Greece could also do other things suggested by Ian Welsh, such as working with the various Turkish and Balkan mafias to smuggle every kind of contraband into Europe and keep doing so until Europe forgives and forgets the entirey of Greece’s debt.

      Well . . . Greece could have done those things when Ian Welsh suggested them. I don’t know if Greece could do them now.

      By the way, does the Greek State or Greek People get any material benefit whatsoever from the big shipping fleets owned by various Greek shipping magnates? If they do get material benefit, then they should be grateful that they still have that. But if they DON’T get any benefit, what could they do to the shipping magnates to begin getting a benefit? If the Greek government ordered its navy to sink every ship belonging to one of the Greek Magnates and then said it would keep sinking the “Greek Merchant Fleet” one magnate at a time until the surviving magnates all agreed to pay taxes, would that start to get the taxes paid?

  5. TheCatSaid

    Lambert, great discussion. To add to the know-how regarding various approaches to political organizing, I recommend a series of 5 video interviews with Catarina Principe (involved in both Portugal and also in Germany with Die Linke). It’s on The Real News Network. The first segment is here: http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=14272

    Her discussion of various concepts, awarenesses, and analysis of what strategies had worked for various activists or parties, what hadn’t, and why–were new and mind-opening to me.

    Principe is clear and articulate. Because some of the concepts were new (and involved aspects of European history and politics that were unfamiliar), and because she sometimes speaks quickly, I benefited from listening more than once. I will probably listen to the series again–it is that good.

  6. EmilianoZ

    Some things you just cannot know beforehand. That is why they say that it is in times of great crisis that you get to know who you really are. Some people who were admired as leaders collapse, others of whom nothing was expected become heroes. There is no way of predicting beforehand. You need the reality of the danger to be there.

    We cannot discount the possibility that faced with the real prospect of widespread famine the Greeks would have transcended their flaws. Varoufakis had immense popularity. Had he called for an union sacree of all Greeks for the production and distribution of food, they would have followed him. They would have followed him to hell and back.

    There is no point theorizing about swimming. Just get in the water.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Thinking it over, I disagree. I’m reminded of a paper or maybe a book that McGill’s Henry Minzberg wrote, titled “The Success and Failure of Strategic Planning.” His point was a time-based one was well: That “reality” moved faster than the ability of the Strategic Planning Department to plan, and hence the strategic plan was useful only as a post hoc rationalization (which is not a bad thing in itself).

      So your comment seems to me to adopt the corporate time-scale. However, on the time-scale of states, “grand strategy” is relevant; see the examples. And maybe one reason “the left” seems never to rise above the level of “campaigns” is that there is no grand strategy — no overarching yet easily stated goal that people will be willing to die for — to pull them upward.

  7. DJG

    The ability of a left political party to embed without destroying civic and cultural organizations is notable in Mediterranean countries. Historically, I am thinking of Catalan and Basque regionalists or nationalists who also were left revolutionaries. So you had a combination of cultural awakening, revolutionary politics, and experiments in social organization. This has gone on in Spain for more than 100 years.

    In Italy, you had the idea that the left parties should lead, but they could not always lead civil society or culture. I recall doing research in Italy, and the theater archivist said to me, Well, you should read Gramsci’s theatrical writings and reviews. She then produced a book of reviews of plays and movies to start off my education. After Gramsci, in Italy, the “arci” organizations, which came out of the left, have had much influence. Arcigola became Slow Food. Arcigay became one of the leading lights of the LGBT movement, arguably, the founding organization.

    Meanwhile, another kind of embedding that you didn’t have in the U.S.A. is worker priests. You see their influence in Italy and France. Sometimes, in Italy, you’ll see an organization founded by a priest and run by a bunch of communists.

    In short, these cultural and political ties don’t exist in the same way in American culture. First, U.S. politics in hierarchical and has focused on what Italians call partitocrazia–rule of the parties for the sake of the parties. And as someone in the arts, I can assure you that most U.S. artists and writers have ill-defined politics or are nearly apolitical and, consequently, are in no position to lead civil society. Albert Camus may be the most remarkable committed intellectual of the last 100 years. Who do we have in the U.S.A.?

