Why the possession of momentum and initiative is all-important in the case of left governments:
"Even when a Left government really controls state branches and apparatuses, it does not necessarily control the one or ones which play the dominant role in the State and which therefore constitute the central pivot of real power. The centralised unity of the State does not rest on a pyramid whose summit need only be occupied for effective control to be ensured. Moreover, even when a Left government manages to gain control of the hitherto dominant apparatus, the state institutional structure enables the bourgeoisie to transpose the role of dominance from one apparatus to another. In other words, the organization of the bourgeois State allows it to function by successive dislocation and displacement through which the bourgeoisie's power may be removed from one apparatus to another: the State is not a monolithic bloc, but a strategic field. Given that their rigidity makes the state apparatuses resistant to straightforward manipulation by the bourgeoisie, this permutation of apparatus dominance evidently takes place not overnight but according to a relatively lengthy process; this lack of malleability may thus act to the disadvantage of the bourgeoisie and create a breathing-space for the Left in power. Still, the very process of permutation tends to reorganize the centralized unity of the State around the newly dominant apparatus - an apparatus which thereby becomes the supreme refuge-centre of bourgeois power in the State, remaining in operation as such throughout the period of Left government. This complex mechanism may assume several forms, certain of which appear paradoxical. Thus, institutions-apparatuses that normally have an altogether secondary, or purely decorative function may suddenly take on a decisive role: the British House of Lords recently blocked nationalization bills of the Labour government; under Allende, the law courts suddenly discovered an irresistible vocation for guaranteeing 'legality'; and various constitutional councils have at times played a similar role."
- Nicos Poulantzas. State, Power, Socialism. London & New York: Verso. pp. 126-128
They can stop the pretence
now, I think. For a long time, we've heard that Liz Kendall is the Labour leadership candidate that Conservatives most fear. The right-wing media and the Tories always claim to be scared of Labour choosing the most right-wing, Tory candidate - the one the Conservatives and right-wing media fawn over and praise and grovel to - as their leader. It's part of a deep ideological strategy since, if it is repeated often enough, its premise - that the electorate is fundamentally right-wing and all political questions must be solved in a right-wing way - will be taken for granted.
That claim won't stand now. Having patronising Corbyn, then laughed at him, they now offer a stream of constant panic and hate. Every day there is a new twist on the same basic theme. Corbyn's backers repent to their media inquisitors: they didn't actually mean him to stand a chance. Labour right-wingers threaten to split if Corbyn wins. Labour MPs plot constitutional coup if Corbyn wins. Back to the SDP
if Corbyn wins (please let that be true). Back to the 1970s if Corbyn wins. Back to the USSR
if Corbyn wins. Sputnik triumphs again if Corbyn wins. Commies plotting
to steal the Labour Party, Harman urged to cancel the election. And it isn't just the reactionary press: this is wall to wall, from populist right to centre-left. The liberal pundits, from Jonathan Freedland to Helen Lewis
to Suzanne Moore
to Anne Perkins, all offer much the same kind of vicious condescension: Corbyn supporters are either simple-minded, tribal thugs from the paleolithic era, or hysterics who think with their emotions and hormones, or sun-stroked hippies who think of little but rainbows and fluffy wuffy clouds. Even this
relatively friendly piece can't restrain itself: "They don’t understand the nuanced messages and triangulations of the other candidates ... furrowing her brow to show incomprehension...". And so on.
So, let's be clear. The candidate the Conservatives are most frightened of is Jeremy Corbyn. They know this isn't 1981, and they know that he isn't an erratic egomaniac. They know that in an unstable ideological climate in which the dominant parties have an increasingly shaky relationship with their traditional base, unexpected things can happen. It is precisely the opposite of what Blair claimed: there is no guarantee of any "traditional result". They have no idea what the result would be if Corbyn actually won; because they had no idea that Corbyn even stood a chance. And, remarkably, he does stand a chance. The Yougov poll putting him some twenty percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Andy Burnham, and giving him a six points lead with second preferences, may be wrong, but it can't be that
wrong. Even taking into account that the number of those who hadn't made up their mind yet was a fifth of respondents, he's certainly far from being as totally out of the running as I would have expected. So, yes he can. This is not say that he will: the right-wing of the Labour is resourceful, and well-connected. The spew of Project Fear articles against Corbyn in the press - including the liberal media - denouncing Corbyn in the most infantile terms possible, could very well be effective. But let's hope they aren't. Let's hope that Labour Party members break out of that cycle of internalised defeat and hopelessness. Let's hope they're angry enough at being used, abused, mistreated, and condescended to by the pundits, and above all by the scumbag Blair
, that Project Fear backfires this time.
