Book Reviews: ‘Syriza – Inside the Labyrinth’, & ‘This Is London – Life and Death in the World City’
Why did Syriza fail?
‘Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth’. By Kevin Ovenden. Pluto Press. 2015.
This is the first book issued by the new Left Book Club. An attempt at reviving the famous left-wing book series of the 1930s and 1940s, the new Left Book Club is part of the efforts of different shades of left-wing politicos to rejuvenate the Labour Party in the light of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. In its promotional literature, it sees itself as supporting the efforts of the Momentum campaign group in trying to produce a substantial and lasting leftwards shift in the Labour Party and British politics more widely.
Kevin Ovenden’s book on the rise of Syriza in Greece is a sympathetic account of the rapid rise of that political party’s rise from left-wing fringe group to a party of government. It is a readable enough account but suffused throughout by the optimism that behind Syriza’s rise and resistance to government cuts and privatisations lay revolutionary possibilities. Take, for example, the strikes and occupations of the state broadcaster ERT whose workers had been made redundant en masse and whose occupation of their workplace and continued broadcasting on a voluntary basis in new collaborative ways that replaced prevailing hierarchical management control. Ovenden claims that these were ‘a lived experiment of how democratic participation and control might be extended deeper into the society – if the central structures of economic and state power were brought under control’ (p.62-3).
Now, we can agree that workers taking over the workplace and running it on a wageless, democratic basis does provide a basis for socialist optimism but not in the way that Ovenden does. Despite Ovenden’s claims that the radicalism that resulted in the election of Syriza was anti-capitalist his use of the phrase ‘brought under control’ hints at the role of state ownership envisaged in this process by many on the radical left. The outcome for the ERT workers was to be re-employed by the state following the election of the Syriza government in 2015. Whatever revolutionary potential may be latent in the action of ERT workers they were not opened up by its end in state ownership. Whatever hope such actions inspire for socialists, without the intention to infuse them with a consciousness of the limitations of capitalism in serving human development in a fuller way then it can only be a transitory protest. If political action is to be meaningfully anti-capitalist it must not only have a clear idea of what capitalism is but of what it is not, a clear idea of what it is to be replaced with. Not only was action such as that of the ERT workers a minority experience in the struggles against government cuts and attacks on pay and conditions of employment but even within the radicalised minority there was and is no clear idea of how Syriza’s putative anti-capitalism was anything different from what had been tried before by left-wing governments of various hues. Essentially what was put forward was a change of management with radical intentions but still having to create favourable conditions for Greek capitalism or risk a worsening of state finances that would result in even greater cuts in expenditure than were already occurring.
The needs of capital to self-expand, that is, for economies to grow, is of its nature. Capitalists or politicians can no more get around this than Canute could hold back the tide. This was a central theme of Karl Marx who repeatedly wrote of capitalists as the personification of economic categories. Capitalists were (and remain)’embodiments of particular class relations and class-interests… the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remain’ (Capital, Vol. 1, Preface to German 1867 edition). It is not a matter of ethics, then, of capitalists and their crony politicians being bad men and women. It is that for capital to self-expand, for national economies to grow, certain requirements need to be met. As Marx colourfully put it, capital ‘lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’ (Capital, Vol.1, p. 342). Politicians elected to run capitalism such as Alexis Tsipras, however sincere, can only tweak the amount of blood the vampire sucks but suck blood he must. Working class protest can only become revolutionary when it reflects on the nature of capitalism and its essentially exploitative basis, the inability of the economic basis of capitalism to allow workers full and free access to the results of its collective labour and demands its emancipation from wage slavery. The vampire is such by nature and must be slain – it cannot be befriended or counselled to suck blood benevolently.