    On the issue of not wasting people’s time: Noted. That’s what tipped me off to something being wrong in BLM at Seattle with the forced 4.5 moment of silence.

    1. hemeantwell

      Camus? Don’t you mean Sartre? Camus couldn’t fully renounce a settler colonialist mentality.

      1. EoinW

        Sartre put the communist party first, regardless of its flaws – like whitewashing the crimes of Stalin. Camus opposed all authoritarian governments, left or right. If Sartre were alive today I suspect he’d be a Obama apologist. Camus, due to his upbringing, supported a multi-cultural Algeria. it that makes for a settler colonialist mentality then I’m at a loss to know what to call the mentality of whites living in North America.

    2. Alejandro

      “Albert Camus may be the most remarkable committed intellectual of the last 100 years. Who do we have in the U.S.A.?”

      While I don’t personally subscribe to cultish veneration of any single individual, past or present, IMO Noam Chomsky is certainly worth mentioning.


      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I’m uncomfortable with the focus on individuals, too. Classes of committed intellectuals would include climate scientists, the physicians and nurses pushing for single payer, economics departments seeking to overthrow the neo-liberal orthodoxy, perhaps even some bloggers :-)

  8. Jim

    Germany has a lot more in common with Austria or the Netherlands than with the Greeks but I still think that a common nation-state uniting Germany, Austria and the Netherlands is pretty unlikely.

    The Eurozone as presently constituted is a monstrous experiment worthy of Dr. Moreau.

    1. EoinW

      I can tell you from my days of travelling in Europe a quarter century ago that the Dutch HATE the Germans. Not sure they will ever forgive them for WW2. In turn, Germans refer to the Dutch as kasekopfs – cheeseheads. I never knew the Packers had such widespread popularity!

      1. Jim

        This illustrates how idiotic the whole idea of a Unied States of Europe is. I’m sure that German contempt for the Dutch is nothing compared to their contempt for the Greeks or the Portugese.

  9. Ed

    It sounds like the problem is Greece.

    OK, Cuba, which is comparable to Greece in population and in strategic position (in sense of powerful neighbors who are really, really interested in what bloc they end up in) managed to pull of their version of a “Grexit”. So it can be done. It may really be a matter of being willing to go that far. I am getting the sense that fairly moderate reform programs of the left just aren’t allowed any more.

    The corruption and clientalism in Greece is supposed to be really bad, so the correct analogy may be someone trying to do a moderate leftist reform program in a heavily indebted Sicily.

    1. EoinW

      The Cubans had a revolution and drove all the oligarchs off the island in 1959. Greece would need a violent revolution to follow that blueprint. Given what we’ve recently seen in Egypt, that would likely bring about a western backed military junta regaining power. That’s something Greeks do not want to go back to. Besides the only Greeks willing to use violence belong to Golden Dawn. A group bullying defenseless refugees. I doubt Castro, upon his return to Cuba in ’57, would have been successful if he’d spent his time attacking black Cubans.

        1. Lexington

          After the Colonels’ Coup it was understood in Athens that when you wanted to go straight to Washington you did so through the CIA station chief in Athens, who was the real power behind the throne.

          Everyone understood the US ambassador was just a figurehead.

  10. Jess

    Yanis has a piece up on the Guardian today about how Syriza’s deal has left the oligarchs still in control.


    Yanis Varoufakis: bailout deal allows Greek oligarchs to maintain grip

    Former finance minister accuses EU leaders of punishing ordinary people as he argues measures imposed on Greece will make dire economy worse

    I leave it for others who are more knowledgeable to comment on the accuracy of this article, and what might be done in the future to fix this aspect of the Greek problem.

    1. TheCatSaid

      ThePressProject has some reports and stories that were quite educational. For example, Squaring the Triangle of Corruption names names and gives specifics about the serious levels of chicanery that infects the media and advertising sector and which is tightly controlled by oligarchs through “trees” of spurious organizations.

      IsabelPS had a great comment recently on another NC thread that quoted specifics of numerous funds to various special groups.

  11. DJG

    Tragic flaws or tragic errors? I’d answer: Aristophanes.

