Jerzy Sobotta, Moritz Roeger, Thodoris Velissaris, Haseeb Ahmed, Valentin Badura, and Cengiz Kulac
Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012
The following transcript is from an event that took place on April 2, 2012 at the University of Chicago, in conjunction with the 2012 Platypus International Convention, titled “Responses to the Global Economic Downturn.” Members and contacts of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Europe were invited to speak on their experience of leftist responses to the economic downturn. The speakers included Haseeb Ahmed (Netherlands), Valentin Badura (Austria), Cengiz Kulac (Austria), Moritz Roeger (Germany), Jerzy Sobotta (Germany), and Thodoris Velissaris (Greece). A full audio recording is available online at <http://archive.org/details/ResponsesToTheGlobalEconomicDownturn>.
Jerzy Sobotta: I want to give a brief picture of peculiarities of the German Left regarding their responses to the crisis. There are massive effects from the economic meltdown in Europe, particularly in places like Greece and Spain, with mass unemployment and social upheaval. On the other hand, some countries like Germany are relatively stable and even experiencing significant economic expansion recently. This is telling, in terms of the structure of Europe and the causes of the crisis as well. Germany was one of the main players in European integration, and a major German export industry was one result. Germany competes every year with China for first place in the volume of exports, and a lot of it goes to the EU. Exports of high-tech goods and very high productivity form a solid infrastructure for the German economy. The last decade was also marked by the decline of the welfare state in Germany: significant cuts in social services, a steep decline in wages, and deregulation in the wage sector. Temporary employment is common. Low budget employment, insecure jobs, and the unions have, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, caused a lot of anxiety about losing jobs to other countries within Europe. The EU has low-wage countries like Poland and Bulgaria, and of course there is always the fear that industries will move to Asia. The unions played a crucial role in avoiding this possibility by choosing not to demand higher wages, so as to do their part in keeping Germany competitive. This is also reflected by the response of the German government: There is an imposition of financial reforms and especially austerity measures on other countries.
Since Germany is one of the major economies in the European union, it will be affected by the general decline of Europe insofar as it bails out banks in other countries. Since it is one of the main backers of the financial support system, one could say that Germany is in large part to blame for the crisis itself. This situation is reflected in many leftists’ political responses to the crisis, where we can see, especially on the more social democratic and union side, a great deal of nostalgia for Keynesianism. For example, the unions demand welfare state reforms, and Die Linke wants to keep up national sovereignty in light of the dictation of cuts and austerity measures in other countries. They want to keep democratization within the Euro realm. Their response is a “New Deal in Europe,” calling for massive investment and building up social infrastructure—basically, a re-play of the rise of the welfare state economy. The major trade unions in Germany—which differ from those in the United States in that they represent a more institutionalized mass—blame finance capital for destroying wages. What they demand is a strong state that is supposed to be in charge of the economy; they demand that the market should work for the people, rather than the people for the market. Yet it is unclear whether such Keynesian responses are really adequate to the situation, given that the neoliberal era is itself a response to the crisis of Keynesianism. Such responses tend to understand the problem in a national framework, even if they use phrases like “a New Deal for all of Europe.” The disparaging relationship between the EU countries will necessarily require some sort of response in Germany as one of the major economies.
One way or another, the German working class will play a role in shaping German policy. With the above-mentioned responses from Die Linke and the mass unions, it is hard to see how that role could be a progressive one. Even in the ultra-left groups, the issue is primarily about nationalism. An anti-national stance is common as a response to the nationalism of the unions and the more established left parties. Nevertheless, the anti-national left groups do not really have an international orientation in terms of their politics. They strive to get certain catch phrases out there, in the context of neighborhood organizing and so forth. Frankly, there is a great deal of cluelessness regarding the international crisis. The confusion of the German left groups in this situation is concurrent with a lack of imagination in terms of how to address the crisis, or even how to use it productively for their own causes.
Moritz Roeger: Under the name M31 (March 31), there was a Europe-wide event recently that provides something of a cross-section of the Left’s response to the economic crisis. M31 operated under the idea of a European-wide day of action against capitalism; they said they don’t want to save capitalism, but to overcome it. Generally speaking, M31 was comprised of the radical groups on the German left, for example antifascist groups, Krisenbünis in Frankfurt, the Free Workers Union in Germany, the Greens, and ums Ganze. The Vienna antifascist groups were also there. What they organized over the previous four or five months were demonstrations and events in over 23 cities and 12 countries, with a connection to the #Occupy movement in New York. They had support through various groups and two newspapers, one of which was M31 Times, wherein they published a few articles in response to the Euro crisis, an interview with one of the organizers, and laid out what they wanted to achieve with this European day of action.