So, Corbyn could win. This does not mean that I am going to pay my £3 and join up as a 'supporter' in order to vote for Corbyn. There's quite a lot of bandwagon-hopping at the moment - it was the same with the Greens last year - and joining the Labour Party just to have a vote and then leaving is pointless. Why vote for Corbyn if you're not going to hang around and try to support him and try to reconstitute the Labour Party? He'll be weak enough against the established power of the old right-wing bureaucracy, without a big chunk of his base fucking off the day after the polls close. Corbyn will not win by pulling in outside forces who have no interested in the Labour Party's long-term future, and no identification with it; he will win by shaking up the Labour Party, and drawing in new members who are just becoming politicised.
More importantly, I'm not convinced that even Corbyn, even with the luxury of an activist base consciously working to shake up the Labour Party from the grassroots up - the 'social movement'
that Corbyn seeks to create - can stop the rot known as 'Pasokification'. I think Corbyn winning would open up serious opportunities for the Left. It would put the austerians on the defensive. It would give confidence to trade unionists, NHS workers, campaigners against welfare cuts, anti-racists and every group that Labour presently shows utter contempt toward. However, while the Labour Right is ideologically weak, it is not politically weak. Its popular base is much narrower than it used to be, but its congealed institutional power is considerable, while the Left is almost trying to rebuild a social base from scratch and hasn't had a dominant position in any part of the Labour Party for about thirty years. Labour's structural relationships with the state, with business, and with the media, enhance the power of the Right considerably. Corbyn, as leader, would be a sitting duck for right-wing attacks, and he would be under constant pressure to abandon left-wing positions. He would feel a responsibility to present a united opposition to the Tories, prevent his shadow cabinet from falling apart, limit the pressure from the civil service, the media, and inevitably the spooks. He would be forced to compromise, continuously on what is currently a moderate left agenda. His leadership would be incredibly vulnerable. In short, the state of the Labour Party is not something that can be changed in one leadership race, as it is the accumulated result of decades of class struggles and their outcomes.
However, that tactical point doesn't change the overall situation, and it doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to support Corbyn's bid, and undermine Project Fear, in whatever ways we can. It's not just the Labour Left that is weak. It is the Left as a whole. Yes, Corbyn would be relatively isolated at the top, and top-heavy successes are extremely vulnerable. Yes, he will be trying to shift the balance of forces in favour of the Left, in a situation in which our forces are incredibly depleted. But it is a structural aspect of today's situation that in the growing vacuum created by the breakdown of the old party-base relationship, individuals and groups can suddenly project influence well beyond their actual social basis, if what they say finds an ideological resonance in lived experience. We don't get to change that just be force of will. So we have to work with the grain of our few advantages. Corbyn has made a breakthrough, and that presents opportunities that it would be stupid and irresponsible to opt out of.
- the attempt by Pride organisers to ban drag performers from their event - is terrible, terrible politics. Worse, it makes no effort to offer a political justification. If it specifically claimed that drag was in some way a parody of trans (rather than an activity that is within the history of trans), then at least there would be an argument to counter. It doesn't even do that. The argument is simply that the inclusion of drag acts might make some people who are trans or questioning their gender "uncomfortable". That's worse than a slippery slope: the slippage has already begun. You could justify practically any sectarian or bigoted stance on the basis that someone makes you "uncomfortable". It isn't as if certain people don't claim to be made "uncomfortable" by trans people.