    Here is a country that does not have a functioning national tax-collection agency. Evidently, there is no land registry or property registry. The Greeks may think that it is a way of avoiding taxes, but it is also a guarantee that you can’t prove that you own the land or house that you claim you do. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, the house and household are the basis of wealth. Then we discover that the country has no immigration service and no government agencies adequate to the task of caring for refugees. Now we discover that the national agricultural department of a country smaller than Illinois cannot figure out what crops in what acreage are being grown by farmers. And now Varoufakis writes another column about the Oligarchs, none of whom are ever named. Who are they? What do they control?

    Grexit? In a country that can’t accumulate data to determine the size of the olive harvest and the quantity of olive oil pressed?

    We end up as farce.

  12. fosforos

    You raise the “Munich Analogy” when you endorse the Baldwin/Chamberlain British 1930’s strategy of “build the Spitfires first.” But by feeding lies to “useful idiots” (Lindbergh, Edward VIII) Hitler and Göring made sure the British leaders felt they didn’t have “enough” Spitfires. So when at Munich Hitler threatened war, a complete bluff since his General Staff was so unprepared for war even against Czechoslovakia that they would have executed Hitler rather than obey his marching orders, Chamberlain sold out the Czechs in order to “buy time” and build more Spitfires. So with Tzipras and the Troika. They were bluffing in February but instead of calling their bluff Tzipras and the Syriza majority faction kept appeasing in order to gain time. But, just as Chamberlain’s Spitfires were useless in May 1940, the time gained by the Greeks turned out to be useless in July 2015.

    1. Lexington

      Not really getting the “build the Spitfires first” thing. Germany had a single engine fighter that was every bit as good as the Spitfire, in fact about 20 000 feet it was clearly superior, since unlike the early marks of the Spitfire it had a turbocharged engine.

      The whole Munich thing is the most overused historical analogy in the history of the world, and invariably by those who don’t actually know their history. Britain and France weren’t prepared to go to war over a marginal border region where the majority of the population was in fact German, and which the Allies had awarded to Czechoslovakia in 1919 in violation of their own stated principle of national self determination. The problem is Hitler didn’t just annex the Sudetenland, he dismembered all of Czechoslovakia – with help from the Poles (who took the opportunity to annex the disputed province of Tesin) and the Slovaks (who actually seceded from Czechoslovakia and formed a pro Nazi government of their own). Curiously, when Germany invaded Poland one year later, Britain had apparently made good its Spitfire deficit because it (and France) honoured their security guarantee to the extent that it (and France) declared war on Germany (the US chose to remain neutral, a little detail which has been lost to a curious case of national amnesia). Even the almighty Spitfire couldn’t save them from disaster fist in Norway and then in Battle of France, however.

      With all due respect there’s room for improvement in your grasp of the history of World War II. You could do worse than by starting here.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Yeah, I thought I might get in trouble for that one, since I know that history is severely contested. I’m more of a World War I guy, myself. Choose your own vivid metaphor!

        1. Lexington

          No worries.

          I have a bit of a hangup concerning the Spitfire Myth, and much more concerning the Munich Crisis, which only appears to be crisis with the benefit of hindsight.

  13. Jim

    “More importantly for the left, is there a grand strategy that “the left” can articulate. If so what is it?”

    Some suggestions

    For example, a new way of developing political and economic capacity:

    Future Greek wealth and cultural achievement are likely to result as a consequence of dismantling of the present Greek State and re-creating a multitude of city-state type political structures throughout the country– which will then lead to the type of new competitive environment conducive to economic specialization, innovation and emulation.

    These city-state political structures will also encourage more citizen-centered governments (because of their smaller scale) to redraft new sets of fair rules that can then enable respective city-state populations to acquire a solid sense of being citizens of equal standing in their respective communities with potentially equal access to property, law and security..

    Collective action on a local, regional and national level could be enabled through federations of various city-state groupings which could then lead to dramatically less clientalistic behavior as Greek citizens themselves increasingly developed their own social networks.

    Such a political structure did once exist in Greece ( at the heights of its wealth, influence and power between 1000 and 300 BCE) and conceivably that which once was– could exist again–in a much improved ecology

    1. Skippy

      If we ask ourselves what made the current regime of economic thinking change from voodoo economics to “yeah, everyone knows that” in a few short years, there are no simple answers.