One main point was to build a Europe-wide network of groups that can be more efficient in protesting the Eurocrisis than fragmented smaller groups dispersed throughout various cities, so that, for instance, you could have greater cooperation between people in Thessaloniki and groups in Frankfurt against privatizing of water supplies in Thessaloniki by a German company. What really struck me was that this drive toward really broad networking was something new, or at least something I hadn’t seen before, for the radical left in Europe. Twelve European countries in one network is something I have not experienced in my decade of involvement with the radical left.
There were between three and six thousand people in Frankfurt’s day of action and it was pure activist-ism. What the newspapers showed were people from the radical left and black bloc sacking the downtown area until late at night, attacking a police station, and so on; it was quite intense. There were also two demonstrations to mobilize for that event, each leading to a different story. The first one was in Wiesbaden, where there was a great deal of tension with the police. Afterwards, people who were organizing this demonstration remarked, “Oh yeah, that’s what you get when you see how the police are treating us. We have to fight police. See how we stand against police.” But on the other hand we had a demonstration in Göttingen that didn’t face that problem. It didn’t really see any police intervention. What you read about in reports of that event was that everyone had a really fun time—there was a nice rave in the middle of the city. One line that really struck me said of this event, in effect, “We told the police to hold back and they did.” So the left has two responses at work all the time, no matter what happens.
Thodoris Velissaris: I think that the major response to the crisis in Greece was the massive Indignados movement. It persisted for several months, it appeared in many cities, and when the #Occupy movement happened in the U.S., we thought it was their Indignados. For us this is an old story, as we had people with tents in the big squares, doing various things. The big difference is that the reactionary elements in Greece were more formidable and apparent because of the severity of the situation. The main slogans coming out of this basically said, “The politicians are traitors who are selling out our country, and we will resist this.” There was a huge nationalistic impulse in the Indignados movement, which lasted for some months, and then stopped. The main phenomenon in the Indignados movement was the assemblies, where people stood like columns, waiting for their turn to speak, and when it was their turn they stated their opinion. For example: “Who’s to blame? The U.S.!” And then there would be applause, and then someone else would come and say something. The idea was that we should express ourselves democratically and go to the streets to discuss our problems together. This was an interesting impulse, and it was certainly something different. Some groups tried to exploit it, but these Indignados really hated political parties—they actually destroyed some tables of established parties that tried to give them material. It was a bit unfortunate that they hated the labor unions too, because, in their minds, they were identified with parties. The Indignados thought of themselves as representing the people who were now organizing in a truly libertarian manner. But then after four months it disappeared. The various austerity packages were passed, and of course there were the demonstrations, some with spectacular conflicts, but nothing worked in terms of halting or even really stalling the packages. This kind of response to European organizing reminded me of the beginning of the 2000s; after 1999, there was considerable coordination between various groups around Europe for events like May Day, and things like that.
The response to crisis in Greece is nationalistic in orientation, meaning that all the various tendencies think that, if we organized our economy differently, then we would do better. Their “correct” set of principles of economic policy would correct the problems. So even the anarchists imagine that if we were living in communes, for example, then we could still buy new laptops and new telephones and we wouldn’t have to face these austerity problems. The Stalinists think that under a Stalinist regime in Greece we wouldn’t face this problem. All the various tendencies have this nationalist prism to deal with the crisis. But, then, those who are not nationalistic tend to be reformists. For example, many Eurocommunists admire this theory of Nicos Poulantzas—whose teacher was Althusser—which views the state as neutral and always an important factor, but the theory itself mirrors the class antagonism. On either the national level or the European level, there is support for these popular movements from below, but often with the idea that we can simply use the state to turn the situation precisely 180 degrees for the working classes: We use the state to make a bad situation—for everyone, really—into a good situation for the working class. This tends to be nationalistic; they are anti-neoliberal but, for them, this simply means being anti-American. So they still believe that social democracy can flourish in Europe, if we elect the right governments, and if the parliaments have more left representatives. They don’t have an international perspective on capitalism and the capitalist crisis.
Haseeb Ahmed: Today I’ll speak from my experience living in the Netherlands this last year and from my experience as a member of Platypus since its inception in 2006. Cuts to culture funding in the Netherlands will take effect January 1st, 2013. The Jan van Eyck Institute, where I am a fellow, is a unique place for state-funded research and production of experimental art, theory, and design with a history of nearly 60 years, which will soon cease to exist. However it’s important not to take the Jan van Eyck or even the cuts to Dutch culture funding in isolation, but to do the work of clearly linking the rise of austerity measures, nationalism, and xenophobia across Europe and internationally.
