An interesting Revue des Livres interview with Stathis Kouvelakis concerning the situation in Greece. Kouvelakis argues for a Greek exit from the euro. All the credit for the article is theirs, any responsibility for errors of translation is my own.
A war machine is today working to destroy Greece. “It is a matter”, Stathis Kouvelakis tells us “of laying the bases for a massive operation of ‘accumulation-by-dispossession’, establishing in a Eurozone country a model of accumulation previously tried out in the Global South and the countries of Eastern Europe.” In other words, the time has come for a direct enactment, within the territory comprised by the European Union, of the shock doctrine described by Naomi Klein, which used to be reserved to the peripheral countries. How can we understand the dynamics of this war machine? What political possibilities are created by the unprecedented crisis that results from it? The following interview attempts to raise some suggestions as to how we might answer these questions.
Stathis Kouvelakis, lecturer in political philosophy at King’s College London, is a member of the editorial board of the journal Contretemps. He is the author of La France en révolte. Luttes sociales et cycles politiques (2007) and Planète Marx (to appear in October 2012).
RdL: The ‘austerity measures’ (a sinister euphemism!) imposed by the troika comprising the EU, ECB and IMF, and adopted by the Greek parliament, can have no effect other than to ‘break’ Greek society. An innocent observer of this destructive enterprise cannot but be sceptical. It is clearly not a matter of getting Greece back on the right track. Why then this determination? Why do we have to destroy Greece? What interests, what logic leads to the rejection of any alternative to the destruction of Greece? It is difficult to understand, at first glance, what is the motivation of the EU and the governing forces in Greece.
Stathis Kouvelakis: Of course, one could respond to this question by invoking the interests of the Greek and European ruling classes, saying that it is a matter of making the workers pay for the crisis; but such a response, if not false, is nonetheless too general and does not grasp what is really at stake, what defines its specificity and makes it distinct from other conjunctures of capitalist crisis. Thus we must try to understand in a rather more precise manner the logic of what is being implemented in Greece and what, as you rightly say, goes far beyond the simple adoption of austerity measures.
First off, there is the question of sovereign debt, in which is crystallised the second phase of a crisis that begun in 2007, one that concerns almost all developed countries but that in Greece has taken on paroxysmal proportions. Why? Partly because Greek capitalism is more fragile than others, and, in the same manner as other countries on the periphery of the Eurozone (Portugal, Ireland, Spain – the famous ‘PIGS’) it has been particularly affected by the loss of competitiveness flowing from the very functioning of the single currency. No coincidence that these countries until recently presented as a model saw an illusion of growth in the years that preceded the current crisis, a growth that relied on sectors enjoying relative protection from foreign competition, based on ‘bubbles’ (property in Spain, banking in Ireland, consumer goods in Greece), all of them financed by the cut-price credit made possible by the euro, at the same time as it deepened the trade and balance of payments deficits of these countries, essentially to the benefit of German and, more widely, the European banking and finance sector. This model of growth was, evidently, not sustainable, ravaging the productive base of each of these countries, not only manufacturing, but also agriculture (here I am thinking particularly of the vandalising of Greek agriculture) and engendering considerable environmental and social damage. Even before the crisis, therefore, according to the 1997 OECD rankings Greece was the third most unequal country, behind only Mexico and New Zealand. We might remember, here, the revolt of the Greek youth, joined by other ‘losers’ in Greek society (casual workers, the unemployed, migrant workers) in December 2008. This revolt cast sharp light on the exasperation of a youth already struck by widespread unemployment and soaring casualisation, a youth disheartened by a corrupt political system and the banalisation of police brutality.
Besides, if it is true to say that the Greek state is more fragile and inept than the average Western-European state, this is not for the usually-cited reasons. Far from outsized, the public sector in Greece is below the European average, even more so if we consider public services in the strict sense. The same for public spending. In reality, the Greek state suffers much more from its structural incapacity to institutionalise, after the civil war of 1946–49, social compromises with the mass of the population. It was not until the 1980s that a limited welfare state was put in place. The results were, on one hand, clientelism, and on the other hand, a privatisation of the state ‘from above’ via an incestuous relationship between political elites and particular fractions of capital, or individual capitalists. The system of tax exemption, whether legal or merely tolerated, was at the heart of this deal. Thus a chronic problem of state finances, given insufficient tax receipts, itself reflected in the tightness of its fiscal position.