The organisers, in their unconscionably bad faith statement, also claim that it's okay because people in drag can still turn up at Pride, they just won't be performing. That won't wash. They have made a political decision to exclude drag acts from the event; if 'they' are a problem on the stage, making people 'uncomfortable', then 'they' will be a problem off the stage. The organisers have essentially validated some incredibly ill-considered, politically vacuous and ultimately bigoted position and then tried to wash their hands of it.
: Credit where it's due, this is a very good statement
by the organisers, taking responsibility, retracting the position and above all repudiating the mistaken political perspective. That doesn't usually happen.
Few people would ever be as crude as to tell you, "you wouldn't know this cuz you're just a chick, but". Or, say, "I'm assuming you're not as educated as me cuz you're black, so". That's rarely the way it works, although it does work that way sometimes. Yet no one who has experienced mansplaining, whitesplaining, or other variations of splaining, seems to doubt that this is what is essentially being expressed. It's a power trip. It's a discourse of mastery. It's invidious. All the more so if it comes from a comrade or ally.
Part of the reason why it is difficult to pin it down analytically, is because it often seems to take the form of an implied 'attitude' rather than a specific form of words. For example, you might think someone is mansplaining by virtue of his being a fucking idiot who still lectures women confidently on things of which he knows little. Or you might think someone is mansplaining because, even though he isn't an idiot, and may even have a point, he is being incredibly condescending in expressing it. But I want to suggest that there's a way to think about splaining that could be useful in defining the problem, and that it is in fact in the form of words that it can be detected. I'm going to use a few rudiments of Lacanian discourse theory to make that point.
Structurally, according to Lacan, the four positions of a discourse are agency (someone has to be speaking), other (someone has to be spoken at), production (the discourse must have some effect) and truth (there is a truth of the situation concealed by the discourse). The fact that I listed four positions doesn't mean there couldn't be others, in manifold combinations - just that Lacan only identified these four.
So, to reiterate: in this view of a discourse, the agent addresses something to the other, as a result of which some sort of effect or 'surplus' is produced. The truth is that which in a way 'covertly' determines the agent's position. This is the schema:
Agent ________> Other
Truth ................... Production
Each of these positions are occupied by one of four terms (again, there could be others). First, there is S1, the master-signifier. The master-signifier is a pure signifier of power - be it God, Law, Nature, Whiteness, or something else. It doesn't matter what it is. The master offers no justification for his or her power. The master doesn't say "do as I say and you will have a better life". The master just says, "do as I say". This is why, ultimately, the master signifier is nonsensical. Second, there is S2, which is knowledge. The slave, toiling away for the master, typically comes by knowledge. The master doesn't really care about knowledge as long as everything works, but the slave has to know why things work, and why they don't. Third, there is $, the subject. The bar across the subject just refers to the fact that we are all split between conscious and unconscious, and all in some sense 'castrated' - we all lack something, especially as it pertains to knowledge. There is no such thing as total knowledge, after all. Often, the things we don't know have something to do with us being socialised, say, as 'white' or 'male'. Finally, there is 'a', a surplus object which in the context of capitalism might be profit.
This is what the Master's discourse looks like in the schema:
S1 ___M___> S2
$ ..................... a
As you can see, S1, the master-signifier, is in the position of agency. This would be the discourse of despotic power: whoever adopts the master’s discourse, puts himself in the place of the master who simply wants things to work, and is uninterested in knowing anything. His Highness wills it, and that is all that matters. The truth of this discourse, which the master works hard to conceal, is the subject barred - that is, the fact that the master is castrated and lacking like everyone else. One is almost tempted to say that splaining is the master's discourse, because ultimately it is an expression of power. But I tried saying that on Facebook, and it was completely demolished. Because, actually, what's happening with splaining is something more covert than open mastery.
