#oxi2015 5 hypotheses arising from the struggle in Greece

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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.

3 thoughts on “#oxi2015 5 hypotheses arising from the struggle in Greece

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the post Dave. Since you asked for a response, here are some of my initial thoughts.

    Firstly, I’m not sure how helpful it is, regardless of how accurate or funny it may be, to call Callinicos an ‘arsehat’. Still, I found your hypotheses interesting and important. So, I will consider each of them in turn.

    1. Capitalism is incredibly powerful and despotic…

    Capital is incredibly powerful and becoming more despotic. One of the main reasons for the increased use of force is because capitalist subsumption is weaker and widely challenged. As we discussed some years ago, Camatte’s view that capital “constitutes the entire community” and “human behaviour is nothing more than capital” denies our struggles against capital which can be both interior and exterior to capital. This is not to deny that “it is very difficult to resist” the power of capital, as the situation in Greece makes increasingly clear.

    I have noticed that a number of writers have been describing the Troika’s debt collecting behaviour as ‘mafia like’ and John Holloway has pointed out that the system of debt is built upon the threat of violence – the threat of enforcement and the fear of enforcement – a whole structure of threats and fears, built deep into society. In his most recent book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, David Harvey argues that we may be approaching the point “where even the most orthodox Marxists will have to give up the value theory. Conventional economists will doubtless crow with delight at this. What they do not realise is that this means the demise of the one restraint that has prevented the descent of capital into total lawlessness.” He also predicts we are now witnessing “the beginning of an inexorable descent of the monetary system into chaos.”

    Nonetheless, I don’t see the Troika ‘asphyxiating the lives of an entire nation to ensure the viability of state bonds’. Apart from the fact that it’s not the entire nation, you cannot scream ‘No!’ if you’re deprived of air (of course the power and vitality of the social movements in Greece shouldn’t be reduced to a simple scream against austerity). It is the need to punish resistance and rebellion, to break the proletariat in Greece, to warn and discipline the unruly multitude elsewhere, and to demonstrate and maintain the power of capital as a social relation that is crucial. And, as you suggest, capitalism cannot work without the continued application of force/violence. As Toni Negri explains, the more that capital attempts to constrain proletarian power, as the progressive force that drives capitalist development, “the more it finds itself bereft of any positive logic, and is forced simply to arm itself with violence and brutality”.

    2. …but it is also incredibly fragile

    Yes, capitalism is incredibly fragile and now faces a whole range of intensifying crises. Importantly, the crisis of capitalist value is a crisis of value as domination and violence. And, as you say, states are being relied on to manage this crisis. Here they are expected to both ‘save capitalism from itself’ and do capital’s bidding. This tension is fairly clear within the EU, IMF, etc. Meanwhile various capitalist state forms are vying for supremacy and coming into conflict with each other – further destabilising the global ‘order’. Meanwhile, the revolt in Greece is part of a widespread upsurge of rebellion that does ‘threaten this whole set up’. So, the Troika, and the capitalist class generally, must be greatly concerned about further ‘contagion’.

    The question of ‘what the fuck are these worth’, being loudly heard today outside banks in Athens and stock markets in China, was the most repeated and important concern of capitalist analysts during the GFC. There was no clear answer then and there can be clear answer now. This is partially because the crisis is so complex, there is no reliable data, and no one really knows what has happened, or is happening. This is a huge problem for the system, as it requires measuring processes and values that result in common activity for capitalism. Importantly, debt cannot be accurately valued. This is partially because debt is value that will be realised in the future and when future profits, to be realised through future exploitation, are thrown into question, debt bubbles burst and the social relations of capitalist value crumble.

    3. The movement from a class in itself to one for itself involves both social conversation and social division.

    I’m not really sure what you mean by “There is a noticeable distance between the working class and the proletariat” and I’m not keen on the distinction between ‘the class in itself and for itself’. Hardt and Negri analyse the proletariat, not as a revolutionary subject, but as a swarm of subjectivities, made up of the whole host of self-defined needs, values, desires and activities. But it is often unclear which activities are for, or against, capital or for, or against, communism. Understandings of how best to go about organising and practising revolutionary activity arises from the clarity produced by class struggles, by the achievements and failures of communist praxes – ‘people learn history by making history’. From the rich and varied history and legacies of proletarian struggle, we can discern that the multitude is neither unified nor stable, no more static than its activity. As Hardt and Negri explain, the politics of identity creates static positions, whereas, due to the multitude’s creativity, personal and social transformation are a continual process of revolutionary becoming.

    4. Internationalism is a priori condition of national struggles being successful.

    As you mention the “Syriza government wouldn’t ‘survive without a great deal of international solidarity.” However, the question of international solidarity again raises issues of clarity – what should we, or can we, do? While Syriza attempts to ‘make a deal’ with the Troika, tries to woo Russia and China, as ALBA declares support, and people organise a variety of actions and activities across the globe – what is our strategy and what are we meant to be supporting?

    I know that you’re concerned with the slide into civil war and Greece doesn’t have to look far into its own history, or very far across the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, to picture a bleak future. Global civil war is a reality that must be confronted and the dangers of the situation in Greece are fairly clear. However,

    5. The future is unwritten.

    While I’m not a big Stereolab fan, and prefer a cycle of struggles analysis, the intergenerational impact of previous wars “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But, Joe Strummer was right – the future is unwritten – and as you say this “is both exhilarating and terrifying.”

    Proletarian power is manifested in capitalist crisis and this forces capital to face the fact that the initiative and effectiveness of proletarian struggle cannot be ignored, or effectively dealt with by capital in its present form. Capital uses crisis to try to capture and gain control over the labour that is escaping it, reorganising the global network of capitalist power relations. But as capital recomposes Empire the multitude recomposes the proletariat.

    We are likely to see intensified struggles over the hierarchy of the global capitalist order and a range of strategies to re-launch accumulation. At the same time, new proletarian movements will counter the use of crisis to legitimate intensified capitalist violence in the form of austerity, unemployment, environmental destruction, nationalism, racism, terror, fascism and war. As capitalist crisis and class struggle intensifies, it is important to recognise that the proletariat has the ability to force capital into reformism (neo-social democracy?) as well as the ability to develop alternatives to the violence of capitalist value.

    1. Thanks Nick. These are really great insights and I will have to have a think about them whilst I obsessively read about Greece.
      Point taken about the sectarian ‘gags’ – I’ll try to dial that down.

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