Here we can cut out a myth: employees in Greece, public and private, have always paid their taxes, and the level of indirect taxation, which as we know is particularly unjust, is one of the highest in Europe. Tax exemption and evasion – contrary to what people are often led to believe, it is the former that represents the heart of the problem – have always been the privilege of capital, not only the wealthiest, but also layers of the non-salaried petty bourgeoisie, whose weight in Greek society remains substantial, almost a third of the active population if we include the peasantry. As such, farmers as much as shipowners are exempt from tax, while the state closes its eyes to the systematic tax evasion by self-employed professionals and small family businesses. As for taxes on corporations, these drastically diminished with the neoliberal policies determinedly pursued from the mid-1990s, having already been weak
It is this whole socio-economic model that has collapsed under the impact of the recent whirlwind.
RdL: Yes, but faced with this reality, what were the choices made by the Greek government and the European Union, and why did this latter appear immediately, from the beginning of the crisis, as a determining force in the strategy pursued?
Stathis Kouvelakis: … The famous so-called plans to ‘rescue Greece’ – which are nothing but guaranteed loans, agreed at bumped-up interest rates, and nothing to do with new money – have no aim except to ensure the repayment of the debt, the burden of which has reached an exorbitant level, and which has not ceased to grow. The goal is thus to savagely cut public expenditure to the point of clearing the budget deficit, thus allowing for the payment of debt titles as they reach maturity. These plans are in strict continuity with the handouts given to the banking and financial sector since the beginning of the crisis, with the slight difference that they work in a predatory sense, guaranteeing the regular levy and foreign transfer of wealth, to the disadvantage of a given country.
But the ambition of the shock therapy being carried out in Greece, as in all countries that have been subjected to such ‘structural-adjustment plans’ in the past, goes further than this. It seeks to ‘remedy’ a supposed ‘structural’ problem of competitiveness, in imposing a ‘domestic devaluation’, meaning, a brutal but relatively uniform fall in wages and (theoretically) prices. In the countries of the Global South, where the IMF alone was in control, this fall was imposed by its refereeing between the fall in ‘labour costs’ – wages – and the devaluation of the national currency, allowing the reduction of export prices. But this currency option was impossible in the Greek scenario, given its Eurozone membership. Thus all the pressure had to weigh down on wages. This reduction of directly-received wages, added to the cuts in public spending we have already mentioned, was also combined with a policy of massive privatisation, which essentially sought to ‘open up’ the country to ‘foreign investment’, in reality offering capital cut-price opportunities for guaranteed profitability; notably , to take the rather typical Greek example, in infrastructure (ports, airports, motorways), public services (water, electricity, renewable energy) and land (state-owned properties, beaches and coastal areas). Indeed, it is a matter of laying the bases for a massive operation of ‘accumulation-by-dispossession’ – to take a key notion of David Harvey’s – establishing in a Eurozone country a model of accumulation previously tried out in the Global South and the countries of Eastern Europe …
RdL: The ‘shock doctrine’ imposed on Greece – to use the expression popularised by Naomi Klein – has already had a devastating effect on society. What is the daily lot, what are the living conditions of the majority of Greeks today?
Stathis Kouvelakis: The explosion of unemployment currently represents the main expression of the soaring pauperisation of the country. According to official statistics nearly 30% of the population has already fallen below the poverty line. In a growing number of schools, the teachers ask the parents or charities to supply them with food, as children are fainting in the classrooms.
The population is reliving the nightmare of a past already etched in their memories. Remember, in 1941, under the Italian occupation, around one in ten Athenians died from starvation and malnutrition, and one can say that for the majority of Greeks, in the countryside and among the poorer classes in the towns, the experience of privations continued until the end of the 1960s. This is not the only unbearable aspect of this past that is re-emerging, even if in a different form: young people, now with degrees and mostly multi-lingual, have again today en masse taken the route of emigration. The figures of the EU body that manages intra-European migration of professionals account for some 80,000 requests for 2011, and that is only the visible tip of the iceberg…
RdL: Many Greeks have taken part in large protest movements. Can you tell us a bit about the dynamic of these mobilisations? How substantial are they? Who participates in them? What are the forms of resistance and protest adopted by Greeks? What is the place of organisations (political groups, trade unions, associations) in these mobilisations?
