Frédéric Lordon: Syriza in a bind

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Frédéric Lordon, author of Willing Slaves of Capital follows his considered analysis of Syriza's "fork in the road", focussing on the difficult choices the new government face in power.



We knew that the Syriza experience would provide an object lesson in politics, with all the fundamental bases of power and sovereignty being laid bare as the legal and financial niceties evaporated. And here we are: even sooner than we expected.

As we could also have expected, the nerve centre of this power play is in Frankfurt, at the European Central Bank. No article in the European treaties provides any legal basis for showing a member state the door – but the ECB can do so, entirely of its own discretion and without any process or democratic control. And it’s just given us a foretaste of this, just ten days after an ‘unsuitable’ government came to power backed by a popular movement, having the sheer gall to demand an end to the insane torment to which our dear Europe has subjected Greece. That is, a country in the heart of the European Union that’s been forced into a situation of humanitarian crisis [1] – indeed, forced into it by the EU. After a few other similar examples, we ought to think of using this country’s experience to formulate a legal concept of  ‘economic persecution’ – as well as saying who the persecutors are. On the receiving end is the Greek people, which has given itself a legitimate government with a mandate to end this state of persecution. It is a sovereign government.  

As we have long known – from the outset, in fact – Europe’s answer to the question of sovereignty is… ‘No’. The golden-tongued St. Jean-Claude Juncker never misses an opportunity to offer his wise words, such as this fatalist view of politics: ‘there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’ [2]. And so Europe invites the Greek people to go to hell… but in a democratic way, following the treaties’ stipulations. 

It should now be clear enough that the object lesson, here, has to do with two radically different conceptions of democracy: one meaning popular sovereignty, and then another opposite one meaning enslavement to the treaties. When I put that binary a different way – Syriza’s choice between capitulation or open sedition – I was talking about a fork in the road, leading to the ultimate victory of one or the other of these conceptions. We have reached this parting of ways very quickly. And by showing what the reality of the treaties is (and it is not written in their articles) the ECB has proved what kind of democracy is driving the EU.

ECB blackmail; or, naked power

We can now easily see the very thing that the ordinary workings of monetary policy usually throw a veil over. Wrapped up in the technical procedures of refinancing is an entire worldview; and as is so often the case, concealed assumptions become clearly visible in moments of crisis. Cutting off the supply refinancing the Greek banks has no narrowly monetary-policy justification. After all, didn’t the ECB previously make the sovereign decision (for sovereignty never disappears entirely – it just moves around) to relax its own rules and accept the Greek debt titles as collateral, even though they were no longer ‘investment-grade’? And it was an equally sovereign move – though an inverse one – for it to go back on this measure, at its own discretion. This was clearly a way of telling the Greek government that given the attitude it has struck, the ECB won’t continue making things easy for it.

In a carefully calibrated constriction strategy, the ECB is making its strength clear while not (yet) entirely bringing the Greek banking system to its knees. It remains a source of financing for this latter, through the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) programme. But this is in fact even more expensive, in that it provides liquidity at a 1.55% interest rate as against… 0.05% for ordinary funding. Moreover, as a ‘special’ programme, the ELA is subject to strict quotas; and since this could mean brutally cutting off funding at any moment, the Greek banking system (as well as the government) are in an extremely precarious situation. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, ELA operations have been ‘delegated’ to national central banks, in this case being shifted onto the Greek central bank’s shoulders. It is clear enough why this decision has been taken, indeed echoing the recently introduced plans on Quantitative Easing: it is an isolation strategy. Now the Greek debt titles no longer appear on the ECB’s balance sheet; they are instead parked on the Greek central bank’s own books. It’s crystal-clear what their warning is: ‘Don’t imagine for a second that threatening to leave will have any effect on us; far from it, we’re creating the conditions where if you don’t give in we’ll show you the door, and you’ll have to take your own troubles with you’.

So now we know the extent of Europe’s liberal extremism. After all, Tsipras has considerably lowered his sights, no longer talking of cancelling the debt (even though it is unsustainable). Yet it seems that even for him to suggest reallocating public spending in a way that doesn’t fully satisfy the structural adjustment conditions – and even within an unchanging macroeconomic framework – is an intolerable heresy.

