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The Greece election through the prism of world history

I have been reading Stathis Gourgouris “A Quick Assessment of the Electoral Situation”, which is a very interesting take on the outcome of the election in Greece. It is interesting because, for some reason, Gourgouris wants to analyze the events solely within the realm of politics; which is to say he places the events in Greece entirely within the limits of a dying domestic parliamentary democracy. No doubt most people see this as a mere “election outcome”, so the piece is useful in that sense as meaningful political analysis; but it is also disappointing as it brings nothing new to the table. For me, it is an example of mainstream punditry worming its way into social criticism — focusing our attention precisely on the least important aspect of what has occurred.

A better effort would have treated the election as a surface expression of material processes unfolding at a profound level in Europe and aimed at disclosing these processes. By this, I do not mean we should repeat Zizek’s argument that “we must not act” until we understand these processes, but we need to emphasize events like the Greece election draw those material processes to the surface of society where they can be apprehended. In a sense, an election is like the movement of particles in physical science that provide evidence of electromagnetic forces otherwise invisible to us.

In this election, says Gourgouris, the majority of Greeks chose “governmentability … as opposed to registering a mere protest… ” I sat for some time looking at the word “governmentability”, trying to understand what exactly he meant by it. I concluded he meant in this second election the voters chose parties with the capacity to govern Greece, rather than simply expressing their outrage with the way Greece has been governed thus far. I don’t know if this is an accurate statement of his argument, but it set off a train of thinking of my own.

Since the voters could not know the cumulative result of their votes as individuals beforehand, it is impossible to say what they  voted for, apart from asking them as individuals. It is not altogether clear to me that “fear of change” motivated New Democracy voters, while “desire for change” motivated SYRIZA supporters. The same could be said for the opposite distinctions: A case could be made that the average SYRIZA voter was very much motivated by fear of the changes the EU is imposing on Greece; and the average New Democracy voter was very much motivated by desire to change Greece along those lines. It is also entirely possible that each voter was motivated in equal parts by fear and desire even as she voted for New Democracy or SYRIZA; finally, it is even possible that no individual voter was actually motivated either by fear of change or by desire for change.

This is the problem with democracy: we only see the outcome of millions of votes, which outcome does not necessarily translate into individual motivations — an election is the blind outcome of millions of votes cast for one or another party that may not necessarily accurately express concerns of any voters within the population. What should be clear, however, is that no matter the actual motivations of the voters in either camp, those motivations were mediated through the existing Greece state, through the existing politics. Those motivations, however diverse, were not be expressed directly, but only abstractly through the ideal representative of the Greece community.

According to Gourgouris, this diversity of opinions will now be expressed in a government formed by “two nominally vicious opponents of the past, who have been, however, complicit in the degradation of the Greek political system in the last 30 years.” Gourgouris argues all these diverse motivations will ultimately result in a grand coalition that expresses, with great “political clarity … the primary self-interest of the Greek political elite.”  We have to explain this outcome without ever imagining this is the outcome intended by either SYRIZA or New Democracy voters.

Since a grand coalition expressing the self-interest of the political elite directly arises only from the real motivations of a handful of very wealthy, politically connected, Greece voters, and since this outcome was likely not the expressed intention of the vast majority of voters, our explanation cannot assume voters intended to express the self-interest of the elite when they cast their votes. The self-interest of the political elite encompasses only a very small subset of voters, so appeal to this self-interest as an explanation for the election outcome is not reasonable, nor is it reasonably explained by opposition to this self-interest. If the political elite has a self-interest, it is safe to assume the vast majority also have their self-interest. By definition, the self-interest of the political elite only explains the motivations of a tiny minority of voters against a vast majority. We have to show why the self-interest of this tiny minority was the necessary outcome of the political action of the vast majority. Otherwise, the Greece elections are only an accidental outcome, from which we can learn nothing.

Another way to put this: Since a grand coalition reflecting the interest of a political elite cannot be explained by the self-interested motivations of that elite, it must be explained by the self-interested motivations of the majority.