Within six months of my arrival in the Netherlands, I received an open letter titled “Beyond Quality,” from the minister of culture of the newly empowered, right-wing coalition government of the VVD (Peoples’ Party for Freedom and Democracy) and PVV (Party for Freedom). It announced 30–60 percent cuts to most cultural institutions. This is putting thousands of people out of work. The letter stated that from now on, “the responsibility of excellence will rest entirely with the artist, him or herself, and the market.” Nevertheless taxes on commercial galleries in the Netherlands were, paradoxically, raised 13 percent. This was one instance of the deeply irrational character of the newly empowered and supposedly pragmatic right-wing coalition government. In the Netherlands, the cuts to culture funding came together with cuts to healthcare, mental health care, and immigration services. These cuts represented themselves under the guise of necessary austerity measures. However, the GDP-to-deficit ratio in the Netherlands was well within the standards the European Union membership laid out in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. It is clear then that austerity measures have a function beyond their supposed economic necessity.
This latent ideology enacted by withholding finance capital in southern EU member states also guides the budget policies taking shape in the U.S. and elsewhere. Within Europe, the Netherlands is understood as a cultural and economic laboratory, and also as a kind of indicator, which goes back to the history of the Netherlands after World War II when the Marshall Plan invested in it heavily. Much of that funding went towards developing communications infrastructure, especially for the distribution of American media, including film, and so forth. In light of the logic of the Dutch government’s austerity measures, a left opposition would have to take steps to link the opposition movements in other affected countries as well as the mass opposition movements in Greece, the 15M movement in Spain, the anti-tuition fee movement in Britain, and the #Occupy movements in America. All of these share a common anti-ideological or anti-authoritarian character—and perhaps also an apolitical character, in that they often refrain from identifying themselves as left movements at all. To some this ambiguity is a valued quality. However, it poses a serious problem in terms of the development of a left attempting to overcome the conditions of capital.
The largest demonstrations against cuts came on June 27, 2011, the eve of the debate which would finalize the cuts to culture funding. It involved an estimated 10,000 people who marched from Rotterdam, in what was called the “March of Civilization.” Their slogans included “defense of culture,” and “no culture no future,” not deviating much from this line. The propagated symbol of the opposition was the well designed white x on a black background. Though many young people are being politicized for the first time through them, these demonstrations in the culture sector had no effect like the preceding demos that were organized independently but along the same lines in the mental health services and immigration services sectors.
Without acting in solidarity with the protests against other austerity cuts, these culture demos were organized along the same lines of the government funding structure that brought them into being and was now being revoked. The ineffectuality of this was very clear. So the problem was not one of too little too late but, rather, that the chosen path of “defending culture” led to a flattened political imagination.
The “March of Civilization” put forth culture as the vanguard of civilization; this was its political content. Its argument was that a cut to culture was a step backwards to barbarism. However, we know very well that popular culture is more often than not barbarism, so why go the route of identifying one’s job with the eternity of human civilization in order to form an opposition to those would attempt to abruptly liquidate that job?
When Geert Wilders said, “Art is a left wing hobby,” he had a nuanced point: How does art in general engender a left wing audience? (Wilders is the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), and the Supreme Court of the Netherlands has recently cleared him of inciting violence against Muslim and immigrant populations in the Netherlands.) While his party is openly xenophobic, anti-immigration, supportive of free market capitalism, and the face of the far right in Europe for individuals like Norway’s Breivik, Wilders is able to make a more sophisticated point on the role of contemporary art in politics than the Left. Meanwhile the Left is caught trailing behind the emergent right, asking, “What can we learn from populism?” How is this role reversal possible? The answer to this can be sought, I think, in the reluctance of students, artists, and intellectual cultural workers to fully take up an oppositional in term of left-wing politics and through the historical form of the Left.
There isn’t very much mobilization along the traditional sectarian lines in Holland at all, and one can attribute this to the Dutch cultural model of politics called “consensus culture.” This is said to have roots in the aftermath of the suppression of the Provo movement—a brand of anarcho-situationism that dominated the Dutch left in the years leading up to 1968. While this suppression occurred at the hands of Amsterdam’s longtime mayor Gijsbert Van Haal, a Communist Party member and a member of the Comintern, the real defeat took the form of a process by which the Provo movement was absorbed into the state by legalizing squatting. The movement was largely organized around the issue of squatting, property rights, and the right to create communal forms of organization within these properties and groupings. This strategy of including all substantial dissent into the democratic model has been the Dutch approach to governance since 1969. At present this same model is used to integrate, legitimize, and shield the xenophobic right because of its popular appeal.