      There were many factors that made that paradigm change possible, and they aren’t simple to replicate – but elements of that level of power probably had to exist in order to achieve that sort of rapid change, and I’m not sure those can be replicated at all.

      Here, IMO, are some of those factors:

      1) A profound shock to the American psyche resulting from the loss of Vietnam, the oil shock, the Nixon Shock, and the Iranian Revolution, which demanded rationalization and response in the national consciousness. People were looking for scapegoats, and they found them in liberalism and economics. People were LOOKING for something new. I’m not sure people are looking for something new now. We’re an angry people, to be sure, but we are in no way unified about who the scapegoats are. Liberalism is no longer a dirty word, but conservatism is not seen as having failed.

      2) A great leader and a leader vilified as weak. Reagan was an accident of history. He wasn’t part of the plan, he just….was. He was convinced that selling supply side economics would work, and sell it he did. After the election, Layne Kirkland was asked (I believe by Louis Ruykheiser) “wtf happened to the union vote?”

      Kirkland responded “we told our members to vote with their wallets, and I guess they did”.

      Reagan convince everyone that they owned a boat, and it would float of he were allowed to hand money to the rich. Reagan convinced people that government was the problem (and that’s an easy sell today, still), and that supply side economics and free markets were the answer.

      Reagan was so gifted as an orator that he was able to convince a willing public that they were seeing the magic of free markets at work, and to convince them that their prosperity was the result of that, rather than of the massive deficits he was accumulating spending money on Star Wars and 600 ships for the navy.

      That was an a accident of history: a magician fooled enough people for enough of the time to totally convince them of the opposite of what they were actually seeing.

      Finally, to keep the list short, the free marketeers actually did what we Keynesians argue is central: they built institutions, but they built institutions to support the spreading of propaganda, to make their economics and small government philosophy ubiquitous, unavoidable. This is the legacy of Leo Strauss and Lewis Powell. These far-seeing con artists understood, with an irony that defies description, the importance of institutions in the shaping of public opinion.

      They would eventually, perhaps, have won their ideological battle much more slowly and quietly than they did without the aid of the historical currents and the presence of the Great Man (and not just one Great Man, one has to give Thatcher credit as a quick-witted villainous sidekick to the Gip) which aided their cause. But they didn’t have to do without. They had every advantage.

      We are taught early in our historical education to ask ourselves whether history happens because of confluences of currents, Great Men, or is shaped by institutions.

      In this case, the supply spiders were aided by all three. They didn’t obtain their intellectual hegemony by framing, nor did they earn it by employing their ideas with any real success.

      Framing is necessary, but framing is too small an effort to be decisive, and MMT may not even be the center of the framing that needs to be made. Jamie Galbraith may be right. Economics itself needs to be the target, and economists need to be scapegoated. A post-QE economy, as Rohan pointed out, readies the public for that.

      Supply side economics probably wasn’t the center of what the right did to America (and later the world). It was a logical manifestation of a radically antigovernment ideology. – H/T ELT

      1. TheCatSaid

        Very illuminating comment. To summarize, the main ingredients to quickly spread and embed any particular viewpoint or economic approach within society, no matter how disastrous for the members that society: 1) recent massive shocks to society; 2) appearance of a leader who is a gifted orator and persuader; 3) building institutions to ensure the word continues to spread

        Doesn’t this look a lot like what led to Hitler’s rise and how he used the circumstances of that time? (Shocks from WWI and aftermath of Versailles treaty, including unpayable debts & runaway inflation; Appearance of Hitler as an effective orator and persuader; and building institutions to spread the word (SS, Third Reich, etc.)

  14. different clue

    Once again, what was Syriza or anyone else supposed to do, given that the Greek Public considers itself to be White, Western and European and that re-drachmafying would raise the psychological specter of the Greek Public having to face the possibility that it is neither White, nor Western, nor European?

    If the Greek Public is ready to give up on being considered by White Western Europe as being White, Western and European, then the Greek Public will be ready for the kind of War Socialism that leaving the EuroCurrency-zone and re-drachmafying will require. Any sort of planning for it would have raised the specter of it and Syriza’s own public would not have permitted Syriza to make any such contingency plans.