Gourgouris provides us a clue to this when he argues, “this new government will represent an electorate that has registered its trust motivated by fear” — a fear, he states, that is not the basis for a sustainable politics in the long run, because the new government will continue to capitulate to the demands of the banks and the EU. Eventually, he argues, the voters will turn on the coalition and set the stage for a new round of social turmoil. I want to state at this point that Marxists have been predicting such an outcome for decades and have always been disappointed: almost every Marxist predicted the Great Depression would end in a socialist revolution — and we all know how that turned out. The very idea working folk will be stirred by a crisis to embark on a fundamental change of course for society is a desperate act of grasping at straws; it is an entirely unforgivable lapse of maturity. The first thing people do in a crisis is defend their existing material living standard and attempt to recreate their previous patterns of life; the response is conservative. We have enough historical evidence of this to not continue banking on the insane idea crises produce revolutions. Even at the micro level it makes no sense — which is why bosses threaten workers and communities with capital flight whenever they want to get their way.

In every movement sweeping the world market currently, working folk are in the streets defending a previous level of subsistence and mode of life. However, the crisis erupts precisely because the previous level of subsistence and the previous mode of life is no longer a sufficient basis for capitalist accumulation, producing a conflict among classes over what the new basis for accumulation will be. If we assume the crisis has produced a defensive political response from the working class in Greece, then the outcome is more comprehensible, since it implies both the voter for New Democracy and the voter for Syriza have similar motivations.

In this case we assume only that each was motivated by a desire to protect their standard of living and mode of life, however constituted; we are not forced to assume one is motivated by the self-interest of the political elite and the other by opposition to this self-interest. Previously, this self-interested action resulted in a vote either for PASOK or New Democracy; now, according to Gourgouris, is will result in a coalition involving both of those parties with  SYRIZA as the leader of the opposition. There is nothing to suggest the present situation setting SYRIZA against this corrupt elite represents anything more than a similar defensive reaction. At root, the working class is reacting defensively because of an ongoing conflict over which class will pay for this crisis. This much is already obvious, and does not require a lot of definition: Austerity or not? Profits or wages?

The complication, however, is that wages are a function of profits; everyone knows their employment is dependent on their employer’s profits. So to say it is just a choice between wages and profits is, in fact, to be somewhat naive about the political motivations of the working class. The fact is a vote for SYRIZA was likely a vote to be expelled from the euro, and this was evident in Tsipras’ argument leading to the vote. The EU was not going to tolerate an Iceland in the middle of the euro-zone; had the population voted for SYRIZA, the EU probably would have attempted to drive Greece out of the monetary union and forced the population to suffer a massive collapse in material living standards.

But the voters fear of being expelled from the euro-zone only appears to be about the euro; it, in fact, is a fear of being expelled and cut off from world history which is tied to the increasing integration of national economies within the world market. SYRIZA has not figured out how to link itself to this world history, nor has any of the so-called “Left”. Yet precisely what makes the wage worker concede to the requirements of her boss’ profits is bound up with this world historical movement. Every voter knows that if concessions to capital are not forthcoming and sufficient, capital will move to regions where it is more forthcoming. Curtailing the power of capital is not possible at the level of the fascist state — it requires a global movement bound up with world history.

Gourgouris argues, “It is evident that voters who supported SYRIZA are no longer motivated by mere opposition to the old political order.” In fact, this is not evident at all, because SYRIZA never articulated how it was going to accomplish for the working class what capital’s own development is already accomplishing for the capitalist; that is, SYRIZA never articulated how it was going to replace the existing Greece state with a form giving power to a united European working class. Since world history is moving in this direction (and presently to the advantage of capital) this seems a minimum requirement for the so-called “Left”.

Is it absurd to propose the abolition of the Greece state in favor of a union of workers in the present circumstances? Apparently capital does not think so, they are planning it. But they are trying to do so in a way that further consolidates the power of European capital.

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