Author Michael Rectenwald

Syriza and Sanders: “Just Say ‘No’” to Neo-liberalism

Hopes for Syriza’s negotiations with the banking troika in the EU simmered and even boiled over among elements of the left, especially after the vaunted “No” referendum vote suggested that the Greeks would not succumb to another wave of austerity measures but would instead stand firm, even if this meant potentially leaving the EU. We have seen these hopes dashed by the subsequent “negotiations,” in which Tsipras seemed to have negotiated backwards, arriving at an agreement that was worse than the one rejected by the Greek voters in the referendum vote. This development has been characterized by some on the left as a blow to the working class, and to the leftist, world-historical opposition to neo-liberal capitalism.

But the fact of the matter is that Syriza neither represents anti-capitalism, nor the working class. This is not to belittle the registration of an anti-austerity position among the Greek majority. But it is to suggest that misplaced confidence is currently a penchant among those desperate to see in contemporary events a real and effective opposition to “neo-liberalism,” which is figured by so many on the left as a mere matter of policy rather than as primarily a function of the crisis of degenerate capitalism, a capitalism that must take a “principled” stance against its opposition, lest it give away the store.

The Greek economic minister, Yanis Varoufakis, seemed to have lost his putative Marxist bearings when he, like Paul Krugman, continually insisted that the European Central Bank need not enact austerity, that its best interests actually lay with largesse towards its debtors. Many among the international left were buoyed by this insistence, and accepted its premises implicitly. The Greek people, meanwhile, had little choice but to hope for the best.

However, many ultra-leftists and left communists, and even those of other communist tendencies, fully anticipated Syriza’s failure. This prediction was usually based on a criticism of Syriza’s political character. Syriza is a capitalist party, so the story goes. Thus it did not negotiate in good faith, or failed to have the correct principles in mind. This is only a partial explanation for the outcome. Less often, the prediction was based on an understanding of the systemic impossibility of winning major concessions from capitalism under existing conditions.

Here’s how this latter explanation reads: The capitalist system faces a crisis of confidence based on a crisis of profit; its ministers cannot see their way clear to lending vast sums of money—because they do not expect acceptable returns—without extracting those returns out of existing value and the means of social reproduction itself. That is, they cannot undertake lending without enacting a barbarous austerity that extracts value from out of the mouths of the Greek population.

Today, in terms of prediction, those employing such shorthand Marxist economic analyses continually outperform neo-Keynesians and Marxists of more sanguine disposition, whatever the latter’s sophistication. This is so because Keynesian nostrums are the only “remedies” on offer from the left. Yet no possibility exists for moving from a minimum program to a maximum program, because no minimum program can be achieved. The iron laws of capital have apparently reached a limit in flexion, as limited as that flexion was to begin with. They now form the jowls of a mechanical predator that must feed on human carcasses, much as in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Capitalism’s predation is on full display, its self- and other-immolating character owing to its decrepit condition. The Greeks, along with the rest of the world’s population, represent hostages to a system that staggers in its attempts to yield profit as it generates value. Thus the relative paucity of value production and the need for blood sucking measures.

Meanwhile, in terms of policies, perhaps more than at the EU ministers, criticism should be directed at the Greek government and its ruling party, Syriza, whose class allegiance remains implicit and largely unchallenged. It has, for example, never considered extracting value out of the oligarchy or the Greek Orthodox Church. The working class, especially the most vulnerable within it, has always been the only acceptable target of life-threatening austerity measures, which the Greek government will now enact, whether under Syriza’s rule or not.

* * *

It is in this context, the context of capitalism and its decadent state as acted out on a world scale, that we must consider the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States. A Democratic Party candidate, Sanders represents the possibility of opposing neo-liberalism, or at least injecting that opposition into the national “conversation.” While few maintain that Sanders has a real chance of winning the Democratic Party’s nomination, let alone the presidency, most supporters suggest that at the very least he will accomplish the much-needed task of pushing the Democratic Party to the left. This might even impact the politics of Clinton in her bid for the presidency.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that Sanders is running as a Democrat, a party whose allegiance to finance capital is well known, whose commitment to war is equal to that of the Republicans, and whose attacks on working-class living standards have been legendary, the Sanders candidacy represents the Keynesian or neo-Keynesian belief that neo-liberalism, primarily the result of a set of governmental policies favoring corporations and the ruling class rich, can be reversed by means of different, opposing policies.

