Fifteen years have passed since the zenith of capitalist triumphalism, the peak moment of capital's successful penetration of nearly every inhabitable area of the globe. Not unlike the beginning of the last century, the wealthy and privileged saw few storm clouds on the horizon, a future of unlimited accumulation and placid rule. While there were some risings in the hinterlands and some rebelliousness in the air, they were easily suppressed or marginalized.
At the center of this capitalist utopia stood the world's gendarme-- the US Goliath-- with bases, military power, and unmatched technology, ensuring that the world was a secure haven for monopoly corporations. Moreover, the US sought and enforced international dominance. They pledged to bring “democracy” to the world with the same self-righteous hypocrisy and hubris that the earlier imperialists had masked their economic voraciousness behind religious missionary zeal.
But matters went awry in the new century.
The support for religious zealots organized by the US, NATO, and their allies against Middle Eastern secular, independent movements boomeranged. Unlike earlier puppets who were quickly jettisoned when their usefulness was exhausted, Islamic fundamentalists struck their erstwhile masters before they could be betrayed by them. Under the guise of a “war on terror,” a perpetual overt and covert war against Middle Eastern states and populations-- a veritable modern-day crusade-- continues to this day. The US, NATO, the EU, and a motley collection of scavengers cynically used the excuse of terrorism to reconfigure an entire region, destroying stable societies, killing millions, and leaving millions homeless.
At the same time, a global economy resting on the triumph of nineteenth-century bourgeois economic thought and practices began to falter. Faith in the bright future was shaken by the destruction of trillions of dollars of nominal value, a disaster brought on by the foolish speculations of a gang of the oracles of a new era of technological advance.
Before the effects of the so-called “dot-com” crisis subsided, the global economy was struck with another downturn, shaking the capitalist underpinnings like no other blow since the Great Depression. To answer this catastrophe, capitalism spun off millions of workers, stripped wages and benefits, and shredded an already meager social safety net. The wake of the 2007-2008 collapse continues to drown the hopes and aspirations of millions, with even more turbulence on the horizon.
To any sober observer, capitalism is in the throes of a deep, profound, multi-faceted crisis. The celebration of fifteen years ago was a hollow and unwarranted declaration of the unstoppable success of capitalism. War, deprivation, and uncertainty are the legacy of those hailing that moment. Few alive today know a time when the future looked so unsure.
The Basis for a Left Revival?
Years of disillusionment following the decline of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies produced an era of navel-gazing and an extreme dilution of the socialist vision for the left, especially in the US and Europe. Murky enemies like “globalization” or “empire” replaced “imperialism” and “capitalism” in public discourse. Gradualist programs, market-centered reforms, and a trivialization of diversity toward micro-identities guided a dispirited left. Revolutionary politics were smothered by a sense that a “humane capitalism” was the best that could be gotten.
Sure, the left rallied around the anti-imperialist project in Latin America, particularly the heroic rise of Hugo Chavez, and later, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. The broad-based defiance of the North American gendarmerie served to inspire millions who had lost hope. But the leftist “Spring” that swept through the South has yet to spawn a real replacement for capitalist economic relations, not to mention, a rock-solid socialism, such as that in Cuba.
Now with capitalism on the ropes, one might expect a left upsurge. With political and economic crisis-- endless war and near-depression-- one would expect a revitalized left to emerge today.
It hasn't happened.
In Europe and North America, two flawed, failed currents dominate the left ideological landscape: anarchism and social democracy. The anarchist tendency is not the revolutionary anarchism of Bakunin, but a tame version based on the utopian idea that all that stands in the way of a just and fair society is restraint on the freedom of the masses-- authority, and not capitalism, is the ultimate oppressor. For the modern day anarchists, social change lies in radical democracy, removing the encrusted bureaucracies that rule over our society-- civil servants, agencies, union leaders, politicians, etc.
