By Kumar David –
Mass anger against moribund European capitalism; Lessons of Syriza victory for JVP-JHU-Sobitha
Leftist Syriza led by charismatic Alexis Tsipraz won 149 seats in the Greek parliamentary elections of 25 January falling two short of an absolute majority in the 300 member parliament needed to govern without the burden of an encumbering coalition. In 2012 Syriza took 27% of the vote to emerge as the second largest party, last week it won 37% and came first. It got 3.3% in 2004 and 5.4% in 2007. Two hundred and fifty parliamentary seats are distributed proportionally, but 50 extra seats are allocated to the party that obtains the largest number of votes (plurality). This bonus system makes for stable government since, to the best of my knowledge, a single party has never secured 50% in Greece. The New Democracy party which was pushed out of office secured 76 seats, semi-fascist Golden Dawn 17, the CP 15, Social Democrats 13, and the liberal Independent Greeks 13.
A portrait of Rosa Luxemburg adorns Syriza headquarters, but Apollo like Che gilds the walls of JVP branches; the distinction between the most gifted Marxist of the Twentieth Century on the one hand, and the scourge of imperialism on the other has more than symbolic relevance. Rosa – Lenin called her a soaring eagle – is a beacon of civilisation beyond moribund capitalism; Che a hero in the struggle against decaying imperialism. The future of civilisation, or in her own words ending “barbarism”, is therefore the task of 21-st Century internationalist Rosas. There is more than a cultural and emotional twang to these remarks as I will explain anon.
Syriza is a fusion of about 15 left entities which merged in 2013 to form a unitary party and elected Tsipras leader by 74% conference vote. Interestingly, ‘Left Platform’ a group which stands to the left of the mainstream secured 30% of the places on the Central Committee and ‘Communist Platform’ (Greek section of the International Marxist Tendency) secured two places. This fusion of several left and Marxist entities to form a unitary left party is what made the 2015 election victory possible. This is a lesson that is entirely lost on the buffalo brains of Lanka’s hidebound and sectarian leftists whose only interest is to protect their own bits of turf. This is true, obviously of the Dead Left, but also of Sirituga’s USP, Bahu’s NSSP and clueless Frontline. Unfortunately it is also applicable to the JVP’s higher-and-holier-than-thou standoffish sneering at other leftists. I will return to how Syriza interleaved organisation and policy firmness with sensitivity to the ‘over-determining’ issue in the minds of the people after a brief digression to economics.
The economic catastrophe
I can only spare a few paragraphs to sum up the catastrophic Greek economic collapse which is the background to Syriza’s election victory. First let it be plainly stated that this is not a tragedy of Greek capitalism but a deep structural fissure in global capitalism which manifested itself at different moments, with different severity in different countries, depending on local factors and how these factors coalesced into the global picture. The earthquake first hit US finance capital in the autumn of 2008 in the worst depression of world capitalism since the 1930s. The reasons why a collapse of capitalism in the form of a death-agony of US banking (rotten balance-sheets, unserviceable debt and ridiculous derivative instruments) was unavoidable in general, and why it manifested itself at that time in that location, has been much analysed and this is not the place for a summary. (Of course nobody expects me to resist the temptation to gloat over the validation and vindication of Marx and his method!)
European banks were not immediately inundated by the 2008 tsunami but they did not take long to fall like ninepins (Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland, Spain’s Santandar, BNP Paribas in France and Ireland’s Allied Irish, to name some big ones). European sovereign economies, except Germany, then went broke as well. Spain and Italy were bad but Greece was the basket-case with rotting banks and a bankrupt government that could not service sovereign debt. International financial institutions had used Greek banks as an entry pointy for risky financial transactions, tax evasion and financial sector corruption. The failing government was propped up the European Central Bank (ECB) and European capital markets as the debt to GDP ratio soared. Greece, a plaything of the European money game, when it collapsed was a threat to the pan European house of cards. This must not be read as criticism of a criminal enterprise but as brisk and entrepreneurial capitalism doing its natural thing.
When the sovereign state and private banks went into free fall, desperate measures were needed. The ECB bailed out the state, European banks bought or held on to Greek bank bonds to help the sector tide over, and most significant, unbearable austerity was imposed on the people. When capitalism goes bust society has to carry the burden of rescuing the rotting carcass. But Syriza said ‘No, we will not abide by European Union (EU) imposed austerity; no we repudiate some sovereign debt imposed by ECB financial gaming’. This is the logic of Syriza’s refusal to honour some sovereign debt and its repudiation of austerity measures which were driving people to desperation and suicide.