    If Greece ever re-drachmafies, Greece can expect Europe to blockade Greece the way America blockaded Cuba during the 60s and 70s and into the 80s. Greece would have to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization totally and for real in order to have any hope of getting survival support in the teeth of Europe’s effort to put Greece through a slow motion Holodomor.

  15. EoinW

    Two parties that have been extremely successful at embedding themselves in their societies have been Hamas and Hizbollah. The response has been to label them terrorist organisations. If the Left choose actions that could make a difference they will be “upping the ante” and bring about more serious responses from reactionary forces. Which I guess is why the Left is happy to continue talking a good game, while doing nothing. No surprise as one need only look at the leadership of the Left:

    1) It’s either politicians – New Labour, NDP etc… just trying to gain personal power and access to the 1%.

    2) it’s intellectuals whose elitism has them somewhat out of touch with us commoners.

    3) It’s the union movement which has evolved to the point where what’s best for the union matters more than what’s best for the workers.

    The one thing they all have in common is that they are faux reformers. They’ve found their niche in this neo-liberal economy and they are quite comfortable, thank you very much. End result: an impotent Left. I have to assume the only forces out there to oppose the status quo are the ones quickly labeled criminals. Like Assange, Snowden and Manning.

  16. Lexington

    With respect to Fidler (whomever he is):

    Critics on the left, in Greece and elsewhere, argue that the government might well have achieved a more favourable outcome, but only if its negotiating stance had been backed from the beginning by a bold strategy based on combining citizen mobilization with unilateral action that would have limited the options available to the Troika. This would have comprised (among other things) suspension of debt payments immediately upon taking office, socialization of the banks, creation of an electronic currency for internal Greek use, and reform of taxation.

    The left isn’t doing itself any favours by indulging these kind of delusional fantasies. The steps being advocated here, far from “limiting the options available to the Troika”, would have made Grexit a virtual certainty. What possible incentive would the Troika have to throw Greece another lifeline if Syriza has already through peremptory and unilateral action tried to determine the outcome of the negotiations before they had even begun? Many leftists seem to labour under the delusion that Greece could negotiate as a rough equal with the Troika, even to the extent of constraining the Troika’s freedom of action and imposing its priorities and agenda on it. In the real world this negotiation was characterized by a huge power asymmetry that greatly favoured the Troika and left Greece with very little wiggle room.

    At the end of the day Greece has a pretty clear and stark choice: it could accept another bailout and remain in the Euro zone (at least for the time being) at the cost of continued austerity; or it could reclaim its sovereignty and free public policy from the constraints of the Troika, but only by exiting the Euro zone and accepting all the risks and uncertainties that entailed. The option favoured by many Greeks and their allies – that of continuing to receive bailouts from other EU members in order to remain in the Euro zone but without having to make concessions to creditors – was never on the table.

    Also wanted to briefly address this:

    As an American, I find the idea that a political party might become “the center of working class life” almost Martian in its oddity. Am I really going to go hang out at my local version of Tammany Hall?

    Strange as it may sound political affiliation was a major basis for the social organization of working people in Europe both before and after World War II. Socialists, Communists and (after the war) Christian Democrats sponsored football leagues, youth movements, summer camps, debating clubs and outings for party members, many of whom had little leisure time and less money to enjoy it. Merging political and social activity was seen as an excellent means of cultivating political awareness , class identity and party loyalty, while the party’s youth wing was a prime resource in identifying and developing the next generation of party leaders.

    Ironically as the left successfully championed policies that “promoted” more of the working class into a middle class standard of living between the 1950s and 1970s it simultaneously undermined the bonds of solidarity it had worked so hard to develop because increased affluence broadened workers leisure options and made them less dependent on activities organized by the party.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        So, we might ask ourselves where all that went?

        (I’m not unfamiliar with this history, really! Perhaps I should have written “As an American in 2015 ….)

  17. Jeff N

    There is an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer is elected as garbage comissioner after promising all the residents that his staff would take out each house’s garbage for them.

    Of course, Homer is unable to make the budgeting work after he is elected.

    Syriza did the same thing – promised Greeks stay-in-the-Euro and no-more-Austerity. And they got elected.

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