Of course there is some truth in this critique, but without a greater vision, without a plan to replace capitalism, overturning a bureaucracy simply invites another one. And insofar as its enemy is authority, modern anarchism differs little from its anti-government counterpart on the extreme right. The social base for this contemporary strain is, as it was in the 1960s, students and the economically marginalized. The failures of the 1960s New Left are reproduced today in the meteoric rise and quick collapse of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its European counterparts. Its clarion calls, as in the past, are spontaneity and “horizontalism.”
A second dominant strain in our time is social democracy, a posture that traces its origins and draws its life from hostility to Bolshevism. As an antidote to revolutionary socialism, it attempts to awkwardly straddle the divide between working class advocacy and accommodation to capitalism. It offers an evolutionary road map-- a socialism-lite-- that depicts capitalism as gradually eroding and giving way to a growing public sector. Moreover, the mechanisms established to insure capitalist rule are to be somehow harnessed to this end. The social base for social democracy is the ossified union leadership, opportunist politicians, and a neutered, cowed working class made impervious to revolutionary ideology.
For much of the twentieth century, social democracy rivaled Marxism-Leninism. But after decades of advocating market solutions and supporting imperial belligerency, social democracy-- in the form of center-left political parties-- stands discredited and unpopular.
Where successful campaigns of anti-Communism and fear-mongering had taken root, social democratic parties did thrive. However, when periods of deep crisis appear, social democracy invariably fails the working class. We are in such a period now.
The last gasp of social democracy arose with the election of SYRIZA in Greece. Garbed in a militant swagger and an outlaw persona, SYRIZA quickly became both the darling and flag-bearer for the left wing of social democracy. For Die Linke, France's Left Party, Spain's PODEMOS, and other European movements seeking to revive the social democratic corpse, the Tsipras government of open-collared and casual intellectuals promised the rescue of a spent political philosophy.
But as quickly as SYRIZA rose, it crashed and burned, delivering the Greek people a fate even more onerous than that delivered by earlier governments. But more than a failure, the SYRIZA tenure was a fiasco with an ill-considered national referendum giving the party a mandate to resist, only to be followed immediately by a humiliating surrender.
Not to be deterred by the debacle, the admirers of SYRIZA--- the last bastions of social democracy-- spun a web of apologetics, excuses, and obfuscations worthy of the best confidence artists. Where sober-minded observers drew critical lessons, these sycophants chose to deflect and deny.
Writing in the Peoples World (9-11-2015), Sam Webb, recently retired chair of the Communist Party USA, wrote: “Nevertheless Tsipras still hoped that the large ‘no’ vote of the Greek people in a referendum a week before the negotiations began might give German leaders reason to pause, to reconsider their draconian bargaining posture, and maybe, just maybe, consider some form of debt relief.
Or, alternatively that the vote would nudge France and Italy, as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to show some backbone and stand up to the German capitalist juggernaut.” (my emphases)
“Nudge”? “Reason to pause”? “Reconsider”? “Maybe, just maybe...”?
Are these the considered negotiating objectives of serious leaders confronting the resolute and naked power of European monopoly capital? Do you “nudge” a bully? Do you chance that “maybe just maybe” a ruling class will show compassion? Webb sees history as not the history of class struggles, but the history of class “nudges.”
And then there is Oscar La Fontaine, the godfather of Germany's Die Linke party, writing on Jean-Luc Melanchon's blog (Melanchon is the leader of France's Left Party): “We have learned one thing [from the SYRIZA debacle]: while the European Central Bank, which claims to be independent and apolitical, can turn off the financial tap to a left government, a politics that is oriented towards democratic and social principles is impossible.
It is now necessary for the European left to develop a Plan B for the case where a member party arrives in a comparable situation.” (my emphases).
“Claims to be independent”? Did La Fontaine only recently discover that the ECB is a tool of monopoly capital? Like the cynical Captain Renault in the film Casablanca, La Fontaine is shocked, shocked that the ECB is neither independent nor apolitical! And how dare the ECB deny “a politics that is oriented toward democratic and social principles...” That's not cricket! Like Webb, La Fontaine does not see monopoly capital as the enemy, but as a partner acting unreasonably.
