OXI! Fantastic! But what now? As always we must start from the position that it is impossible to really know from afar what is going on – especially on the ground where it really matters. It is ridonculous to give advice [edit: sectarian comment removed] . Kevin Ovenden’s journalism both at Left Flank and on Facebook has been invaluable. He is our John Reed. Still we are compelled to try to think on the run and to try to work out what this moment is teaching us about our world so we can improve our efforts to transform it. So here are some hypotheses arising from my observations at a distance of the struggle in Greece. They are for discussion and debate.
1. Capitalism is incredibly powerful and despotic…
The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket. (Marx 1993, 157) In capitalist society, especially one when the vast majority of social life is subsumed by capitalism, the majority (really?) of our interconnections are mediated by commodities and money. We live in what Camatte calls the ‘community of capital’(1995, 191). Thus a jamming of the operations of the capitalist mode of production by internal crisis or political intervention jams the normality of life (and the dividing line between the economic and the political is largely illusory). This is the incredible power of capital. As workers dependent on capital for wages and on the proper circulation of commodities for a viable life it can be very difficult to resist this power. The decision by the European Central Bank to increase the value of assets that Greek banks need to be able to access the Emergency Liquidity Assistance further threatens the viability of these still-closed Greek banks. This further blocks the flows of money in an increasingly impoverished society. It also shows the despotic quality of capitalism. The Troika as a key assemblage of certain factions for capital finds it necessary to asphyxiate the lives of an entire nation to ensure the viability of state bonds as a both a form of financial asset and as a key element of financial markets, the reliability of the euro as currency and thus the financial markets on a whole. Since ‘finance is cosubstaintial with the very production of goods and services’(Marazzi 2011, 28) they are doing this to ensure the entire viability of capital accumulation and capitalist society as a global totality. The basic units of capitalism cannot work, they cannot exist, without the current application of despotic power.
2. …but it is also incredibly fragile
The flipside of this is that it shows the incredible fragility of capitalism in general and in this specific historical moment. Money as the core unit of capitalist society plays numerous and contradictory roles. ‘Various forms of money may correspond better to social production in various stages; one form may remedy evils against which another is powerless; but none of them, as long as they remain forms of money, as long as money remains an essential relation of production, is capable of overcoming the contradictions inherent in the money relation, and can instead only hope to reproduce these contradictions in one or another form’(Marx 1993, 123). Since the end of the par value system in 1971 money has taken the form of fiat money issued by the state and credit money issued by private banks backed by central banks with its value determined via floating exchange rates. This has allowed an incredible expansion of the volumes of money and of the global money market and is one of the necessary conditions for the hypertrophic growth of finance (Lapavitsas 2013). Financial assets trade around market prices that are fairly distant from the incomes generated by the activities they are tied to. This has been a period of increased financial crises and instability and contra appearances the state more than an ever is a necessary active entity to ensure the functionality of the entire ensemble. One of the reasons for this increased instability is that the current forms of money lack any anchor like the one gold standard or the par value system provided beyond the confidence and authority that the system on a whole commands (Marazzi 2014). The response to the global financial crisis has been the bailing out of banks, debt financed stimulation and the global coordination of unorthodox monetary policy. Financial markets (which many non-financial businesses and workers too rely on for income) have been kept afloat by the states taking on increased risks and by the continual creation of money. The revolt of the Greek people threatens this whole set up. If Greece defaults then the Troika are left holding a huge amount of worthless debts: there would be a geographical shift of the crisis and perhaps its multiplication across Europe and maybe the globe. More than that the failure to discipline the Greek people shows the weaknesses of the state and of Empire and and thus compels people to look at the assets they are holding and ask ‘what the fuck are these worth?’ and more importantly ‘what the fuck do other people think they are worth’? The struggle of the Greek people threatens the strategy to ensure the ‘euro as a hard currency whose credibility is crucial to providing the framework for capital accumulation’(Laskos and Tsakalotos 2014, 12). And all this in the context of a slowing global economy and the Chinese share market plunge. The mainstreams commentators talk a great deal about contagion; the contagion that is the most threatening is the spread of social struggles.
