The left in power

Extended version of talk delivered in Chicago (April 2013)

Introductory remarks

I would like to thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to share with you some thoughts regarding the relation of emancipatory politics and state power.

My contribution will be to point out features of the issue we are currently examining due to the fact that having a left government is not a rhetorical question or a hypothesis in order to develop a theoretical point; it is not a product of our own political will either. It is a product of class struggle, political collisions and social frictions that shape drastically the context in which issues like the one we are discussing acquire their meaning.

The current situation in Greece

Greek society is rapidly dismantling over the last 3 years, the economy did not only shrink by 25% of GDP within the last five years but it also shows signs of collapse. It is obvious that from the point of view of people’s interests, Greek people are already in a humanitarian crisis and an existential deadlock.

The third pro-memorandum government is launching a far-right attack to the people and the left. This strategy of creating tension in order to block SYRIZA from widening its influence and the strategy of shrinking democracy in order to implement a blatantly disastrous policy for the majority of the people causes dangerous damages to the democratic constitution of the state.

At the same time, the drastic cuts in public spending shake the administrative structure of the country undermining vital operational features necessary for the sovereignty of the state. In Greece today we have a dismantled society, a collapsed economy, a wounded democracy and a disorganized state.

If this is the context in which the left and the resisting, democratic and progressive part of the people should find a way to overthrow the domestic establishment and take the political power we must situate it in a broader picture in order to grasp the nature of the war the neoliberals declared to societies.

The strategic horizon of neoliberal revolution

According to my understanding, neoliberalism is not just an economical theory but an anthropological approach and a revolutionary project whose goal is to reshape societies drastically. All aspects of social life should be re-organized in such a way that the logic of profit and competition will be the only regulative principle. All other values and criteria should be expelled and democracy as well for it undermines the foundations of the neoliberal ideal. The expansion of this logic is pressing today due to the global capitalist financial crisis.

In Europe this means: brutal redistribution of existing wealth in favor of the economic elite as a response to the crisis, implementation of the “despotism of the market” (harsh downgrading of work conditions, education, health care, environment, culture, standard of life in general, abolition of democracy) and consolidation of the logic of profit and competition. And all these are taken to be necessary in order to upgrade European competitiveness while taking the Asiatic authoritarian capitalism as a model.

European capitalist societies and states are thought to be unacceptable because other criteria and values than profit and competition dominate or affect the way they are organized in several sections. Democracy is an obstacle since if competition and short-time profit automatize the decision-making process there is nothing to discuss in a democratic way. Even more, the democratic process allows other criteria and values to intrude in decision-making thus undermining heavily the proper function of the laws of the market. The same is true also for dignity, social solidarity, environmental, educational and other values and so on.

All this is not something new. Third world and Eastern Europe have already subjected to this project in a cruel way. The developed world was taking the “right” steps more slowly due to the strong connections that people have to the “unacceptable” aspects of the French revolution, of the revolutionary birth ethos of modern nation-states and the existence of left forces in various forms.

The rapid change in the balance of forces within the last 20 years together with the eruption of the financial crisis signaled the final attack: the emergency of the capitalist crisis does not allow compromises anymore and creates the opportunity needed for the neoliberals to rush with determination and maximum force at the last fortresses of social and state practices that do not fit competition (working rights, democracy, universal rights, welfare state etc). They are attacking the last fortresses of dignity and democracy.

Loosely speaking, in Europe the neoliberals are trying to rip off the French revolution and its legacy, to conclude the restoration of despotism and give birth to a brave new world in which pro-modern ways of organizing a society will merge with the logic of profit and competition, a new despotism of the markets, a ‘serious’ society in which the plebeians will have no voice or participation to the decision making for the course of the societies.

Widening our view

Neoliberal policy instantiates and deepens the global capitalist crisis through its own effort to stop it. This is a crucial lesson from Marx. We must not only organize the people to fight against the neoliberal attack to their lives, we must also be able to face the disaster that accompanies the capitalist crisis which is not visible from the point of view of our opponents.

