In The Black Power Mixtape – Swedish journalists’ portrait of the 1967-75 US struggle for black equality – civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael offers the following criticism of Martin Luther King:
“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
As a critique of non-violence in the civil rights struggle, this is debatable. But in the wake of Greece’s stand-off with the Eurogroup, Carmichael’s indictment of “an opponent without a conscience” acquires a peculiar resonance.
Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis led his country’s negotiations. In his former day-job as a university economist, he has been a leading author on “game theory” – a mathematics-based discipline concerned with optimal decision-making. Derived from Cold War international relations theory, it emerged as a guide to action during nuclear face-off and the threat of “mutually assured destruction”. For some, the Greek-European game of bluff and brinkmanship in the shadow of a devastating “Grexit” seemed so similar as to prompt bullish commentary on Varoufakis’ mastery of the “game”.
It was a misreading. In fact, Varoufakis is a critic of game theory: his academic work seeks to prise apart its fundamentals. He emphasised exactly this in an article for the New York Times, pointing out the theory’s dubious, dangerous assumptions when applied to diplomacy: that games are always zero-sum; that players are selfish antagonists with fixed, unalterable motives; and that consequences, rather than moral principles, must drive actions. This appeared to reflect his declared strategy: identify common interests and make Greece and the EU partners in the country’s recovery. His comments to Channel Four’s Paul Mason evince the same thinking. Asked about the potential consequences of confronting the Greek oligarchy, he replies, “the good fight has to be fought independently of costs”. Asked what chance there was of Greece being forced out of the Euro, he replies “zero”. He seems to mean it.
We now know how this strategy has ended: in crushing defeat. Syriza has been bidding for a “bridging loan” to sustain the Greek economy while it negotiates a new agreement. The response has been all-out war: German stonewalling in the face of compromise, and the ECB’s imminent threat to crash Greece’s banks. The EU institutions pulled out every stop to cripple the Greek democratic experiment; Syriza finally caved and signed what amounts to a statement of conditional surrender. For the next four months, austerity will continue: Greece must maintain a budget surplus while still suffering the effects of an economic depression – a practice one Financial Times economist recently labelled “insane” – albeit thankfully of 1.5%, not 4.5%, of GDP. Payments to its creditors will continue as agreed. And Greece commits to take no “unilateral” action that would jeopardise its fiscal position. Who decides what jeopardises its fiscal position? The Troika – hardly broadminded in its definition. Syriza, then, cannot spend more without ratcheting up taxes accordingly. And while progressive tax reform is an important plank of their programme, it is unlikely that they can implement it in the next four months. Driven to the wall, they have swallowed the ECB’s bitter medicine, passing off the resulting grimace as a smile.
With the benefit of hindsight (for many on the Greek left, foresight), we can see where this strategy foundered. To paraphrase Carmichael: to see reason, your opponent must be reasonable. To pursue enlightened self-interest, your opponent must be capable of enlightenment. The EU is neither.
As Stathis Kouvelakis writes, Syriza failed to anticipate the viciousness of the assault against its banking sector: the ECB threatened to pull the plug on Greek banks as early as last Tuesday. But the party’s fatal error was placing the threat of “Grexit”, the only card available to it, off the table. Hobbling its negotiators from the start, it soon found itself cornered and forced to abandon its electoral programme. Following previous governments, Syriza would have to sacrifice its people to feed its insatiable creditors.
Within Syriza, this has come as a resounding wake-up call. The party’s dominant group rejects the idea of “Grexit”, and the party ran on a promise to fight austerity within the Eurozone. German negotiators’ intransigence was already pushing different factions toward a compromise on default within the Euro – the remaining disagreement whether this would force a “Grexit”. Now, however, Syriza’s Euroskeptic wing, much of it centred around its Left Platform, has been reinvigorated. As Paul Mason reports:
“there is a sea change going on within Syriza. In the past 48 hours I’ve heard people who were staunch believers in the “good euro” – a euro that can accommodate by negotiation a radical left government – say, effectively, they were wrong.”
Veteran Syriza MEP Manolis Glezos, famous for tearing down the Swastika from the Acropolis in 1941, apologised to the Greek public for buying into Syriza’s failed strategy and called for popular resistance to the deal. And Syriza is likely to see even more internal resistance. On 13th February, the Telegraph reported that a
“closed-door crisis meeting of the party at the Greek parliament erupted in an emotional storm, running for 12 hours as the group’s Left Platform voiced their anger over the retreat in Brussels.”
As Kouvelakis argues, perhaps the best strategy for Syriza is to admit defeat. Slapping rhetorical lipstick on the pig of austerity – as its leaders have – can only obliterate trust in the government, and may even open political space for the far-right: by presenting Syriza as another impostor and betrayer, they ennoble themselves as the true face of resistance to foreign oppression. Acknowledging setbacks will at least prompt open debate on how best to proceed.
We have been taught a devastating lesson. In the chilling words of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.” After the installation of technocratic governments, the signing of a European Fiscal Compact imposing permanent austerity and the brutalisation of Syriza, any argument that democratic dissent is possible within the Eurozone has been blown out of the water. The EU’s true face as neoliberalism’s aggressive and brutal attack-dog lies exposed to public view.