This is where the University discourse comes in. This is the schema:
S2 ____U___> a
Here, knowledge, S2, is in the position of agency. Knowledge is in charge and is the criteria by which statements are evaluated, rather than sheer power. And in this discourse, knowledge interrogates this something, this surplus object, in order to produce a subject. And that, of course, is what universities do: they produce 'knowing' subjects. But, as you can see, S1 occupies the position of truth. This is a discourse of concealed mastery. In the context of the Sixties rebellion against university authorities, Lacan - for all his scepticism of the student protests - acknowledged that university discourse basically serves power. In interrogating the surplus something, the 'a' that is produced by capital, or governments, it tends to justify and rationalise them. You can see how this works in those forms of pedagogy wherein the students are encouraged to receive and regurgitate what you might call dead knowledge, rather than given the opportunity to analyse and bring this knowledge into question. But this is not just an aspect of higher education. University discourse, according to Lacan, is the prevalent discourse of power in modernity.
These are only formalised representations of tendencies. In real discourse, the master will usually at some point offer some sort of a justification for their power; just as the purveyor of technocratic knowledge will usually at some point blurt out "because I fucking well said so!" But broadly speaking, in these terms one would class splaining in most circumstances as a University discourse. That is, they offer what appears to be an 'innocent' or 'disinterested' explanation of a systematised form of knowledge, but it is in the service of rationalising some form of mastery. And this leads us to another essential element. A great deal hangs on the excluded truth of the situation, that which is only surreptitiously present, viz. the master-signifier. In most instances of splaining, the whole interaction is structured by their being white, or male, or both, and yet the splainer never once acknowledges or refers to this fact. There is no reflexivity to the common or garden splainer. Whiteness and masculinity - more particularly, the master-signifiers, Whiteness and Masculinity - operate as the unconscious of their discourse.
You will also notice that splainers tend to be a little hurt to be reminding of being, say, white or male: it is a discourtesy to even bring it up. In fact, being reminded of it produces what in Lacanian terms would be called a 'hysterization of discourse'. In the 'discourse of the hysteric', the subject appears to be in the position of agency, demanding that the master produce knowledge about itself the better to expose it as a fraud. In this context, there are opportunities for projection. An example of the latter would be David Brooks
whitesplaining to Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'I know you are saying this, but don't you actually want to silence me because I am white and male? Why do you hate America?' This fantasy - that Coates wants to silence white men and hates America - is a projection, of course, and a disguised form of a deeper fantasy, that Brooks will silence Coates and black men like him, that America's hatred for them can once more be openly expressed. Bear in mind that a fantasy always stages a desire. A more sophisticated variant might be where splainers in the knowledge-producing industries factor in their whiteness and maleness as part of their splaining, and even passive-aggressively wonder if their whiteness and maleness undermines what they are about to say.
So, this is splaining. In its initial phase, it is a 'discourse of the university', in which a systematised, 'disinterested' knowledge rationalises that which in its foundation is thoroughly irrational, viz. white or male power. In its subsequent phase, it is a 'discourse of the hysteric', in which the critic is bombarded with questions and accusations, the better to expose their treacherous intentions.
Okay, back to work. Before I go, I leave you with the novel concept of Lacan-splaining: "Look. I know you think you mean this; but your discourse says something else." And Freud-splaining: "Lol, your mum."
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.
It is gut-wrenching, watching Syriza beg, and plead with the creditors not to crush Greece. Too late did they realise that they weren't negotiating
. They had nothing to do negotiate with, no cards to play. They went looking for the 'good euro', and found only ruthless, mercenary capitalist enforcers. They sought compromise and were given fiscal strangulation. Even after their big deal with the creditors in February, wherein they gave up most of their emergency programme, none of the money they expected was forthcoming. Their means of raising money were cut off. For months, and months, they made concessions; the troika made none. Finally, they were all set to sign up to a deal considerably worse than any imposed on previous governments. The troika demanded more, on pain of destroying the banking system.
Now, it seems, Syriza has caved and proposed a deal which is even worse than the worst
. Cuts. Privatisations. Pension 'reforms'. VAT increases. Recessionary measures. Barely a trace of a progressive agenda left here, notwithstanding the strenuous and heartbreaking efforts of euro-leftists to give it a gloss. In some respects, they have delivered, after months of fighting
, a more complete victory
to the neoliberal managers of Europe than the latter could have won on their own account. The social catastrophe that has befallen Greece is now going to be prolonged - the suicides, the premature deaths, the medicine shortages, the starvation, the wage losses, unemployment - but without any possible conviction that, say, a new radical left government might be elected and put an end to the misery. What sort of political forces might stand to gain in that terrain is obviously undecided; but we have seen what the worst of it could be.
