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.)
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: … 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:
2) Campaign, and
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?
 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.)