Sunday, July 12, 2015

Against rationalisation.

This piece by Leo Panitch probably isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already share the predicates of the Tsipras-Tsakalotos euro-realist line.  Indeed, the piece evinces a certain frustration with that fact, evident in the misfiring blunderbuss sarcasm.  That's a pity: if you are going to shoot the messenger, you should at least choose a precise weapon.

The problem, and the source of Panitch's frustration, is that underlying the disagreement as to how to parse the last memorandum offer from Greece are quite radically opposed precepts.  The problem is not that leftist critics of the Syriza leadership haven't noticed that its position is one arrived at incrementally, and consistent with its overall strategic perspective.  It is that they have, from the very beginning, said that this perspective was incoherent: that one could not oppose austerity, keep out the overseers, or even implement the mild Thessaloniki Programme - which, lest we forget, was supposed to be an emergency programme implemented irrespective of the negotiations - and still remain loyal to the European institutions.  And they were swiftly proven correct.

Syriza's negotiating stance crumbled by late February.  Without any of the allies or interlocutors they expected, they accepted the position of the creditors, and claimed victory.  Between opposing austerity, and demonstrating their euro commitment, they opted for the latter.  Henceforth, with the fiscal stranglehold still in place, the government had nothing to negotiate with, no threat to make.  The creditors kept shifting the goalposts; the government kept moving to meet their terms.  At no point has the movement been in the opposite direction.  The government has now reached the point at which it is not only committed to a new memorandum, with the overseers back in place, but it is committed to privatization, pension 'reforms', VAT increases, and budgetary surpluses (meaning spending cuts) - all the things which it had been elected to oppose.

So what will the government now be able to claim as a success in these negotiations?  Leo Panitch raises the possibility of "significant debt restructuring and investment funds" which could "offset many times over" the austerian surplus commitment.  This is only a small cut above the increasingly desperate "Syriza only submits these terrible proposals in order to provoke rejection and make the creditors look bad".  'Pragmatism', it turns out, has its own utopian streak.

Rather than explain the sheer illogicality of expecting anything like this outcome in these circumstance, I merely point to what the Eurogroup is in fact demanding now.  They demand, in addition to what the government has already offered "a significantly scaled-up privatisation programme", including the privatisation of energy and the transfer of "valuable assets" belonging to the Greek state to an independent third party for future privatisation.  They demand further 'reform' of the pensions system, and of the labour market.  They demand that the 'Institutions' have veto power over any future legislation, before it is even seen by the Greek parliament.  These are listed as "minimum requirements to start the negotiations".

What do the Eurogroup offer in return for all of this?  They make no specific commitment, but they say that the financing of a bailout programme could cost as much as €86bn.  Most of that money would go straight to the banks, although the document mentions that up to €25bn may have to be set aside as a 'buffer' for the banking industry.  Debt restructuring is specifically excluded within the eurozone.  Finally, and evidently reflecting the official position of the German government, there is a suggestion in the document - not approved by all heads of state - that if there is no deal reached, then Greece could be permitted to exit for a period of five years.  It is also mentioned that under these circumstances, there might be some debt restructuring permitted.  In word and effect, the eurozone states have been telling Tsipras that that either Greece will become a "ward" of the eurozone, or it can get out.

So, here we have an absurd situation, in that the Greek government has been so committed to negotiations in which nothing is actually negotiated, in which the other side makes no concessions, that it has never prepared a Plan B.  The exit scenario that Panitch scoffs at, has never been seriously contemplated even as an emergency.  And now, rather than Syriza being able to threaten to leave, the eurozone are the ones threatening them with Grexit, knowing that Tsipras will bend over backward to avoid it.  At best, Tsipras could possibly get some sort of deal that isn't too much worse than that which a previous, pro-austerity, centrist government might have obtained - but that scenario looks vanishingly unlikely.

This is what defeat looks like.  And that, not any great tactical brilliance on the part of Tsipras, is the reason why the pro-austerity parties that were defeated in the election and the referendum, ended up in the negotiating team.  Because the Syriza leadership has moved to their position; when it came down to it, Europe came first.

And even if you think that there is no alternative to negotiations, and even if you're as dismissive of the argument for exit as Panitch is, that is still a defeat.  Syriza set out to achieve a certain set of objectives within the institutions of the eurozone, and on the vast majority of those objectives it has accepted failure.  It may be an understandable failure.  It may be compelled by the relation of forces, and arrived at logically and consistently with a rigorous analysis of the situation.  But it is a failure.  And so is Panitch's argument.