In a way, none of this is surprising. The only possible coherent basis for any alternative to austerity was a Grexit prepared for early on, both in terms of public opinion and effective war-readiness. There was nothing else coming down the pipeline. The dominant forces in the Syriza leadership wouldn't have it. Not for a second would Tsipras, Dragasakis, or the recently appointed negotiator Tsakalotos, allow this outcome. For them, Grexit was worse than austerity. Of course, even if they thought that was true, the failure to even plan for such a contingency, to wargame the possible outcomes and get people in the state apparatuses ready to act, was a huge mistake.
I am not forgetting that they are a left government trying to operate within the confines of a capitalist state penetrated by imperialism. I am not oblivious of the fact that the permanent state apparatuses may have sabotaged and undermined them at every turn - certainly, the constant leaks undermining the previous commitments against privatisation suggest civil service lobbying. So it's quite possible that a Syriza government trying to prepare for a situation tantamount to war - Grexit being a huge national effort, not something a few technocrats can manage - would have been subverted and sabotaged quickly. But from what I can see, all efforts have been obsessively focused on negotiations, and those have delivered precisely worse than nothing.
So what was the meaning of last week's referendum? Why did they call it, and what happened to 'Oxi'? It is fair to say that the Syriza leadership never expected 61% of Greeks
to actually support them. Neither did I. The 'Oxi' rallies were enormous, but the fact of this translating into such a tremendous surge at the ballots, mostly coming from the working class and from younger voters - but actually spread across all the districts of Greece, the rural as much as the urban - bespeaks a revolt on the scale of the 'national-popular'. No one could have anticipated it. So what did they anticipate? We could infer the answer from their behaviour. On the day after the referendum, Varoufakis was relieved of his negotiating duties
(leaving aside his generally right-cleaving positions, the creditors evidently hate him), and instead a new team including delegates from To Potami and Pasok was sent to discuss the terms of surrender. Tsakalotos sent a letter pleading for a new bailout, with a promise of a new memorandum. This move would have made much more sense had there been a narrow vote for 'Yes', or even a narrow 'No'. It makes no sense at all now. It is at least plausible that Syriza leaders would have preferred to lose and be forced to resign, rather than take responsibility for this deal. It is also plausible, lest we overlook the option, that the Syriza leadership is utterly at sea, pulled hither and thither by tides and winds it knows nothing of.
Whatever the reason, the referendum did happen and the result was astonishing. The majority of Greeks did come out to clearly reject austerity. The public protests and rallies building to it, against the ferocious pressure of the reactionary media and the threats of the Eurogroup, almost had the character of a social movement. If we're fortunate, they were the beginning of one. This introduces a significant cleavage between the government and its base. Objectively, that is the basis of a political split. Whether anyone in Syriza will recognise that remains to be seen.
As I write, we're waiting to see what the parliamentary votes will look like. There is immense pressure on Syriza MPs to give Tsipras the authority to negotiate and finalise a deal on this basis. There are all sorts of lures being dangled. Maybe the Eurogroup will sink it. Maybe if the final deal is terrible you can oppose it then. Hold tight for now, and things will look better in a few days. And rods being wielded. Don't make Tsipras look bad. Don't bring the government down. Don't let the European masters have that victory.
So it is important to be clear: if Syriza supports and implements this deal, it is over. It will not recover. It may exist as a party, but as a force of the radical left it will be all but redundant. It may as well be a centrist, austerian coalition. A left that goes along with this will be committing suicide. And finally, don't put your faith in the idea that maybe if Syriza hangs in there, does what it's told, eventually, after a while, Podemos will come, maybe some other radical left formations will come, and the balance of power will tilt. Even if that was how the European institutions work - and they have proven they aren't susceptible to that kind of pressure - this outcome will seriously undercut the chances for the European radical left.
Be clear that we are looking a world-historic defeat in the eye. And act accordingly.