It is the boldness and determination of this programme that underpinned victory. Speaking to thousands of supporters Tsipras said Greece was leaving behind “catastrophic austerity and five years of humiliation and anguish”. He said he would cooperate with Euro-zone leaders for “a fair and mutually beneficial solution”. He may have his eye on Spain, Portugal and Italy where left leaning alliances will do well in future elections. Spain’s fast growing left alliance Podemos, which tops opinion polls in a country where despite economic recovery unemployment still stands at 24%, may be set to repeat the Syriaz experience.
The JVP’s Syriaz opportunity
The Syriaz triumph was made possible by blending together three factors viz; a bold and decisive approach to the principle issue facing the country, second a broad democratic appeal to the whole of society, and third unifying several like minded movements into a single programme and party. It rejected the ECB-IMF imposed austerity package to which the previous government had been a slave and boldly defied trans-European capitalism. While not insisting on quitting the Euro-zone it is prepared for the eventuality that Greece may be expelled. It mobilised people and prepared them to face the consequences of rejecting the supremacy of European and global capitalism. Out of necessity Syriaz has now formed a coalition government with the right of centre Independent Greeks who have agreed to reject austerity. (This is like the JVP forming a coalition government under its leadership with the JHU, General Fonseka and radical UNP sections to cleanse the entrenched Mafia-State out of Sri Lanka’s body politic).
What is the principal or over-determining issue that needs to be addressed in Lanka at the present conjuncture – I am leaving out the national question? It is the State; the Authoritarian-State, the Mafia-State. The dismantling of authoritarianism commenced with the defeat of Rajapaksa and the next forward step will be when (if?) the Executive Presidency is abolished. (Drafters Jayampathy Wickremaratne and J.C. Weliamuna will have a lot to answer for if abolition is not thorough. Ceremonial supremacy of the armed forces will be invested in the president like in India, but I see not the remotest reason for vesting the slightest real executive authority in a president).
It is progress in dismantling the Mafia-State which put down deep roots in the Rajapaksa period that has been slow, confused and prone to reversals. President Sirisena has made bad appointments and gives the impression that he lacks the will to apprehend crooks who grew into giants under the previous government in which he served. The public mood, just listen to the people phoning into Sinhala TV channels, reflects disappointment and frustration. The official explanation is it takes time to catch big fish and evidence for prosecution must be meticulously prepared; this is true. But it is also true that signs of the worst vermin of the Rajapaksa days crawling back in hordes and compromising the post-election government are widespread. The Sirisena-Ranil government is squandering its credibility by not showing itself determined to root out the Mafia-State.
I have to repeat a quotation used last week about the Mafia-State because it is important to drive home what happened in the Rajapaksa period and to help people understand this grotesque monster.
“In recent years, a new threat has emerged: the Mafia-State. Across the globe, criminals have penetrated governments to an unprecedented degree. The reverse has also happened; rather than stamping out criminal gangs, some governments have instead taken over their illegal operations. In Mafia-States, government officials enrich themselves and their families and friends while exploiting the money, muscle, political influence, and global connections of criminal syndicates to cement and expand their own power. This fusing of governments and criminal groups is distinct from the more limited ways in which the two have collaborated in the past. In a Mafia-State, high government officials actually become integral players in, if not the leaders of, criminal enterprises, and the defence and promotion of those criminals become official priorities. Mafia-States integrate the speed and flexibility of transnational criminal networks with the legal protections and diplomatic privileges enjoyed only by states”.
The challenge of ensuring complete abolition of the Executive Presidency and the battle to smash, root out and cleanse Lanka of the Mafia-State is the Syriza-moment of the JVP, Sobitha Thero, and on the second point, that is anti-corruption, the JHU as well. Unwavering determination to press forward with the principal issues of the moment – for Syriaz rejecting austerity, for us defeating corrupt, authoritarian state power – is the lesson that Lanka can learn from the last week’s Greek election.
Rosa versus Che
If you think in terms of human progress and ferret out the figure on the left on whom the mantle of Marx most naturally descends, it is not Lenin or Trotsky, nor of course Mao, Fidel or Che, it is Rosa Luxemburg. Among socialist leaders of her day, among those among them who saw a new world, Rosa is the acme of European civilisation. Though nearly a century has passed since her assassination on 15 January 1919 this revolutionary socialist, internationalist, philosopher and economist, is a Twenty-first Century harbinger of a new world. Lenin’s revolution grew out of struggle against Tsarist primitivism; Mao cultivated even more ancient ground. Naturally they painted on a canvas narrower than Marx visioned as socialism which lays the foundations of a new culture. (Cuba and Vietnam, diminutive in philosophy and geography, have little to offer).
Without pushing the point too hard and giving offence, and keeping my remarks deliberately metaphorical, it would be good if the JVP could widen its civilisational horizons and progress from its early Che Guevara origins to Rosa Luxemburg vistas.