Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Perils of Success

The left is emerging as a powerful force in European politics, whilst simultaneously being robbed of its illusions about power.

Recent developments suggest a cruel reality for left politics: Syriza is elected in Greece to be promptly defeated by the furrows of the Greek state, the oligarchy, and the European creditors. Podemos and left cohorts win power in Barcelona only to tank in the polls. Germany's Die Linke proves an internally divided - but federally singular - opposition to austerity in the Bundestag. The Front de Gauche sinks from its 2012 highs, while in tiny, ex-socialist Slovenia, a young, radical Left rises. In Britain the collapse of traditional social democracy is seemingly made plain in the May elections, only for a radical grassroots movement to spring up around the socialist Jeremy Corbyn. The list of radical movements gathered in and around political parties of various effectiveness (Sinn Fein, the Scottish National Party) is long; the trend, clear.

All this in the past eight months alone. Make no mistake: left-wing politics is returning definitively to Europe. The crisis cycle starting in 2008 - once widely perceived as an issue of economic managerialism with a niggling, if violent, social component - has mutated into a political regime crisis, though not yet one of the state. As Nicos Poulantzas, the great Marxist theorist put it, "Economic crisis, then, can translate itself into political crisis.  But this does not imply a chronological concordance."

The progress made on all fronts is hardly uniform. The timing is often out. Things do not simply fall into place - the world is not like that. Precisely because of the geographic and sectoral shifts of the crisis (from banks to fiscal budgets to the very architecture of the single currency), the political response is delayed and bursts forth in one place only to retreat elsewhere. 

How have left movements and parties responded to the rolling and splitting crisis, its uneven and combined development? A singular example - Europe's most advanced case - crystallises the general form.

Syriza in Greece took power with a deeply contradictory policy: end austerity, keep the euro - a policy that was mediated at every point by the European powers. So the policy failed, of course. The real problem was the failure to understand that central contradiction and to exploit it. Syriza fatally mistook the concentrated power of the European treaties for an open, negotiable body. It also uniformly failed to attack the basis of the Greek oligarchy and the crumpled state apparatus that serves them so well. Its failure was double: to generate an alternative to blind pro-Europeanism and to begin to transform the state and media apparatus into something more transparent and democratic. 

That case is advanced relative to other left political movements, but that is precisely why it is exemplary. More generally, there is an achingly clear absence on the left of planning for what happens when the power of the state; the power of European enforced legality, the power of markets; and the power of the media strikes back against their initial popular-democratic successes. The attack by the powerful on a government of the left will be vicious. This viciousness will be more than rhetorical. It will not be a war of words alone. Power has two aspects: hegemony and domination. The latter runs like a buried stream within the former. It becomes decidedly more prominent when transgressions are made. Here concrete modes of violence will come into play.

In short, the right and all pro-capitalist forces will cease to mock the democratic and popular left forces and turn their attention to the well-practised art of annihilation. They will mobilise the press, of course. But they won't stop there. Markets can go on strike against workers. Even if they do not do so automatically, they can be forced to - witness the Greek banking sector after the deliberate tightening of ECB liquidity. The apparatus of the state - already hostile to the left - can and will seize up. Transnational, post-democratic treaties come into effect, cutting off vital funds to those who transgress.

Left governments will likely not be fighting verbal battles. They will be confronting the massed power of the state. If they do not prepare, war-like, for that confrontation, they will first be starved and then roundly ejected from their tiny governmental perch within the state apparatus.

Yes, there's power in a political movement - psychological strength; social solidarity; moral vindication; popular and democratic legitimacy, and so on. But the "power bloc" composes itself within not only the central organs of the state, but also its various tendrils (the central bank; the judiciary; various think tanks and the largely obedient media). A tangle of lobbies, think tanks, party cadres, intellectuals, researchers and journalists are bundled into the latter, mediating between popular opinion and elites. "Never mind your popular mandate and your moral righteousness," is their attitude. "We're going to destroy you." That after all is the Machiavellian lesson of power: it is not commanded by popular sentiment or dictated to by morality, but rather overdetermines it. We saw precisely this in Greece. 

We saw this in Greece and - despite decades of reading our Machiavelli, our Lenin, our Gramsci - we were surprised. It was almost as if there was a gap between theoretical and practical knowledge. Of course that old bogeyman, the Marxist-Leninist dialectic, had a thing or two to say about the developing relation between theory and practice. But one moment of that dialectic - practice - is resoundingly failing to respond to the concrete situation. One could say the Left is demobilised by all the potent fetishes of liberal democracy. The weakness originates in what is for many of us a simple truth: we are inexperienced in dealing directly with power. We on the radical left studied the critiques but failed to develop their practical aspects. In other words, we took liberal democracy at its tolerant, inclusive word. History proves that neoliberal capitalism will not tolerate the slightest dissent from its strictures.
A mass movement can be beaten. Its social power is by no means irresistible. It will not, by sheer hugeness, overwhelm the state, unless it is also combative. Popular democratic will means nothing if it offends the good taste of those in power. A left movement must of course have a political articulation (gone are the days when people thought you could change the world by not taking power). But getting elected and forming a government are not alone enough either. Here the political representation of the movement must develop rapidly, from a historically low ebb, to radical conclusions. The situation is not ideal - but as history shows, the right moment never comes. So the movement must also push a reticent leadership forward.

Again, the point is both specific and general. In Britain the movement to elect Jeremy Corbyn Labour leader betrays all the signs typical of the European left as a whole. It believes the Party leadership, the parliamentary system, the oligarchic media and the state qua state will tolerate their democratic victory. Or rather they believe that, by peaceful demonstration of their democratic and popular mandate, they can get a slither of what they want. 

If this were true, Syriza would be reflating the Greek economy with the help of European investment funds as we speak. Instead it is locked in a vicious austerity drive, implemented by a radical left government supposedly intent on ending austerity. 

This fact cannot be stressed enough: the left will have to attack its enemies aggressively if it is to survive the existential peril of victory. Were Corbyn to defy all odds and win the Labour leadership he would immediately have to democratise the Party, allowing his supporters much greater access to decision making processes. Winning real power over the Labour Party will take an offensive struggle. The watchword "unity" would have to go out of the window. If the majority of members supported him, Corbyn would have to fight against his own MPs to entrench his democratic support base within the Party. Otherwise he would be isolated and crushed by the party logic.

When the political articulation of a mass movement is put through the ringer and promptly hung out to dry, the movement can very easily dry out too. We socialists will be left crowing from the sidelines as a "unity" candidate picks up second preference votes. With due nods to radical hopes, they will revert to centrist type.

These are bold conclusions, but they are well-founded. It is crucial in the weeks ahead that the movement around Corbyn prepares for this struggle.

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