If you look at the Jan van Eyck, the situation has gotten quite ugly; van Eyck is completely isolated from the other academies and there isn’t any kind of sustained opposition much less a left there even after the 10,000-person march. Various international researchers, of which I am one, as well as people simply worried about the state of the world, are concerned with the transnational rise of forms of right-wing populism, some of which have found particularly acute expression in the provincial capital of Maastricht, yet have been unable to mount an effective political response. In the Netherlands, the opposition to funding cuts in the cultural sector points to the question, “How can a would-be Left be turned into a potentially emancipatory Left?”
Valentin Badura:I’ll speak about Austria—a country that has not been as drastically affected by the economic crisis as other countries—and in particular about #Occupy Austria, about the movement itself, and as much as about the critique of it by the Left at large. My point is not so much to analyze where its shortcomings are, or to speculate about the extent to which it is endorsable or to be dismissed, rather, I want to analyze the ways in which the Left has become more confused and less confused in its orientation in the wake of #Occupy and what this tells us about the Left.
#Occupy as well as the critique of it developed in the context of the anti-globalization movement, which in Germany and Austria was not particularly in the memory of Seattle 1999, but rather January 2001, as well as the events around the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007, which is of course far more recent than Seattle. Regarding #Occupy, several cities in Austria had events, the biggest naturally being in Vienna, with 1,500 people. The official self-understanding was that the movement was coming both from OWS as well as the Spanish Indignados movement. In fact, Stéphane Hessel, who wrote Time for Outrage!, even spoke in Graz. There was maybe one tent that remained in Vienna, but surprisingly three weeks after in November, in a small town in western Austria—in Innsbruck in the state of Tyrol—about ten people started a camp and they had approximately 500 supporters. But when it comes to the actual meetings there were never more than two dozen. There was another action day in January, which only attracted around two hundred people.
The movement in the U.S. was broad—the church, Christian organizations, bourgeois parties, left-wing parties, esoteric people like conspiracy theorists, and even openly right wing parties participated in various places. There was a typical problem in Austria a day before the movement was to start: It came to light that one professor who was to speak was implicitly questioning the Holocaust. He said that the question of the genocide cannot ultimately be answered because there’s no objective and ideology-free discussion on the question, and therefore one cannot say whether there were gas chambers. He is in the party dedicated to abolishing the debt system and his fellow in the party speaks about the “money-Jewry” and the “spiritual Jewish leaders of the U.S. government.” He retorted that even Nazis are welcome in his party, even though he doesn’t share their opinions. So when it become public before October 15, when he was to speak at the University of Economics of Vienna, where he teaches, they immediately suspended him. Yet #Occupy Austria was ambivalent toward this, because they wanted it to be open for everybody. There was a big debate and actually some of the organizers quit because they were exhausted with it, but in the end the controversial speaker appeared and spoke at both events.
The Austrian right wing party, the Freedom Party of Austria, which together with another right wing party holds almost 30 percent of the parliamentary votes and will soon potentially win in Vienna, were not part of the movement itself. However, they ran a campaign which took on the rhetoric of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. They ran a postering campaign with the slogans, “Millionaires and bankers should be made to pay, not the broad masses,” and “Our heart beats red red red,” which is the color of the Austrian flag. They also showed up at the debates about Greece with sayings like, “Our money for our people! Why should we pay to finance the Greeks?” The failure of #Occupy Austria to clearly distance itself from the radical right in terms of substance and rhetoric was particularly deplorable.
Most on the radical Left snubbed their nose at #Occupy Austria and quickly turned away from the movement. But what is interesting about it is that in their critique of it they had nothing more to say than what the mainstream media or reformist organizations say. For example, the ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action), which had a leading role in the anti-globalization movement, also distanced themselves from the professor and offered the usual criticisms of #Occupy. The radical left in Austria felt, “Oh they’re anti-Semitic—case dismissed. We know better.” But no one asked the question about what it means that a leftist critic is indistinguishable from either a bourgeois critic or from reformist movements. What I want to point to is simply that the radical left, in their critique of #Occupy, being indistinguishable from the critique of bourgeois mainstream as well as the reformist left, is as indicative of confusion on the Left as #Occupy’s lack of clarity in terms of what it is against and whom they want to address.
