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An aspect of the rise and break-up of the Syriza administration remains largely unexamined: Syriza was an experiment in left unity. The proposition was that if all leftists united behind an agreed programme, a left government could be elected. Leaving aside the need to enter into coalition with a right wing, anti-austerity party, the unity approach seemed to deliver. However, Greece is now in worse shape than when Syriza and its right wing partners came to power and Syriza has split. This outcome was predictable, if not downright inevitable. There were two related flaws from the outset. Firstly, there was the untruth (a clumsy term but it covers belief, lie and fantasy) that a government could end austerity without negative consequences and secondly, there was the belief among leftists that unity could encompass those who were essentially uncompromising. It was clear from the outset that an end to “austerity” could not be achieved and because compromise would be out of the question for components of the alliance, it was to be expected that Syriza would split.

Syriza sought election by offering to confront Greece’s lenders and secure deliverance from onerous bail-out conditions. So far, so populist and citizens voted for it in numbers sufficient to make Syriza the largest party in parliament. The rest of the Syriza election programme seems to have been virtually ignored.

Shortly after the government was formed a different tune was heard and there were reasons to be optimistic. Confrontation was out; deals and compromise were in. The time seemed to be right for Greece to assume leadership of the growing support for a more Keynesian Europe.

It has never been fully explained how the optimism too quickly drained away in acrimony. Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was insistent that Greece wanted to pay her debts and yet the descent into nationalism and simple anti-austerity “principle” happened.* These months reversed a modest economic recovery and pushed reform of European fiscal policy off the agenda. Then after the farcical referendum and the subsequent bailout deal the chasm between left reform and left revolt became impossible to ignore.

That chasm is a problem on the left and it cannot be papered over; it makes left unity impossible. In recent decades most leftists have abandoned revolution in any meaningful sense of the word but they’ve also worked to keep their distance from what they deride as mere social democracy. In refusing to join with the century-old tradition of those socialists who work on reforms through the parliamentary structures of the liberal state, they create the paradox of wanting revolutionary change without a revolution.

The tendency to underestimate that refusal to cross to the other side of the Marxist tradition is at the root of left unity wishful thinking.

In Greece the ironically named Popular Unity has walked off to oppose Syriza. Their aim remains to end austerity by taking Greece out of the deal with creditors. They exhibit, however, what might be termed revolutionary honesty because they now talk of leaving the Euro if necessary and of rebuilding the country.

The Greek experiment with Left Unity may have done lasting damage to the very idea of Left government in that the economy was damaged without producing any real change and without pushing through left reforms.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/its-not-plausible-that-the-publicly-expressed-argument-of-yanis-varoufakis-caused-this-crisis/

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I attended a funeral recently. On the way there, driving in rural north county Dublin, I encountered an anti-water tax sign which urged people to “Rise up”. A short time later, waiting, in the church porch, I noticed the front page headline on the Catholic newspaper “Alive”. It was anti same-sex marriage and urged people to “Rise up”. Now, I’d be confident that there’s a study somewhere of the Irish Catholic/nationalist preoccupation with the romantic, rising/resurrection notion that stretches from at least the “Easter Rising” of 1916 to the present-day nationalist splinter group, éirigí. (That translates as a plural imperative, commanding the people to Rise.) But lately there’s been quite a bit of resort to the word, especially on Facebook.

Ok, it might be nothing more than a word that is in people’s minds right now. In the short term it’s Lent and Irish Catholics are looking to Easter; next year is the centenary of 1916 and there’s a considerable amount of media attention being paid to that. Nevertheless, it might be worth giving some thought to the prominence of the word.

Some of those calling for a rising, like some of those calling for a revolution, may be completely serious. That is to say, they’ve thought about the words they use, the reality of battle, the effect on the general population, their desired outcome and they’ve concluded that this is the best or only way forward.

However, the largest group using evocative terms are hardest to understand. They constantly reiterate their opposition to violence but are unwilling or unable to let go of its lexicon. On the cultural side, the marches, banners, feelings of solidarity, if drained of violent rhetoric, would be revealed as a quasi-constitutional way of letting off steam or as an illustration of the way things work in a polyarchy, i.e. political priorities are decided by pressure on government or – more fashionably – on the political class.