There is something to be said for this belief. As we have seen in the case of Syriza, even with the imposition of austerity, the decision to extract value from the working class, the vast majority, largely will be a policy decision undertaken by Syriza or another party. This could be otherwise. The Greek government could tax its oligarchy, confiscate church properties, nationalize some industries, and so forth. Similarly, in the United States, the working class has paid the greatest price for the financial crisis of 2008, and it continues to bear the brunt of crisis that persists as the “new normal.” The income chasm between workers and their corporate employers has widened over the past several years, and policies might be undertaken to reverse this trend. At least the tax burden, as Sanders suggests, could be shifted toward those who take the lion’s share of value from the system, and whose tax liability has been so diminished over the past forty-plus years. Further, drawing on such new tax revenues, investments in infrastructure and other measures could stimulate economic growth and increase the income of the working class, while improving the quality of working-class lives. Sanders, or a Sanders surrogate in Clinton, might even address the question of reparations for African-Americans, which, if enacted, would inject more money into layers of the working class.

However, even before considering such measures, the question of new value production must be broached. Again, given the crisis in profit, the capitalist class and their banking representatives are less than sanguine about the prospects for investment in production. The question becomes, even granted an obliging legislature, just what a President Bernie Sanders (or his surrogate) could accomplish in terms of the improvement of the economic conditions of the working class, where employment and other gains are concerned. Further, what leverage would Sanders or Clinton have for “fighting for” the working class? Even if Sanders succeeded, as some say he could, in encouraging a movement that overflowed the banks of the Democratic levees, just what might be accomplished by virtue of such a movement?

The question becomes whether the capitalist class can make concessions under the crisis of capitalism without further retrenchment in productive capacities. As it stands, over the past forty-plus years, we have witnessed a tremendous curtailment of investment in social reproduction, such that the withering of state and private property investments has resulted in a shrunken and shrinking fixed capital base, along with the continual sloughing off of even more layers of variable capital (the labor power of workers). Given the new, vaunted robotic automation that is promised, even more layers of workers could lose their jobs, thus offsetting or more than offsetting any gains Sanders or Clinton might achieve in employment. And if this were not bad enough, the increased technology investments in robotics (to the detriment of labor) would have the effect of further drawing down the rate of profit, thus serving to further stifle investment in production and thus labor. Likewise, the increasing introduction of robotic automation would enlarge the already growing layers of displaced workers.

All of this is to say that the problems that beset and will continue to beset the working class cannot be addressed in terms of a presidential candidate—to say the very least. The crisis and trends in capitalism are too vast and cannot be stricken from existence by policy enactments. Keynesian or neo-Keynesian economics, which surely represent the limit of a Democratic presidency (if it could even be made that “liberal”), have no bearing on the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, which will play out regardless of such tinkering. And this analysis may be obviated by the simple fact that without the support of the ruling class, a President Sanders would never be elected. Therefore, the kind of Sanders hoped for is impossible.

In short, there is no substitute for the mobilization of the working class, and this mobilization cannot at all be effective in the context of a ruling-class party system like the Democratic Party. There is no saying “No” to neo-liberalism—short of rejecting and overcoming capitalism itself. That is because reforms are largely impossible under decadent capitalism. Neo-liberalism represents the policy adjustments to this decadent capitalism.

Likewise, for these reasons and others, a Sanders or Clinton presidency of the kind hoped for is an utter delusion. The Sanders campaign involves a number of misrepresentations of political and economic reality. The promotion of a Sanders presidency is not merely an error; it is a positive offense to the working class, and a source of real damage to its political strength, will, and efficacy.