Prior to #Occupy, for example, the Left had found unity in its opposition to the G8 in Heiligendamm. There were of course debates about what role such a governmental institution really plays in a capitalist system, but since this institution can hardly be considered to be democratically legitimated by those whom their decisions affect, it was easy to be unified against it. Yet in January 2012, at the World Economic Forum at Davos—which is also a non-governmental organization—the founder and chairman of the event opened with the statement that the capitalist system in its current form no longer fits into today’s world. In the opening debate, the moderator asked the audience if they think that the current form of economy is adequate to society in the 21st century, and more than half of the audience said no. What this signals is that, in our current situation, #Occupy is also hard to distinguish from the mainstream of political opinion. The current Austrian government, for instance, does have in its program some ideas usually identified with the so called “anti-globalization movement,” such as the implementation of a financial transaction tax.
Whereas in the U.S. there was a believable expression of discontent with Wall Street, in Austria, everyone on the Right and the Left “agrees” on the fundamental issues around #Occupy—yet this makes the problems of the Left more pressing, not less!
Cengiz Kulac: The neoliberal developments of the 1970s actually arrived in Austria in the 1980s. In the 70s, the Social Democratic Party came into power and had an absolute majority in the parliament. The legal base of the social welfare state was set up in the 70s in Austria, not like in Western Europe, where it was set up in the 50s and 60s. The Social Democratic Party lost in 1983 and they built a coalition with the conservatives, so the first cuts to social spending came into force around 1985–86. This proved to be a remarkable date because the Freedom Party, the extreme far right party that had normally around 5–6% of the votes, suddenly came into its own as a significant political force and not merely a symbol for the strong German nationalist base of their party. What is also remarkable is that the Freedom Party is very schizophrenic, unlike the NPD in Germany, which is clearly a Nazi party. Until the 90s it was a liberal and nationalist party with sections that were deeply nationalist, picking up the remains of the Nazi league in Austria, and on the other hand it declared itself a socially liberal force. They split in the early 90s and this was the path of the Freedom Party to their highest gain in 1999, with 27% in the elections.
My point bring up the elections is to indicate what political ideology the mass is tending towards. In 1999, 27% voted for the Freedom Party and this date symbolized in my opinion a shift generally to the right, a conservative turn in Europe. What is very interesting is that the intellectuals around this time were an accurate gauge of the future right-leaning European tendency. A conservative government emerged out of the conservative party and the Freedom Party. Due to corruption, they lost an election and, though everyone thought they would vanish, they returned in 2008. Actually they are a stronger movement than ever before. So now we again have a coalition of social democrats and conservatives. The economic crisis in 2008 didn’t affect Austria as much as southern European countries; we actually now have an unemployment rate that is lower than before the crisis. Since Austria is very similar to Germany, in the sense that it is an exporting country, the crisis actually helped Austria in many ways. Yet, despite the economic growth, cuts were enforced later on, in 2010, all the same.
I was elected in 2009 as president of the student union in my hometown. Immediately afterwards, occupations occurred in my university and many other universities in Austria. Occupations spread to around 100 universities all over the world, with diverse outcomes. What was interesting about this movement, if you can say it is a response to structural developments of the last 30 years, is that it is not reacting immediately to policy enforcement—there were no cuts at this time. It was a very ambivalent movement in Austria because, on the one hand, it had an emancipatory aim in terms of education, and it was not only focused on tuition hikes and how students finance their education, but it was also about how we see and want to structure education. Austria has a very open education system with no tuition, and if you graduate high school, you can directly go to university. If people want to study something they go to the subscription office and say so. So the change in the education system in the 70s still gives the student movement a strong boost. But in 2010 social cuts came, student loans were cut, and more people began to take part in the protests. In 2009 fewer people took part than in 2010, when it developed into a bigger movement, but one that was more immediately reactionary. There were broad coalitions between Catholic organizations, social workers, student unions, and left liberal parties. In 2011, the austerity policies of the national government impacted local governments, and even more people walked out on the streets. This is significant, as there is a change in the political system in Austria, with parties becoming less important on the one hand, and on the other, the policy enforced makes people protest as in many other countries.
I am affiliated with the Greens in Austria. I was a political activist from the young age of 14; I worked in student organizations in high school and founded Green alternative student organizations and candidates for presidency of the student counsel. I wouldn’t say I was an activist, actually; I was in many ways a politician. These often converged because being president of the student union in Austria means overseeing a political organization that has around 1.5 million euros to administrate in any one year—leftist organizing is highly institutionalized in Austria. In many ways it was the student union and the forces within the student union—a legal organization, a statuary organization, set up by law—that also organized the squatting and the protests against austerity polices. The chief problem that I faced when starting as president of the students’ union was that members were, and still are, deeply depoliticized.