It should be no surprise, accordingly, that La Fontaine's “Plan B” depends upon the EU oligarchs agreeing to disarm the ECB, an outcome as likely as their acceptance of SYRIZA's original plan. Thus, the circle is complete: the Euro-left needs to secure an agreement from the very same forces that “shockingly” denied a moderate agreement in the first place. Could anything be more futile?
Curiously, the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, sees things differently and yet the same! In a long-winded speech in France (Festival of the Roses, 9-23-2015), Varoufakis locates the roots of Europe's problems in its unification: “Why? Because we let our rulers try to do something that cannot be done: to de-politicise money, to turn Brussels, the Eurogroup, the ECB, into politics-free zones.” (my emphasis). So where Germany's La Fontaine faults the European oligarchs for politicizing their decisions, his Greek counterpart faults Europe for de-politicizing its institutions! He goes on incoherently: “When politics and money are de-politicised what happens is that democracy dies. And when democracy dies, prosperity is confined to the very few who cannot even enjoy it behind the gates and the fences they need to build to protect themselves from their victims.
To counter this dystopia the people of Europe must believe again that democracy is not a luxury afforded to creditors and declined to debtors.”
So the debacle arose from a shortage of democracy. And the remedy is for the people of Europe to “...believe again that democracy is not a luxury afforded...” to the few. Varoufakis conveniently deflects the blame that he and his colleagues share for the Greek tragedy onto the people of Europe and their lost belief in democracy. “We do not have to agree on everything. Let us make a start with an agreement that the Eurozone needs to be democratised.”
If only there were more democracy! If only Europe's rulers would see the need to cooperate! And if only the people of Europe would make them act democratically! Smothered by Varoufarkis' petulant burst of disconnected ideas is the simple truth that rulers rule. They rule for their own interests and not to please or recognize supposed oppositional forces like SYRIZA or their ilk.
All three commentators, like many others who fawned after SYRIZA, are now left harboring wild illusions and offering shallow, unimaginative answers to the crises of capitalism.
A Path of Renewal
SYRIZA's harshest critic offers a different answer to the challenge of a wounded, but ruthless capitalism. From surveying most of the left press in Europe and North America, one would not know that the leaders of a Greek political party clearly analyzed the SYRIZA program and accurately predicted its failure. One would not know that only one Greek party now offers the only program even remotely hopeful of resisting the further impoverishment of the Greek people. One would not know that only one political force in Greece gives the Greek people a dignified path forward that does not depend on the “fair-mindedness” of monopoly capital or the condescension of European elites.
That party is the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), a party with both a long history and deep ties with the Greek people.
Shamefully, most of the leaders of the Western left ignore the KKE and its alternative program, a reflection of the deep strains of anti-Communism infecting political thought and the obdurate close-mindedness of the neo-anarchists and social democrats. Thus, the KKE is objectively blacklisted from the Western discussion of a road forward.
With Greek elections coming on September 20, KKE has adopted the campaign slogan: “You have tried them… Now the solution is to be found on the path to overthrow the system, joining forces with the KKE.” This slogan reminds the Greek people and others that finding a solution within capitalism is not only a bad idea, but a proven failure.
“KKE is stressing that the people must not give a 'second chance' to the parties that support the path of capitalist development and the EU, the path that brings the memoranda and the anti-people measures. They must not approve the implementation of the new anti-people memorandum with their votes. They must not give a 'second chance' to those who, in the recent past as well, sowed illusions about the ‘humanization’ of capitalism.” With the Greek people's standards of living approaching the tragic levels found after the Second World War, we are witnessing a preview of where the capitalist crisis is taking the rest of the world. For those who are open to seeing it, the collapse of SYRIZA is a demonstration of the futility of finding a way out of the crisis within the system of capitalism. KKE understands this and offers an alternative; not an easy road, but one more promising than following the dead ends traveled in the past.
KKE electoral success this coming weekend will shorten that road immeasurably as well as provide an inspiration for those of us seeking an alternative to the bankrupt model of social democracy.
KKE gains will improve the chances for a real left revival.