The following was presented at the ISO national conference in November 2015
We are living in historic times. As if in the blink of an eye we have seen revolutions sweep the Middle East, only to descend into bloody civil war, the devastation of the Greek economy and the emergence in Greece, within five years, from obscurity to power of the most far-left political party since the 1970s – and now its apparent capitulation to the Diktats of the EU and the banks. We have seen the movement of refugees, already enormous, grow a hundredfold in Europe, where they have been met, yes, with barbed wire but also, by others, with open arms. Closer to home, the hell holes designed by Howard to hide “boat people” from human rights have now also become home to New Zealanders awaiting deportation from the Lucky Country. Legal norms are stripped away by the war on terror, and overarching all this looms the possibility of catastrophic climate change.
Why study the international situation? My workmate told me what no doubt many people feel, that she could not bear to know too much about the horrors of the world that lie beyond her control. We on the contrary, understand that however weak we are, history is made by people but not in conditions of our choosing. In this talk I aim to outline the shape of the world, and draw out some practical conclusions for our work.
We start in Greece, where the most inspiring struggle has been waged by working people, with more general strikes in the last ten years than, perhaps, in the history of New Zealand. This mass movement, and the thousands of activists schooled in this struggle, formed Syriza. As Antonis Davanellos, of DEA, puts it “Syriza was a concrete product of the class struggle in Greece and the huge efforts of a part of the Left in Greece to resist neoliberalism and austerity. It was also a product of the antiglobalization movement as well as the antiwar movement, both of which in Greece took on huge proportions”.
“One of the most outstanding achievements of Syriza was its role in developing a large layer of left activists and militants capable of collaborating and acting together, overcoming the fragmentation so common on the Left in many other countries in Europe and North America.”
Paul D’Amato: “Syriza’s votes just five years ago weren’t sufficient to win any parliamentary seats. … its vote shot up to 16.8 percent in the indecisive May 2012 elections, and then to 26.9 percent in the June elections”. In January 2015, Syriza took power on a platform rejecting the austerity measures demanded by Greece’s creditors. After negotiations stalled, Tsipras put the measures to a referendum, where a massive “No” vote should have strengthened his hand. It did not. Instead Tsipras signed on to worse conditions. The left of the party, including DEA, split to form Popular Unity, but failed to win any seats in the election Tsipras called in September.
On the face of it, this is a crushing defeat for the left and the triumph of business as usual. But as DEA warned in 2013 “In the context of this political deadlock and extreme polarization between the main social classes, the left-wing government in Greece cannot be a peaceful repetition of past center-left governmental experiences in Europe over the last twenty years . .. Whoever inside Syriza thinks about the repetition of such patterns, is thinking about totally utopian scenarios.”
Syriza remains in office, but as a tool for waging war on Greek society – the statistics of homelessness, suicide, ill health, unemployment and economic decline all speak for themselves.
But why? One Syriza adviser to Tsipras said his main mistake was illusions in the promise of the EU – he believed the myth of mutual aid and believed “we are all democrats here”. He did not understand the antagonistic and predatory aims of the EU elite.
EU action in Greece is driven by the need to discipline not the Greek working class but to make an example of it. Greece has been singled out because it is the weakest link. The EU will not collapse if Greece doesn’t repay its debts. Far from it. Greece is a small, peripheral economy. The real targets are Spain and Italy. Greece’s GDP is 44th in the world. Spain is 14th, behind South Korea and Australia. Italy is 8th, sandwiched between the potential superpowers India and Brazil (NZ’s rockstar economy is 54th). But Italy and Spain are heavily indebted and subject to onerous repayment schedules. If the EU cannnot force austerity on to the minnow, Greece, then the people of Italy and Spain will also demand a renegotiation.
The EU was formed to create an economic bloc that could compete on the world market. It gave Germany, France, and to a lesser extent Britain, markets and raw materials that allowed them to compete with the USA – especially after the fall of the USSR opened up neo-colonies in Eastern Europe. The EU has advantages over its rivals – the US, Japan, and the “BRICS”: it is able to leverage the legacy of its colonial past but it is perceived as a neutral player; it has a high-tech manufacturing base; it has a developed internal market. But this market is also its Achilles heel. The share of wealth that goes to working people in the EU is higher than in all of its competitors except for Japan. What every capitalist wants is to pay their own workers as cheap as possible to get things made but for other bosses to pay their workers enough to buy the products as dear as possible. The same is true for ruling classes. Relatively high wages in the EU means European bosses pay dear to make things, and then see their workers buying goods made by their rivals more cheaply.
