Wednesday 28 January 2015

Syriza's Interesting Allies

By their friends shall ye know them? This old adage has got some folks feeling a bit uncomfortable as the new Syriza government apparently cosies up to Mother Russia. This is by no means a new thing. Last year Alexis Tsipras provided Putin's interventions in Ukraine with some political cover. Interesting friends of Syriza are by no means confined to the Kremlin, however. Someone else saying warm words is Peter Spence, economics correspondent for The Telegraph. And today out comes an establishment someone else to give Syriza's message succour: Mark Carney of the Bank of England has attacked Eurozone austerity. Whatever next, eulogies in The Sun and Mail? It's only a matter of time before Rupert Murdoch calls for the top 100 monopolies to be nationalised.

Let's separate the economics from the foreign relations for a moment and reflect on the character of capital across the European Union. At one level of remove, all capital is the same. It has certain interests in common, chief of which always and everywhere is the maintenance and strengthening of the system that makes capital possible. Bound up and utterly inseparable from this is wage labour. For capital to reproduce itself as capital, it cannot escape the living labour power resident in the brains and muscles of human beings. It tries, it's always tried. Mechanisation, automation, computerisation, seeks to put distance between accumulation and the production of goods and services, but it cannot. Machinery requires technicians. Computers require programmers and IT specialists. Services require service givers. Because capital is and always will be hopelessly dependent on human bodies, it is in a constant collective struggle with those it employs to render living labour dependent on the dead. Capital is but the accumulated wealth realised by labour power past. As beings who, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases, lack property to provide a private income we have to sell that labour power in return for a wage or salary in order to survive. Therefore in capitalist societies, the real terms of the dependency are reversed. A society populated by workers without capital can be conceived. A society with capital and no workers cannot.

Yet as we zoom in at a greater level of magnification, there are considerable differences among capital as well. Their common interest is constantly in tension with their individual interests. Bits of capital in certain sectors scrap over markets and resources. Sectors of capital scrap with each other over wider political and cultural influence. Nation-states scrap with each other to further the interests of their capitals in far-flung markets, and so on. An example of this in British politics is how the Tories and Labour are aligned with different fractions of capital. Another is how capital across the continent is divided about the merits of the EU, and/or the relationship it has with the USA, China, Russia, and emerging markets.

Capital is similarly divided about Greece and austerity generally. Some sections, usually the most short-sighted and more likely to either benefit directly from cheap, flexible labour markets, or from finance taking bits of wrecked economies and throwing them into the alchemical fires, are intensely chillaxed about austerity. The more the merrier. Other bits of capital, those whose moments of accumulation play out over the longer term, or profit from state activism in various markets, are less sanguine. This is the section that realises too much austerity sucks demand from economies. Businesses and consumers generally have less cash to splash, thereby threatening a spiral of decline that might threaten the profitability of capital-in-general and lead to unpleasant political consequences.

Mark Carney is of this school. His comments hinge on EU economic integration, of how the dynamic of competition between the different national capitals of Eurozone states has not seen a natural convergence despite the single currency, shared fiscal rules, and the ECB. The next round of quantitative easing, or creating digital money, to buy up public sector debt (repeating again the counter-intuitive act of the government/taxpayer owning government/taxpayer debt) should overcome unevenness and work to float the boats of those economies worst hit by the financial crisis. Piling on the austerity merely deepens problems by wrecking an economy's capacity to grow down deficits and move on to reducing debts naturally. Carney's intervention certainly gives more power to Syriza's elbow when it comes to renegotiating Greece's debt, a welcome coincidence of divergent interests one might say that could expose divisions in the 'official' position and make a worst case scenario for Greece less and less likely.

This section of capital will always try and make the best of a bad situation pregnant with existential threat. Stalinism was denounced by its Trotskyists critics for, among many other things, doing deals with capitalist powers in return for security. It didn't always work out. Likewise, in the event of Syriza-style radical left governments coming to power elsewhere in Europe there will be sections of business that fulminate, rage, disinvest, and attempt to subvert the new state of affairs. Others will seek some sort of accommodation and talk down the threat posed to capital as a whole. Peter Spence's Telegraph piece is in that mould. Writing of Yanis Varoufakis, the new finance minister, the radical creds are played down and his competence as a British-trained economist talked up. He is a "fan of markets in many contexts", we're told. The sub-text is clear, here's a man with which we can do business. Besides, politically speaking, normalising the abnormal knocks edges off any potential threat coming from labour movement and radical parties here taking Greek lessons, and is a salve to oneself too. If we see Syriza as a blip because of exceptional economic difficulties, and they're acting radically within recognisable parameters of governance then there might not be anything to fear after all.

Returning to foreign affairs, what will concern capital across the EU is the relationship being cultivated with Vladimir Putin. It's cause for disquiet among some otherwise left wing friends of Syriza too. Not surprising really. Yet if by some weird quirk of fate, and as distasteful as I'd find it, were I in the Greek foreign ministry it's a relationship worth pursuing, even if it means treating with the so-called National Bolsheviks. Russia's economy is in the merde thanks to collapsing oil prices, but it's still tussling with the EU over Ukraine and other matters. You don't have to be schooled in centuries of diplomatic game playing to see that a visible, some might say ostentatious, warming of relations between Athens and Moscow sends a message to EU capitals. Are Angela Merkel and the austerity die-hards going to block debt renegotiation if it weakens their hand against Putin? Of course not. A good relationship with Russia is a string to Syriza's bow and strengthens their negotiating position. Realpolitik eh?

When all is said and done, Syriza have an incredibly difficult task before it. If it can make use if allies of convenience with the realms of European finance, if it can exploit the tensions between the EU and Russia to carry through its immediate programme of debt renegotiation, they will find no criticism from me. The stakes are high for Greece and, by extension, for us too. Watch. Learn.


WillORNG said...

Hi Phil, I've been following your blog for a few months now.

What do you make of Bill Mitchell's take on Greece/Austerity in these couple of recent blogs?

I think you'll find them interesting, especially the one inbetween about Smart Austerity being Dumb Austerity.

BCFG said...

You hinted at something here with your last sentence:

"The stakes are high for Greece and, by extension, for us too. Watch. Learn."

Indeed, we are in pretty much an unprecedented situation, Syriza have to deal with this and they are getting advise from everywhere. Ok no problem with that. But while we rant and rave if they do not follow our preferred path we should still watch and learn from what they do.

I am not saying it is an experiment because it is too serious for that but we will learn things we didn't know before, if we can digest that and not simply mouth off when it goes right or wrong! Too many people think they have all the answers and are looking to proved correct, rather than humbly thinking, what can I learn from all this.

Anonymous said...

yes, but i would hope that one of syriza's top priorities would be that through the right combination of policy and politics, come next election, golden dawn, which is now the third largest party in the greek parliament, be chased back into whatever rat hole they came from, and be reduced to some insignificant grouplet on the fringe of the lunatic right.