Sunday, April 17, 2016

Panel Discussion of 'Greece at the Crossroads'

EEK contingent in General Strike against Syriza government, November 2015. 
On Tuesday April 12 the Brooklyn Commons hosted a reception and panel discussion in conjunction with the publication of the book, “OXI: Greece at the Crossroads”.  The event was sponsored by the Marxist Education Project. The featured speakers were Alex Steiner, one of the co-authors of the book, George Caffentzis, a well-known autonomist-Marxist and through a Skype video connection from Athens, Greece, Savas Michael-Matsas, Chair of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece and one of the contributors to the book. Chairing the event was Frank Brenner, another of the contributors to the volume.

While the overall turnout of about 30-35 participants was gratifying to the organizers, one disappointment was the lack of representation of members of the Greek community in New York. This is undoubtedly related to the demoralization many Greeks now feel as a result of the betrayal of their hopes by the Syriza government. (While the Greek Diaspora in New York includes all shades of the political spectrum there was great excitement over the victory of Syriza in the elections last year within this community.)

Alex Steiner summarized the unifying theme of the essays included in the volume. Although the book was not originally conceived as having a unifying theme – it is a series of essays written at different times by different people in response to events – a unifying theme can be discerned in retrospect. That theme is the inversion of the usual understanding of what is radical and “utopian” – in the negative sense of an unrealizable goal, and by way of contrast what is considered “practical” and “moderate”.   With the crisis facing Greece after 6 bitter years of austerity, the so-called “practical” approach, which was embraced by the Syriza government, was the strategy of attempting to ameliorate the effects of austerity by negotiating and gaining concessions from the European institutions.  This proved to be a completely unrealizable goal and had little behind it other than wishful thinking.  No less unrealizable was the so-called “practical” agenda of the European Institutions; that Greece should increase its debt by borrowing more money so that it can pay off the bankers. In return for the brutal austerity measures that the European institutions demanded, including the de facto surrender of Greek sovereignty, the politicians and bureaucrats representing the European institutions promised that eventually Greece would climb back to economic health.  This was of course a complete pipe-dream as nearly everyone recognized off the record – and in the case of the International Monetary Fund even on the record - but that was and remains the official position of the European institutions. 

By way of contrast to the unrealizable nature  of these “practical” proposals, Steiner noted that the only genuinely realistic approach to ending austerity in Greece is to break completely not only with the Eurozone but with capitalism. The socialist solution to Greece’s economic crisis has usually been viewed as a fantasy of the far-left, having no chance of success.  But Steiner argued that the impossibility of the traditional “practical” approaches made consideration of the socialist alternative a real possibility as opposed to the wishful thinking and dishonest propaganda behind the alternatives proposed by both Syriza and the European institutions.   Steiner referred to his essay in the volume, 'Plan C: The SocialistAlternative for Greece'. In that essay Steiner argued against another alternative to the plans of the European institutions that has been championed by the former Syriza deputy and Marxist economist, Costas Lapavitsas.  Lapavitsas, alternative, what he calls “Plan B”, involves an exit from the Euro and a return to the drachma and native Greek capitalism.  Steiner argued that Lapavitsas alternative was another false path and that native Greek capitalism had as much chance of success as a flower blooming in the Arctic winter.  Steiner read an excerpt from his essay in which he tried to work out concretely some of the policies that a socialist government in Greece would undertake. He concluded his remarks by noting that the inauguration of socialism in Greece cannot be completed in Greece but would require the assistance of the working class internationally while at the same time a movement toward socialism in Greece would inspire political movements for socialism throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

Following Steiner’s presentation, George Caffentzis spoke. 

Although Caffentzis was not involved in the book, he was invited to speak as a participant in the events in Greece last summer and as someone who has written on the fight against austerity in Greece.  Caffentzis, who has done a great deal of theoretical work on the nature of the crisis of capitalism, argued that those on the Left who are sympathetic to the fight against austerity in Greece frequently oversimplify the problem. They tend to see Greece as a victim and the European Institutions as this powerful bully that is behind the crisis in Greece. What they don’t see is that the historic crisis of European capitalism is the driving force behind the attack on Greece.  Caffentzis noted that while European capitalism in absolute terms produces enormous profits, the rate of profit has been steadily deteriorating and it is now getting close to zero.  This is an unsustainable situation for European capitalism which he described as in a state of “euthanasia”. 