On the theoretical side, they have opted for the parliamentary path and have explicitly eschewed violence but many still want to think in terms of a people rising up in revolt. It is a search for a third way between revolt and reform. It can seem incomprehensible that having abandoned the former and chosen the latter, the impression presented is that the choice was the other way round. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, like any organisation or party experiencing change, they don’t want to be either outflanked or teased by more aggressive former comrades.

Secondly, they still see a role for street activity. They not only want to identify with the tradition of gains won when people clashed with the state, they also see this as a continuing route for advance. Some reckon it is the only way progress was ever made or will be made. A seat in parliament from this perspective becomes a mere platform for an activist who believes more in street activity.

The final group is comprised of fantasists who believe they are living in a police state and that they are part of an uprising which will shortly be joined by the majority.

If words matter, those who urge others to Rise Up or who talk in terms of revolution will have to be questioned forensically until citizens know exactly what – if anything – is meant.

Reaction to Russell Brand’s manifesto in New Statesman* has been almost exclusively of three types: supportive, dismissive, or patronising. Because the level of support for his position is so large the dismissive and patronising reactions will not do. What is needed is engagement with his perspective. It needs to be examined and subjected to the level of critique due to all public arguments.

New Statesman is attracting a great deal of criticism for publishing Russell Brand (RB) and allowing him to edit an entire edition. This is not deserved because the journal has performed a service in giving this political perspective space, respect and above all attention. The political perspective offered by RB is not at all uncommon. It would appear to be shared by at least a significant minority of people and possibly by a majority. It is the perspective which dominates mass media and social media. That it has been expressed by Russell Brand should neither increase nor decrease its importance.

His presentation of the position goes something like this.

He builds a case for casting aside the whole Westminster model including representative democracy. The starting point is “most people” and the observations that they don’t give a fuck about politics, view all parties and politicians as the same and hold them in equal contempt. He reckons that all political “agencies” are irredeemably and totally corrupted by big business. The conclusion is that “the current paradigm” should be renounced.

He holds a particular contempt for the Conservative Party and the smaller more extreme right wing parties but contempt for their opponents is only marginally less. Paradoxically for someone with such strong anti-state/anti-politics (ASAP) views, he has a positive attitude to leftist values, and leftist figures and achievements of the past.

He lists very real inequalities, poverty, deprivation and exclusions from decent living. Things are so bad and reform so impossible that only a revolution will do, a spiritual revolution. Now, he is not alone in using “spiritual” in relation to revolution; Rosa Luxemburg, the late 19th – early 20th century Marxist philosopher, does so too. However, he is quite explicit that the revolution is not about the overthrow and replacement of institutions and that “spiritual” refers to individual rather than collective change and to some kind of conversion rather than persuasion by argument.

He holds that media, public relations and polling combine to delude the people, keeping them apathetic rather than angry.

There are problems with all of this but first it is necessary to deal with those who would patronise him and those who share his views. RB has defenders on the left who appreciate the publicity he has given to the scale of the problems we face and to some of the issues that they too might prioritise. Moreover, they may share his view of the importance and wisdom of “most people”. They say that because he is not a politician, practiced in argument or particularly well-educated or informed, he cannot be expected to offer any solution or be subjected to analysis. Now, RB himself tries to exploit this (Indeed, he invites patronising admiration.) by saying that because he knows so little, little can be expected of him. In this position and that of his supporters who seek to patronise him there is acceptance of elite authority – a reliance on one’s betters (Yes, very likely the same betters already rejected as complicit in the problems.) to devise a solution. It is a rejection of the ordinary citizen’s involvement in great debates. It is a rejection of the notion that anyone may express a view in public and when they do, they invite criticism and counter argument. The patronising of RB’s views is an example of a modern form of censorship in which, “everyone is entitled to an opinion” has come to imply that a speaker’s opinion should not be questioned. It is tolerance turned on its head and made to mean the opposite. RB’s views deserve the respect of being challenged, particularly so because those views are commonplace, shared by so many people.