Of course, it would be impossible to implement Syriza’s minimum programme of emergency humanitarian measures (putting the minimum wage back in place and raising the lowest pensions, and rehiring a few thousand civil servants) by simply reallocating resources, without any effect on overall spending. It is also clear that the extra tax yield – which Syriza has agreed that Greece needs – is at the mercy of an extremely unreliable fiscal administration. If there is a single ‘structural reform’ that Syriza urgently needs to undertake, this is the one – as everyone will agree, first of all the Greeks. It may even be the case that Syriza, which is less bogged down in the morass of clientelism than the other parties, is the force best able to implement this. So its minimum programme doubtless requires an ex ante extension of the deficit.

It is not even certain that this would lead to an ex post deficit; quite the contrary. Clearly having quite the talent for pressing its thumbs into Greece’s throat, it is the EU and its senseless restrictions that have precipitated the country into a depression best compared to the US situation of the 1930s. While out of intellectual laziness we call it ‘the Greek debt’, it is not in fact the Greeks’ debt: soaring deficits and the collapse of growth from 2010 onward were less the result of Greek negligence than an economic-policy assassination at the hands of the EU, in the name of ‘saving’ the country. So when the member states offer to help keep Greece above water, it’s in large part a response to a shipwreck they themselves caused: we could even say that effectively the EU is using Greece to bail out the EU! Splendid stuff, which would be a fine addition to a theatre of the absurd – though it wasn’t so crazy from the investors’ point of view, some of them making a good profit from all this despite the restructuring of the debt.

In any case, redistributing purchasing power to the advantage of those who we can be sure will spend it in full is a very rational economic policy indeed – but European thinking deserted that kind of rationality quite a while ago. The Greek government went to the ECB seeking the financing of a temporary deficit that has every chance of paying for itself. Now we know what the response was, and what degree of help the European institutions are prepared to offer the Greek people whose poverty they ought to be so ashamed of: nothing.

Everyone abandons Syriza

They’re bastards. All of them, everywhere. Reuters revealed the gist of a German report drafted in the run-up to the 5 February finance ministers’ meeting [3]: ‘No’ to everything. No and nothing: the two great watchwords of European-democracy-in-compliance-with-the-treaties. Should we deduce that Germany is alone responsible for this tough line? Come off it: all of them are. Neither Spain nor Ireland nor – most shameful of all – ‘socialist’ France came to Syriza’s aid. For a very simple reason: none of them have the slightest interest in this alternative lasting – why, it might even succeed! And then what would these gentlemen look like, having imposed destruction on their populations all for nothing? Well, they’d look like what they are. Imbeciles, as well as bastards.

We wouldn’t fancy being in Tsipras’s shoes, or those of his ministers: they are all alone, abandoned. But does the European Union really know what it’s doing? There was good reason to think that some minimal combination of a tough approach behind closed doors and a façade of congeniality would have allowed for a false compromise, effectively meaning Syriza’s capitulation. Either entirely or not quite so, with a few token concessions that could have been bigged up. Between Syriza’s desire to remain in the Eurozone, the inertia effect of its changed agenda, and the protective space of political institutions distancing rulers from the ruled, Tsipras would probably have chosen a bad compromise to buy time and leave hope for possible future improvements (and hope always dies last).

But there are limits to the humiliation that a head of government can endure, without totally losing face. And everything seems as if the EU is itself pushing Greece toward the exit. Washing its hands of the whole affair, of course, leaving hardly any other choice to the Greek government: either capitulation or open sedition. There’s no escaping it. When a minimum of self-respect forbids outright capitulation – and if, as we have long argued, this EU cannot be reclaimed – then the only option for whoever wants to shake off the neoliberal straitjacket is open sedition.

If developments ever reached this critical point, then that would be of truly historic significance. Everything would unravel very quickly, with the Greek central bank’s immediate break from the European System of Central Banks; the complete repudiation of the debt; the establishment of capital controls; and the nationalisation/requisition of the banks. In an interview that we probably didn’t pay enough attention to, Yanis Varoufakis dropped in a few choice words whose importance ought not be overlooked: ‘We are ready to lead an austere existence, which is something different from austerity’ [4]. And indeed it is very different – radically different, even. The difference between an austere life and austerity is the difference between a lifestyle that we ourselves take responsibility for, and submission to a technocratic tyranny. After all, leaving the euro would certainly be no dinner party. But that is politics, in the highest sense of the word: putting the people in control and letting it take its own fate in hand. It may well mean being poorer for a while. But it would first and foremost be a totally different division of responsibilities, giving this ‘austere life’ the highly political meaning of a restoration of sovereignty, and perhaps even a profoundly different socio-economic model.