Stathis Kouvelakis: I will begin by briefly outlining the historical context. Greece has a long history of rebellion, popular uprisings and revolutions. Characteristically, Greeks have always called their war of independence ‘the Revolution of 1821’. In his Age of Revolutions, Eric Hobsbawm stresses that the Balkans, and particularly Greece, were the only part of Europe where the Jacobin tradition found a real popular base, in the encounter between the peasant masses and intellectuals inspired by France. This red threat of modern Greek history culminated in the 1940s, the great decade of abortive revolution marked by the anti-fascist struggle and the civil war, and it re-emerged in the struggle against the colonels’ dictatorship with the students’ and workers’ insurrection of November 1973, the so-called Athens Polytechnic Uprising. These are not simply a matter of historical interest: the principal slogan of the demonstrations of recent months stands in continuation with 1973: ‘Bread, Education, Freedom’ (the Greek word for education, paideia, is the equivalent of German Bildung, simultaneously referring to education, culture and the values of citizenship). Another slogan also refers to the period of the colonels’ rule: ‘The junta did not finish in 1973, but we’ll put an end to it on this square’. We must also mention what happened on 28th October last year, during the national commemoration of the ‘No!’ Greece answered Mussolini with in 1940. In dozens of towns, the crowd invaded the streets, notably preventing the military parade in Thessaloniki, chasing all the representatives of the state from the official platforms, and protesting with the singing of the national anthem and the hymns of the World War II Resistance and the fight against the dictatorship.
So it is not a historical question: this experience shows that the reappropriation of this past is a factor encouraging mass political subjectivation today. It is precisely this subjectivation that seeks to bury the orientalist and racialising stereotypes spread by a large section of the foreign media, obligingly imitated by the Greek media and politicians, who present the Greeks as a people of idlers and swindlers, sponging off the virtuous ‘real’ Europeans: meaning, of course, those of Northern Europe. For my part, I see in this a confirmation of the Gramscian vision of the struggles of oppressed groups, which must take the form of a ‘national-popular’ struggle to break with their subaltern position and challenge for hegemony, for the leadership of society, via the constitution of a new ‘historic bloc’. Equally, I must make clear that this national dimension, very strongly expressed ever since the ‘square occupations movement’ of last spring and the prominent place of the Greek flag in all the mass rallies, is not at all nationalist: on these same squares we have seen large numbers of Egyptian, Tunisian, Spanish and Argentine flags, in homage to the past or present movements in these countries…
Of course, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the Spanish indignados have inspired people’s imagination, but we must be wary of easy analogies. The Greek movement is not particularly youth-centred or marked by generational divides. Its most striking feature is that hundreds of thousands of people who had never previously participated in a rally, demonstration or strike have taken to the streets. They are mostly disenchanted PASOK and conservative voters, coming from the petty bourgeoisie struck by pauperisation or from weakly-politicised layers of the popular classes, in general loyal to PASOK. Bereft of any culture of collective action, foreign to the traditions of the radical left and the labour movement, these crowds have in general waved the national flag and given voice – often with slogans from the football ground – to their disgust with the political class that has been in power in recent decades, the only one they are able to identify, the political class that they had long trusted to represent them.
But not only this. What some have called the ‘base’ of Syntagma Square has rapidly become the meeting-point for activists, largely young people, of the radical left (with the exception of the KKE) and part of the anarchist milieu, in an environment highly reminiscent of the Social Forums, with the centrality of General Assemblies and their stress on procedure, and a good number of the foibles that result, in particular discussions that continue into the wee hours and the fact that political activists, who almost immediately took control, always present themselves as mere ordinary folk. Radical-activist circles internationally have focused on this part of the movement, which has certainly played a significant role, for instance in expelling far-right groups who tried to subvert the demonstrations, but the phenomenon is still a limited one: the General Assembly in Santagma Square has never brough together more than 3,000 people, while the 7th and 12th June protests counted close to half a million. Moreover, these self-managed General Assemblies have never managed to work as a real organising centre for the movement; their decisions, with often very ambitious objectives (organising a blockade of parliament, for example) have remained a dead letter, in the absence of any significant forces to put them into action.