Q & A
Greece is obviously in a very tough situation right now but what are the consequences, as imagined by the opposition to austerity, of Greece refusing to go along with austerity?
TV: Those who oppose the austerity measures try to downplay the consequences. Those who support the austerity measures are trying to highlight the consequences. But, interestingly, both sides point to Argentina when it defaulted. There was some kind of radicalization there perhaps and some people say the fact that it took ten years to return is not that much—but of course those ten years in which Argentina recovered were not years of a global recession. Usually people who oppose austerity imagine that defaulting means we will suffer for a period and then we’ll be free: There will be a transition period but afterwards we will be independent, able to implement our monetary policy, and devalue currency, and all that stuff the Greek government used to do in the 90s, before the Euro. What I think is that the consequences of a default wouldn’t be massive famine, per se, but would be politically reactionary. In the absence of a real left on an international level, I can’t imagine that the direction would not be reactionary.
Two questions: First, you sketched out the different, largely utopian positions that have been held on the Greek crisis. There’s one position that is a very eloquent defense, I think, of socialism in one country by Costas Lapavitsas. I completely disagree with him, but what he argues is that, if Greece defaults, it can get by through what he calls “war socialism.” He literally says that we’ll have rationing. I take it people won’t be starving en masse but the depth of the problem should give us pause. The other position that prevails is that Greece will go, then first the Greek workers will rise, then Spain, then Italy, and kind of a domino effect will ripple across Europe. I think it is also a utopian perspective not only because it’s so far away, but also because I don’t think it’s the way we should understand revolution. What do the panelists think of these scenarios for Greece?
Second: There’s an objective need for European working class unions, essentially—that need also has to find expression at some level in the student movement or in student politics. In the past ten years we’ve groped towards some kind of cross-European unity, but it’s been largely very unserious, and some of the groups our German comrades have been describing just sound to me like idiots: A strategy of riots and burning things isn’t going to advance us much, really. What steps can be taken to reignite, rekindle the European student movement across borders, and to refocus the debate on how, if we are to get out of this mess, European working class unity is fundamentally, objectively needed? I don’t just mean that in an abstract sense of a Communist Party in the European Union, but rather as a question of taking the people opposed to austerity and organizing them into a serious political force. You all seem to agree that the ways we are currently “organizing,” whether through more demonstrations à la May ’68 or simply through rioting, just are not working. But what, then, is our task?
CK: I would like to respond a little bit to the issue of students against austerity. It’s not only about austerity policies affecting education, it’s about this deep transformation of the education system, which came along with the neoliberal order rising in the 1970s. It is a structural transformation of the higher education system. The problem of mobilization within the education system is a deep one. In the student union you couldn’t get students to work with you about certain political issues even if they were single-issue topics. We have to recognize that first.
JS: What kind of comes out in the crisis is that those different flavors of the Left are in many ways a response to each other. In Germany, with the context of the former GDR you have to keep in mind that 20 years ago, there was actually existing socialism in Germany and that leaves its traces on the Left. A broad wing of Die Linke, the left-wing party, consists of former GDR members. So you have those debates about the need for working class politics, but in the context of anti-authoritarianism, which in many ways is a response to that form of state socialism, on the one hand, and on the other to this kind of pseudo-fascistic, union social-democratic corporatism. If, in light of the economic crisis, the response of Michael Sommer, the head of the DGB, the German Union Coalition, is to say that finance capital needs to be regulated on a national basis and we need a strong state to suppress social contradictions in favor of the welfare state, with the state representing everyone in society, it would be a sort of fascism. So there is the anti-authoritarian response to both the post-Stalinist, established older left, and the kind of politics entrenched in current labor formations. Of course the anti-authoritarian left is younger. They come from similar social strata or have a similar ideology to 1990s protest culture. There is a cultural affinity towards the 90s and one would have to look into that, as well as a prevalent romanticism of Keynesianism, with the desire to reenact a New Deal for all of Europe. #Occupy in Europe was a weak phenomenon; the response of the Left was that it did not need to engage as much as in America. So it was much more “business as usual.” Then you have this mixture of 90s protest politics, similar to the mobilizations in Seattle, which is obviously an American model.
There are, however, three major imaginations of what should happen in Europe. One is the liberal imagination that Europe would be a financial pact in which Germany is dictating financial policies in all of Europe. The second is the welfare-statist imagination, in which Europe would become something like one big Scandinavia. And the third is the anarchist, anti-authoritarian imagination of Europe in which it would all become one big squat. I agree that there is no international working class response. Of course, to solve anything in Greece, you would need a working class response in Germany, but the utter political confusion in the face of this enormous task is not going to be solved in a few weeks.