Ovenden’s account stops as the story of Syriza starts to unravel with the acceptance of harsher terms on the extension of Greek government debt rather than the promises of easier terms or an alternative strategy (such as Greek withdrawal from the EU and the euro). Ovenden quotes from the left of Syriza on the unnecessary and defenceless abandonment of any alternative strategy, such as Younis Varoufakis and Costas Lapavitsas. The latter (a professor of economics in London and former Syriza MP) has commented that ‘the Syriza party is faithfully implementing the austerity policies that it once derided’ (Guardian 25 January) and that ‘Syriza is the first example of a government of the left that has not simply failed to deliver on its promises but also adopted the programme of the opposition, wholesale’. It is far from the first. The British Labour government in the late 1970s and the French ‘Socialist’ government in early 1980s spring quickly to mind but there are many other recent examples. Lapavitsas argued that ‘the Syriza leadership was convinced that if it rejected a new bailout, European lenders would buckle in the face of generalised financial and political unrest. The risks to the Eurozone were, they presumed, greater than the risks to Greece. If Syriza negotiated hard, it would be offered an “honourable compromise” relaxing austerity and lightening the national debt.’ The Syriza leadership were over optimistic to the point of delusion and unprepared to actually follow up with an alternative economic policy, which would have involved the exit of capital from the Greek economy. Therefore, the ‘EU calmly turned off the liquidity tap at the European Central Bank, and refused to give a penny of additional financial support until Greece complied.’ Lapavitsas (and Ovenden) conclude that the lesson for working class politics is to be prepared to break away from the EU and its monetary policy in order to break with neoliberal austerity politics as if life in capitalism before neoliberalism was a bed of roses. Lapavitsas is concerned that the failure of Syriza to deliver radical change encourages the perception that ‘austerity is the only way and nothing can ever change’. However, it is not politicians that shape capitalism but capitalism that shapes them. The vampire always needs to feed.
This is life?
‘This Is London: Life and Death in the World City’. By Ben Judah, Picador. 2016.
This is a sad, insightful and ultimately haunting insider account of life in London by a writer who can really write. It is a picture of what life is truly like for hundreds of thousands of London’s current inhabitants by someone determined to identify their struggles and recount their lives – people who most of us know are there, but perhaps never quite get to know. The Romanian beggars working for gangs to pay off their debts in the subways under Hyde Park Corner, the Mayfair Arab princess out of her mind on skunk most days because her every move is controlled by her father (even remotely via his security team), the itinerant Polish builders of Beckton creating the ‘dig down’ basement flats for the rich in Knightsbridge, the East European and Latin American street walkers of Ilford Lane, ever fearful of the next attack from a punter.
Judah’s opening lines tell us his motivation: ‘I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I don’t trust columnists. I don’t trust self-appointed spokesmen. I have to make up my own mind. This is why I am shivering again, in Victoria Coach station, at 6 am.’
By spending months trying to uncover the ‘other side’ of London to the one the tourists see, he has managed to create a fascinating and compelling book based on his experiences of the street. The facts are clear – as few as 45 percent of Londoners now are ‘white British’ and over a third have been born abroad. But this is not a UKIP manifesto in disguise, it is book that focuses on the lives of real people who are now more genuinely representative of those scraping a living in ‘the world city’ than the occupants of the glossy colour supplements and property magazines. These are the 95 percent of cleaners working for Transport for London who are immigrants, doing the job that others won’t do or can’t. The occupants of Zones 3 and 4 who have been pushed by the global elite out of central London – the traditional first home to UK immigrants – into what were once mainly white working class suburbs full of semis and terraces. This is where multi-occupancy now reigns courtesy of buy-to-let landlords, and life is precarious and often dangerous – the Edmontons and Leytons of this world, the Harlesdens and Neasdens. This is the world of pounds shops, ‘cash converters’, mobile phone un-locking, and pubs now converted into African churches, of betting shops, and fried chicken and kebabs.
You will have sensed this not an uplifting read. Some of the laziest racism, for instance, is to be found among poor, black evangelical Christians in Peckham, ever suspicious of the Asian shopkeepers they think fleece them at every turn. And when you have nothing, materialism and competition can be brutish enough and a descent to drink, drugs and desperate gambling close around the corner.
It is partly because of situations like this that socialists are socialists – not because of some abstract moral pity for those less fortunate, but because the society we live in is based on the need to keep us insecure and fearful, with a descent into the ‘underclass’ or ‘precariat’ all too vivid a misfortune for those who struggle every day in the grandly- named ‘market economy’.