Thus one can say that, starting with the square occupations movement, the crisis has become a crisis of the political system and even a crisis of state, an ‘organic crisis’ as Gramsci would say, in the sense that the very foundations of popular consent are under attack and large masses of hitherto passive people have mobilised and are breaking with their previous forms of representation. This crisis took on new scale in October with the two historic days of strike action on 19th and 20th October, which with some certainty we can call the most significant social movement seen by the country since the fall of the colonels, a strike also complemented by a multitude of extremely dynamic actions like the occupation of dozens of public buildings and even major ministries. All this takes on a quasi-insurrectional form, as the aforementioned events of 28th October confirmed. The Papandreou government had clearly lost control of the situation, and went for broke with the idea of a referendum, which in fact only served to accelerate its downfall and the establishment of the current ‘national unity’ government led by the banker Papademos. All this, of course, without the slightest democratic legitimacy, casting sharp light on the country’s subjection to the tutelage of the EU, in particular the ‘French-German axis’ in which Germany and its strategic allies (Holland, Finland, Austria) play the leading role…
RdL: The situation is now particularly volatile, explosive even. The ruling bloc seems ready to do anything. Is there a risk of the complete implosion of the Greek political system? What is the threat of an ‘authoritarian’ solution to the crisis, involving the army and the police and the deployment of armed violence?
Stathis Kouvelakis: The Greek political system has already imploded. Nothing surprising in that, indeed: no political system based on parliamentary democracy has survived shock therapy … This liquefaction of the political system, as well as the very substantial weight of the radical left, has led the EU and the government to do everything to put off the elections as far as possible, formally extending the mandate of this parliament to October 2013. This option is untenable, since as far as a ‘Bonapartism without a Bonaparte’ (as Gramsci defined executives supported by counter-intuitive parliamentary coalitions, very far from the usual game of parliamentary representation) is possible then it does at least need some social base, at least some narrow pedestal of consent in society. The same is true for attempting a repressive and authoritarian alternative: and we cannot rule out such an initiative, and can perfectly imagine some layers of the political class, essentially the ultra-neoliberal wing of the PASOK, being tempted by such an adventure. But they would still need some basis. Pinochet could not have led his coup d’état to victory, still less governed Chile for decades – making it the international model for neoliberalism – without the support of a significant fraction of society terrorised by the socialist experience under Allende. It is precisely this support that the current government is lacking, and, given the economic and social situation’s continuing decline, the popular mobilisation seems to have embarked on a fresh offensive cycle, even if it has not resolved the strategic question of what is its alternative. So, the point of no-return has already been breached: we are doomed to something new, the inexperienced…
RdL: So then, what other outcomes might be possible? Can we envisage the emergence of a Greek Kirchner? Is there any possibility of the formation of a front of the organisations of the radical left?
Stathis Kouvelakis: It is of essential importance to understand that the task that the Greek radical left is today confronted with is not that of ‘resistance’, of the accumulation of forces or an electoral breakthrough; it is that of building a hegemonic project, which poses the question of power and a practicable alternative route society can take in the here and now, under the leadership and in the interests of the subaltern classes. But faced with this, the formations of the radical left are evasive, and since the beginning of the crisis have vacillated between radical but abstract rhetoric and a pragmatism bereft of any substance, refusing to draw the lessons of the complete failure of the model of development Greece has followed within the framework of European integration. As unbelievable as it may seem, no formation is proposing a Kirchner-type solution, since that would demand a break with the EU consensus, which comprises the entirety of the Greek political class and even, in a certain sense, the radical left. Such a proposition, in my view the only possible concrete alternative, is supported by various currents and sensibilities within the radical left, and by a growing segment of public opinion, without, as yet, prevailing within political formations as such, with the exception of Antarsya. Its foundation is for the debtor country to cease payment, and for this not to be imposed on it by its creditors with draconian conditions, but rather requiring the taking-back of currency sovereignty, thus to leave the euro, which as I have shown is at the heart of the current strategy of ‘domestic devaluation’, disastrous not just for Greece but for the entire EU. These measures are, of course, only a starting point, and need to be completed by the nationalisation of banking, the control of capitals and the taxation of capital and the wealthiest layers of society. This is certainly not socialism, but a realistic and yet radical transitional programme, striking at the heart of the strategy pursued with destructive determination by the ruling groups in Greece and Europe. Additionally I must make clear that this is not at all a matter of withdrawing into our national box, contrary to what is often believed on the left. What is in question is to open the breach, and beginning where we find ourselves, in the current moment, in the weakest link in the chain, to open a breach that could draw in immense, today still-hesitant forces in the rest of Europe. Some, notably the leader of the Greek far right, have raised the spectre of Greece becoming ‘Europe’s Cuba’. For my part, I think we need to make it Europe’s Tunisia.