Additionally, global financial crisis coincides with other modes of crisis all stemming from the imposition of the logic of profit and competition in various domains: climate change, consumption of energy resources and raw materials, administering of food and water supplies, huge technological advances with unknown effects, wars and movements of populations etc. In a situation like this the inhuman logic of profit and competition is the worst possible regulative principle to be the dominant one. The exclusion of human dignity and democracy as guiding principles in front of these huge issues poses the future of humanity under question. The whole humanity is under threat from neoliberalism, the fight against neoliberalism is not only a fight for a dignified and democratic society; it is a fight for the existence of human society in the first place.

The good news is that the rapid expansion of the capitalist crisis shapes a feeling of global awareness all over the world. More and more people realize the common fate, the fact that there is no salvation for a nation as long as the other ones will be enslaved. The fight for a dignified democratic society of humans against the inhuman neoliberal administration of affairs is irrevocably a global class war.

Neoliberalism and state

For neoliberals the state is an enormous reserve of resources indispensable for the radical change of society. Contrary to the common wisdom, neoliberalism believes in state power. The funny thing is that they are strictly Leninists and Poulantzians at the same time to that matter: they need the state in order to implement their social engineering, in order to use it they must transform it drastically and at the same time they devitalize it by extracting powers from it and passing them onto the only proper agents of the society, namely the money/capital owners. Let me say a few more words here.

The Poulantzian moment: the fact that the state is a capitalist state means nothing to neoliberals. The state condenses the class balance of forces which determines the balance of different and rival logics inside it. So, they systematically fight to affect the balance of social forces – on the economical, political and ideological level – and at the same time to take over the government in order to transform the state according to their project against not only the left but other conceptions of the nature of society and the role of the state. They not only dismantle sections of the state like public education (because it is governed by the ideal of a universal right and the coherency of scientific disciplines which are rivals to the commodification) but at the same time they use enormous state resources in order to implement commodification in education (e.g. EU and state bureaucracy issues various funding, directives etc for this reason).

The Leninist moment: Neoliberals revolt against sections of the state in which other logic than the logic of profit and competition is dominant. Some of them must be demolished and others must be “liberated” from the state following the logic of profit and competition (e.g. independent central banks or the institutions of EU transform democratic control into imposition of the logic of capital). The process of necrosis passes on powers of the state directly to the financial agents: the financing of the economy is prohibited by the state, only the capital/money owners have this authority, which allows them to enforce their logic. This process constitutes advance of the neoliberal ideal and fortification against the influence of the people (which is basically the same). In my terminology, they fight with determination to enhance the influence of their logic in the state and to diminish/disappear the rival logic, the logic of the left.

This methodology combined with the present-day global financial system raises crucial questions regarding the viability of national independency and popular rule of the nation-state, the only form of organization through which people have acquired some sort of power and access to decision-making processes through democracy. The fight against neoliberalism is not only a fight regarding the character of the state; it is gradually becoming a fight for the preservation of the democratic constitution of human societies.

So, regarding the state, we could say that neoliberals are not dogmatic. Like Leninists they devitalize the existent state – which is the outcome of a previous class balance of forces – by removing powers from democratic control and by destroying sections that are governed by a rival logic and like Poulantzians they change the nature of the remaining state establishing principles of function that conform to their logic and they use it in order to install further their logic in social reality.

Special conditions of assuming the government in Greece

A left government in Greece will be a valuable victory, a local victory in a global fight. The European neoliberal elite and the domestic establishment will lose one crucial fortress. The people’s political firepower will enormously increase in comparison with today. The fight will be upgraded and the stakes for both sides will be raised.

A left government in Europe will be an extremely valuable support for all Europeans and it surely will change drastically the balance of power in all other countries. It will be the first serious rival inside the EU against neoliberal austerity representing people’s interests, and it will be the first time that the Greek people will be present at the negotiations for the handling of the debt crisis. The European summits will be transformed from private working groups between like-minded fellows, to a public space all of a sudden, since there will be somebody who does not share the same point of view.

These are the positive consequences from an electoral victory of the people and the left in Greece as the outcome of the social and political struggles of the last years. From then on the waters are uncharted. Let’s see some special conditions of assuming the political power today in a developed but destroyed country.