VB: The way you asked the question, “how to act,” skips over the question of whether, and to what extent, we can act in the present. I’m more pessimistic about immediate action in a broader emancipatory perspective, but I’m less pessimistic about certain attempts at social reforms. It’s true there won’t be a return to a welfare state of the 1970s, but, as Haseeb pointed out, a lot neoliberal reconstruction is ideological in motivation, it’s not simply the “dynamics of Capital” that makes them inevitable. European-wide reformist politics at the level of the European Union, which Die Linke engages in building, does allow for certain hopes. Perhaps from the exhaustion of that, one hopes for a more radical perspective. But for now, there’s only reformism.
The starting ground in Austria, and much more so in Germany, is in certain ways easier, and in certain ways more difficult. Thanks to the impact of the ideology-critique of the “Anti-Germans,” for all its problematic outgrowths, it seems to me that, in comparison to what I experienced in the U.S., there is now more sensibility about what not to do. It doesn’t mean that the Left is in a much better better position to reconstitute itself, but it is perhaps one step further. The result is that the idea of the Left being dead, both in terms of manpower and on an ideological level, is perhaps better grasped and the general need to address the confusion better seen in Germany and Austria. The difficulty lies in making people feel that actively working through the confusion by talking about politics—and not just about theory and history, and not just contemporary politics—may be worthwhile.
TV: About Costas Lapavitsas, he’s an economist based in London, I think, and he’s a member of a coalition of extra-parliamentary groups in Greece. They support the exit of the euro-zone, nationalization of the banks—a series of reforms. It is nationalistic in a sense, but then, is the European Union internationalist? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can base our internationalism on the reasoning that, by supporting capitalist institutions, this will “objectively” be a base for our emancipation.
The EU is a capitalistic international union that actually feeds into nationalism. It is nationalistic and reactionary, but the other political perspectives on offer at present tend to be only pseudo-international, as well. People imagine that they can be in a national level of self-sufficiency, and then build an international coalition. Meanwhile, the support for the EU consists in an opposition to the global developments of the America-driven kind of neoliberalism, but only on the basis of a supposedly better, European version of capitalism.
As for riots, they are political, but I agree they don’t lead the situation anywhere. However, what is political? Parliamentary participation, extra-parliamentary opposition, radicalism, platformism? Have these things proven anything? Have any of these forms of political action been developing in the direction of greater political clarity, vision, power? Have any proven themselves to be factors of change, or have they simply tailed behind the changes that unfold?
The panelists have been telling the story of the crisis but it sounds just like more of the same kinds of left responses as have occurred for the last ten or twenty years. I didn’t hear anything different, even though the issue of nationalism seems to have intensified recently. Is there anything new, or is there just more of the same? Consequently, are we experiencing the exhaustion of the same?
JS: One problem today is how the Left continues to think in terms of an opposition between transformative revolutionary politics and reformism. This framework doesn’t really work when there does not even seem to be any real reformist response to the crisis. When the unions or social democracy call for a new New Deal for Europe, this indicates amnesia for what the last New Deal meant for Germany, which emerged out of a mass working class movement. It came out of two revolutions—one of them in the heart of Europe, that in many ways prefigured the kind of welfare state response on the national level. But now there’s nothing. The exhaustion of neoliberalism is itself a crisis of the welfare state. With organizations like Die Linke, a fair share of their constituency and welfare-statist reforms aim at a social strata that right now doesn’t take any political power.
I think “exhaustion” articulates the spirit quite well. To describe this with more detailed examples, what happened with part of the German Left is that we had an era in America, which was characterized by war in Europe, which of course captured the attention of the Left internationally. In Germany there was this big split in the Left, with a younger, to a certain extent self-consciously Marxist response in regards to imperialism in those changed conditions after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was not really a sufficient response. Some deeper questions of the Left were raised but weren’t resolved. That they weren’t able to resolve those issues indicates that today those splits that formed during an earlier period are glossed over. Those splits exhausted the Left itself. It drew a lot of force outside of the Left in Germany. Now there’s this strong desire to say, “Let’s reunite, settle down, we have a new problem, a new crisis, let’s go along as we once went,” so it’s no coincidence that there is this return to a more activist, 1990s-style Left protest culture. Exhaustion takes different ideological forms, which also makes it harder to deal with because by all appearances there is something happening on the local level.