The 2008 financial crisis intensified the competition between the rival blocs as toxic debt was shoved back and forth. It is war by other means. Within the EU, debt is also used for war. Over-generous loans lured Greece into the clutches of this super-national power and now, in seeking the repayment of those loans, the EU elite is using Greece as a test case to see how far down it can drive living standards within Europe, within the “first world”.
Shape of the world
Tsipras’ illusion is the liberal illusion – the belief that capitalist democracy can be reformed, that the franchise, equality, liberty and fraternity can be gradually extended to all through reason and the right channels. But liberalism always has a shadowside. Just as the original wealth of nations was obtained through theft (of which more tomorrow from Josh), the liberal franchise has always been exclusive – either limited internally by race (in the USA) or geographically (colonial system).
DEA argues that there can be no “stable” reformist government in Greece, that the apparent triumph of common sense is an illusion. I want to extend that analysis more widely.
The post-war or Cold War era was, in hindsight, far more stable, underpinned as it was by a two or three decade long economic upswing. Two superpowers (albeit with the USSR as a junior power) structured international relations. The arms race and proxy wars meant it was far from peaceful but whether the USA, the USSR, New Zealand or in the “Trikont” (Africa, Asia, Latin America) states were much more robust.
By contrast, although the US is the world’s only superpower, its military and economic strength have declined massively vis a vis its rivals. It seems incredible, but after ten years of assault by the world’s greatest power, the Taliban, a rag tag army of cripples, is still in power in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the USA botched its propaganda before the war and the occupation after. Amazingly enough, Iraq (what remains) after US invasion has gone from being an uneasy ally of the US to the ally of its enemy, Iran. As a result of US weakness, the second rank powers – the EU, China, Russia, India, Iran, even Turkey, must pursue their own interests, whether they like it or not. It is highly unlikely that Iran, struggling to cope with its own economic woes, welcomes war on almost all its borders. These powers are uncertain in their relations with each other – with conflicting alliances and rivalries. Turkey shooting down a Russian jet is a classic example of this. Neither country wants war with the other, they have vast interlocking mutual interests but they also have antagonisms that threaten the whole system.
As I said earlier, liberalism has always had its shadow side. The triumph of liberalism after the fall of the USSR though has meant that the shadow side is more chaotic, has become more entangled in the everyday workings of the system. Internal and external boundaries and conventions are eroded. This can be seen in ideological terms in all the major powers. The illusion of an EU of solidarity and democracy is as shattered as the Greek health system. In the US, a black president presides over routine police murder of black people. In India, the democratic rhetoric of Congress is replaced by Hindutva. In South Africa, police kill striking miners. Neither Russia nor China have an ideological appeal beyond shallow, authoritarian nationalism.
Another product of the ideological crisis of the West is ISIS. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Condoleezza Rice was firmly convinced the “forces of liberty and democracy” would be welcomed with flowers and open arms – so out of touch was she with the bankruptcy of the appeal of liberal ideology. And while the left hoped against hope for trade union-led resistance, for united Sunni-Shia struggle, the ideological vacuum has been filled by a brutal, rapist terrorist state.
Although terrorism is not new, ISIS is something new. Arun Kundnani: “the most appropriate response to ISIS is to see it as a symptom of the ‘normal’ functioning of the modern, global system, rather than as an external element corrupting the system from outside or from the pre-modern past. Its use of social media, its rejection of the national borders of the twentieth century and its linkages to the petroleum economy all demonstrate that ISIS is a child of globalisation.”
“It was born in the chaos and carnage that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its sectarian ideology and funding has come from the Saudi and Gulf ruling elites, the west’s closest regional allies after Israel. Russia and Iran have also played their role, propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime – responsible for far more civilian deaths than ISIS – and prolonging the war in Syria that enables ISIS to thrive. Meanwhile, the groups that have been most effective in fighting ISIS – the Kurdish militia – are designated as terrorists by western governments because they are considered threats to our ally Turkey.”