  1. In the left we are aware that the political power does not coincide with the control over production, with the economic power (which is the crucial one that determines the nature of the social formation). However, today political power does not even include the powers that it used to. The government and the state political power are seriously compromised due to the deliberate work they have been doing all these years according to their neoliberal logic. Powers that traditionally belonged to the state are today autonomous (central banks, independent regulators, super courts etc), others belong to transnational institutions (e.g. monetary, fiscal, agricultural policy in Eurozone and EU) and others are directly in the hands of the economic elite (financing, banks, mass media, ports and means of trade etc). The contemporary state has less resources available to act as an economical agent (public banks and financing, public institutes for democratic planning, monetary tools and so on). Besides, the interconnectedness of the national economies is advanced increasing the diffusion of state powers. It will be a government without crucial traditional tools.

  2. The current global crisis and the deceleration of economic growth do not allow the deployment of a moderate strategy according to which magnification of the economy through domestic capitalist development and a fairer redistribution of the produced wealth may improve the conditions of living of the people without affecting the capitalist power in production (roughly what the progressive governments of Brazil and Argentina did until now). Accordingly, a left government cannot be based solely on redistribution through taxation, because the freedom of the circulation of capital renders difficult to grasp the accumulated wealth.

The crucial feature of our predicament is not the objective difficulties because of the capitalist crisis and the globalization of the economy but the political difficulties. Even moderate strategies pose unacceptable threats for the ongoing neoliberal European strategy. For example, a political front and a government that just believes in bourgeois democracy, public policy and the leading financial role of the state during crisis will be treated by neoliberals like an unacceptable turning back that must be erased. That’s why the traditional parties of the center-left and center-right are stretched, distorted and diminished. The class fight today is so aggravated that nobody can hide or compromise.

Today, in developed countries like Greece, neoliberals openly cut off capitalism from democracy and dignified life. Based on the new balance of forces and under the pressure of the crisis they tear apart the previous social contract. The abyss that today separates the memorandum, the neoliberal European strategy from everything else renders an honest and functional compromise somewhere in the middle extremely unlikely.

That means that the left is called to lead a wide range of social forces, a huge political and social front which includes right-wing or conservative democrats, progressive people of any kind and so on against the despotism of the markets. The left must find the way to respond to the unique short-circuit that emerges during crisis: the urgent fulfillment of the most plain and every day needs of the people is short-circuited strongly with existential choices and fundamental logics regarding the course of the society. The left must transform its emancipatory politics from a vanguard theoretical issue into a people’s very practical plan.

So, the fight is going to be so hard and will last for so long in time that just to stay in it radical reforms will be necessary. It is important to point out that people really take steps towards a new emancipated society not because they want to but because they cannot do otherwise. In this case, the strategy of overcoming capitalism begins to transubstantiate from a radical vision of the left into people’s commonsensical choice. The left must rediscover the forgotten art of contributing to this change. We must reclaim the self-evidence and the common sense nature on behalf of our logic.

So, it will be a government that must move forward a) combining moderate moves with radical reforms and b) transforming together with people’s mobilization the social reality based on values, virtues and criteria that are governed by the logic of cooperation, democracy, solidarity and democratic planning.

I believe that the above features are necessary for progressive governments in South America that so far they were based heavily on moderate strategies due to the rapid global capitalist development; today they must move forward if they want to keep up a progressive strategy.

  1. Because of the disastrous effects of the memorandums in Greece the humanitarian crisis is so extended that it cannot be checked with orthodox or standard measures. It will be a government that must be inventive and capable of mobilizing the people.

  2. The severe neoliberal attack to the state itself poses additional challenges. We not only must reverse the balance between the two rival logics in various sectors of the state, we must also find ways to restore their operational status. It will be a government without a solid state (which may be proved to be an advantage if properly handled).

  3. The existent program of austerity will be stopped and crucial measures in the opposite direction will be implemented in order to stabilize the economy, heal social wounds and restore dignity and democracy to some extent. A left government will be immediately under serious threats and sanctions imposed by the lenders. The neoliberal European strategy cannot afford a compromise with the Greeks while disciplining other nations; the pressure of the crisis and the existential nature of the neoliberal strategy to transform Europe into Asia shape a very difficult negotiating context. It will be a government under extreme exterior pressure.