An actual Left would try to deepen the crisis, and not resolve it, whereas the Left today only offers meager resolutions. The anarchists try to resolve it by having communal farms, while the welfare statists try to resolve it by upholding a social welfare state. But no one really tries to deepen the crisis, which would involve difficult questions of political power and what it would mean for the Left to wield it.
TV: The situation in Europe points to the palpability of regression. It makes that apparent because, at this level of crisis, the Left is unable to be an important factor. For decades we have been hearing from the Left, “When a crisis hits, we will prove ourselves.” This has not proven to be the case at all. I don’t know if we have another date with revolution—many thought the new millennia would destroy civilization, and now its always ten years later, and ten years after that. We have to really try to understand what regression means, and how the present is informed by it. Instead of concocting external recipes that simply oppose this regression, we have to ask, What is the potential of regression? The questions that emerge are, How can regression be transformed? Or, can this energy of exhaustion be used for another direction?
To have a real solution involves certain preconditions; one has to be able to deal with the problem before one makes the situation even worse. Today, the Left in Europe, as it stands, is an obstacle for any possible emancipation—there is a reason why people are turning to the right. There is a responsibility on the part of the Left to take ourselves seriously enough that we try to understand how the Left itself has played its part in bringing about this state of affairs and how it is that the Left has regressed to a point where it is not really able to decisively influence the political situation.
HA: What struck me in Europe is that, on the one hand, there is an erosion of social democracy, which drives people towards identifying themselves as an opposition, but on the other hand this drives them towards a sort of national standpoint, because the situation is supposedly concrete at that level. For students, when a lot of this erosion takes the form of something like the Bologna Process, which is very much like transforming the universities into privatized American-style universities, it makes sense that you have this kind of “concrete” form of left politics based on immediate opposition. I like this emphasis upon trying to find a way to work within the context of exhaustion rather than attempting to find an immediate solution to exhaustion—because every group that I’ve encountered, in a way, attempts to find the correct position or principle in relationship to the crisis, but only in this or that particular local manifestation. What is more interesting is a context in which that can become intensified beyond the confines of the state, or beyond Europe, but also trans-historically as well.
VB: I am not even sure to what extent a Marxist needs to have “answers” to the questions of the EU, the Greece bailout, etc. It might even be adding to the confusion if one does. When I was speaking earlier of still seeing prospects for reformism, I did not mean that in the sense of an opposition to anti-capitalist perspectives. I just meant that the struggle for reform is ideologically problematic only when couched in a rhetoric of promising to exceed what is actually possible in the present capitalist society. For example, when Die Linke says that a minimum wage of fifteen euro is possible, that’s an illusion—it is regression for it to appear like that’s possible. I agree that the attempt to halt neoliberal reforms on a local level is limited. But I disagree with the view that neoliberalism has exhausted itself in Austria. In fact, in Austria, in a way it’s only still arriving. In fact, in Austria, in a way it’s still only arriving. It may just be a question of time—the austerity measures that Greece is now facing may well be faced by Austria and Central Europe in the near future, but the welfare state is not simply gone, as there’s still a clearly visible difference between Austria and the U.S. or for instance the UK.
What is new about the present moment, in my opinion, is the odd circumstance of #Occupy being a comprehensive phenomenon in society. Nobody really opposes it in Austria in terms of content, which is hard to deal with ideologically. The right-wing parties don’t show up at #Occupy, but they do share the same sentiment, and everyone calls for more social politics. What actually distinguishes the Left from the right has become unclear.
CK: I think this moment of the crisis within the Left is a moment of re-thinking. But this re-thinking is only for a very small section. The question of nationalism was raised, and I would say the Left itself is nationalistic not only in Greece, but also the German Left with the anti-Deutsch, as well as the Catalonian Left with its anti-Francoism—because they think Franco is still alive in some way even if he died in ’75—and so on. The question remains regarding what the contribution of the Left response to the crisis will lead to, because there are two possibilities. One, I don’t think the neoliberal order is becoming stronger through the crisis. It’s actually disintegrating in the European Union. There are antagonistic forces in the European Union at the moment, but the question is still whether the response of the Left may end up strengthening the neoliberal order, or prolonging it. Or, if it will lead to the nationalization of Europe. The lack of a pan-European civil society also means that there is no pan-European Left, and this leads me back once again to the point that the European Left is nationalistic. There should be much more critical consideration of this fetishization of history in Europe, with anti-Francoism, the anti-Deutsch, etc., and to view these as obstacles. The international problem is that there is no international. |P
Transcribed by Brian Hioe and Jacob Cayia