Superficially, the ISIS “Caliphate” offers an internationalist resistance to colonial nation states. Actually, much of its power base rests on Sunni tribes – it practises ethnic cleansing on the scale of the invasion of Palestine or the Balkan wars. Like Israel, it believes there is no safety for the chosen people outside the Islamic State, it reviles refugees as apostates – especially those seeking refuge in Europe – but also, like the Zionists, sees the Christian or secular world as eternally opposed to the chosen people. Just as Israeli politicians rejoice at every attack on Jews in the West, ISIS delight in terrorist attacks on refugee centres and punitive laws against Muslims.
Nonetheless, we must be under no illusions as to who our real enemy is. Just as Tsipras was wrong to trust dialogue with democrats, we reject all “security” offered by the state. The only security for working class people is in increasing our power.
Kundnani argues that “more radicalisation, in the genuine sense of the word, is the solution, not the problem; that terrorism thrives in environments where mass movements advancing visions of social progress have been defeated. Walter Benjamin stated that behind every fascism is a failed revolution. The same is true of terrorism: ISIS exists because the Arab revolutions of 2011 failed.”
Despite the prophets of doom promising overpopulation, the number of countries with static or declining birthrates is increasing – alongside the spread of industrial capitalism. The religious make-up of a population apparently has no impact, with Catholic Spain and Italy blithely ignoring Church teaching on contraception. This has created huge anxiety for ruling classes everywhere, from Japan to the USA. While increasing immigration is the obvious solution (which is not lost on some in the German elite), the fear about a loss of national identity is real. Nation states are still the fundamental political base for capital.
Refugees and foreigners are dangerous because they erode the illusion of community between ourselves and our rulers. They are also dangerous because they have little loyalty to states. Of the recent refugees from the Middle East, Fisk says “Most of the millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have flooded into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and then north into Europe do not intend to return – ever – to states that have failed them as surely as they no longer – in the minds of the refugees – exist. These are not “failed states” so much as imaginary nations that no longer have any purpose.”
This is a slippery concept but an important one. Even though borders are more policed now, there has been a vast increase in international trade, communication and migration in the last 30 years. The causes of globalisation are varied, eg the internet, container ships etc but the most important is the expansion of Western capitalism into the Trikont and Eastern Europe. Its been estimated that before 1990 the industrial workforce available to western capital was about 500 million, and after, one and a-half billion. This has eroded wages and conditions in the West and renewed attacks on communal land and food security in the Trikont. Globalisation has made possible a three-decade-long attack on living standards in the “west”, with a consequent rise in inequality.
When 1% of the world’s population owns 48% of the world’s wealth it seems insane that inequality is not the most obvious, the most burning, and the most urgent political problem. Even capitalist bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank now argue that the level of inequality is harming economic efficiency. However, inequality has its own momentum as politics becomes centred on oligarchic interests.
Overarching and underpinning all of these crises is the environmental crisis, with a 2degC rise in global temperatures regarded as likely to create feedback loops that will devastate food production in many countries. Indeed, the rapid collapse of the Syrian state may have been due to a five-year drought that drove as many as 1.5 million peasants off the land and into the cities. Climate change demands a collective, creative, co-ordinated response – something capitalism can never offer.
In New Zealand, despite comparable levels of debt to Greece, Portugal and Ireland, our rockstar economy has been shielded from the worst but by good luck, not good planning. The Key government is expert at the polls and poor at any plan beyond neoliberalism and cronyism. There is no prospect at all of a Syriza-type party – we do not have the mass movement or the thousands of activists.
But can help build that in a small way by campaigning on clear political lines – against climate destruction, Islamophobia and war, and for refugees – in our unions and on campus.
The final lesson from Greece is that this is a long struggle. Syriza has achieved the greatest electoral victory of a far-left movement since the 1970s, only to show us once again that revolutionary struggle is always two step forwards, one step backwards. Its a long struggle, but a beautiful one.