  4. A left government will have to implement a reversed fiscal policy and take extra measures in order to increase the contribution of the moneyed classes to the needs of the state. This will be a causus beli for them. The domestic establishment will exert maximum pressure to the government in many ways taking advantage of the fact that parts of state power are decentralized and outside the reach of the government. Indicatively, sections of the state with strong connections to the domestic establishment will be inactive and others will be openly hostile (tax collectors, sections in police, higher officials in administration and public companies etc), the banks may increase problems of liquidity, the mass media may present a very ugly picture of the current situation in the country aiming at increasing the pressure to the government from below, the neonazi and paramilitary groups may be used to create chaotic conditions, organized crime may contribute to undermine the sense of security of the population etc. It will be a government with multiple open domestic fronts.

  5. The struggle in Greece will be strongly connected with the struggle in the other European countries and its outcome will be heavily dependent to similar changes elsewhere. The interdependency of the economies together with the superior financial and political firepower of global “markets” and European neoliberal establishment suggest that there is no way a small nation can stand up and prevent its enslavement when at the same time nothing similar is happening around it.

All the progressive forces in South America either in the government or in the opposition agree that the unification of South America is of supreme importance in order to protect and create the conditions for deepening their strategy. Accordingly, in Europe we need the birth of an international alliance that will support the expansion of the logic of the left in more than one country and it will change decisively the balance of forces in the continent.

It will be a government with an active role abroad and more important whose domestic strategy must be conceived and designed as a particular contribution to a broader movement.

General methodological claim and guidelines for a left governmental strategy

According to the above mentioned conditions, we must think of the left government as a part of a very tough multi-dimensional class fight in which we do not have the luxury to let the opponents conduct their strategy through state power. From the point of view of the people, assuming state power primarily means that we wrest resources from the opponent. The question is not whether to take the power or not, but what are the right steps afterwards, taking into account that the left government will be just one position of power among hostile ones – due to the neoliberal effects on the state I described earlier. The fate of the government will depend not only on the deep faith in emancipatory politics but on its ability to be effective. The deep faith in emancipatory politics is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being effective.

But what does it means to be effective? The methodological claim I would like to present is the following: the criterion and the guiding principle for left politics in general and left government in particular is that every move must be part of a strategy that constantly enhances the logic of the left, the logic of cooperation, democracy, solidarity and democratic planning and shrinks the rival logic the logic of profit and competition, either in social practices and movements from below or from the position of government. Let me add a few clarification points:

    1. The term ‘constantly’ draws a line that separates reformist from radical left. The difference between these two versions of the left is not signified in specific measures or moves but in the broader strategy these moves are embedded. Usually, the reformist left conceives the balance of forces that leads to a left government as the best possible one and the government just pays back the people for it ameliorating their conditions of living. The reformist left declares the end of the advance of people’s force. Eventually, the balance of forces will be changed by the opponents and the gains will be lost. In other words, if you want just to maintain some gains you need to keep up fighting in order to maintain the respective balance of forces.

So, radical left politics takes for granted that the fight for the shaping of the balance of forces is a never-ending process and for this reason every move must be conducted in light of a relevant strategy and must be assessed within its framework. The gains for the people from a left government and a better balance of forces must be seen as the ground for a new advanced stage of fight creating the conditions to enhance our logic and restricting even further the power of the economic elite. So the term ‘constantly’ means that a left government is not the end but a moment to a broader fight. Even the form of the gains for the people must be such that will shake the dominant rival logic even further in the future.

    1. Being in the government requires that we must be more specific regarding what it means to enhance the left logic and shrink the rival one. Let me propose three directions:

    1. First, the left government must aim at bringing back under democratic control, under the jurisdiction of the public, state policy powers that the neoliberals removed according to their logic and in favor of the economic elite.

    2. Second, it must aim at changing the logic in several sections of the state. Usually, in the left we tend to think that since the state is a capitalist one there is nothing we can do about it until the overcoming of capitalism. However, the nature of the state is determined by the balance of social forces and it is amenable to transformations. The current state may be a capitalist one but plenty of its functions are not distinctively capitalist – in the sense that every society needs them – although they are organized and performed mostly (but not exclusively) according to the logic of capital. The fact that we are against this logic does not mean that we are off the hook. We cannot deny the fact that we need an alternative realization of these functions according to our logic. And this is not something that we should deal with after overthrowing capitalism; it is a crucial dimension today in fighting against the logic of capital.