Politics, again

In any case, for the first time in a long while there are people at the head of a European country who really know what politics is – a plot of power, desires and passions. Exactly the opposite of the eunuch-beancounters who are in power everywhere else, like the bespectacled tadpole [Jean-Jacques Barberis] that the cover of the current Nouvel Observateur tells us is one of the brains behind François Hollande.

(Incidentally, if you want to know what real politicians look like, that is, people who know the powerful and violent essence of politics, look at the faces of the former Shin Bet [Israeli secret service] chiefs interviewed in the tremendous documentary Gatekeepers. Whatever you think of their activity [5], they have had to operate in one of the places on the planet where the tragic essence of the political is on display in its highest form. And then cast an admiring look at a photo of Michel Sapin [French finance minister] or a smiling Emmanuel Macron [minister for the economy, industry and IT]

I mention that for a reason: after all, this threat of tragedy is also hanging over Greece, which has its own bastards to deal with domestically, too. In an article shedding light on an oft-forgotten aspect of the Greek situation, Thierry Vincent [6] not only reminds us of the none-too-distant history of the colonels’ regime, but furthermore talks of the very present reality of an apparatus plagued by not only ordinary corruption but also the dark forces at work in structures underlying the state machine. As always, they are organised around the forces of order – the police, the justice system, and the army – whose connivance with the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis is well-known, and in which the worst of insubordinate currents may now be simmering.

The obsession with economics almost ends up making us forget that the main threat to the Syriza experience is probably a political one; less a matter of the debt not being rescheduled as what Thierry Vincent calls ‘coups tordus’ [dirty tricks] and we perhaps ought just to call ‘coups’. So, to return to how we earlier posed it, Syriza faces a choice between capitulation – that is, winning nothing important and destroying the very idea of a progressive alternative in Greece, opening the way to the only remaining alternative, the worst of all solutions – or else open sedition. This could mean a series of steps taking it toward direct confrontation with capital – and we know how the ‘democracies’ historically used to deal with that kind of disagreement…  

Proof-by-Syriza?

Following along with the Germans’ rigidity, the Europe of halfwits – the Junckers, Moscovicis, Sapins etc., radically ignorant of what politics really is – are wholly unthinkingly playing with peoples’ misery, without the least concern for the dark forces beginning to circle above them. And speaking of halfwits, now they can count some famous organic intellectuals in their number, like Bernard Guetta, who has belatedly embarked upon an improbable career as a situationist. But he’s doing it back-to-front: Guy Debord said that in the society of the spectacle ‘the true is a moment of the false’, whereas for Guetta the false is a moment of the true. Look at his column ‘Proof-by-Syriza’ [7] and methodically turn every point of analysis the other way around, and you’d get a pretty good representation of the current state of the EU and the European Left. Whereas if we take it literally, we get total phantasmagoria, delirium. Two days after the election, Guetta saw the simultaneous arrival of Syriza and Quantitative Easing as the EU’s bold new dawn…

Well you’d have to have good eyesight, or maybe a fair dose of serotonin, to be able to see ‘the announcement of new European economic policies’ in the fact that five years after all the other central banks in the world the ECB has finally launched a Quantitative Easing programme, following long-unresolved internal struggles and having had to wait for confirmed evidence of deflation in order to have a legal basis for action. And we already know that this won’t have much effect.

And we’d need to take even stronger substances in order to be able to see, like Guetta does, that ‘European unity is not, in itself, a neoliberal project’. ‘It’s just a beginning’, our junkie exclaims, ‘but what a fine series of events’. When the nurses have taken him away we’ll only remember the title of his article (which was clearly written in conditions that should strike fear into the hearts of any cyclists he happens to pass by). Yet, unexpectedly enough, it does have one thing right: the Syriza experience really will prove something. The question is – what?

[1] See Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler, ‘Quand l’austérité tue’, Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2014.

[2] Jean-Claude Juncker, interview, Le Figaro, 29 January 2015.

[3] ‘ECB cancels soft treatment of Greek debt in warning to Athens’, Reuters, 4 February 2015.

[4] Nous sommes prêtes à mener une vie austère’, Le Monde, 25 January 2015.

[5] As it happens – and as everyone who has seen the film will know –these former secret service chiefs make a damning case against the policy the Israeli government have been pursuing for decades.

[6] Thierry Vincent, ‘Un espoir modéré, la crainte des coups tordus », Le Monde Diplomatique’, February 2015.

[7] Bernard Guetta, ‘La preuve par Syriza’, Libération, 27 January 2015.

By Frédéric Lordon

Translated by David Broder.


See the original piece here.