The overriding problem with the perspective now associated with RB is that it is for the greater part right wing. There are three important overlapping right wing perspectives which dominate. Firstly, though it might seem daft at first sight to associate RB with right wing dogma – given his apparent hostility to the establishment and in the UK to the Conservative Party – he is embracing an old and familiar approach to citizenship. Opposition to the state, and rejection of ideologies and of traditional forms and accepted norms for public debate signal opposition to the republican or participative model of citizenship. This is a model with which most leftists would identify and support. He opts instead for a variation on the liberal model of citizenship which cares little who is in charge or what is done as long as a level of comfort is guaranteed.** It should be admitted and then emphasised that a level of comfort is increasingly denied to many, many people and they are sorely, justifiably aggrieved.

Secondly, the ASAP thrust is meat and drink to those whose views can be loosely identified with the highly individualistic Freeman movement. Because of its anti-state, anti-tax, pro-property and standing-up-for-the-little-guy approach this is particularly attractive right now. In Ireland its largely bogus attempts to prevent debtors’ property – especially houses and lands – being seized are proving attractive because so many people in debt are in need of some relieving faith.*** These same characteristics give it credibility at protests and either confuse leftists or tempt them to turn a blind eye to the reality of a political perspective which in other circumstances they would oppose.†

Thirdly, it is plain that “New Age” thinking or what is frequently termed Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) approaches are central. Indeed, for the edition of New Statesman which RB guest-edited he invited Deepak Chopra – among others – to write a short piece about revolution. Moreover, he talks admiringly of “sacred knowledge” in various pantheistic myths and seems to think that these myths were killed off because they were “socialist, egalitarian and integrated”. Clearly he believes at least some of the huge range of MBS doctrines. He may also realise the importance and influence of the New Age/spiritual/MBS constituency among his supporters. It is this that provides the quickest line of retreat from ordinary understanding of revolution into the radically individualist notion of a spiritual revolution.

It is worth returning to his view that the media are to blame for deluding the people. He may well be right but the delusion supports rather than hinders his perspective. To be fair to RB, it is true that journalists are generally loud in their condemnation of rioting and violent protesters and that they seek out examples in order to make a largely peaceful demonstration newsworthy. It is also true that what little analysis of disorder there is takes place months later in documentaries aimed at a small, more thoughtful audience. However, for decades the media have been deriding both politicians and politics,†† presenting an overall view that is remarkably similar to that of RB and – significantly – to that of the majority of citizens. It may be very hard for many of those accustomed to condemning the “mainstream media” to grasp the extent to which routine media output supports the denigration of politics, the acceptance of an elite political class, the reduction of the citizen to supplicant seeking favours, and the rejection of a demos in favour of minorities competing for resources at each other’s expense.††† It is a view which is incompatible with leftist thinking but many leftists decline to tackle it and instead either make common cause with its adherents, attempt to lead it or patronise it by asking no questions.‡

RB has performed a service in underlining the extent to which there are problems beyond the competence of any one state. The world, organised in competing states and federations and pinning almost all hope of a better life for citizens on economic growth, faces an existential threat in Global Warming. Moreover, within and across developed states there is a refusal to face two looming issues. Firstly, not only are there more people now but they are living much longer. The very idea of a pension rests on the assumption of employment until 65 and death soon after. That is plainly not how things are. Secondly, almost all policy assumes that a good society has full employment in decent jobs. The enormous productivity wrought by technology means that plainly this too is not how things are.

Russell Brand and the huge numbers who think similarly are disappointing not only because they are right wingers under their socialist fleece but in rejecting reform in favour of a vague hope they bring to mind a hoary old joke told too many times in Ireland:

A tourist stops and asks a local for directions to be told, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution
** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/
*** http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/lawyers-advise-against-use-of-groups-claiming-secret-formula-to-circumvent-law-1.1396641
̾† http://freemanireland.ning.com/
†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/the-politicians-one-way-that-journalists-limit-debate-in-the-republic/
̾†̾†̾† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/rulers-peasants-journalists-and-activists-a-note-on-vincent-brownes-piece-marking-rousseaus-300th-birthday/