    3. Third, it must pass on powers in the opposite direction, to the people, by supporting the emergence of new institutions, enhancing the people’s direct exercise of power bringing forth neglected and hence idle capacities that people have. The last point is extremely crucial: usually when we assess the balance of forces we tend to think that the people’s force will vary inside the limits we are familiar with in a classic bourgeois democracy. The level of mobilization, the inventiveness and the productive capacity of the people are measured with what we know in such ‘normal’ cases. This is exactly the blind spot of the rulers (diachronically and of the neoliberal rulers as well) and their Achilles’ heel. This is exactly the crucial advantage for a left government in order to tilt the table on its side. The left government and the left in general must find a way to unlock people’s enormous capacities that are underutilized or neglected (diachronically due to the narrow scope of capitalist production and especially during capitalist crisis). This is something the opponents cannot anticipate and it may shape the conditions for reversing the course of the war.

    1. Generally, it is of utmost importance to transubstantiate the logic of the left and mottoes like “labor and social control over production” or “real democracy in decision-making processes” into specific and coherent ways of organizing particular sections of the state, social life and production. We urgently need specific practices that give life to our logic. We must define in a new way the so-called social problems we must be effective in facing them based on our logic and we must claim practical superiority over the neoliberal logic.

Not only that. These alternative modes of making things happen should aim at performing a self-reproductive and expansive circle so that the propagation of our logic into the social body and the state will not depend exclusively on the pumping from above from the left government.

The left government must create the conditions, protect the first precarious steps and mediate these particular moves which must acquire the status of real memes spreading through the social body. The experience of the interaction between social movements, self-managed communities and productive efforts etc and governments in South America may prove valuable in this direction.

    1. This methodology is not only desirable due to our will to implement emancipatory politics, this methodology changes even further the balance of forces and renders possible successes and victories to the ongoing struggles with the other poles of power, domestic and transnational. These successes are vital for the survival of the people today.

    2. The left government must assess correctly the various opponents, determine properly its priorities and order in time its moves and fights in an effective way. It cannot fight with all at the same time. It will choose to fight on one front, it will try to neutralize some others, it will even compromise at another one, it will move fast forward somewhere, it will take steps back somewhere else etc. The left government must plan its moves with the following guiding principle: solidify and enhance popular support, dismantle the bearers of resistance or prevent their solidification. In other words all these moves must be part of a strategy aiming at changing favorably the balance of forces domestically and internationally.

    3. One more general guideline derived from the above ones is that the left must embrace the following two historical axioms:

  1. There is no stability or harmony in a class society (at least in a class society). Even if at some point there is a phenomenal stability this is because underneath the surface there is an ongoing struggle and not harmony between relatively equal forces! Hence the stability. This is what was forgotten the last 30 years from the progressive part of the political and social spectrum (and the perennial mistake of the reformist left) but not from the neoliberals. Neoliberals worked deliberately to change the balance of forces underneath the phenomenal stable political reality in such a way that they gradually swallowed social-democracy and today they sweep the previous social contract.

  2. There is no instant change, a magic moment in which society will be liberated and will begin to emancipate. Even if revolutionary uprisings take place as condensed, major, radical historical events we now know that the war inside the society and the state will continue for a long time and we have to be able to beat the rival logic in a long-term fight. So, our focus should be redirected from a methodology and strategy that expects too much from a revolutionary uprising (the perennial mistake of the so called revolutionary left) to the deployment of a methodology and strategy that can help us succeed in a long-term fight.

The methodology proposed above – the perspective of two rival logics competing for the domination of society and state – is struggling to conform to these historical axioms. By doing so it has a wider ambition than just to navigate SYRIZA in its course towards the government in a decent way.

I haven’t referred to specific programmatic proposals regarding the current handling of the crisis in Greece. The reason is that the programmatic proposals change together with the conjecture. Emancipatory politics is not a static wager but a dynamic engagement as I repeatedly tried to show. What we most need is suitable methodological guidelines that will enable us to shape modes of action from below and governmental policies – embedded of course in a broader internationalist perspective – which instantiate our logic today and create the conditions for its expansion in the future.

Instantiating our logic today through specific programmatic proposals – according to the methodology presented above – means that we already realize to some extent our Utopia and open the path for doing so even further in the future. This would be a way to approach the relation between program and Utopia which is the topic of the present convention.

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