The “solution” that has been embraced by the leaders of the European bourgeoisie is to import the methods that had previously been applied in third world countries – structural adjustment and austerity – and see if they can be applied to Europe.  Greece has become the main experiment to see if this project is viable.  What the European institutions are trying to do is to see if it is possible to reduce the standard of living of the working class by 50% or more and boost profits through the increased exploitation of workers. They reckon that if they can successfully do that in Greece, without unleashing a destabilizing civil war, they can do it in the rest of Europe.  For this reason, Greece is in the front lines of the class struggle internationally.

Caffentzis also noted that in recent years a new political phenomenon has appeared on the scene – left wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.  These parties, when claiming to be fighting austerity, had more credibility within the working class than the traditional parties of Social Democracy, all of whom without exception have been severely compromised by their embrace of neo-liberalism in the past 3 decades.  But what is now evident, he went on to say, is that these new parties have become willing participants in the plans of the European bourgeoisie to resolve the problem of European capitalism by forcing the European working class to accept third world conditions.  Caffentzis seemed to indicate - it was not entirely clear since he did not get a chance to elaborate on this - that the fate of parties like Syriza and Podemos was the inevitable fate of parties as such and the real alternative must come from autonomous acts of resistance from the ground up.

George Caffentzis
The last speaker was Savas Michael-Matsas.  Savas provided a historical summary of the evolution of class relations in Greece following the collapse of the CIA-backed dictatorship in 1974. The post-dictatorship era saw an equilibrium established in which two establishment parties, New Democracy and PASOK, one a center right party and the other a center left party, traded places in running the government. This arrangement lasted until Greece was forced into bankruptcy in 2010. In the next few years, both New Democracy and PASOK completely collapsed.  Beginning in 2012, Syriza, a coalition of left wing forces that originated in a split from the Communist Party, became a major force in Greek political life as the old political system was disintegrating.  In January 2015, following the collapse of the New Democracy government, Syriza became the ruling party running on a platform that promised an end to austerity.  Savas then followed the twists and turns of the Syriza government leading up to their betrayal of the results of the referendum on July 5. He likened that betrayal to the historical betrayal of the Greek partisans in 1944 by the agreement drawn up by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt and the later even worse betrayal by the Greek Stalinists when they forced the fighters in the civil war to surrender their arms to the British in 1945. Savas received a good round of applause when stating that he did not agree with those who were reticent about calling Tsipras action a “betrayal”.  Savas painted in graphic detail the effects of the policy of “social cannibalism” that had been implemented by the European institutions, policies that have reduced Greece to conditions of social misery unprecedented in a modern bourgeois democratic country of Europe.  He noted that while the working class had been betrayed, they have not been defeated.  The capacity of the Greek working class to fight has not been broken. He also discussed how the resistance against the attacks on the working class can be seen not only in the general strikes that have broken out against the Syriza-led austerity measures in recent months, but also in the tremendous solidarity shown by the Greek people to the refugees that have landed in Greece from Syria and other countries in the Middle East. 

He ended his talk by explaining that his organization, the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece (EEK), believes that the only solution to the crisis in Greece is the overthrow of capitalism itself and that this is seen as part of an international struggle for the Socialist United States of Europe.  And he ended by pointing to the signs of a radicalization of the American working class shown in - among other things - the Bernie Sanders candidacy.  With the U.S. being at the center of the crisis of world capitalism, any sign of the awakening of the sleeping giant of the American working class energizes the struggle everywhere.  The coming period will see new forces coming into struggle who reject the false façade of leftism of parties like Syriza and Podemos. 

To get the full impact of Savas' talk, we have provided a link to the audio of his contribution.  You can listen to it here:

You may also download the mp4 file by clicking here

A spirited question and answer session followed the presentations. 

Kudos go to Michael Lardner, coordinator of the Marxist Educator Project, and Melissa Ennen, proprietor of the Brooklyn Commons, for making this event possible.

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