3. The movement from a class in itself to one for itself involves both social conversation and social division.
Kevin Ovenden’s reporting shows Greek society as both electrified by debate and increasingly divided. Radical thought has often speculated on the transformation from the class-in-itself to the class-for-itself. The question is what is the relationship between our existence as subjects (workers, citizens and consumers) within capitalism to our creation of ourselves as a collective social movement that can overcome capitalism? What Ovenden is reporting is on one hand increased levels of discussion and communication amongst people about the issues of the day as part of the process of struggle. Though perhaps this could be flipped and one could ask if the already existing level of dialogue in Greek society was a prerequisite for the subsequent political debate and radicalisation? It is (as Caroline pointed out to me) perhaps a chicken and egg question. Still it should make us ask what conditions allow such a level of popular discussions, what can we do to increase it and are there things we are currently doing that limit it? Secondly it seems that the divisions in society are divisions amongst the people that do hover around class divisions as understood as relations to production but don’t easily map onto them. Struggles against capitalism are struggles against an entire ensemble of ways of living, against a dense net of social relations, the complex totality of how life is ordered. Such struggles necessarily split and divide the population around the different poles of emancipation and order (Badiou 2009, 14). There is a noticeable distance between the working class and the proletariat.
4. Internationalism is an a priori condition of national struggles being successful
Insurrection is indeed still a war of the dominated against the rulers within a single society, but that society now tends to be an unlimited global society, imperial society as a whole. (Negri 2008, 92) It appears from the distance that the Greek people are trapped. This trap is partly constructed by the lower levels of struggle in other countries – especially in Europe. The new Finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos (2014) wrote an article with Christos Laskos that presented Syriza’s strategy (and I have no idea how much Syriza’s current strategy fits with this paper) as being international from the base up. It was premised on an understanding that the debt crisis was a ‘Eurozone-wide problem that is best addressed at the supranational level’ and the hope that this would be part of a wider struggle(12). It continues that a Syriza government wouldn’t ‘survive without a great deal of international solidarity’(16). Whilst the struggle in Greece has sparked a great deal of enthusiasm (some of it perhaps far too starry-eye) I’m not sure this adds up to the required level of international solidarity. Without it what are the possibilities? Who knows? But the most discussed are submission and staying in the EU or Grexit and default. The results of the former seem obvious – increased misery for the people of Greece and potential political and social demoralisation. As for Grexit well what would that look like? Cuba on the Aegean? Perhaps a higher level of social equality and basic provision of welfare but general impoverishment and out of necessity a fairly authoritarian state? It is also not obvious that a subsequent weakening or breakup of the EU would create a pleasant situation or one conducive to emancipation. As Stereolab remind us – economic crisis often leads to war. All this shows that the nation-state is no longer (if it ever was) the primary stage of struggle even it remains the elementary unit of global organisation. How much of the desire for Grexit on the part on non-Greek left observers is a desire for a return to a previous organisation of capitalism we are more theoretically familiar with?
5. The future is unwritten.
And that is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Badiou, Alain. 2009. Theory of the Subject. Translated by Bruno Bosteels. London & New York: Continuum.
Camatte, Jacques. 1995. This World We Must Leave & Other Essays. Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia.
Lapavitsas, Costas. 2013. Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All. London & New York: Verso.
Laskos, Christos, and Euclid Tsakalotos. 2014. “Out of the Mire: Arguments from the Greek Left.” Soundings: A journal of politics and culture no. Summer 2014 (57):8-22.
Marazzi, Christian. 2011. The Violence of Financial Capitalism. New ed. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Marazzi, Christian. 2014. The Linguistic Nature of Money and Finance. Translated by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). London: Penguin Books.
Negri, Antonio. 2008. Reflections on Empire. Translated by Ed Emery. Cambridge: Polity Press.